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”?

Faith healers and medical deceivers

On the last night of January, I participated in a rather interesting hour of radio, during which Hlomla Dandala hosted a interview with me and someone claiming to be a faith healer. The faith healer’s name is Pastor Louisa, and you can find some information on her ministry – which includes curing people of AIDS – on her website.

I do have a recording of the show, but haven’t yet found a way to convert it into something that plays outside of the TuneIn Radio app on my phone (informed advice on this is welcome) – if I do get it converted, I’ll be sure to post it here.

What became clear fairly on in the show is that Louisa is not a charlatan, in the sense that she’s knowingly exploiting others. She was desperately sincere, and also, unfortunately, sincerely confused. When invited to facilitate a miracle over the phone to someone who called in, she engaged in a few minutes of shouty, enthusiastic prayer and exhortations to be confident and inspired, after which she asked the caller  whether she “felt better”.

Yes, said the caller. I then asked – “so, does that get added to your list of miracles performed?”. Yes, said Pastor Louisa. On those weak standards, all of us perform dozens of miracles every day – just figure out what language people like to hear, or what buttons they like pushed, make them happy, and then claim to have performed a miracle!

Also, she made it clear that she never tells people to stop taking their medicine. Dandala asked her how she knows whether it’s the prayer or the medicine that heals… and the predictable answer that she gave was that she “just knows”. As far as I can determine, then, she gives her god the credit for the job performed by modern medicine.

You’ve heard how this (faith healing) works before, I imagine, or rather, how it doesn’t work. On the recommendation of Dan Dennett, I watched the documentary Marjoe a few years back, and it’s a wonderful expose of charismatic preachers and healers, involving Marjoe Gortner taking a documentary crew behind the scenes of his final revival tour, held after he had already lost his faith. Watch it if you can, but basically, if people want to believe something strongly enough, it’s difficult to stop them doing so.

The difficulty in talking to Louisa was in resisting the impulse to mock, but instead to feel sympathy for her confusion, and the desperation of those who take her seriously. I failed in this effort at least once, when she spoke about how she had to stop talking to us because she was out in the open, under a tree, and it was cold (this was late at night). I suggested that a miracle might sort this out – after all, if she could cure Aids, what’s the problem with a little heating?

Failures of good grace aside, these people can be dangerous, especially in communities we don’t often hear about, where faith healers and other quacks can do their thing without being exposed to scrutiny. Communities like the Amish are a similar problem. And the overarching problem we all have in a constitutional democracy is in striking the balance between objective application of the law and respecting the various freedoms we believe people are entitled to, like subscribing to and practicing a religion.

For adults, there’s less of a concern regarding people being free to harm themselves than there is for children, who can’t be expected to know any better. But desperation, and poor educations, mean that adults are also sometimes more gullible than one would like, which is why it’s incumbent on all of us to speak out against quackery where we find it, while still trying to avoid being gratuitously cruel to those we criticise.

And those of us in positions of authority should perhaps be most careful, because their trust is vested in us, and they spend money, time and attention on us.

Someone getting a lot of attention right now is Professor Tim Noakes, as he goes around the country giving talks and radio interviews to promote the book he’s recently co-authored, The Real Meal Revolution. During a recent interview with Redi Tlhabi, he informs listeners (at 38m40s) that there is “absolutely no risk” involved in cancer victims trying the ketogenic diet, because it’s proven that starving cancer of carbohydrates is an effective treatment.

Well, yes, it can be. But as he so often does, he’s cherry-picking, or simply believing in the version of “science” that suits his agenda. Because according to the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, and other sources,

Many scientists have tried killing tumors by taking away their favorite food, a sugar called glucose. Unfortunately, this treatment approach not only fails to work, it backfires–glucose-starved tumors get more aggressive.

This is only true for some glucose-starved tumours, to be sure, but it still means that saying “absolutely no risk” is absolutely untrue, and that Noakes is giving advice – to an audience of thousands – that stands a good chance of harming a listener who happens to have the sort of cancer that responds aggressively to a low carbohydrate diet.

