‘Twas Easter and the slithey toves did gyre and gimble on the roads

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

The philosopher Simon Blackburn, describing Karen Armstrong’s attitude to religion, once remarked that it was “reminiscent of Alice after hearing the nonsense poem Jabberwocky: ‘Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are’.”

As Easter approaches, some of these elusive ideas dominate radio talk-shows and a disproportionate number of column-centimetres in newspapers, regardless of the fact that everyone is usually saying exactly what they said last year.

Of course, the ideas are most often accompanied by some unpleasant facts, such as the increase in deaths and injuries on our roads resulting from herds of families heading to reunions, celebrations or simply vacations. But as for the ideas themselves – rebirth, renewal, sacrifice, atonement and the like – we see them infecting both unbelievers and believers.

The majority of those living in a society forged in a Judeo-Christian tradition end up partaking in ritualistic eating, drinking and general merriment, regardless of whether they are committed to any theological underpinnings for those ideas.

On one level, this is not incoherent for unbelievers at all, seeing as festivals such as Easter and Christmas were established traditions long before the Roman Catholic Church appropriated all the pagan shrines and claimed the festivals for itself, premised on a version of history that is now regarded as true by many, if only through being repeated often enough.

Some of us, though, will find ourselves at dinner tables shared by relatives and friends who do take these festivals and that version of history seriously, and who sometimes appear to believe that we can know exactly which ideas our heads should be filled with, and why. And those of us on the outside of this belief system may play along, sitting politely while prayers are uttered, not protesting when these relatives and friends say what might seem to us to be crazy things.

The extent to which the secular community has an obligation to play along – or the opposite obligation to protest – is a running debate. A key element of this debate is the possible incoherence involved in your lack of belief not standing in the way of allowing others to continue believing absurd things. The politics of these situations are complex, though, and I don’t mean to argue that one has an obligation to always burst the belief-bubbles of others.

After all, some of these religious ideas, as exemplified by Easter and Christmas, are noble and good: friendship, family, and the simple pleasures of a good meal come to mind, as does the welcome notion of having a few days off work. But if one gets the sense that these ideas – along with others not mentioned – are somehow premised on these festivals, the fear grows that they may become reserved solely for that time of year.

In other words, perhaps some of us – having done our duty in being nice to Aunt Sally around the Easter dinner table – might feel no obligation to be nice to her again until Christmas rolls around. In case this sounds implausible, note that a similar effect is being noticed with regard to “green” consumers, where recent research indicates that they are less likely to be kind, and more likely to steal, as a result of their perceptions of themselves as “good people”. As Dieter Frey, a University of Munich psychologist, observes, “At the moment in which you have proven your credentials in a particular area, you tend to allow yourself to stray elsewhere”.

As with resolutions at the start of each new year, or that month following a trip to the dentist where one flosses obsessively before reverting to more typical patterns, our plans and intentions count for little if they affect our behaviour for a trivially short time. More to the point, they count for little as indications of our characters when they affect our behaviour only when we are reminded to behave differently, due to the promptings of events on a calendar.

All these holiday seasons are invariably filled with both the best and the worst of human character – as are all days and months. For every heart-warming tale of families reunited, this Easter will bring another tale relating to a Catholic priest and an altar-boy, or another about a parent so in the grip of pseudoscience or some paranoia that she is unwilling to vaccinate her one-year-old child, thereby endangering his life (and the lives of everyone else on the planet, in a small way).

But it’s always this way – people do stupid things and clever things, they harm and they help, and they sometimes have no clue which they are doing, or why they have chosen one thing rather than another. And yes, perhaps the balance shifts towards the positive over Easter. Though I’m not too sure about that given all the lives traditionally lost on the roads at this time of year – sadly, too many in pilgrimages to venues such as Moria.

It won’t, however, make much difference if people are especially nice to each other simply because they are reminded to do so by a date on a calendar, and by what that calendar tells them about their metaphysics. As the secular members of South African society often remark, a definition of “goodness” which is premised on being accountable to Big Daddy hardly makes one virtuous – and by extension, being charitable and generally “nice” to one’s fellow humans because it’s Easter or Christmas is not the motivation I’d hope for, seeing as I then have no guarantee you won’t be a complete tosspot for the rest of the year.

