The Lord also needs good PR

Church of England logoAn amusing Sunday outrage (not an outrage to equal Cecil the Lion or anything – just a little one) today stems from the three leading cinema chains in the UK refusing to flight an advertisement that features the Lord’s Prayer, on the grounds that it might cause offence.

You can read about the ad (and watch it) on the guardian’s website, but it’s not the ad itself that I want to talk about. My concern here is the Church’s motivation for trying to place the ad, and their reaction to the decision not to flight it. The reaction includes:

The church warned that the move could have a ‘chilling effect on free speech’ and said it was at a loss to understand the logic behind the decision.

The logic behind the decision is quite simple. Sections 2.1.3 and 2.2.2 of Digital Cinema Media’s advertising policy (pdf) read as follows:

To be approved, an Advertisement must:
2.1.3 not in the reasonable opinion of DCM constitute Political or Religious Advertising;

2.2 For the purposes of clause 2.1.3 above, Political or Religious Advertising means:
2.2.2 advertising which wholly or partly advertises any religion, faith or equivalent systems of belief (including any absence of belief)

In other words, the advertisement was always going to be rejected, until the relevant policy is amended. The Church of England might not have known this, but once it was communicated to them, they would clearly have no grounds for complaint regarding the decision (which, per 2.2.2, would also apply to atheist advertising).

They could think the policy wrong, or might find instances of it being applied inconsistently. But that isn’t what they are arguing. They are arguing that “the Lord’s Prayer is prayed by billions of people across the globe every day and in this country has been part of everyday life for centuries” – with the implication being that it can’t possibly be considered offensive.

I wouldn’t find it offensive to find myself watching an ad promoting prayer. Hell, sometimes it might end up being the best part of that day’s cinema experience. But it’s precisely to avoid having to cater for subjective notions of offence that Digital Cinema Media have made a blanket decision to avoid religious (and political) advertising.

But here’s the thing: the Church of England might also have been fully aware of the policy, and be leveraging this outrage for promotional purposes. After all, the guardian reports that “the advert is to promote a new Church of England website, JustPray.uk, encouraging people to pray”.

And what better way of getting great publicity for your website than to have it become a poster-child for a “chilling effect on free speech”?

Charlie Charlie, wherefore art thou?

Ferlon Christians, the Western Cape Leader of the African Christian Democratic Party, would have you believe that the problem with the occult – especially in schools – is that we don’t take it seriously enough. In fact, the problem is the opposite one – we take the occult far too seriously.

“We” take it seriously enough, in fact, that our Department of Basic Education, which sometimes can’t even provide textbooks or toilets to schools, are dispatching “officials to investigate‚ together with school authorities‚ the ‘Charlie Charlie Challenge’”.

For those of you who aren’t Error Naidoo or Harry Potter, you can catch up on what the ‘Charlie Charlie’ challenge is by watching eNCA’s “full investigation”. Alternatively, you can take my word for the fact that it’s a parlour game involving creating a yes/no grid, stacking two pencils on top of each other, and then freaking out when gravity causes the pencils to move.

The freaking out is as a result of the “successful” summoning of a Mexican spirit who is mysteriously called Charlie, in honour of the many thousands of Mexicans who are called Charlie. You ask Charlie a question, and then the pencils move to provide a yes or no answer.

And, the freaking out on the part of Mr Christians, the Department of Basic Education and Bored from Bonteheuwel, that frequent caller to talk-radio, is due to simple superstition and ignorance.

You’d think that schools and national Departments of Education would use this as an opportunity to teach basic physics, as well as truths about human psychology such as confirmation bias. Instead, we read of school principals saying that “any pupil caught playing it will be expelled”, and of school pupils reporting suicides and school walls collapsing as a result of this game.

Well, this is what happens when you take a perfectly explicable phenomenon and add wacko metaphysics involving demons and curses to your explanation of it, just as we used to do with something like the Ouija board.

Seriously, parents, Mr Christians and the Department of Basic Education – if kids kill themselves as a result of playing Charlie Charlie, it’s not a Mexican demon’s fault. It’s the fault of a worldview detached from reality, and an education system that tolerates and even encourages that worldview.

In other words, and to some extent, it’s your fault, and blaming imaginary Mexican demons makes as much sense as blaming Harry Potter would.

Here’s a Whatsapp message a friend forwarded to me, which is apparently being circulated in one school:

Parents, guardians and learners.
This is extremely important.
I have received a letter from a school today encouraging parents to speak to there children about the Demonic Game Charlie Charlie they are playing on the schools nowadays.

A grade 4 boy fainted while playing this game and his pencil started spinning. When he woke up the pencil was still spinning.

