"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

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Free speech in the balance

In a recent survey of 1000 British Muslims conducted on behalf of the BBC it was found that 80% of those asked found cartoon depictions of their Prophet Mohammed “deeply offensive”. Also a substantial minority (27%) thought that violent reprisals for such offense can be justified. A follow-up vox-pop on Radio 4’s Today program featured several Muslim voices from Bradford exclaiming they felt “extremely personally offended” by disrespect to their “beloved prophet” and if we take these statements at face value and allow that sentiment really does run so deep within British Islam we have got a real problem for liberal democracy in this country.
Difficult as it is for someone like me to empathise with personal distress over such abstract offenses as blasphemy and criticism of long dead self-styled “prophets” the fact that a substantial proportion of a growing minority feel that way is not to be ignored. These people are not just going to “get over themselves” any more than the clinically depressed can just “cheer up”. Reverence for Mohammed is integral to their upbringing and psychology and constantly reinforced within their ethnic and religious cultures; change, if any, will be generational and not to be expected short term. So is it up to us as a society to accommodate Muslim sensitivities and if so how can we do so without compromising freedom of expression?
It’s easy to forget that blasphemy was a crime in this country until 2008 and I for one have no desire to revert to any legal suppression of religious criticism. In any event such laws often come with unintended consequences and one person’s blasphemy is another’s sincerely held belief as the abuse of such laws in Pakistan against Christians there illustrates. Neither is it possible to legislate for offense generally as we are all occasionally offended by something.
In the normal way of things very few of us go out of our way to be deliberately offensive unless we feel we have good reason, one of which may be the imposition of another’s taboos in our own space. It is certainly not to be expected that a Christian, Jew, Hindu or atheist should respect Mohammed or any part of Islam that does not inform their own belief system. Islam and all it entails is an idea which in a free society we are entitled to reject and if within it we see inherent dangers we have an obligation, let alone the right, to be critical. When extremists insist that non-Muslims must not portray the prophet and back that injunction with threats of violence the only response is to do that very thing, which is why I fully supported “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” and while it’s unfortunate that as collateral damage a large number of Muslims who may abhor violence are offended I see very few alternatives to this tactic. I don’t think I am unnecessarily victim blaming to suggest that the way for mainstream Islam to avoid Charlie Hebdo style provocation is to rein in their own extremists.
Should we have the freedom to indiscriminately ridicule religion in the public square? Here the answer is categorically yes, but whether we should routinely do so, except as a response to a threat to that freedom I think is a question of taste and good manners. Where I do think such ridicule is perfectly acceptable is in the arts, literature and in our private spaces including our own social media accounts. In order for people to be offended in these places they must be actively seeking offense by choosing to read that blog or book and watch that play or TV show or go to that exhibition. It’s not an imposition or discrimination to say to Muslims that if they don’t like this or that speech they should ignore it. We all avoid exposing our minds to ideas we find offensive and I regularly block social media feeds that I find distasteful due to racism or sexism even though I don’t believe it’s a particularly good thing to exist solely in a bubble of our own beliefs.
It’s a feature of all religions that their adherents demand respect for their beliefs and given the power and opportunity insist that everyone abides by their rules. It took a long time to tame Christianity in this country and put it into its proper place, subservient to law and in the private sphere (mostly). Islam is going to have to learn to occupy those same social spaces and be prepared to be offended on occasion. The more Islam becomes part of the fabric of Britain it will be measured by its ability to withstand satirical criticism; that is the trade-off for living in a democracy. Muslims have the right to protest and voice their anger if they think real boundaries are being crossed because they enjoy the same right to speech as everyone else. They have every right to point out the offense, but no right not to be offended.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

One of our own?