Freedom of (Multi)choice

Originally published in The Daily Maverick.

A number of the self-appointed guardians of South Africa’s moral fabric have recently weighed in on DStv’s news that it is considering introducing a pay-per-view pornography channel. As previously reported by Kevin Bloom in The Daily Maverick, Taryn Hodgson of the Christian Action Network claims that the channel will fuel the “fires of sexual abuse and exploitation”, and that those who believe otherwise have “imbibed the lies of the porn industry”. Errol Naidoo of the Family Policy Institute cites sympathetic studies (including one from a right-wing Christian organisation, and another from a high-ranking Freemason’s address during the 1989 ‘Religious Alliance against Pornography’ conference) which purport to demonstrate a connection between pornography and sexual violence. The trade union Solidarity claims that “children’s rights will be violated” by this channel, based on their own research indicating that “77% of molesters of boys and 87% of molesters of girls used pornography”. Continue reading “Freedom of (Multi)choice”

On JZ’s call for a national dialogue on “our moral code”

Originally published in The Daily Maverick.

Many South Africans would support the recent call by President Jacob Zuma for a national dialogue on our moral code. While quips about foxes guarding henhouses may be the first thing to come to mind, two serious and separate issues are raised by this call: the desirability of such a dialogue, and the practical issue of who should take part.

On the first issue, perhaps we should start by noting that the perceived moral failings of some influential South Africans and the public response to these have a feature in common, namely a tendency to pluck a ready-made moral viewpoint off a shelf and then present that as either defence or accusation. Neither of these responses demonstrates commitment to moral reasoning or sensitivity to the fact that some issues cannot be resolved by appeal to dogma. They are, nevertheless, often successful in that new South Africans have been bred to be tolerant of difference and reluctant to criticise things they may not understand. Continue reading “On JZ’s call for a national dialogue on “our moral code””

Taryn Hodgson’s pornography problem

The Christian Action Network’s (CAN) “international coordinator”, Taryn Hodgson, seems to be on some sort of PR offensive. Last month, she was accusing the Cape Times and Argus of denying the “hidden holocaust” of abortion, and more recently, she took time out from being upset at things to offer an apology for the lies told by CAN around an aborted debate between Peter Hammond, myself and Tauriq Moosa. Continue reading “Taryn Hodgson’s pornography problem”

Good without god

Over at Talking Philosophy, a post by Jeff Mason has generated a few interesting comments. The post itself is interesting (hence the comments, I suppose), but one comment (by Tom, a self-professed religious believer) is perhaps particularly interesting. Here’s an extract from the comment, followed by some general comments in response:

religion, particularly belief in a deity, is an incredibly useful concept the human mind uses to funnel its understanding of many issues into language which is not only powerfully symbolic, but also compact and economical. Finally, religion tightens the concept of duty due to the psychological implications (a la Pascal Boyer) of a personal god in relation to our intuitive psychology of each other. Continue reading “Good without god”

African Christian Action apologises for debate debacle

I intended to simply post this as a comment to one of my posts dealing with the debate that was meant to take place last year between Peter Hammond, Tauriq Moosa and myself. But seeing as there are a fair number of posts on the topic, and that this is significant, it’s perhaps best to note in a public and fully searchable way that the UCT Atheist and Agnostic Society and I have received an apology from Taryn Hodgson for the way in which we were treated in the lead-up to the cancelled debate, and also for their misrepresentations of how events unfolded (misrepresentations repeated as recently as January this year, in Peter Hammond’s newsletter to the flock). Ms. Hodgson has also pledged to correct the inaccuracies in their report on the debate – let’s hope that news of the corrections is also broadcasted to all those who were told untruths about us heathens at the time.

While it may have been somewhat slow in arriving, the apology is welcome, and appreciated.

As mentioned earlier, there are a number of posts on the topic on Synapses, and you can search for “debate” at the top-right of your screen. For a summary of the essential details, this post would be helpful.
The text of the apology is pasted below:

Dear Mr Rousseau and the UCT Atheist and Agnostic Society

Jordan Pickering (who I understand you are acquainted with), contacted us giving us the background as to your withdrawal from the “blasphemy debate” last year.
I was not aware of the full details that he mentioned.

