16 April 2013

They keep using that word. I do not think it means what they think it means.

There was a science and skepticism conference in Manchester last weekend, where a lot of smart people got together to give their critical thinking skills and scientific skepticism some healthy flexing. Yet what was otherwise a commendable affair was marred by the frankly silly title (and topic) of one discussion panel: Is Science the New Religion?

How can fluent English speakers so egregiously misuse the word ‘religion’? Do they need to have its proper definition tattooed on the inside of their forearms for convenient reference?   

One person who won’t be facepalming with me in solidarity is the journalist Brendan O’Neill, who was on that ridiculous panel and uttered suitably ridiculous things about science and politics. O’Neill thinks that politics is in danger of being influenced by too much science. He warns us:

The worst thing is that politicians’ increasing reliance on science, and some scientists’ willingness to go along with this, shrinks the space for public, mass engagement in policymaking. The more politics becomes an experts’ pursuit, the less room there is for the public’s ideological or passionate or angry or prejudicial views.

And this is a bad thing? O’Neill gives voice to a sadly common anti-intellectualism displayed by those who think that, in the words of Isaac Asimov, their ignorance is just as good as an expert’s knowledge. O’Neill also confuses the (very real) problem of politicians cherry-picking scientific data that support their biases with the actual process of science; the former is a subjective vice on the part of dishonest politicians, while the latter is a provisionally objective pursuit of knowledge about reality that isn’t beholden to partisan views on government. Science is certainly affected by politics through government funding, laws and regulations, but no amount of political pressure can force physicists to change the laws of nature, or get biologists to concede that the theory of evolution is false.

The comedian and science populariser Robin Ince was on that panel with O’Neill, and he was “startle-eyed” by the copious amounts of inanity gushing from his fellow panelist. Ince comments on O’Neill’s anti-expert rhetoric in a sharply humorous blog post, which includes this observation:

There is a gaggle that seems to consider that expertise is an unfair advantage, that all opinions are equal; an idea that people who are experts in climate change, drugs or engineering are given unfair preference just because they spend much of their life studying these things. I do not think it is fascism that heart surgeons seem to have the monopoly of placing hands in a chest cavity and fiddling with an aorta. Though I have my own opinions on driving, I have decided to let others do it, as I have never taken a lesson. I do not consider myself oppressed by the driving majority. I own an umbrella and a thermometer, but I do not believe this is enough to place me on a climate change advisory body.

A charitable reading of O’Neill’s arguments might suggest that he is simply decrying ‘scientism’: the unjustified belief that science holds all the answers to all our problems, including ethical ones. I’m not convinced that O’Neill is actually criticising scientism. His comments clearly show that he is uncomfortable with scientific expertise itself, with the idea that politics is improved by the input of the best scientific knowledge we currently possess in various fields. O’Neill’s position is in stark contrast to that of the philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, who is a strong critic of scientism yet is a champion for science. In the aptly titled chapter ‘The Limits of Science’ in his book Answers for Aristotle, Pigliucci writes:

The idea underlying this chapter is that science is neither the new god nor something that should be cavalierly dismissed. As a society, we need a thoughtful appreciation not only of how science works but also of its power and its limits. This isn’t just an (interesting, I would submit) intellectual exercise: how we think about science has huge personal and societal consequences, affecting our decisions about everything from whether to vaccinate our children to whether to vote for a politician who wants to enact policies to curb climate change. We cannot all become experts, especially in the many highly technical fields of modern science, but it is crucial for our own well-being that we understand the elements of how science works (and occasionally fails to), that we become informed skeptics about the claims that are made on behalf of science, and that we also do our part to nudge society away from an increasingly dangerous epistemic relativism.

Pigliucci has an acute, even wise, understanding of both the limits of science and its power to affect change for the better, especially when politicians grant it the respect it deserves. O’Neill on the other hand just doesn’t like uppity nerds oppressing common folks like him with their ‘facts’ and ‘expertise’.