Then I received a Whatsapp message of an incident that took place in Tafelsig Mitchells Plain today regarding this Demonic Game Charlie Charlie. Some boys placed two pens across each other and called out Charlie Charlie. The pens started to spin by itself and stopped by pointing at one boy.

This boy just started to bleed from his head profusely. The condition of the boy is still unknown.

According to our Ulama and experts in Jinn, its a demon (very dangerous jinn) from Mexico moving around schools inciting youngsters to play this game in order to harm them. This could even result in their death. Plz inform as many as you can.

And, for more hyperbole, consider this official press statement from the aforementioned ACDP Provincial Leader, Mr Christians:

Screen Shot 2015-09-04 at 10.45.26

Let them eat snakes: CRL Commission and the harms of religion

If part of your spiritual “healing method” involves having your parishioners strip naked, it’s pretty likely that you’re a charlatan. Not only in the sense that you’re selling fake goods – because that’s the case for most religious activity – but more importantly also in the sense that you know you’re doing so.

If you add making your parishioners eat snakes, and trying to have them eat rocks that you’ve transformed into bread to the mix, I think there’s no room left for doubt – you’re not only a charlatan, but you’re also an exploitative one, willing to leverage the desperation of others into personal financial gain.

Your name in this case is Penuel Mnguni, and you appear to have learnt these tricks from Lesego Daniel, who chose to make his followers eat grass and drink gasoline rather than consume snakes and rocks.

Mnguni was arrested for animal cruelty for feeding his congregation live snakes (which would apparently turn into chocolates – praise the Lord!), and later released on bail. But the examples of him and Lesego Daniel are perhaps two among many, and this possibility has led the Commission With An Improbably Long Name to launch an inquiry.

The Chairperson of the commission otherwise known as the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL Rights Commission) says:

We’re not saying that the commercialisation of religion is a bad thing, but we want to understand how and what it is,” said commission chairperson Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva.

When churches start selling pap, T-shirts and water after services… or when people stop taking their HIV or blood pressure medicine because traditional healers say ‘drink my water, it will heal you’, and charge people for it, it becomes problematic.

We need to look at these various miracle claims and see what form of legal structure is in place.

And if any of you are wondering how you’re supposed to tell the difference between a miracle claim such as the one “whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3.16) and snakes turning into chocolates, the CRL Commission shares your concern.

If you listen to this interview with CRL Councillor Edward Masadza, you’ll hear that they are very aware of the need to “distinguish miracles from magic“, which sounds about as difficult a task as distinguishing acid from LSD to me.

But that’s partly because from a secular and skeptical point of view, all these sorts of claims sound equally implausible to me – and this brings me to the main point of this post. If we are going to investigate the potential harms of religion, “traditional” or “established” forms of it can’t get a pass on scrutiny.

For example, an earlier interview I heard on this topic was very concerned with the agency of the parishioners, and how they might have been duped rather than being willing participants in snake-eating or gasoline-drinking.

Yes, that’s a vital concern, and a concern I share. But if you are going to take that concern seriously, should the investigation not also include thinking about whether we should ban religious circumcision? An 8 day-old can hardly be a consenting party, after all.

Or what about the prosperity gospel of Ray McCauley and others, who encourage people to impoverish themselves in exchange for hypothetical future financial blessings from God?

But I don’t think the establishment churches have any reason to be concerned, no matter whether they endorse genital mutilation or financial exploitation. Because:

Mkhwanazi-Xaluva was at pains to explain that the investigation would be done in accordance with the SA Charter of Religious Rights and Freedom. She said they were not doing this to infringe on the constitutional right to freedom of religion.

Notice that Charter she mentions there? It’s madly conservative, and has absolutely zero legal standing. This is the second time I’ve encountered a government agency thinking that it’s official policy, but last time I was fortunately enough part of the conversation, and able to correct the misconception.

Despite this, the Charter is perceived to have standing, and investigations like the one the CRL is embarking on begins with the premise that religious practices need to be treated with a default attitude of solemnity and respect. And that’s not true – or rather, it shouldn’t be true – they should be as open to criticism, ridicule, and legal action as, for example, a gym should be for throwing out a member who makes a political statement.

At some point, South Africans will need to have a serious and long-overdue conversation about a different sort of privilege to the one we talk about every day – namely white privilege. And that is the privilege of religion, when set against documents like the Bill of Rights.

White privilege is real, even if the concept is itself sometimes abused to drown out criticism. Religious privilege is real also, and manifests in cases like a court allowing a church to fire a gay pastor after she married her same-sex pastor, or in student leaders being able to argue that homophobia isn’t homophobia if that homophobia stems from religious conviction.