We apologise for the inaccuracies in our report of the event and for misrepresenting you. We will gladly correct the report.

I will urge Pastor Michael to send you an apology. I do agree with Jordan that Michael’s communication and conduct towards you was often deceptive, rude and unchristian.

However, please bear in mind that he is Congolese and English is probably his third language. He also has probably never had training in good communication skills. He did not communicate any of the points Jordan mentioned to us.

We were only informed of the withdrawal of Jacques Rousseau and Tariq Moosa by Michael from the debate an hour before.

We are open to rescheduling the debate on blasphemy and we are prepared to debate any other relevant issues in a fair and balanced way.

Yours Sincerely,

Taryn Hodgson
National Co-ordinator

Africa Christian Action

Forgive him if you like, but Jacob Zuma should resign

South Africa’s President, Jacob Zuma, has recently provided an effective negative proof of the value added by a competent press office. In an embarrassing attempt to manage an embarrassing situation, the South African public have received:

  1. A statement dated February 3, in which JZ confirms his “love-child”, while berating us for caring about his private affairs.

  2. The leaking of some “evidence” on the same day which suggests that JZ and Sonono Khoza are in fact married, and that the existence of the most recent child does therefore not suggest JZ was cheating on his 37 other wives.

  3. A further statement/apology dated February 6, in which someone finally cottons on to the fact that the man in question was elected without the moral currency or credibility which might otherwise allow us to respect his wishes in this matter, and that an apology might therefore be necessary.

  4. Communication from god, reminding us that “faith dictated that he [JZ] be absolved“, and suggesting that we should “leave this episode behind us, regrettable as it is, and move on as a nation”.

God spoke through Ray McCauley’s National Interfaith Leadership Council (NILC), as she has tended to do since they beat out her previous spokespersons, the South African Council of Churches, in what must have been a rather difficult contest to arbitrate. I’ve discussed the NILC previously, and argued against the popular notion that religious groups like the NILC have any special claim to moral knowledge.

But this incident, and this President, is about more than simple moral issues. It’s also not simply about the convoluted definitions of “culture” we can come up with in order to justify doing whatever the hell we want. Normally, I’m a strong supporter of the idea that I don’t want or need my political leaders to be exemplars of moral virtue – their job is to offer political leadership, and I don’t really care what they do in their private lives.

However, cases like these do intrude into the public consciousness, and – when placed alongside rape trials, dodgy arms-deal allegations, shady friends, financial mismanagement, reckless sexual behaviour in a country blighted by HIV/AIDS and so forth – they do provide a fair amount of evidence of a lack of sound judgement, and a poor awareness of voter interests.

As mentioned earlier, I don’t care who JZ sleeps with, or what drugs he takes, or anything else to do with his real or imagined private life. I do care that political leaders think carefully about what they do, and that they have the intellectual capacity to realise the implications that their choices might have. JZ clearly lacks one or both of these abilities.

So, forgive him if you like. Pray about it if you think that will help, or eat a crystal (I think that’s how it’s supposed to work?). But forgiveness does not mean we should forget about competence – and in this case, have we not already forgiven enough incompetence?

Sax Appeal 2010: on causing offense

Following the controversy caused by last year’s edition of Sax Appeal (see here and here, if you don’t know about this), the editor asked if I’d be willing to contribute a column. I was, and here it is, for those of you not in Cape Town (or those who simply ignored the pleas of those desperate students at the traffic lights).*

As of January 1 2010, blasphemy is a crime in Ireland, with offenders liable for a €25000 fine. Later in January, Kurt Westergaard – one of those responsible for the infamous “Danish cartoons” – was attacked in his home by a knife-wielding fanatic. Closer to home, some readers of Sax Appeal may still harbour memories of the outrage provoked by the “blasphemous” content of Sax Appeal 2009, and some others (well, the same ones, probably) may currently be choking on their morning tea while trying to process the harms they believe themselves to be enduring as a result of the edition you are currently reading. Continue reading “Sax Appeal 2010: on causing offense”

Cape Times and Argus – holocaust denialists?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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