When fanatics kill others in the name of their “beliefs” those beliefs are usually religious, sometimes political or territorial, sometimes all of the above and the one thing atheists have always been able to say about themselves is that nobody has ever killed in the name of atheism. This hasn’t stopped others trying to pin the crimes of Stalin Mau and Pol Pot on atheism but these charges are specious, a-historical and deny those dictator’s totalitarianism as sufficient motive. Which is why the horrific shooting of three young Muslims by self-avowed atheist Craig Hicks is causing such consternation and debate among the atheist community.
Deah Barakat, his wife Yusor Abu-Salha and her sister Razan Abu-Salha were gunned down last Tuesday in a condo about two miles from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill
There have also been questions over whether Hicks' anti-religious stance - which he freely shared on social media - had also been a factor in the murders.
On a Facebook page in his name, Hicks shared a number of anti-religion posts. A banner about 'anti-theism' is prominent on his page.
Hicks posted a photo from United Atheists of America on February 8, which has the title 'why radical Christians and radical Muslims are so opposed to each others' influence when they agree about so many ideological issues'.
His Facebook page would not have raised any red flags to atheists active on social media and I have expressed such sentiments myself and shared similar articles to provoke discussion or sometimes just to provoke. In fact I would say his online presence is much like any other activist atheist, with possibly a tad more anti-theist sentiment than those I engage with personally, so it’s not possible for any atheist who would hope to distance themselves from Hicks to make ”no true atheist” arguments.
There are however aspects of Hicks’ behaviour that are less than savoury; he was a multiple firearms owner who obsessed about the parking around his condo and was frequently threatening to neighbours who transgressed the rules.
Neighbors, as well as tow-truck driver and others, have said Hicks often complained about residents and visitors at Finley Forest parking in his reserved space. He called one tow truck company so often they stopped responding to his calls.
So far the local police are treating this as a killing over a parking dispute and if the victims had not been conspicuously Muslim that is probably where the speculation would have ended. But the execution like nature of this atrocity, three individuals murdered each with a bullet in the head, plus their race and religion makes it at least possible that this was a hate crime; the victim’s family certainly think so.
Yusor and Razan’s brother, Yusef Abu-Salha, also told RT last week that there had been a lot of tension between his sisters and Hicks.
“There were plenty of run-ins [with Hicks],” he said, “but the run-ins escalated when my sister moved in; she obviously wore the head scarf. I recall her telling me when she first went to visit the condo before she even moved in together, [Hicks] came and knocked on the door and told them they were making too much noise, and he brandished a gun at his waist.” “I consider that terror,” he added, “I consider that hate.”
Also there is no doubt that if Hicks had been Muslim and the victims white Christians the media would have been all over this as a hate crime or even terrorism; Islam would have been cited, links to ISIS or Al-Qaeda sought and security heightened. But, even in a country where atheists are routinely demonised, so far the only people really asking whether atheism is a factor here are atheists themselves.
That we are doing so is I think to our credit. Although there are hyper-sceptical voices claiming his atheism is no more relevant than his hair colour others are suggesting that as a movement we should focus on atheism’s moral dimension more
There’s nothing wrong with being against religion. But how could anyone absorb that part of our message and completely miss the part about how it makes our common humanity infinitely more precious? Many nonbelievers, including me, have written about how atheism makes life more valuable, not less. But are we not highlighting the moral dimension of atheism enough? Are we not doing enough to make it clear that we think and act as we do because we love the good? Have we not emphasized strongly enough that criticizing religion’s inhumanities is shallow and meaningless if we don’t hold ourselves to a better standard? Those are the questions that I think atheists should be asking ourselves in the wake of this horrific crime.
Craig Hicks
If atheism turns out to be Hick’s motivation this will be a rare and possibly unique event; Christians being far more likely to commit this sort of crime in the U.S . However that does not mean atheists can write him off as mentally ill (a discriminatory excuse in any case) or not one of us. Up until this event he looked from the outside to be fairly representative of a good number of atheists who mock religion without contemplating ethical alternatives, so if atheists in general and movement atheism in particular condemn yet disown him it will be as disingenuous as Muslims pretending ISIS are not Muslim.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

"Three Parent" IVF is not a moral issue

A recent vote in the house of commons means that Britain is one of the first countries in the world to legalise an IVF procedure that involves taking the nucleus of one egg and inserting it into the cytoplasm of another egg which has had its own nucleus removed while , crucially, retaining its mitochondria.
a mitochondrion
Mitochondria are organelles whose primary function is to supply energy to the cell and during reproduction they are passed down in the cytoplasm of the egg which means they always travel down the maternal line. Defects in the mitochondria can cause debilitating diseases and infant mortality and it is these conditions that the technique is designed to prevent by substituting healthy mitochondria prior to fertilisation. This will of course be a boon to couples at risk of passing on mitochondrial diseases to their offspring as it enables them to have a healthy child with nuclear DNA from both natural parents; up until now it has only been possible for such couples to conceive with a complete donor egg or a surrogate.
Offspring born of this technique are referred to as “three parent babies” which I think is unfortunate because for one thing it’s not strictly true from a genetic standpoint and for another I suspect it has contributed to some of the unnecessary moral panic that surrounds it.
Much of the objection to legalising this form of IVF has come (predictably) from the Church with both Catholics and Anglicans claiming scientific uncertainty as their rational but in fact the technique has been well tested and the people who actually understand the science are satisfied of its safety, with the usual caveats. Given the Vatican’s antipathy to any artificial fertilisation techniques I suspect their objections are entirely ideological and can therefore be ignored. For example Bishop John Keenan, the Bishop of Paisley, was among the Catholic leaders who condemned the technique claiming it “seeks to remove anyone affected by certain conditions from the human gene pool”. Of course what it actually does is remove the condition from the gene pool, the “anyone” in the above nonsense never existed except in the abstract.
Other objections seem more reasonable, for example the concern that the mitochondria continue into subsequent generations, but are grounded in a misunderstanding of mitochondria and their origins as the “powerhouse of the cell”. The “three parent” moniker is inappropriate because although the mitochondria contain DNA it is their DNA and does not contribute to human characteristics outside of the somatic effect of its function. The entire nuclear DNA in this technique, the stuff that can be considered to count, is derived from the natural parents and not from the donor of the egg. Ethically this is more akin to a transplant than genetic engineering.
Another point that has been missing from the public debate is that mitochondrial DNA is not really ‘human’ at all because these organelles are endosymbionts, remnants of previously free-living proteobacteria that either infected or were absorbed by other primitive cells over 1.5 Billion years ago. Over evolutionary time the mitochondria lost the genes necessary for autonomy and retained just enough for their own reproduction and metabolic function within their hosts. The gestalt of these two primitive cells formed the first truly eukaryotic cells that are the basis of all complex life.
I’m not convinced that any ethical Rubicon has been crossed by approving this technique. In fact, even if at some future date it is discovered that by some genetic tinkering in the nuclei of eggs destined for IVF we could eliminate cystic fibrosis or some other debilitating genetic condition we should do it. I do not subscribe to the sort of genetic essentialism that some, including rather bizarrely the church, seem to indulge in and although I’m prepared to accept that somewhere amongst all possible applications of human genetic engineering there will be some ethical red lines we’re nowhere close when it is used solely for the elimination of heritable diseases.