Here’s Pierre de Vos with more examples and analysis of religious privilege in the law, in case you’re interested. But to get back to the CRL Commission: here’s hoping that they are objective in their work, and treat all religions with equal respect – but also that they respect agency, common sense, and sound ethical reasoning most of all.

[Postscript: this week’s episode of John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” is a natural fit on the theme of the prosperity gospel.]

Assisted dying: not only God can decide – in fact, She can’t decide at all

It’s doubtful that you’d be able to find any medical school that still uses early translations of the Hippocratic oath, never mind the original Greek version. But if you read the unrevised English version, it would open with something like this:

I swear by Apollo the physician, and Asclepius, and Hygieia and Panacea and all the gods and goddesses as my witnesses, that, according to my ability and judgement, I will keep this Oath and this contract.

It will furthermore ask that physicians comport themselves in a “Godly manner”, and do so without “seeking reward”. The point, in short, is that it’s nothing like the modern understanding of the oath, where that understanding is typically summarised in the phrase “first do no harm”.

This, in turn, means that when you appeal to the Hippocratic Oath to justify (or to rule out) some course of action, you’re already appealing to an interpretation of that Oath – and you’ve already admitted that the Oath is therefore a guiding principle, rather than an absolute rule.

Which, in the context of a discussion about euthanasia, means that we are able to discuss further interpretations of that principle, including the question of whether more harm might be caused by keeping someone alive if they are in pain versus allowing them to die – or even hastening their death.

We are not obliged, in short, to think that a life ending is automatically and always a harm that trumps any other possible harm.

6f1216d4022843899161cdba9aeee7f0Not only because interpreting the oath as offering guiding principles rather than absolute rules allows for “avoiding harm” to (on balance) mean “cessation of life”, but also because physicians already don’t follow the oath to the letter anyway. I don’t know about you, but if I heard my surgeon swearing to Apollo, I’d try to find a new one before the anaesthetic kicked in.

Which brings me to Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi, who seems to think Apollo is still relevant to modern medicine. Well, he talks about “God”, so it’s difficult to be sure that he’s talking about Apollo, but whichever God he means, he seems convinced of the fact that it’s God who gets to decide when you die. As quoted in the link above, he says:

“Doctors are human and make mistakes too. They can say a person has a few weeks left to live, based on medical observation, but only God can decide when a person dies,” Motsoaledi said.

He said as much as doctors played an important role in bringing life to this world, “they should not be given the right to end it because they did not create it in the first place”.

“When doctors begin their career, they take the Hippocratic Oath and pledge to do all they can to preserve life and not do anything that will intentionally harm or result in the death of a patient. Nowhere in the medical curriculum were doctors taught to kill,” he said.

This is all in response to the ruling on Robin Stransham-Ford, last week, in which Stransham-Ford was granted permission to seek assistance in dying, and the Judge furthermore ruled that the physician who so assisted him would not be prosecuted. Motsoaledi intends to make sure this does not set a precedent, for the reasons summarised in the quotes above.

Minister Motsoaledi has, on the whole, been a very competent, and even often an excellent, Health Minister. On this matter, however, he’s letting us down. Here’s why:

  • South Africa is a secular country. While the Health Minister can believe in whatever god(s) he likes, he has a responsibility to make laws that allow for secular justifications. When he speaks as Minister, he should not be suggesting that a certain policy should be motivated by anything to do with what a god might hypothetically want or not want.
  • He’s arguably wrong on the facts, and is relying on an uninformed gut feel rather than the evidence regarding the consequences of assisted dying being legal. He claims that we’ll soon see “families colluding with doctors to end the life of their loved ones because they wanted to cash in on insurance policies”, but as far as we can tell from the Netherlands and Belgium, you can eliminate much of this risk through devising legal safeguards for when assisted suicide is permitted and when not.
  • To that, he might say that safeguards are not enough – that risking even one death for this sort of profit motive is one death too many. And here is where our interpretations of “harm” are directly relevant – physicians are always or at least very often making decisions about treatment that might cause harm, but on balance are thought to stand the best chance of avoiding harm. Ending a life is one option in a range of interventions, for the purpose of serving that same goal.
  • And, ending a life can only be treated as uniquely forbidden as a form of “treatment” if we hold the view that life is somehow “sacred”, which we cannot do in a secular country.

As for the “playing God” sort of argument, Minister, it’s entirely spurious. We all play God when we walk across a street wearing our spectacles, because without them, the bus that God hypothetically sent to run us over would have succeeded in its mission. We play God when we take antibiotics, or when we fly to foreign countries in devices we’ve invented and constructed for that purpose.

With assisted dying, we get the chance to play God in a way that She doesn’t seem that interested in, and we should seize the chance to do so. In this case, we can – and should – play God through alleviating the pain of someone who is dying, and who wants their life to end.

