OGOD finally has its day in court

Hans Pietersen has been working towards getting the matter of religious bias in South African public schools heard by the courts since 2009. This week, it finally happened.

OGOD is the name of the organisation he founded and chairs, and who brought the case to the Johannesburg High Court. But don’t let that bit of blasphemy in the name fool you. Even though there are many atheists in the organisation, their cause is a secular rather than atheist one, and as I’ve argued before, the difference is crucial. Continue reading “OGOD finally has its day in court”

Basic Education in Demonology

Well. Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga and I had a rather interesting morning. I was part of the group that drafted a charter on rights and responsibilities for religious conduct at schools, and today we (and other interested parties) gathered to discuss the charter, and to hear the Minister’s thoughts on “harmful religious practices” in schools.

Instead, what we mostly got was lessons in how many demons are out there, hungering for your kids’ brains souls, and how only Jesus can save them. Continue reading “Basic Education in Demonology”

(Detective) Lethobo: the Profits from Doom

Charismatic pastors have long been abusing the loyalty and faith of devout Christians, and I’m sure this happens in other religions also. In South Africa, though, we’ve recently heard of some quite bizarre examples.

Penuel Mnguni telling people they should eat snakes and Lesego Daniel making a sacrament of grass and petrol come immediately to mind. And then there are the more traditional forms of exploitation, like Pastor Mboro telling parishioners that he can get them to heaven for R 10 000 (or, secure them a VIP seat next to Moses, Abraham and even Jesus for R 30 000). Continue reading “(Detective) Lethobo: the Profits from Doom”

Humanity before religion

Originally published in the Mail&Guardian.

Religion matters as much today as it ever did. It matters to a slowly but steadily increasing proportion of the world’s population, even though it is in decline in Japan, the United States, Vietnam, Germany, France and the United Kingdom. Everywhere else, religious adherence is increasing, with Pew Research data identifying Islam as the fastest-growing religion, expected to catch up with Christianity in 2050. Continue reading “Humanity before religion”

Religious freedom in the firing line

Gateway News, the ‘South African Christian News Portal’, is always a good place to find over-reaction, misrepresentation, and unfounded panic, for example this account of ‘militant atheist groups‘ that are (shock, horror!) trying to stop Joshua Generation Church from endorsing corporal punishment.

A recent Gateway News post by Adv Nadene Badenhorst, legal counsel of FOR SA, catalogues some of the ways in which religion will find itself “in the firing line” during 2016. But a cursory look at the cases cited reveals the opposite, in that it’s religious privilege that she’s concerned about, rather than religious freedom. Continue reading “Religious freedom in the firing line”

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.]

Homophobia and free speech at UCT, redux

-t2zWl54The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town has responded to the controversy provoked by Zizipho Pae’s Facebook remark that legalising gay marriage was “normalising sin”, in a statement that attempts to balance sensitivity to LGBTQIA+ concerns while also affirming Pae’s rights to hold unpopular views.

My previous comments on this issue stand, but I’d like to add a few clarificatory comments. I agree entirely with Dr. Price that a key issue here is the legality of the Student Representative Council (SRC) decision to terminate her membership of the SRC, and also that the abuse and intimidation Pae experienced is inexcusable.

As Nathan Geffen wrote earlier today,

Should the extent of the hatred, misinformation, prejudice or ignorance disentitle the speaker from holding office?

In some cases it may. In others, there’s an opportunity to educate — both the speaker and the general public — rather than respond with fashionable social media fuelled outrage. The same goes for homophobia.

My argument last time was that it was entirely appropriate for the SRC to suspend Pae, pending discussion regarding her fitness to hold office, based on what the SRC constitution says and does not say.

I do not believe that holding homophobic views should automatically disqualify one from office – my claim is the limited one that if this contravenes established and documented values, then you are accountable in accordance with those values.

So, you’re free to be negatively disposed to gay people – but just not when this is associated with your position. This is not a free speech violation, but is instead a restriction on who is eligible to represent a community. The latter (being a SRC member) is not a right, but an earned position, and if that comes with certain requirements, you could rightly lose the position if you don’t fulfil the requirements.

From what I can tell from the SRC constitution and the minutes of the meeting that expelled her, I strongly doubt that her expulsion was legitimate, and I’d expect it to be overturned in time (although, this will likely be a pointless exercise, seeing as the SRC elections for 2016 are about to take place, with the current SRC coming to the end of their term).

Where I don’t agree with Dr. Price’s statement is where he quotes a 1998 Constitutional Court ruling which held that “those persons who for reasons of religious belief disagree with or condemn homosexual conduct are free to hold and articulate such beliefs”, going on to say that

This is especially so when a religious belief is articulated in a way that is not intended to insult, harm or discriminate, and if there is no incitement to taking harmful action against others. On our reading, Ms Pae’s Facebook post was an expression of her sincerely held religious belief, rather than an intervention to insult or hurt those with whom she disagrees.

Yes, they are free to hold and articulate those beliefs, but firstly (and again), not necessarily without consequences. As I say above, one such consequence could be expulsion, if the relevant laws/policies dictate that.

Should that consequence be expulsion? I don’t think so, as long as the person in question was appointed or elected with the rest of us being fully cognisant of their views, at least with regard to our set of ideal values.

