Cape Times and Argus – holocaust denialists?

Taryn Hodgson – who you’ve read about previously, when she impersonated the typical student by a) writing a letter to the UCT student newspaper, and b) making little sense, is at it again. This time she focuses on (b) exclusively, and swaps her fake student hat out for the one worn in her capacity as the international co-ordinator of the Christian Action Network (CAN). Her current concern relates to the evil tolerated by the South African press:

In what appears to be a case of censorship by the press, The Cape Times and Argus have again refused to place an obituary notice (for aborted babies),” said Christian Action Network (CAN) international co-ordinator Taryn Hodgson in a statement.

The newspapers had refused to publish the advertisement in their classified “Deaths” and “Personal” sections, Hodgson said.

“Freedom of speech seems to be undermined when newspaper editors censor obituary notices and refuse to give appropriate media coverage to the hidden holocaust of 900 000 South African babies killed by abortion,” she said.

Without wanting to get into anything pesky like “science” – which would involve Taryn accommodating irritating details like EEG’s only showing brain activity around 30 weeks, therefore making the claim that “babies” are being killed rather unsustainable – Taryn’s arguments are again rather peculiar. The quite reasonable explanation provided by Independent Newspapers editor-in-chief Chris Whitfield (who said that it would be “inappropriate to publish the anti-abortion obituary in the “Deaths” section”, as “such advertisements would violate the ‘sensibilities for people who use the columns to commemorate loved ones'”) was dismissed as “hypocritical” by Taryn on the grounds that the newspapers’ classified sections “often contain legitimately offensive material such as strip joint advertisements”.

So, as our arbiter of what is “legitimately” offensive, Taryn wants us to believe that a) it’s morally incontrovertible that strip joints are offensive, and that b) it’s perfectly acceptable for my obituary for a dead mother, brother, wife, etc., who I didn’t want to die, and who I probably miss, should appear alongside an obituary (or obituaries) for 900 000 zygotes, blastocysts and foetuses, who may at some point have developed into babies that the parents presumably did not want to live? That seems rather offensive to me – or at least it would if my spouse’s obituary were published on the same day. And the lack of sensitivity displayed by CAN is amplified by the fact that their freedom to have their viewpoint heard is undeniable: they were welcome to publish their ode to lost (and fictional) souls in other sections of the newspaper, and they live in a country where their mystic mumbo-jumbo is fully tolerated, and even encouraged by our political leaders.

And even on her own standards, there’s a final peculiarity: Taryn will be leading a march to Parliament on February 1 in protest against the “thousands of babies, killed by abortion, who have never had a funeral”. Is she not aware that there are plenty of other babies (real and fake) killed by TB and AIDS (etc.) who die without funerals? Can we take her seriously until she insists on publishing obituaries for them, too – or are they less important for the purposes of this tasteless PR stunt in the service of Jesus?

Killing gays may not be helpful

As reported in a previous post, Uganda is currently considering a bill that would impose the death penalty or life sentences on homosexuals. Furthermore, the proposed bill criminalises those who do not report a suspected gay person within 24 hours, and will most likely also have the effect of dissuading health care professionals in Uganda from assisting anyone who is gay – as well as dissuading gay people from seeking treatment, seeing as outing yourself as gay could land you in jail.  It’s worth reading this story on NPR to see the extent to which American Evangelical Christians are prepared to foment hatred and prejudice in order to buttress their support bases in the 3rd World – after all, surely all those folk in Africa will one day be able to afford to buy their sermons on DVD? Continue reading “Killing gays may not be helpful”

An atheist Christmas

Anthony Gottlieb tells us that Simon Blackburn ‘remarked that [Karen] Armstrong’s attitude to religion is reminiscent of Alice after hearing the nonsense poem “Jabberwocky”: “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are.” Armstrong is far from alone among believers in retreating to the haven of incoherence.’ And as we draw near to Christmas, the incoherence takes on a peculiar character – infecting perhaps unbelievers and believers alike – as the vast majority of those living in some form of Christian society partake in ritualistic eating, drinking and general merriment. On one level, this is not incoherent for unbelievers at all, seeing as this sort of winter festival was a pagan tradition long before the Roman church appropriated all the pagan shrines and claimed the festival for itself, premised on historically questionable accounts of the birthdate of a historically questionable person.

But some unbelievers will find themselves at dinner tables with relatives and friends who do take these modern myths seriously, and who sometimes appear to believe that we can know exactly which ideas our heads should be filled with, and why. And they may play along, sitting politely while prayers are uttered, not protesting when these relatives and friends say crazy things. This could sometimes involve some incoherence, in that your unbelief isn’t standing in the way of allowing others to continue believing absurd things. The politics of these situations are complex, though, and I don’t mean to argue that one has an obligation to always burst the belief-bubbles of others.