It is to God’s discredit if she doesn’t want to permit or condone this course of action. And it is to our discredit also, if we instead choose to rely on self-serving interpretations of a centuries-old Oath, to evade the moral responsibility of eliminating suffering wherever we can.

Homophobia, private property and rights of admission – Oakfield Farm weddings

Screen Shot 2015-02-11 at 13.21.06Others have known about this for some time, I’m sure, but today was the first I’d heard of Oakfield Farm in Johannesburg, a wedding venue that would like to insist on only hosting heterosexual weddings due to the “religious convictions” of their shareholders.

They have been in trouble for this position since at least April 2014, when “the Commission for Gender Equality notified Oakfield Farm that it was investigating a complaint against it of unfair discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.”

In the same article linked directly above, you can read that the chief executive of the South African Human Rights Commission, Kayum Ahmed, “said that service providers were not allowed to discriminate against gay and lesbian people because this is a violation of the Constitution and the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act.”

Constitutional scholar Pierre de Vos agrees with this reading of the law, albeit with reference to a racial discrimination case, arguing that

section 9(4) must be read as placing an internal limitation on other rights such as the right to property and the right to freedom of association. This means the right to associate freely and the right to property is qualified by section 9(4) and these rights can only be exercised in conformity with the non-discrimination injunction contained in section 9(4) of the Bill of Rights.

Section 9.4 specifies that we can’t discriminate against others on various grounds, including race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, religion, belief or culture.

The key difference between the sort of discrimination you practice in refusing Scientologists access to your birthday party and the sort practiced by Oakfield farms is that they are offering a service to the public, whereas I am holding a private gathering. Once you offer a service to the public, you can’t discriminate on those specified grounds.

So it seems clear that what Oakfield do (or attempt to do) is (currently, and whether rightly or wrongly) illegal. A “right of admission reserved” sign has no legal standing when in competition with these non-discrimination laws.

But, and here’s where the trouble starts, that’s all a separate issue from whether the law, or the Constitution, should say other than what it does.

One thing one might want to argue is that it’s discriminatory against the religion in question to force them to host gay weddings (leaving aside the fact that it’s unlikely any gay folk would want to get married there, if that was the case).

These are tensions I’m not qualified to address in terms of the law – and it is a tension, because it might well be the case that there are more members of religion X (that doesn’t like gay marriage) than there are gay folk.

We don’t make laws via popularity contests, I know, but the point is that if the religious group is being discriminated against by being forced to host gay marriages, some argument is needed for why it’s them, rather than the prospective gay couple, who should be discriminated against.

One answer is that non-discrimination should be the default (and that’s certainly the position I’d take), but that begs my question, in that it seems plausible to describe the enforced-gay-weddings position as discriminatory against the religious. And this, in turn, means that gay folk are higher up the pecking order in some sense than religious folk.

There’s one way in which that ranking makes perfect sense, because you don’t (typically) choose your sexual orientation (or race), whereas you’re perfectly free to choose your religion. Is it as simple as that – in other words, that these forms of discrimination can be rank-ordered where necessary, but bundled together in law until that need arises?

A second sort of thing you might want to say in objection to the Constitution (as read here) is that – so long as everyone of whatever race, religion, sexual orientation etc. has equal access to facilities, any individual facility should be free to discriminate, and the market can discriminate in return, hopefully driving the bigots out of business.

To lay my cards very much on the table, I’d prefer the second option in theory. However, thanks to how easy it is to rig the game (or, perpetuate the rigging of the game) against people who have historically been subject to discrimination, this would in all likelihood end up perpetuating that discrimination – leaving us with the forced pragmatic (and morally sound) choice of enforcing non-discrimination.

(On a concluding note, in case any of my lawyer friends drop by, I don’t understand why S6 of the Civil Union Act passes muster on the reasoning of the de Vos piece linked above. Section 6 reads:

A marriage officer, other than a marriage officer referred to in section 5 [which refers to people who qualify as representatives of religions], may in writing inform the Minister that he or she objects on the ground of conscience, religion and belief to solemnising a civil union between persons of the same sex, whereupon that marriage officer shall not be compelled to solemnise such civil union.

I was happy to register under the Civil Union Act precisely because I wanted to be able to marry heathens, including gay ones, but how is it that I should be allowed to choose not to marry gay couples?)

God bless you, Rest in Peace – on secular versus religious language

Andre P. BrinkWhen South African author Andre P. Brink died on February 6, I was one of the many who extended my condolences to his family and friends. I didn’t use the phrase “rest in peace” or its acronym “RIP”, because after death, there’s no agent capable of “resting”. That’s what death means, for those of us who subscribe to a naturalist ontology.