As I’ve said many a time, this isn’t the approach of someone who is a responsible scientist. But, just like the faith-healer, I think he’s utterly sincere, and utterly committed to fostering our good health. More the pity, then, that he’s unable to see how his religious fervour might end up achieving the opposite goal, at least for some. And how – consistently – he’s wreaking havoc on basic principles of critical reasoning, and setting a terrible example for budding scientists everywhere.

Hey, teacher, leave them kids alone!

Originally published in the Daily Maverick

evolutionisatheoryIt’s important for all of us – whether religious or not – to defend the secular viewpoint in public institutions, law and policy. For one, because secularism means that you will never be forced to attend or participate in the ceremonies or practices of religions other than your own.

Defenders of religious expression sometimes forget the fact that often, it’s only contingently the case that you’re defending the expression of a religion you happen to belong to, and that this coincidence can’t be guaranteed. If your neighbourhood school were over time to evolve into one of a different faith, you might suddenly wish for the school to be stubbornly secular.

A second reason to defend secularity, at least in my view, is because a secular environment is well suited to fostering free and rational choice and taking responsibility for our choices, as I argued in this column defending the rights of children to wear religious headgear at public schools. It’s clearer to see the relationship between our beliefs and our actions if we aren’t forced – not matter how implicitly – to perform certain actions.

Secular does not need to mean (in fact, ideally would not mean) hostility towards religious expression. It would mean neutrality, while allowing for the free expression of religious belief so long as that expression accorded with the Constitution and any other relevant law.

South Africa has a mostly superb framework ensuring secularism in our public schools. I’ve written about aspects of this before, but a recent email correspondence with a friend regarding the school her son attends offers an opportunity to highlight what I have reason to believe is a fairly common occurrence – namely, public schools ignoring the explicitly secular (but tolerant) National Policy on Religion in Education.

The case in point is Glenstantia Primary, who approved a new policy on religion in September 2012 (citing the Constitution, the National Policy on Religion and Education and other documents as references). Despite name-checking the National Policy, the “Governing Body of this school decided that Glenstantia Primary shall be a Christian based school” – which can’t avoid but create an impression of bias rather than neutrality towards not only religion, but more importantly, a specific religion.

Pierre de Vos has previously argued that statements like “this school has a Christian character” might well be contraventions of Section 15 of the Constitution, as well as the Schools Act, both of which allow for religious expression, but only on an “equitable basis”. As de Vos points out, our Constitutional Court has shied away from ruffling any feathers in judgements on this issue, partly because some wiggle-room is afforded them through the limitations clause.

However, if a group of parents were to ask the Department of Basic Education to account for their numerous failures to enforce the Policy, I’d expect a similar outcome to the one achieved by Vashti McCollum in 1948, when the US Supreme Court agreed that calling religious observances “voluntary” could cover up a multitude of sins.

As the majority opinion in that case states, “both religion and government can best work to achieve their lofty aims if each is left free from the other within its respective sphere”. At Glenstantia, calling the school “Christian” already makes someone who believes in something else, or nothing, feels like an outsider. But the violations of the policy don’t stop there.

Clause 3.3 insists that the Bible is read at all “assemblies and school gatherings”, and then 3.4 insists that all pupils have to attend these events where hymns are sung and prayers said. You need not participate – but then you need a letter from your parents excusing you.

There are two clear problems in this: first that there’s nothing “equitable” about how religions are treated here, and second, a non-religious child in a religious family is either forced to lie (through participating in a charade) or forced into a very difficult confession of non-faith to a potentially hostile family.

In this sort of situation, who would blame the scholar for not simply taking the easy route, succumbing to peer, school and family pressure through pretending to be religious? For institutions like schools that are meant to teach the ability to think, be independent and so forth, this doesn’t seem a good start. Neither is it a good start in a life of Christian virtue, if you’re attracted to the faith via a subtle form of bullying.

The school has an obligation to support the National Policy, rather than make pupils and parents jump through hoops to ensure that they are not discriminated against. Clause 3.5 says that “other persuasions will be respected”, but when “every school day begins with a prayer and/or a reading of a portion of the Bible” (3.6), it’s difficult to take that pledge of respect seriously.