After all, some of these religious ideas, as exemplified by Christmas, are noble and good: friendship, love, giving, and having fun come to mind, as does the simple idea of having a few days off work. But if one gets the sense that these ideas – or others not mentioned here – are somehow premised on a particular time of year, the fear grows that they may increasingly become reserved for that time of year. As with resolutions at New Year, or that month after a trip to the dentist, where one flosses obsessively before reverting to more typical patterns, our plans and intentions count for little if they affect our behaviour for a trivially short time, or affect our behaviour only when we are reminded to behave differently due to the promptings of events on the calendar.

This “holiday season” has so far been filled with the best and the worst of human character – as all months are. Last week, the Doctor and I were mugged. A friend disappointed us with his narcissism. Another friend has a partner whose tolerance for pseudoscience is leading her to not want to vaccinate their one year-old child, thereby endangering his life (and the lives of everyone else on the planet, in a small way). She also wants to send him to Sunday School, where she believes he will learn “history”. But the child is beautiful, and fascinating. Another friend has a daughter, and the interactions between her and her parents really make one hope that parenting has anything significant to do with the way children turn out. Likewise with some newer friends, whose two children are so well-adjusted that one can’t help but treat them as real people. And of course, the Doctor and I have much to be thankful for, and will no doubt continue to have a season filled with joy.

But it’s always this way – people do stupid things and clever things, they harm and they help, and they sometimes have no clue which they are doing, or why. And perhaps the balance shifts towards the positive over Christmas – I don’t know (and on the whole, it probably doesn’t, given all the lives traditionally lost on the roads at this time of year). It won’t, however, make much difference if people are especially nice to each other for such silly reasons. As us atheists often remark, a definition of “goodness” which is premised on being accountable to Big Daddy hardly makes one virtuous – and likewise, being charitable and generally “nice” to one’s fellow humans because it’s Christmas is not the motivation I’d hope for, seeing as I then have no guarantee you won’t be a complete tosser for the rest of the year.

Beware the evangelicals

While church attendance seems to be declining across (most of) the globe, and religious adherence generally falling (except for Islam, which is growing), we’re far from being out of the woods. Evangelical threats to liberty continue to haunt us, despite the fact that – judging from American Christians – most of the faithful are doing their utmost to undermine the faith, mostly by being moronic:

Only 40 percent of Americans can name more than four of the Ten Commandments, and a scant half can cite any of the four authors of the Gospels. Twelve percent believe Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. This failure to recall the specifics of our Christian heritage may be further evidence of our nation’s educational decline, but it probably doesn’t matter all that much in spiritual or political terms. Here is a statistic that does matter: Three quarters of Americans believe the Bible teaches that “God helps those who help themselves.” That is, three out of four Americans believe that this uber-American idea, a notion at the core of our current individualist politics and culture, which was in fact uttered by Ben Franklin, actually appears in Holy Scripture. The thing is, not only is Franklin’s wisdom not biblical; it’s counter-biblical. Few ideas could be further from the gospel message, with its radical summons to love of neighbor. On this essential matter, most Americans—most American Christians—are simply wrong, as if 75 percent of American scientists believed that Newton proved gravity causes apples to fly up.

The problem is that once people lose the capacity to generate reasoned conclusions for themselves, and once their base of evidence from which they make their inferences is so detached from reality, the opportunity increases for charlatans to step forth, selling them various package holidays in the hereafter. And the more marginal a faith becomes, perhaps the more strident its adherents become through their fear of becoming redundant. So, whereas Christians used to be all about peace, love and forgiveness (at least according to my childhood memories), they increasingly seem to be about intolerance and hate (with increasingly rare exceptions).

Yesterday, The Guardian reported that Uganda looks likely to pass a law making homosexuality a capital offence, “joining 37 other countries in the continent where American evangelical Christian groups are increasingly spreading bigotry”. Now, of course it’s true that many Christians would not condone this. I would like to be able to say “most”, rather than “many”, but the two trends described above make “most” sound far too optimistic. If the gradual decline of religion is making the religious more strident, and if this is combined with an increasing trend of the religious no longer knowing what their religion is about, the extremists tend to set the agenda, and the more civilised believers sit on/wring their hands, despairing of what has become of the church.

We should not complacently think that this sort of thing is impossible in South Africa – we have the growing influence of the National Interfaith Leadership Council to worry about, along with more the regular cast of god-botherers such as Errol Naidoo, who has not shown himself to be averse to supporting prejudicial stereotypes with regard to homosexuality. It’s far too infrequent that we see the more tolerant sort of Christian protesting the manner in which people like Naidoo and Immelman express themselves on these topics, yet us atheists are frequently accused of caricaturing or misunderstanding religion.

How can we not caricature, when the only religious pronouncements that reach the public media sound like bad attempts at satire?