But that’s not all that “RIP” means – it’s a shorthand for extending commiserations, for demonstrating shared membership of a community of caring, and for marking the passing of someone who was considered valuable to that community.

To use – or exploit – the grief or sadness at the death of such a person to score political points for atheism is crude, unnecessary, and unfeeling.

Yet that’s exactly what I saw on some South African atheist online communities, and this is again an elegant example of why atheists need to be more concerned about their own PR, in that if you’re trying to argue – as we do – that gods aren’t necessary for being good people, it helps to behave like good people in the absence of gods.

The objections from atheists were the usual – focusing only on the fact that there’s no soul or spirit, they claimed that the words were meaningless, or even worse, that they demean the living by assuming that there’s more to life than just the here and now.

As I said above, there is more to the here and now, but in the limited sense of there being a social context in which words function, and what you signal when you reject that.

There is a time, and a value, to trying to get people to strip their language and their mental furniture of various metaphysical concepts. But that time – at least if you care about getting your point across, rather than scoring points – is when the matter can be considered in the abstract, rather than coming across as an insult to people who are grieving.

“Bless you” is a similar example, but different in a crucial way, in that you can easily poke fun at people who say “bless you” without poking at their open sores. The examples are different in degree, if not in kind.

“Merry Christmas” is another, and similar to “bless you” – it’s laughably precious to object to this in anything but the mildest of terms, and especially ridiculous to object so strongly that you get yourself thrown off a plane, as an American (presumably) atheist recently did.

Despite their religious origins, the point is that these phrases are now largely secular in usage. We know that they operate as shorthand for recognising a common humanity, and for reinforcing social bonds. No offence is intended by them, and our reactions need to be proportionate to the triviality of the “crime” committed.

Yes, I’d prefer for us to use alternatives. But for any alternatives to gain traction takes time. And motivating for them, and gaining consensus for their usage, won’t be easy if you approach that task by being an ass.

But for those of you who want to be offended, and treat any word or phrase with a religious origin as an insult, here’s your challenge: stop saying “goodbye” to people.

“Goodbye” is, after all, is a contraction of “God be with you”, and is thus surely pretty damn offensive.

The Charlie Hebdo murders

Yesterday, twelve people died for blasphemy.

Be clear about at least one thing: regardless of your views on religion, or on the role that Islam (or monotheism more generally) might play in generating intolerance and violence, nothing justifies murdering people for expressing offensive views.

Be clear on a second thing also: the fact that one is able and allowed to express offensive views is a necessary element of any society that wishes to be considered free, and we should all stand in support of the right to express such views.

James Walmesley - https://twitter.com/RteeFufkin/status/552937192252006400
James Walmesley – https://twitter.com/RteeFufkin/status/552937192252006400

I’ve said before that satire and blasphemy can be “a reminder to members of an identifiable social or religious group to get your house in order, so that there is no longer any need to mock or ridicule.” It serves a valuable role, and a role we should cherish. Joe Randazzo, previously editor of The Onion, is right to say that:

Satire must always accompany any free society. It is an absolute necessity. Even in the most repressive medieval kingdoms, they understood the need for the court jester, the one soul allowed to tell the truth through laughter. It is, in many ways, the most powerful form of free speech because it is aimed at those in power, or those whose ideas would spread hate. It is the canary in the coalmine, a cultural thermometer, and it always has to push, push, push the boundaries of society to see how much it’s grown.

Other issues are perhaps not as easy or unambiguous as we might prefer. For starters, the right to express a view doesn’t always mean it’s a good idea to do so. Take this Tweet from the President of American Atheists as an example:

He’s making a point, yes. I get that. He’s exercising his freedom to blaspheme, and he’s allowed to do so. But the blasphemy in that Tweet adopts a shotgun approach – it will offend all sorts of Muslims, from the ones who are inclined to kill people for blasphemy, all the way through to your next-door neighbour whose birthday party you might have attended a few days ago.

But as I’ve said many a time, these are strategic choices rather than issues of rights – he has the right, should have the right, and we should all defend the right to be as obnoxious as you like, even as we might not like what you say.

A final point, before handing over to a press statement I sent out yesterday in the name of the Free Society Institute. My first Tweet on the murders was to say this:

A predictable flurry of trolling resulted, with some even thinking that I was being an apologist for religious extremism. Apologies (not really) for complicating biases with these nuances, but my sentiment in no way denies that religion, and Islam, can play a causal role in generating violence such as this.

My point was that it’s a glib, and oftentimes lazy, inference to draw that it’s “religion” that causes these things. I would think it rare that religion per se makes you homicidal, but that instead, folk who are capable of such things will find religious inspiration for doing them.