04 March 2013

The problem is when stamp collecting isn’t just about collecting stamps

This is another A C Grayling-related post; turns out he has written a new book. Defenders of religion will likely not be persuaded by the arguments contained within Grayling’s latest work, but hopefully fence-sitting readers will be convinced of the superior values of humanism. One such religious sympathiser who clearly wasn’t impressed with Grayling’s book is Peter ‘brother-of-Christopher’ Hitchens. The younger Hitchens is in many ways the ideological opposite of his more (in)famous brother. Here’s an excerpt from his review:

‘Atheism is to theism,’ Anthony Grayling declares, ‘as not collecting stamps is to stamp-collecting’. At this point, we are supposed to enjoy a little sneer, in which the religious are bracketed with bald, lonely men in thick glasses, picking over their collections of ancient stamps in attics, while unbelievers are funky people with busy social lives.
But the comparison is flatly untrue. Non-collectors of stamps do not, for instance, write books devoted to mocking stamp-collectors, nor call for stamp-collecting’s status to be diminished, nor suggest — Richard Dawkins-like — that introducing the young to this hobby is comparable to child abuse. They do not place advertisements on buses proclaiming that stamp-collecting is a waste of time, and suggesting that those who abandon it will enjoy their lives more.

The (by now clichéd) point that atheism is a religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby was meant to demonstrate the absurdity of the claim that atheists are as ‘dogmatic’ or ‘faithful’ as religious believers in precisely the same way. That’s rubbish, of course. But Hitchens’s argument – that the comparison is indeed inaccurate, but only because atheists are often mean and obnoxious, unlike non-stamp collectors – sounds reasonable. I admit that immediately after reading the passage quoted above, I nodded my head conceding that he had a point.

But not so fast. Jerry Coyne wrote a post responding to Hitchens’s negative book review, and found a serious flaw in his argument. Coyne rebuts:

At first this sounds like a good riposte to Grayling—until you think about it for a minute. If stamp collectors tried to force others to collect stamps, vilified or condemned those who did not see the licking of stamps as a holy rite, told people that collecting stamps requires that you abstain from premarital sex, or sex with someone of your gender, imposed fatwas on noncollectors or threatened them with eternal fire, terrorized children who try to collect coins instead of stamps, tried to kill those who insulted stamps, or generally strove to insert their sticky fingers into the public realm, then we wouldn’t need atheistic books, bus posters or mockery. There aren’t special “stamp schools” in the UK supported by public money, nor does one see stamp collectors given special deference over, say, those who play tennis or prefer to read books. There is not an organized conspiracy of stamp collectors raping children by using their Great Authority Over Bits of Paper, with the Head Collector having the power to cover it up.



27 February 2013

For the elebenty bazillionth time, Nazism and Stalinism were NOT caused by secular, rational, scientific values

It’s like whacking gophers in that classic arcade game; no matter how many times you debunk the argument that too much reason and science gave us Nazism and Stalinism, it keeps popping back up. Which it did in a Facebook discussion I participated in recently. Apparently, all one has to do is promote reason, critical thinking and the scientific method as the only paths to (provisional) knowledge and eventually someone will feel obligated to play the ‘rational totalitarianism’ card as a corrective. Someone like the quitting Pope Benedict XVI, or the philosopher John Gray, the latter being schooled by his confrere A C Grayling on why making a tenuous connection between 20th century totalitarianism and Enlightenment values – which include a healthy respect for science – is so full of fail.

In his typically elegant prose, Grayling demolishes the idea that Nazism and Stalinism were the logical culmination of overzealous rationality and ‘scientism’:

As to the weary old canard about the 20th-century totalitarianisms: it astonishes me how those who should know better can fail to see them as quintessentially counter-Enlightenment projects, and ones which the rest of the Enlightenment-derived world would not put up with and therefore defeated: Nazism in 17 years and Soviet communism in 70. They were counter-Enlightenment projects because they rejected the idea of pluralism and its concomitant liberties of thought and the person, and in the time-honoured unEnlightened way forcibly demanded submission to a monolithic ideal. They even used the forms and techniques of religion, from the notion of thought-crime to the embalming of saints in mausoleums (Lenin and Mao, like any number of saints and their relics, invite pilgrimage to their glass cases). Totalitarianism is not about progress but stasis; it is not about realising a golden age but coercively sustaining the myth of one. This indeed is the lineament of religion: it is the opposite of secular progressivism.

