Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Cross Purposes

The European court of Human Rights has allowed an appeal by Italy to allow the display of crucifixes in public schools. The judgement can be read here.

I think this is about where the line is drawn for member states to reinforce their cultural worldview. Religion should be disallowed, because a plurality of beliefs is inevitable in a modern Europe, so a religious component would be an unacceptable infringement of minority rights. This is the secular way, and these European organs are supposed to be secular. Sadly, the court here has ruled to allow such an infringement. Here are paras 67 and 68:
67. The Government, for their part, explained that the presence of crucifixes in State-school classrooms, being the result of Italy's historical development, a fact which gave it not only a religious connotation but also an identity-linked one, now corresponded to a tradition which they considered it important to perpetuate. They added that, beyond its religious meaning, the crucifix symbolised the principles and values which formed the foundation of democracy and western civilisation, and that its presence in classrooms was justifiable on that account.
68. The Court takes the view that the decision whether or not to perpetuate a tradition falls in principle within the margin of appreciation of the respondent State. The Court must moreover take into account the fact that Europe is marked by a great diversity between the States of which it is composed, particularly in the sphere of cultural and historical development. It emphasises, however, that the reference to a tradition cannot relieve a Contracting State of its obligation to respect the rights and freedoms enshrined in the Convention and its Protocols.
So Italy point out that the crucifix is an 'identity-linked' symbol, clearly trying to get round the secular problem. The next para rules that it's within Italy's 'margin of appreciation'. In other words, it's something that the member state can rule on, presumably because they accept that it is not a purely religious symbol, and, in any case, they see no evidence it has any (religious?) effect.

Look at the crucifix above, at St James Academy, Lenexa, Kansas. It's designed to make an impact:
When asked to describe her first reaction to the new crucifix at St. James Academy, Mrs. Nearmyer said, “Wow. How would I explain it? Sadness, I had a hard time breathing, it took my breath away.” She felt like she couldn’t leave Him alone with his suffering, and was overcome with sadness.
No kidding.

The dissenting opinion starts at page 47, observing:

5. The crucifix is undeniably a religious symbol. The respondent Government argued that, in the context of the school environment, the crucifix symbolised the religious origin of values that had now become secular, such as tolerance and mutual respect. It thus fulfilled a highly educational symbolic function, irrespective of the religion professed by the pupils, because it was the expression of an entire civilisation and universal values. In my view, the presence of the crucifix in classrooms goes well beyond the use of symbols in particular historical contexts. The Court has moreover held that the traditional nature, in the social and historical sense, of a text used by members of parliament when swearing loyalty did not deprive the oath to be sworn of its religious nature. As observed by the Chamber, negative freedom of religion is not restricted to the absence of religious services or religious education. It also extends to symbols expressing a belief or a religion. That negative right deserves special protection if it is the State which displays a religious symbol and dissenters are placed in a situation from which they cannot extract themselves. Even if it is accepted that the crucifix can have multiple meanings, the religious meaning still remains the predominant one. In the context of state education it is necessarily perceived as an integral part of the school environment and may even be considered as a powerful external symbol. I note, moreover, that even the Italian Court of Cassation rejected the argument that the crucifix symbolised values independent of a particular religious belief (see paragraph 67). 
...and concludes:
8. To conclude, effective protection of the rights guaranteed by Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 and Article 9 of the Convention requires States to observe the strictest denominational neutrality. This is not limited to the school curriculum, but also extends to “the school environment”. As primary and secondary schooling are compulsory, the State should not impose on pupils, against their will and without their being able to extract themselves, the symbol of a religion with which they do not identify. In doing so, the respondent Government have violated Article 2 of Protocol No. 1 and Article 9 of the Convention.
I agree with the dissenting opinion. On the plus side, for Eurosceptics, it shows that European institutions are quite happy to leave such things to the discretion of its members. It's a shame that it's secularism that suffers from such discretion. And of course, for that reason, this isn't good news for the religious, since it means that majority religious institutions will trump minority ones. Evangelicals in Italy have spotted this:
Their coreligionists – evangelicals who actually live in Italy – aren’t so pleased with the outcome. The Italian Federation of Evangelical Churches called the ruling “a decision that does not fully realize a secular state” and “baggage from a society dominated by Catholic culture.”
Perhaps these abuses of secularism will finally convince the religious why secularism is the only way to proceed in our modern pluralist societies.