If your religion allows you to be led to such barbarism, there’s barbarism in you to be exploited. That doesn’t mean that religion X (or ideology X) cannot be a causal factor in barbarism more often than religion or ideology Y.

To be clear: Islam should certainly bear some of the blame, in that if your religious texts or traditions are capable of inspiring people to do these barbaric things, they are in that respect toxic, and antithetical to liberty, flourishing and security.

The simple truth is that the gods could have been far clearer. Even if you’re religious, and want to assert that terrorists are misinterpreting the scriptures, you should be struck by the absurdity of your god not having chosen the simple path of saying: “hey there! While you’re having your arguments about what I want you to do and not do, remember that I don’t want you to kill, ever”.

Because she didn’t say that – or because she says things in a way that allows people to read her as saying the opposite, this is religion’s problem and religion’s fault, and people of faith can’t wash their hands of it.

And to a significant extent, they don’t. Which is why, as I said in the Tweet, the most important feature of yesterday’s killers is that they are killers, and not that they are Muslim.

The Free Society Institute stands with Charlie Hebdo and all defenders of free speech and civil liberty in condemning the murder of two police officers, three cartoonists, and eight journalists in Paris on January 7.

As offended as those of the Muslim faith might find blasphemy to be, that offence pales into insignificance compared to the brutality of Islamo-fascist terrorism such as this. Being offended does not grant one warrant for ending the lives of others.

The right to free speech does not, however, say anything about when it is wise to exercise that freedom or not.Neither does the fact that these terrorists were recorded as shouting “Allahu Akbar” and “We have avenged the prophet” during their attack tell us anything incontrovertible about Islam in general.

Tragedies such as these, that shock and confuse, can make easy answers attractive to us, in that they can lend themselves to stereotype and simplistic analysis. This is not the time for either of these.

Instead, this is the time for two simple things: to express our sympathy to all who are affected, and second, to recognise that we are all affected, in that freedom of speech is a cornerstone of civilised society, and is slightly more under threat to us all in the wake of the Charlie Hedbo attack.

Jacques Rousseau
Chairperson – Free Society Institute

The “war on Christmas” and misrepresentations of atheists

war-on-christmas-460x307Fox News is mostly an American problem, but South African readers will probably have heard of Bill O’Reilly, the conservative political pundit who spends a lot of time being angry about Obama, people who don’t believe in God, and various other issues.

Chris Stedman (here’s my review of his book, Faitheist) has written an interesting post on how the “war on Christmas” is actually a war on atheist voices. The title of the post sets up a false dichotomy, in that it could be both, but the post makes various good points.

O’Reilly exploits every possible opportunity for hyperbole, and Christmas is no exception. The “war on Christmas” is pretty much an O’Reilly invention, and refers to the (alleged) efforts of non-religious folk to keep the Christ out of Christmas.

But as I remarked to a journalist who recently interviewed me on how South African atheists feel about Christmas, Christmas is to all intents and purposes a secular holiday for most folk already. By this I don’t mean that Christians have forgotten about Jesus – just that the bulk of proceedings are a rare and (sometimes) pleasurable opportunity for friends and family to gather.

The Christ-related bits will involve a prayer of thanks, and maybe some reading from the Bible, but my point is that the day is not going to involve excessive religious ceremony, even for Christians. Christ will no doubt be in their thoughts at times, but I will celebrate Christmas just like they do, for the most part.

In this context, there’s nothing to go to war over. If I’m right, and Christmas is secular in any case, Christmas provides an opportunity for two things (not an exclusive list): one, celebrating Christmas and two, being obnoxious towards Christians, and conforming to a certain stereotype of how offensive atheists are.

I choose the first option. And as Stedman points out, most atheists do also, which is why his piece argues that it’s a war on atheism through mischaracterising us, rather than on Christmas (as I said at the top, it could be a war on both, so I think the title poorly chosen).

He links to interesting research that suggests only 15% of atheists in the USA are anti-theist, meaning that they “believe that the obvious fallacies in religion and belief should be aggressively addressed in some form or another”.

The remainder are characterised as academic atheists, agnostic atheists etc., but regardless of whether you disagree with how the authors carve the landscape up, it’s true to say that some atheists are more aggressive than others – and it’s fair to ask whether they should be taken as representative of the whole.

As with all contested topics – or even “all topics” – those who make the most noise, or who say the most outrageous things, will get the attention. In the USA, it’s American Atheists, who use Christmas as an annual opportunity for provoking the religious. American Atheists say that their approach works, and I’m pleased that Massimo Pigliucci has written this post arguing that it doesn’t, because that’s my sense of things too.