Other critics of scientific rationality like Max Horkheimer and Theodor Ardono are also guilty of false equivalence when they paint science as just another kind of totalitarian ideology, with the same capacity to oppress. In the introduction to The Britannica Guide to the Ideas That Made the Modern World, Grayling again rebuts these critics by pointing out the fallacies of their arguments. He writes:

In the crisis of the 1930s and 40s the oppressive power that Horkheimer and Adorno had in mind was Nazism, which they saw as the Enlightenment’s self-fulfillingly paradoxical outcome: in their terminology, “instrumental rationality” had been transformed into “bureaucratic politics”. In effect, Horkheimer and Adorno were claiming that the Enlightenment empowered capitalism and with it a deeply oppressive form of managerialism that served its interests to the exclusion of all others. 
This analysis does not survive scrutiny. Nazism drew its principal strength from a peasantry and petit-bourgeoisie that mostly felt threatened by capitalism, so it is not the latter which was the source of oppression, but in fact the former, viewed as descendents of the various constituencies that had most to lose from Enlightenment and which therefore reacted against it. The votaries of Nazism, had they lived in the eighteenth century, would have defended the traditions of absolutism, whether in Versailles or in heaven, against the “instrumental rationality” which expressed itself in the eighteenth century as secularizing and democratizing impulses.

And the key passage, with my emphasis in bold:

As this implies, the same answer can be addressed to the other example cited by critics as an inheritor of Enlightenment principles, namely Stalinism. The general point to be made is that totalitarianism, of which Nazism and Stalinism are paradigms, is a monolithic ideology that demands the unwavering loyalty and obedience of all. Whether in the form of a religion or a political movement, it is precisely opposed by the Enlightenment values of individual liberty, freedom of thought, consent of the people, rational argument, the constraints of evidence, and the absence of controlling hegemonies.

Not exactly rational guys.

So, for the umpteenth time, a commitment to reason and science does not lead to genocide, or gas chambers, or gulags, or personality cults, or delusions of ethnic superiority. Quite the opposite.

I’ll let Grayling have the last word, since he says it so well.

By resisting the counter-Enlightenment pessimism of Horkheimer and Adorno in this way one sees, by the intended contrast, how much of the Enlightenment remains operative in the contemporary world as the same force it was historically intended to be: a force for progress, for liberty, for rationality.


18 February 2013

Dr Oz thinks that promoting quack medicine “empowers” people

The New Yorker has an article by Michael Specter on Dr Mehmet Oz, a heart surgeon who is also the host of ‘The Dr. Oz Show’, a hugely popular US television program watched by millions of Americans. Dr Oz is notorious for his refusal to disavow ‘alternative’ medicine as unscientific and unproven; he promotes quackery like ‘miracle’ foods and cures, anti-GMO and anti-vaccine propaganda, Reiki, acupuncture, homeopathy and psychic powers alongside real, effective medical advice. To quote one of his critics, the cardiologist and professor of genomics Eric Topol, Dr Oz’s lack of discrimination between evidence-based medicine and alt-med can mislead people, since “how are consumers to know what is real and what is magic? Because Mehmet offers both as if they were one.”

Echoing the singer Tim Minchin, Specter writes:

Scientists often argue that, if alternative medicine proves effective through experimental research, it should no longer be considered alternative; at that point, it becomes medicine. By freely mixing alternatives with proven therapies, Oz makes it nearly impossible for the viewer of his show to assess the impact of either; the process just diminishes the value of science.