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Monday, 21 March 2011

There's a Ruse Loose Aboot this Hoose

Michael 'rhymes with goose' Ruse has written a tragic bit of hyperbole over at the Chronicle of Higher Education: New Atheism: A Disaster Comparable to the Tea Party.

What's this? A disaster comparable to the Tea Party?

Do the New Atheists deny science, like Tea Party-ists? Er no.

Do the New Atheists have racist views, like Tea Party-ists? Er, no.

Are they organised in a way designed to achieve political office, like the Tea Party movement, to impose their anti-science, bigoted, libertarian views on the rest of their society? Er, no

So how are they "a disaster comparable to the Tea Party"?
... because they won’t make any effort to think seriously about why they hold their positions about the conflict between science and religion.
That's it? No bodies buried in concrete? No Stalin-like accusations? It seems an oddly esoteric concern with which to brow-beat them. And he backs this assertion up with... nothing; but a vague accusation:
I think if you want to show that science and religion are inherently in contradiction, then you should show why people like Kuhn (and indeed Foucault) are wrong about the nature of science. That I think is morally wrong, namely taking positions with major political and social implications, without doing your serious homework. Just mentioning Galileo’s troubles with the Church or Thomas Henry Huxley’s debate with the Bishop of Oxford is no true substitute for hard thinking.
He doesn't make explicit here his criticism, but perhaps it's that a defining feature of the New Atheists is that they haven't thought through the implications of scientific contingency as it affects the science and religion conflict; that, presumably something rather relativistic must allow that science and religion are ideas competing in the ocean of human ideas, and one cannot be given primacy over the other.

Richard Dawkins has written The God Delusion to counter popular ideas of God and The Greatest Show on Earth to combat creationist misrepresentations of evolution. This doesn't seem like the actions of someone who hasn't thought seriously about why he holds his position on the conflict between science and religion.

Daniel Dennett wrote Darwin's Dangerous Idea, examining the implications for religion of the science of Evolution. This doesn't seem like the actions of someone who hasn't thought seriously about why he holds his position on the conflict between science and religion.

Sam Harris has written The Moral Landscape, looking at a scientific approach to morality. This doesn't seem like the actions of someone who hasn't thought seriously about why he holds his position on the conflict between science and religion.

Christopher Hitchens wrote God is Not Great, looking at the problems religion has caused, and its supposed justifications. This doesn't seem like the actions of someone who hasn't thought seriously about why he holds his position on the conflict between science and religion.

Victor Stenger wrote God: The Failed Hypothesis, detailing how science shows that God does not exist. This doesn't seem like the actions of someone who hasn't thought seriously about why he holds his position on the conflict between science and religion.

Jerry Coyne has started many threads on the compatibility of science and religion. This doesn't seem like the actions of someone who hasn't thought seriously about why he holds his position on the conflict between science and religion.

Ophelia Benson has hosted numerous threads and articles on The Conflict Thesis. This doesn't seem like the actions of someone who hasn't thought seriously about why she holds her position on the conflict between science and religion.

Now they all may be wrong (although I agree with them). But it is simply untrue that they haven't 'thought seriously' about the conflict between science and religion.

So first he compares the New Atheists to a genuinely harmful political movement, when they are plainly not causing the same harms as that movement, and then his reason for doing so is a straw man of positively Edward Woodward proportions.

No wonder most atheists consider his views worthless.

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Sunday, 13 March 2011

Why Are Jews So Angry?

Rabbi David Wolpe asks Why are Atheists so Angry? Good question. Would it be appropriate to ask why Jews might be angry too?

John's Gospel says:
42 Jesus said unto them [the Jews], If God were your Father, ye would love me: for I proceeded forth and came from God; neither came I of myself, but he sent me.
43 Why do ye not understand my speech? even because ye cannot hear my word.
44 Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do: he was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it.
45 And because I tell you the truth, ye believe me not.
'Ye are of your father the devil'. Jesus says the Jews are the spawn of the devil.