The rest of us need to perhaps make more noise. I don’t know – I certainly feel like I make enough of it, but perhaps not in some of the places I should – for example, I’ve left all the Facebook atheist communities I used to belong to, because they were filled with too many obnoxious people.

That’s a problem to resolve another day, though. For now, and until the end of the Newlands cricket test on (theoretically) January 6, I’ll probably be quite quiet here, though still active on Twitter. If you’re celebrating Christmas as a Christian, joy and peace and all that to you.

If you’re doing what I’m doing, which is eating and drinking too much with great friends, have a wonderful day also.

Premier Zille, religious tolerance and atheist “fundamentalism”

Yesterday, the Premier of the Western Cape, Democratic Alliance (DA) Leader Helen Zille said:

Worst kind of fundamentalists

and that’s how the fight got started. For a number of hours after this tweet, Zille was drawn into debate (well, insofar as the medium permits) on the religious views of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot etc., the putative moral virtue of Mother Theresa, and various other issues relating to religion and/or the absence of it.

Zille apologised for and retracted the tweet above, and it must be said that many who jumped into the conversation didn’t follow it from the start, and were guilty of some over-reaction themselves. In fact, the over-reaction persists today, where some legitimate criticism is being mixed in with abuse and caracaturing of her views and motivations.

If you read her tweet in the context of the conversation, I think it clear that she was responding to Kevin King’s introduction of the idea of religion-bashing by atheists, albeit in a rather glib and unfortunate way, given that the conversation began with Mandy de Waal offering an example of religious fundamentalism causing deaths.

But given the context of the conversation, it was a foot-in-mouth moment rather than an expression of religious intolerance. Despite this, her defence of the tweet, and a few follow-up tweets, indicate that Premier Zille does appear to hold rather misguided views on what atheism is, and what atheists believe.

First, though, I will agree with her on a central point, and annoy many atheists in the process: it’s entirely possible for atheists to be fundamentalists.

If you understand “fundamentalism” in the classic sense, in other words strict adherence to some set of doctrines, then atheists can’t be fundamentalists, as we have no doctrines. (Atheism being simply, and only, the absence of a belief in a deity or deities.)

But language and usage evolves, and it seems entirely permissible to me for “fundamentalism” to be taken as referring to certain ways of being anti-theist, rather than atheist. One relevant category of action would be to ridicule, mock, or insult; another would be to hold your atheism dogmatically, in the sense that you find it impossible to entertain any claims regarding the potential value of religion.

I’ve read my Dawkins, and know that folk will disagree with me on the first category above, insisting that “passion” gets mistaken for stridency. And on the second, I suspect many will say that there’s nothing to entertain, and that those of us who do are simply being “accommodationists”, weasels or something like that.

I’ll not rehearse those arguments now, but will instead point you to an earlier post which deals with some of these arguments at greater length. Here, I just want to say that I agree with Zille on that point, but nevertheless think that she should reconsider her beliefs with regard to atheism and its role in both history and contemporary society.

Even though she made repeated references to her party being committed to religious freedom, and asserted that she is similarly committed, her expressed thoughts on Twitter indicate prejudice against the non-religious. For example:

Atheists commit mass slaughter

Screen Shot 2014-12-18 at 10.47.24

As my earlier post argues, these sorts of sentiments are thoroughly confused, in that none of these examples were motivated by their atheism (for those who were atheists). The first tweet above should refer to “psychopaths” or “sociopaths” or something rather than atheists, because none of the claims made (commit mass slaughter; believe they are God; have an ideology) are remotely true of atheism in general.

The second tweet again makes the mistake of thinking that atheism is an ideology, or something that informs the lives of atheists in some sort of fundamental way. We’re just like you, Helen, and our atheism is usually as much of an “ideology” as your disbelief in Thor is.

And yes, perhaps people who happen to have been atheists have indeed killed many people, but either that’s coincidental, or you’re making a causal claim about either atheism conducing to evil deeds, or religion conducing to good deeds. Evidence suggests the final option might be what she thinks is the case:

Murder

And here I’ll say “sure, maybe that’s true” – but we’ve got zero reasons for believing it to be true. It’s an empirical question, and someone like Zille, who seems fond of data-driven approaches to things, might perhaps know of some of the ways we can distinguish better and worse answers to the question.

For example, does criminality, gender discrimination, murder and so forth tend to correlate positively with religious or non-religious societies? (The former, i.e. non-religious societies are more pleasant.) Does thinking about morality as necessarily connected to religion make any sense? (No – read your Plato.)

And, does thinking about morality as being intimately connected to religion impede moral understanding and thinking, by infantilising us, and making us unable to resolve moral issues through reason? (I think so.)