Neurologist Dr Steven Novella (who has been a guest on ‘The Dr. Oz Show’) is another critic of Dr Oz, writing in a blog post that “Promoters of alternative medicine [like Dr Oz] only pay inconsistent lip-service to science, but the core of their philosophy is that science is optional,” and that this is “a very dismissive attitude – the casual dismissal of scientific evidence simply because it contradicts a pet belief.

The problem of shoddy methodology in medical science, whether in research or in the media, is also touched on by the physician and writer Dr Ben Goldacre in his book Bad Science. As a media personality, the issue of how entertainment values and populism subvert medicine is pertinent to Dr Oz’s case. He seems to think that truth is a democracy, that facts are determined not by the careful examination of reality but by popular vote. These personal beliefs about truth and facts are a core factor in Dr Oz’s promotion of quackery, as this passage from Specter’s article reveals:

”Either data works or it doesn’t,“ I [Specter] said. “Science is supposed to answer, or at least address, those questions. Surely you don’t think that all information is created equal?” 
Oz sighed. “Medicine is a very religious experience,” he said. “I have my religion and you have yours. It becomes difficult for us to agree on what we think works, since so much of it is in the eye of the beholder. Data is rarely clean.” All facts come with a point of view. But his spin on it – that one can simply choose those which make sense, rather than data that happen to be true – was chilling. “You find the arguments that support your data,” he said, “and it’s my fact versus your fact.”

Dr Mehmet Oz is an epistemological relativist; to him, there is no such thing as objective truth, and unsubstantiated medical claims are just as valid as those backed by a mountain of evidence. With such a rotten ideological foundation, should it surprise us that his house of medical knowledge is so unsound? The tragedy is that Dr Oz has an impressionable audience of millions, many of whom may be harmed, not empowered, by the relativism of ‘America’s doctor’.


04 February 2013

Evidence-based medicine should include ALL the evidence

Medicine has a dirty little secret: not all clinical trial results for drugs are reported, with positive results being “around twice as likely to get published as negative findings”, according to Dr Ben Goldacre, a medical science writer. Dr Goldacre calls this bias “a cancer at the core of evidence-based medicine” and has written a book, Bad Pharma, that addresses this widespread problem.

Evidence-based medicine (EBM) should take into account all clinical trial results, and not just cherry-pick the outcomes that match the drug manufacturer’s expectations, or quietly sweep the failed tests under the carpet. It isn’t evidence-based medicine if it doesn’t include all the evidence, even the negative ones. Those of us who criticise ‘alternative’ medicine for its lack of rigour and flawed methodology should be just as critical of similar trespasses in EBM. In fact, by claiming to be scientifically committed, EBM should be held to a higher standard of conduct.

There’s a petition calling for private and public medical researchers to publish all clinical trial results, both successes and failures, with test methods clearly described. Please sign it to show your support for evidence-based medicine that truly lives up to its name.

Here’s a TED talk by Dr Goldacre on the pernicious bias shown by drug researchers for positive clinical trial results, and why it has to stop. You will not find a more passionate, or animated, defender of proper evidence-based medicine.


30 January 2013

Dolce & Gabbana Fall 2013

Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana made me sit up and take notice of their Spring 2013 menswear collection when they employed amateur models of various ages, shapes and sizes to parade their interpretation of old school Sicilian clothes. I was very impressed by that collection, so naturally I was curious to see what Dolce and Gabbana would roll out for Fall 2013. Looks like they realised what an inspired decision it was to cast a heterogeneous mix of village boys and men for their spring show, so they repeated it for fall. A wise choice, since it lends the collection the same charm and empathy that won me over several months ago.

There’s less colour in this mostly black, grey and white collection. I don’t care for the religious iconography and floral motifs, but the sombre suits with cropped vests, lapelless jackets and high-waisted, generously cut pants have a classic (some would say clichéd) Southern European elegance that appeals to me. Between this and Anglo-American classicism, I’ve got my style cues all sorted out for the rest of my life.