There is more, but the point is by now clear – one can speak of tolerance and equitable treatment of religions (and the non-religious), but get away with nothing more than paying lip-service to that equitable treatment. This is not only the grouching of an atheist, but a concern that should be shared by every Muslim, or Jewish, or whatever, parent that has a child at a school like Glenstantia.

The point of secular provisions such as the National Policy is that they protect us all from undue influence to toe a particular line, allowing for free expression of whatever beliefs you have, regardless of how fashionable, popular, or government-endorsed they are. We’re all free to believe what we like, and to engage in whatever religious practices we like – or not to, as the case may be.

Either way, it doesn’t have to be anyone else’s business other than yours. If you want to start and end your day with a prayer, go ahead. But why should doing so be forced on other people’s children, or made everyone (anyone) else’s business?

Brief thoughts on Jack Bloom

While I’ve previously commented on the illiberal nature of some of Helen Zille’s recent public utterances, at least she’s mostly kept her personal religious beliefs out of the equation. Sure, they no doubt inform her conservative moral stance, but her arguments and proposed interventions are nevertheless supported by arguments (regardless of your, or my, views on the quality of those arguments).

By contrast, Jack Bloom (DA Leader in the Gauteng legislature) seems to have no qualms in putting God at front and centre as a potential answer to South Africa’s ills, regardless of the diversity of belief among those who voted for his party (not to mention a large number of those who work for his party). In fact, God seems to have been here all along, not only facilitating the “transition from Apartheid”, but also working abroad in spurring the abolitionist movement against slavery, and inspiring people to formulate the “democratic concepts that led to the American Revolution”.

There’s no question that Bloom is sincere, and that he believes religion can play a role in encouraging people to think about their moral obligations. Sadly for those of us who think morality can only be principled if also secular, he’s in agreement with the DA’s general position here, where the party says that religion “should serve as a moral and spiritual inspiration“.

But even this view (the mistaken one, that morality and religion are easy bedfellows) is at least comprehensible, given that our country is mostly religious. Comprehensible, not reasonable, because if we need more prayer and less politics (as Bloom argues), surely the ACDP would have a far higher share of the votes?

What’s most egregious about Bloom’s opinion piece is that he by and large simply makes things up as he goes along, plucking historical events out of the timeline and – without any evidence (unless you count dubious correlations as evidence, which you shouldn’t) – attributes them to prayer and religion. It’s true that Lanphier drove a large Christian revival movement in the US during the mid-1800’s, yes, but to say that it was the Christianity – rather than basic human compassion or economics – that informed the abolition of slavery is an entirely circular argument, which assumes what it purports to demonstrate.

The American Revolution – also offered by Bloom as evidence for the power of prayer – seems more plausibly explained by something like the first 13 colonies revolting against rule by the British Empire, regardless of whether some or many the revolutionaries were religious. Their desire to be free doesn’t need religion to make sense, and it seems entirely spurious – and again circular – to use this as evidence for us needing more prayer and less politics.

And then of course there’s the elephant in the room: namely, that the data overwhelmingly suggest that on any benchmark of morality you care to pick, secular countries usually outperform religious ones. Corruption? Check. Divorce rates? Check. Crime? Check. Do a comparison for whatever measure you like using something like Google’s public data explorer, or read a simple and short book like Sinnott-Armstrong’s Morality without God.

One of the saddest aspects of public utterances like this from DA leaders, for me, is the fact that the DA has one clear advantage over other contenders in the political arena: the effective, and entirely pragmatically motivated, delivery of goods and services. That’s their clear competitive advantage, and the drum they should be beating more loudly than any other. But when a DA official – and a highly placed one at that – tells us that he hopes to outsource his job to God (at best) or collective insanity (at worst), it only reinforces the fear that populism is taking the place of common sense.

Bloom closes his piece with “maybe if we all prayed more the social change we desire will happen”. Seeing as all the existing studies of prayer’s efficacy show no effects (or in at least one case, negative effects), don’t hold your breath.

Edit: This post as well as a reply from Jack Bloom can be found on PoliticsWeb, where you’ll also find some entertaining comments. Also see another Christian perspective from Jordan Pickering.