Justinian Law in the 6th century outlawed non-belief in the resurrection, rendering Jewish belief illegal. St Augustine said:
But the Jews who slew Him, and would not believe in Him, because it behoved Him to die and rise again, were yet more miserably wasted by the Romans, and utterly rooted out from their kingdom, where aliens had already ruled over them, and were dispersed through the lands (so that indeed there is no place where they are not), and are thus by their own Scriptures a testimony to us that we have not forged the prophecies about Christ.
Blood libel became commonplace, as Christians persecuted Jewish communities nonsensically. Socrates Scholasticus reported that some Jews in a drunken frolic bound a Christian child on a cross in mockery of the death of Christ and scourged him until he died.

In 1171, Blois was the site of a blood libel accusation against its Jewish community that led to 31 Jews (by some accounts 40) being burned to death.

Thomas of Cantimpré wrote "It is quite certain that the Jews of every province annually decide by lot which congregation or city is to send Christian blood to the other congregations." Thomas also believed that since the time when the Jews called out to Pontius Pilate, "His blood be on us, and on our children" (Matthew 27:25), they have been afflicted with hemorrhages." - Bonum Universale de Apibus ii. 29, § 23

In February 1840, at Damascus, a Catholic monk named Father Thomas and his servant were murdered. The accusation of ritual murder was brought against members of the Jewish community of Damascus.

In 1882, the Jews of the village Tiszaeszlár, Hungary were accused with the ritual murder of a fourteen-year-old Christian girl, Eszter Solymosi. The case was one of the main causes of the rise of antisemitism in the country. The accused persons were eventually acquitted.

In 1928, the Jews of Massena, New York, were falsely accused of kidnapping and killing a Christian girl in the Massena blood libel.

During a speech in 2007, Raed Salah, the leader of the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, accused Jews of using children's blood to bake bread. "We have never allowed ourselves to knead [the dough for] the bread that breaks the fast in the holy month of Ramadan with children's blood," he said. "Whoever wants a more thorough explanation, let him ask what used to happen to some children in Europe, whose blood was mixed in with the dough of the [Jewish] holy bread."

Accusations of host desecration leveled against Jews were a common pretext for massacres and expulsions throughout the Middle Ages in Europe.

Out of these centuries of Jewish persecution, the Holocaust sent 6 million Jews to their untimely deaths.

Yeah, so, on reflection I've a pretty good idea why Jews, and atheists, are angry at these things. The real question is: why doesn't Rabbi David Wolpe understand this?

H/T Sam Harris.

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Saturday, 5 March 2011

Lying for Jesus

I wrote before about the "Tom Johnson" affair, wherein a blog was started by a supposed atheist-butter, bizarrely obsessed with the tone and conduct of new atheists. He indulged in passive-aggressive posting and sock puppetry, and targeted one or two gnu atheists, such as Ophelia Benson. Even after his exposure as a fraud, his identity wasn't revealed.

But Ophelia was on the ball and recently noticed a recognisable signature in the postings of a new commenter called 'Hammill'; she followed up her suspicions, and confirmed it was TJ again.

Because of this perfidy she has also revealed his true identity: Wally Smith, a Grad student at the University of Alabama. And now, Oedipus, who was a catalyst for the original exposure, has presented evidence to show that it seems he is a theist, or at least, contra TJ, was brought up Christian, and Ophelia confirms it.

I suppose one shouldn't be surprised at such immoral behaviour from a theist, but it's indicative of the lengths at least one is prepared to go to, if this is true, to attack new atheism. This is subterfuge on a pretty staggering scale. I guess we should be relieved it's just cyber-terrorism, however. I'm afraid I see a logical connection between belief in salvation after death and this sort of behaviour. When a person prioritises eternal happiness over earthly happiness, action dilemmas will be resolved against the best outcome in this world, in favour of the other (non-existent, as it happens) world. We see this in the actions of theists around the world, in support of doctrine over good sense.

I've always assumed a certain number of atheist-butters are in fact theists and I guess it's to be expected. In future, however, I think well known atheist bloggers will be on the lookout for anonymous commenters who seem oh-so-keen to cosy up to the faithful; without provenance, from now on it must be assumed they could well be believers.

In the meantime, file this under 'theism doesn't make theists behave well'.

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