24 January 2013

Another good critique of ‘scientism’

In a happy coincidence, I came across this incisive article in The New Atlantis just after posting about science, philosophy and morality. The writer, biologist Austin L. Hughes, is another critic of science’s overreaching in matters that are outside of its purview, a trend known as scientism. A lot of the arguments that Hughes makes are familiar to critics of scientism: the philosophical ignorance and naivety of its boosters, the complacent assumption that science is uniquely resistant to human foibles and error, the failure to recognise the limitations of science in areas like ethics, and the inappropriate application of scientific ideas to matters that aren’t easily reducible to facts and experiments.

The section on science and morality (‘The Eclipse of Ethics’) is pertinent to the debates going on between Sam Harris, Michael Shermer, Massimo Pigliucci and others. Unsurprisingly, Hughes dedicates a fair amount of space to critiquing Harris’s arguments in The Moral Landscape, a book that has become a punching bag for the anti-scientism crowd. In the following passage, Hughes captures the general sentiment of those who oppose the idea that science should be the final arbiter of truth and morality:

Advocates of scientism today claim the sole mantle of rationality, frequently equating science with reason itself. Yet it seems the very antithesis of reason to insist that science can do what it cannot, or even that it has done what it demonstrably has not. As a scientist, I would never deny that scientific discoveries can have important implications for metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, and that everyone interested in these topics needs to be scientifically literate. But the claim that science and science alone can answer longstanding questions in these fields gives rise to countless problems.

And since philosophy can help clarify the nature of these problems, scientists shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss its relevance.

HT: Philosophy Monkey


Science, philosophy and morality

One of the things that I enjoy about discussions and debates on ideas is when my views are changed by good arguments. Cogent arguments have almost the same visceral effect on me as seeing well-landed hits in a kickboxing match; I am impressed by the skillfully executed maneuver that demolishes, or at least weakens, an opponent. Of course, I prefer being a spectator of intellectual bouts rather than physical ones. The former are usually more enlightening, especially when they cause me to reexamine my position on some subject matter, perhaps even abandon it.

I’ve had my mind changed on the subject of whether science can, and should, determine moral values. When I read Sam Harris’s book The Moral Landscape, I was convinced by his well-articulated thesis that science can determine our ethical values. I agreed with his argument that empirical facts about what contributes to human well-being (and what doesn’t) can be used to inform, even improve, our existing moral codes. And yes, I confess that I was inspired by Harris’s bold claim that a future where moral relativism was a relic of a more ignorant time can be achieved by ever-expanding scientific knowledge of human nature.

Then I read what his critics had to say.

Massimo Pigliucci had one of the more trenchant responses to The Moral Landscape. There were other equally sharp critics, but I’ll stick to just Pigliucci for now because recently he had to school another Harris-like ideologue who believes that “most scientists have conceded the high ground of determining human values, morals, and ethics to philosophers, agreeing that science can only describe the way things are but never tell us how they ought to be,” which apparently is a “mistake”. Sam Harris’s fellow traveler is the skeptic and writer Michael Shermer, who is actually one of my intellectual heroes for his role in promoting science, rational thought and skepticism. Alas, Shermer’s enthusiasm for science has caused him to set greater store in it than it warrants, at least as far as morality is concerned.

Pigliucci’s dissection of Shermer’s arguments is worth reading in full, but here are the main points that I have taken from it:

First, Shermer attacks a straw man when he claims that scientists and philosophers do not believe that science can determine moral values. No reasonable scientist or philosopher would deny that morality can be informed by scientific discoveries in psychology, neuroscience and sociology (for example). But to the extent that such knowledge can ‘determine’ moral values, there is still a need for philosophical reasoning. Science can tell us what factors increase or decrease human well-being, but we still need philosophy to interrogate the assumptions we have about concepts like ‘well-being’ or ‘happiness’. Science is ill-equipped for this crucial task.

Second, Shermer’s assertions are often presumptuous. For instance, his claim that “moral values must be based on the way things are in order to establish the best conditions for human flourishing”, or using the term “human flourishing” itself, presumes a clean-cut definition or solution that doesn’t exist. He takes his particular conception of “the way things are” and “human flourishing” as given premises, when it’s really a bit more complicated than that, and not as uncontroversial as he seems to think. People like Shermer and Sam Harris fail to show philosophical rigour (because one shouldn’t make axiomatic claims on a priori grounds that haven’t been justified) in their haste to make their points. That’s just poor form in argumentation.