Blasphemy day

September 30 (the anniversary of the original publication of the (in)famous Danish Cartoons) was International Blasphemy Day, whose website unambiguously reminds us exists “because your god is a joke“. While I of course agree that your god doesn’t exist, her non-existence gives rise to a plethora of choice in terms of responses – some of which are critical, some offensive, and most of which are somewhere in between. Continue reading “Blasphemy day”

You deserve what you get

While waiting for our dinner guests to  arrive last night, the Doctor remarked on the (apparently) sad state of some of our friends’ lives, where they appear to be involved in relationships that aren’t bringing them much joy. Of one in particular, the Doctor remarked that “he doesn’t deserve that”, and it was clear what she meant – that the friend in question is a lovely man, dedicated to doing as little harm to others as possible, and that we’d therefore prefer a world in which he was as happy as possible.

Hearing “he doesn’t deserve that”, though, immediately brought to mind the thought that – for most of us – you deserve what you get, because of the choices you made. Continue reading “You deserve what you get”

Faith kills another child

In what god must clearly imagine to be a lesson of some sort, an American couple in Wisconsin have been given jail terms for allowing their child to die. Instead of seeking medical care for her, they prayed while the child became to ill to speak or walk.

The girl, known as Kara, died on the floor of the family’s rural Weston home as people surrounded her and prayed. Someone finally called the emergency services after she stopped breathing.

The judge ordered the couple to serve one month in jail each year for six years so the parents can “think about Kara and what God wants you to learn from this”. One parent would serve the term in March and the other in September.

One month per year? For six years? That’s 6 months in total, which seems a pitifully weak sentence for killing your daughter through believing in ceiling cats. Of course, they will suffer pain and guilt. But many murderers suffer that too, and have to spend 20 years in jail. If I believed that my wife was having an affair, and killed her “lover”, I’d get more than 6 months, even if I was wrong about the affair, as these parents were wrong about god swooping down (or whatever she’s meant to do) and saving Kara. And if there was never any evidence that I was right about the affair, you’d understand if the judge sent me for psychiatric observation after I fabricated or imagined the relevant evidence. In any sort of context, this is a ridiculous sentence, which (in its relative leniency) serves only to condone the actions of the parents. Judicial systems should be ideology-neutral as far as is possible, and a case like this treated like any other manslaughter case, where you’d expect to see a far more punitive sentence handed down.

The parents say that “they never expected their daughter to die”. What the hell did they expect? Even within their belief system, do they have any sort of regular experience of prayer saving dying people? I thought not. But then, they wouldn’t count those (non)experiences, because they are too busy switching off any thought processes which get in the way of their relationships with their imaginary friend.

Stupidity kills

An Australian couple were yesterday sentenced to 6 (father) and 4 (mother) years in jail after allowing their stupidity to kill their daughter. The particular form that their stupidity took was homoeopathy:

A husband and wife were jailed on Monday for the manslaughter of their baby, who died after they chose to use homeopathic remedies rather than conventional medicine to treat her severe skin disorder.

In sentencing, the judge said that there was a “‘wide chasm’ between her parents’ approach and the action a reasonable parent would have taken”, and I would have to concur. If your child develops severe eczema at four months of age, and this condition fails to improve despite all the homoeopathy you throw at it, perhaps you should swallow your aversion to big pharma, or whatever conspiracy theory you suffer from, and visit a conventional doctor – something this father never considered doing, even as his daughter’s black hair turned white and infections ruptured her skin – not to mention the eye infection that was apparently melting her corneas.

Do what you want to yourself – in fact, you may be doing the gene pool a favour by eliminating yourself through quackery. But if you are going to take on the risk of bringing another human into the world, at least take that risk seriously, and allow your child to benefit from the fruits of modern science. And while you’re at it, try to help keep their brains healthy too, by not feeding them any stories about zombie magicians who can save their souls from eternal damnation.

Moral agency

I’ve been thinking more about the National Interfaith Leadership Council, following an invitation to participate in the After 8 Debate (SAFM, September 25, around 08h05 NOW POSTPONED) alongside Ray McCauley and a representative of the SA Council of Churches. Part of the problem with religion hijacking moral discourse is the way in which it dumbs people down, and makes them unable to see that moral conclusions are the result of arguments – not simply absolute rules that we learn via some or other collection of myths (where how we choose which such collection to pay attention to is anyone’s guess). In these moral arguments, a starting point that’s rarely considered is that of what makes something a moral issue in the first place – for example, I find it difficult to imagine any set of circumstances in which same-sex marriage even gets off the ground as a potential moral issue.

The other allegedly moral issue that the NILC have been making a noise about is abortion – something which barely counts as a moral issue, in that I’d like to think that moral agents need to be involved before something counts as a moral issue. On the standard criteria of being able to reason and make judgements, foetuses are clearly not moral agents – and even on broader criteria such as sentience, or the ability to feel pain, early-stage foetuses would not make the grade either. This is not to say that there are no good arguments against certain attitudes about, or laws regulating, abortion – it’s simply unlikely to be the case that they will be good moral arguments. And we should sometimes remember that not every issue we feel strongly about should also be considered a moral issue – and that not every moral issue should also be considered a legal issue.

I’m afraid that it’s a bit more complicated than that.