So, if Pae campaigned on a platform that included opposition to gay rights, and was elected on that basis, I couldn’t have any complaints. Geffen’s post says that she didn’t hide her Christianity, but that’s a different matter to being openly anti LGBTQIA+ rights.

My view is that if you don’t disclose this, you can reasonably be expected to share the values expressed in various UCT documents, including SRC documents, that support those rights. Once it’s discovered that you don’t, the electorate might justifiably feel deceived, in that these are assumed to be shared values in the community (even if they aren’t actually shared in practice).

And finally, the notion of an expressed prejudice being more excusable if it stems from a “sincerely held religious belief”, rather than being something intended to “insult or hurt” isn’t helpful in this case – it simply passes the buck, and avoids tackling the difficult issue of what to do when people are “sincerely” bigoted, and with good intentions.

As Pierre de Vos noted in a recent column, religious beliefs and practices often get a free pass when it comes to discrimination. If allowing for discrimination based on religious views is a reasonable interpretation of the law, then I’d call the law defective in that regard.

We know, in advance, that some sincerely-held views (such as held by Pae) are not intended to insult or hurt. But we also know that they do insult and hurt.

Secularists (like me) are emphatic on the point that religious precepts should not be permissible premises in debates on policy or law. But more to the point, some of us who lack any belief in god(s) struggle to see any principled difference between your long-standing and scripturally-located version of “proper” marriage and sexual conduct, versus someone who chooses to locate their racist tirades in some long-standing tradition.

Or even, their polite, “sincerely held” racist beliefs, that are not intended to “insult or hurt” anyone, but merely to make things more efficient by letting people know what their proper place in the pecking order is.

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.

The @IHEU Freedom of Thought Report 2014

iheu-logo-2013-w300Published today [10 December] by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), the third annual Freedom of Thought Report offers a survey of persecution of and discrimination against non-religious people, with an entry for every country across the world.

In 2014, in addition to laws such as those targeting “apostasy” and “blasphemy”, the report shows a marked increase in specific targeting of “atheists” and “humanism” as such, using these terms in a broadly correct way (the users know what they are saying) but with intent clearly borne of ignorance or intolerance toward these groups.

To put it more plainly, nonreligious people are being targeted as a distinct minority group in various countries around the world. The report also indicates that hateful speech against atheists does not come exclusively from reactionary or radical religious leaders, but increasingly from political leaders, including heads of state.

Cases covered in the report include the Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak, who this year labelled “humanism and secularism as well as liberalism” as “deviant” and a threat to Islam and the state itself, in a speech where he also denied that Malaysians had any right to “apostasy” (leaving Islam).

Saudi Arabia is criticised for a new law equating “atheism” with “terrorism”. The very first article of the kingdom’s new terror regulations banned “Calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion”.

Even the supposedly secular regime of Egypt’s president Sisi was found to target atheists directly, through what the report calls “an organized backlash against young atheists”. Beginning in June, Nuamat Sati of the Ministry of Youth announced a campaign to spread awareness of “the dangers of atheism” and why it is “a threat to society”, so that young atheists in particular, who are increasingly vocal on social media would be given “a chance to reconsider their decisions and go back to their religion.”

In the past few months, Egyptian authorities have detained young atheists who appeared on TV media and Youtube videos talking about their right to express atheist views, and in a worrying an unusual development in November, Christian churches actually “joined forces” with Egypt’s AlAzhar in another anti-atheism campaign, saying that “Society should resist this phenomenon [of atheism]”.

Previous editions of the Freedom of Thought Report, which considers and rates every country in the world for anti-atheist persecution, found that almost all countries discriminate against the nonreligious, in some cases through religious privilege or legal exemption, with the worst countries refusing to issue identity cards to the nonreligious, taking children from atheist parents, or sentencing “apostates” to death.

The 2014 edition of the report notes: “This year will be marked by a surge in this phenomenon of state officials and political leaders agitating specifically against nonreligious people, just because they have no religious beliefs, in terms that would normally be associated with hate speech or social persecution against ethnic or religious minorities.”

Fortunately, the situation in South Africa is nowhere near as serious as the examples given above. However, this does not give South Africans cause for complacency. Our schools routinely violate the National Policy on Religion and Education, to the extent that the organisation OGOD has recently instituted court proceedings against six public schools who assert their “Christian character”, despite our public schools having an obligation to be secular.

It is not only school principals and governing boards who privilege one religion over others, rather than supporting religious freedom through remaining neutral and encouraging a secular approach to religion, whereby religious education is welcome but religious indoctrination precluded.

The MEC for Education in Gauteng, Panyaza Lefusi, boasts of having distributed 50 000 Bibles to schools in his first 100 days in office – with no mention of also having distributed Korans, or books on Humanist ethics and thought. This constitutes not only a violation of the Policy, but if the Bibles were paid for with public funds, also a clear abuse of those funds in that revenue from the taxpayer cannot be used to support what amounts to State-sanctioned religion.

The Freedom of Thought Report is published by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) with contributions from independent researchers and IHEU Member Organisations around the world. The South African Member Organisation is the Free Society Institute.

Websites:
freethoughtreport.com and iheu.org; fsi.org.za (South Africa)

For further information, interview or comment please email:
contact@fsi.org.za; (Free Society Institute, for South Africa-specific issues) or the IHEU (report@iheu.org; +44 207 490 8468.

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.