Third, no reasonable person, certainly not philosophers, will argue that philosophy is better than science at discovering facts about the world and human nature. As Pigliucci puts it, “That would be like arguing that chemistry is better than history at figuring out things about the Roman empire.” But no amount of fact-finding and data-accumulating by science will obviate the need for a value judgment on certain matters. And here is where moral philosophy is required for us to reason about what the right, or ethical, choice should be. But this isn’t to say that scientific knowledge shouldn’t influence our moral reasoning. It certainly should. It just can’t supplant moral reasoning/philosophising.

The ‘science, philosophy and morality’ issue has been an illuminating one to follow. I definitely think that Massimo Pigliucci has wiped the floor with Michael Shermer in this bout, thereby demonstrating the important role of philosophy in making sure that advocates for a (mostly) science-based morality tighten up their arguments. And start showing philosophy a little bit more respect.


21 January 2013

Kenan Malik on gay marriage and Catholic ‘persecution’

British writer and broadcaster Kenan Malik has written a blog post about the recent decision by the European Court of Human Rights to dismiss three cases of supposed discrimination against Christians, and the larger issue of religious freedom versus equality laws. Malik’s post addresses the argument by Catholics that the legalisation of gay marriage is effectively an act of persecution against them, since it would “severely [restrict] the ability of Catholics to teach the truth about marriage in their schools, charitable institutions or places of worship”. It’s the same tired refrain from religionists: taking away their right to discriminate on unreasonable grounds is an act of persecution, and contrary to the spirit of religious freedom. These claims, as Malik writes, “not only fundamentally misunderstand religious freedom, but, in their wild hysteria, serve also to undermine those very freedoms.”

Malik’s post is eminently quotable; here’s his response to the argument that gay marriage is a uniquely oppressive example of Catholic ‘persecution’:

There are many laws that liberal societies enact that are contrary to the beliefs and practices of many religions. The legalization of abortion, for instance, of homosexuality, and of divorce (and the acceptance that divorcees can remarry) – all legally permit practices condemned by the Catholic Church (and by many other faiths). Are these also expressions of the ‘persecution’ of believers? If not, why should the legalization of gay marriage be so different?

And here Malik shows why legalising gay marriage actually extends, not restricts, freedom of religion (emphasis Malik’s):

The claim that legalizing gay marriage undermines freedom of religion has it back to front. Legalizing gay marriage in reality extends freedom of religion. While most faiths oppose gay marriage, some support it and would like to consecrate same-sex unions. They are, however, forbidden from doing so by the law. Adherents of such faiths are, in other words, legally prohibited from following their conscience. In permitting such congregations formally to bless same-sex unions, any law legalizing gay marriage would extend freedom of religion.

As for the scaremongering by Catholics where they claim that equality laws would force them to perform same-sex marriages against their beliefs, Malik rebuts:

If legislation for gay marriage does lead to unacceptable infringements upon religious freedom, then we – secular and religious – should contest any such infringements. But the fact that injustice may be done to believers in the future is no reason to prevent justice being done to gays and lesbians today.

What about the claim that legalising same-sex marriage would prevent Catholics from teaching “the truth about marriage in their schools, charitable institutions or places of worship”? Malik writes:

[T]he issue of gay marriage is not fundamentally different from many other cases in which religious ‘truth’ diverges from that which the law permits or proscribes. The fact that abortion, contraception, homosexuality and divorce are all legal in Britain has not prevented Catholic priests or teachers from asserting their ‘truth’ on these issues, or barred them from entering any profession.

Finally, Malik expresses the gist of secularist arguments against religious privilege (not religious freedom).