Zille does seem entirely sincere in her commitment to religious freedom, but that’s not much comfort when she appears to hold rather unsophisticated views on these matters. She’s endorsing dangerous stereotypes in tweeting these sorts of things, and furthermore, doing damage to the DA’s brand.

We’re living in a world where discrimination against the non-religious is quite a significant problem, and the leader of our only (quasi) liberal party should be expected to stand against discrimination, rather than offer it fuel.

Religion in education: when government officials violate the law

Earlier today, Barry Bateman sent me this:

barrybateman_2014-Dec-04

For those of you whose Afrikaans is as poor as mine, a rough translation would look something like this:

Instead of a moment of silence, schools under his leadership can have a moment of prayer. Preachers were previously not welcome at schools, “but I’m opening schools up to preachers”, said Panyaza Lesufi, MEC for Education in Gauteng.

“Schools can decide for themselves which prayers they would like to offer at their school. Each school has the right to practice religious activity, so long as it’s not harmful, like Satanism. If Satanism is followed, I’ll bring the police into it. Why do we find Bibles in hotels, but not in schools? In my first 100 days in office, I distributed 50 000 Bibles to schools.”

Lesufi also said that if we want to understand problems in schools, we need to understand the souls of schoolchildren. In answer to a question regarding the pending court case, brought by OGOD against six schools in light of those schools’ Christian characters, Lesufi said that 85% of South Africans are Christian.

“As I last understood the Constitution, it was the majority that won.”

The same Department of Education recently held a prayer meeting for prospective matriculants, at which Lesufi remarked that “We support all the pastors and reverends in our school”.

2012_5$thumbimg131_May_2012_092556310-llLesufi is not the first Gauteng Education MEC that seems to have difficulty keeping their personal religious views out of the frame when doing their jobs – last year, Barbara Creecy singled out Satanism and “the occult” as dangerous, despite the fact that we have a community of pagans, Wiccans, Satanists and the like who pose no threat to anyone, and whose religious freedom is Constitutionally protected.

As I’ve noted on numerous occasions now, we have a policy on religion in education, and it’s pretty good. Unfortunately, our politicians (and schools) are pretty good at ignoring it. It calls for secularism in schools, in the sense that schools cannot proselytising for one faith to the exclusion of others. Secularism isn’t anti-religion – it’s anti schools being used as proxy churches.

Given this policy, you’d hope that MECs and MPs – as public representatives of the government, who adopted the policy in question – would themselves respect it, and not abuse their positions of authority to push the agenda of one religion.

If Lesufi were to do the same thing with regard to a building contract, or somesuch – i.e. use his authority to get a mate some lucrative deals for building schools in Gauteng – he’d be investigated, and hopefully fired. It’s an abuse of power and authority to introduce Christian prayer, and Christian texts, into public (and thus by definition, secular) schools.

Furthermore, who is paying for these 50 000 Bibles? Presumably, the Department of Education or the Gauteng government. Either way, that would be an abuse of public money. It’s not on the scale of Nkandla, of course, but simply because you might like the product he’s stealing your money to distribute to schools, doesn’t make it less of a theft.

Two final points: Lesufi violates the religious freedom and dignity of non-Christians, specifically Satanists, in the quote above. You cannot threaten someone with the police for holding religious views you don’t like. And, Satanism is not a synonym for certain (or, any) criminal activity.

As I’ve written before, Satanism does not encourage human sacrifices – it’s Christian propaganda versions of Satanism that these confused kids who commit murders and sacrifices are falling prey to. And this is again why the National Policy on Religion and Education gets things right, in the sense that it calls for instruction on all religions. If we do that, fewer kids will have the false beliefs that might encourage criminal activity like that.

Finally, this MEC needs a refresher course in democracy and the value of our Constitution for protecting rights and freedoms. We signed up for a system in which the majority don’t necessarily get their way, because we recognise that the majority can abuse their power.

We signed up for religious freedom, because even you, Mr. Lesufi, should recognise that this protects you too – as it’s a purely contingent fact that you happen to share the majority view. If you happen to convert to something else, or lose your faith, you’d perhaps better understand why it’s rather important that the state stay out of religion entirely.

(Incidentally, Lesufi’s 85% figure seems entirely made-up – the last reliable data we have is from the 2001 Census, which had Christians as 79.77% of the population, and I’d be surprised if that figure hadn’t decreased since then.)

As ever, nothing will come of this, because all the lovely policy in the world is powerless against untouchable power, led by a man – Jacob Zuma – who has offered various masterclasses in how not to give a shit about the law.

Yes, this particular case is very trivial in comparison. But it’s still wrong, and Lesufi should know better.