[Catholics] have every right to believe [that marriage is between a man and a woman], to publicly express that belief and to act upon it by refusing to countenance same-sex unions within their church. What they do not have the right to do is to insist that if anyone else thinks differently, and wishes to act upon their belief, they are in so doing persecuting Catholics and attacking religious freedom, and that therefore such beliefs must not be acted upon. Religious freedom is important; too important to leave it be traduced in such cavalier fashion by particular interest groups.


16 January 2013

Christians denied the right to trample on the rights of others

Following the last post on the Gillard government’s craven decision to let religious groups continue discriminating against ‘sinners’, at least the European Court of Human Rights recognises that a person’s religious beliefs do not grant her license to infringe the rights of others. The Court has thrown out three of four cases brought before it by Christians who claimed they had been discriminated against under UK law. From the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) report:

The Court found that the “balance” of rights had been made for the most part correctly in the UK, in effect confirming that UK law does not conflict with the European Convention on Human Rights with regard to manifestation of religion at work. However, the cases may have implications for many other countries under the European Convention on Human Rights and set precedent for possible future cases of alleged religious discrimination across Europe.

IHEU president Sonja Eggerickx had this to say about the Court’s ruling, with my emphasis in bold:

We are heartened that the court recognised not only the crucial importance of freedom of belief in Europe, but also recognised the value of the harm principle, namely that we cannot claim in the name of our own beliefs a freedom to impinge on the legal rights of others. The court recognised that domestic legislation must find a balance between competing rights, and that religion cannot automatically be allowed to trump equality laws or the principled policies of organisations. There is a trend among some religious lobby groups to dress up the principled removal of religious privilege as a form of persecution, and this trend is not unique to the UK.

The British Humanist Association’s Andrew Copson commented:

All reasonable people will agree that there is scope in a secular democracy for reasonable accommodation of religious beliefs when that accommodation does not affect the rights and freedoms of others. But if believers try to invoke their beliefs as a defence for treating other people badly – denying them a service because they are gay or claiming a right to preach at them in a professional context – the law is right to prevent them. It’s not persecution of Christians; it’s the maintenance of a civilised society for all.

As Sonja Eggerickx noted, religious lobbyists deliberately confuse the removal of religious privilege with persecution. They think being denied special treatment is the same thing as being denied the right to practice their faith. But of course, this confusion is understandable when you subscribe to the idea that an all-powerful, supernatural being compels us all to live according to his arbitrary, and often immoral, commandments. When you believe this, then being told that you can’t discriminate against gays is tantamount to being told to disobey your sky-daddy.


Religious privilege? What religious privilege?

It’s no secret that critics of religion are often made out to be mean curmudgeons with inflated grievances. They exaggerate the harms of religion while downplaying or ignoring the good that faith and the faithful contribute to society. Whether they are atheists, humanists or secularists, strident critics of religion all have a vendetta against any public expression of religious ideals, and are not above bully tactics to get their way.

This caricature omits one important detail: religion enjoys an unjustified and anachronistic kind of privilege that is denied – for good reasons – to secular ideologies and institutions. This religious privilege manifests as the automatic assumption of moral rectitude, and as special treatment from the government, like churches being exempted from both taxes and certain secular laws. It is this very privilege that allows religious groups in countries like Australia to discriminate against homosexuals, unmarried couples or anyone perceived to be egregious ‘sinners’. Given this, it is dishonest of its sympathisers to paint religion as the disadvantaged victim in any confrontation with its critics.

Our PM Julia Gillard may be an atheist, but her government is clearly committed to upholding the privilege of religious groups to break anti-discrimination laws simply because they believe that a sky-fairy would be quite cross if they had gays on the payroll. Labor’s new Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill aims to consolidate existing anti-discrimination acts into one comprehensive law, but god-believers needn’t worry, the bill won’t remove their right to deny the rights of their fellow citizens. As David Marr wrote in The Age, the bill is a “bigots’ charter.”

Of course, religionists like Jim Wallace of the Australian Christian Lobby beg to differ. Wallace doesn’t think he’s a bigot because discriminating against, say, homosexuals is simply “a case of looking for people in employment of staff who represent your same philosophy of the organisation that’s employing them.” He goes on to compare religious prejudice with how an environmental group wouldn’t hire someone who was pro-logging, a false equivalence since the latter discriminates on purely ideological grounds while the former discriminates on things like sexuality, which is hardly a matter of choice.

Attorney-General Nicola Roxon seems a tad peeved with criticisms of the new bill. After all, the government’s aim was just to “simplify and consolidate the law, not completely re-invent the anti-discrimination system.” Because reinventing the system would mean ensuring that the rules apply equally to everyone, thereby removing any special treatment for religious groups. Roxon goes on to remind, and chide, us:

Labor is proud to have developed the sex, race and disability discrimination acts and established the Human Rights Commission. And we are proud now to be developing these important new protections from discrimination on the basis of sexuality… The fact that these new protections are being glossed over by some commentators is regretful.

Nice work Labor, except that religious organisations can still ignore these protections. And they are allowed to do so because of the divine mandate they supposedly possess, a mandate that they have convinced the public and government of Australia (and elsewhere) to be worthy of privilege. This is the same privilege that gives taxpayers’ money to Christian Evangelicals for them to proselytise to schoolchildren. It is the same privilege that equates religiosity with moral authority. And it is the same privilege that makes criticism of religion, unlike criticism of political, economic or scientific ideas, a specifically vulgar act.

HT: Grant Joslin


14 January 2013

Jerry Coyne has finished reading the ENTIRE Bible

I admire the biology professor and author of Why Evolution Is True Jerry Coyne for many reasons: his scientific knowledge and passionate advocacy for science, his informed criticism of religion and theology, the unabashed love he has for cats and good food in often exotic locales, and his commitment to civil discourse on his website. Now I can add another reason to admire the man – his sheer tenacity in reading the King James Bible from “In the beginning…” all the way through to the last verse of Revelation. Talk about taking one for the team!

Coyne took up this Herculean task in June last year, and only completed it a few days ago. He joins that elite group of people who can claim to have read the Bible from cover to cover (a claim that not many Christians can make, I imagine). Here’s his review of God’s holy word:

I have realized, after finishing the Bible two days ago (congratulate me!), that theology is like modern literary criticism applied to a book by authors no longer alive. Faced with a text that says one thing on its face, but which can be “interpreted” in innumerable different ways, and with no recourse to the “true” meaning beyond what the words say—or to the author’s own take about what she intended (which, of course, can be misleading too!), Sophisticated Theologians™ simply make up their own interpretations. This is such a palpably obvious exercise that I’m amazed intelligent people fall for it. That’s why in some ways I have more respect for Biblical literalists than for clever and sophisticated apologists like John Haught. The former, at least, try hard to stick to what Scripture really says. (Readers don’t need to inform me that even literalists exercise some interpretation.)
Oh, and the Bible is not a great work of literature. There are some good bits—we all know them—but most of it is tedious and boring. In no way is it as good as Shakespeare or Joyce. Yes, it is a cultural touchstone, and yes, I am glad I read it, if for no other reason than I can say I did, and know what a terrible guide to “morality” it really is. But I did not come away with the thought “what a beautifully written book!” There are some good sentences, and a very few good verses, but the book as a whole is leaden. And its vaunted “moral teachings” are, when not repugnant, trite. I’m glad to be done.
In this I disagree with Richard Dawkins. We both agree that everyone should read the Bible for cultural reasons. But to me it’s like learning organic chemistry: painful but necessary. To Richard it is also a chance to be thrilled at the beautiful language. But that beauty is thin on the ground. If you want beautiful language, read Shakespeare or “The Dead”. For morality, try modern secular philosophers like [John] Rawls or [Peter] Singer. At least they don’t advocate genocide or the subjugation of women.

One can almost sympathise with Christians who choose not to read their Bible in its entirety. Apart from the tediousness and uneven literary quality, as Coyne has painfully discovered, there’s also the uncomfortable fact of reading passages where God commands, condones or turns a blind eye towards decidedly immoral actions.