Friday, 13 December 2013

Universities UK Legal Opinion

There has been a lot of hubbub in the UK press and elsewhere about Universities UK's guidance notes on imposed segregation at University hosted events; bizarrely, they think it is sometimes permissible. See posts from, for example, Nick Cohen, and Ophelia Benson. The BBC reports:
The case study involves an external speaker invited to talk about his orthodox religious faith who subsequently requests segregated seating areas for men and women.
The guidance states that university officials should consider both freedom of speech obligations, as well as discrimination and equality laws when considering the request.
Universities UK says: "If neither women nor men were disadvantaged and a non-segregated seating area were also provided, it might in the specific circumstances of the case be appropriate for the university to agree to the request."
UUK have now published the legal opinion of Fenella Morris QC to support their stance. The key paragraph appears to be no.8:
As set out above, universities that make decisions about the arrangements for external speakers, are required to strike a balance between competing rights and interests. In doing so, they will be obliged to have regard not only to the statutory duty imposed by Parliament in relation to freedom of speech, but also the great importance placed on freedom of speech both in the European jurisprudence and in the HRA. Further, whether the reason advanced for placing a stipulation of segregation of an audience for a particular speaker relies upon the fact that it is the manifestation of a religious belief, two rights – Articles 9 and 10 – will be invoked. These two important rights must be balanced against a right of freedom of association of those who do not wish to be segregated while hearing a particular speaker. Although it would be too simplistic to suggest that the two former rights will always outweigh the latter, it is likely that in many cases the significance of the two former rights will be greater than the latter in terms of where a person sits in order to be part of the audience for a particular speaker if not allowing segregation would prevent the speaker appearing. (my emphasis)
This does seem to go further than many people would think is allowable in a liberal society, I think. Note that the advice does not here mention gender segregation, so the effect of it is to allow the possibility (indeed, to say it is likely) that racist or homophobic speakers should be allowed to dictate how a British University hosts an event, segregating black from white, or heterosexual from homosexual, if their views are religious.

I have to say that there may be some truth to this opinion, since we are talking about a balancing of rights. But to me it shows how dangerous it is to allow religious freedom to trump other freedoms; there really does need to be a hierarchy of rights in such circumstances, and freedoms based on our immutable nature must be given precedence over freedoms based on more mutable beliefs.

Read more »

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Unfair Discrimination Ruling Upheld

The Christian guesthouse owners who advertised their double bedrooms as available only to “heterosexual married couples” have lost their appeal to the Supreme Court. The BBC reports the following reactions:
Lady Hale, deputy president of the Supreme Court, said: "Sexual orientation is a core component of a person's identity which requires fulfilment through relationships with others of the same orientation."
Mike Judge, from the Christian Institute, said after the hearing: "What this case shows is that the powers of political correctness have reached all the way to the top of the judicial tree, so much so that even the Supreme Court dare not say anything against gay rights."
Gay rights group Stonewall said in a statement: "We are pleased that the Supreme Court has defended the laws protecting gay customers that Stonewall fought so hard to secure.
"Some might suggest that, rather than pursuing this case, a far more Christian thing to do would be to fight the evils of poverty and disease worldwide."
Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, so the following is a layman's interpretation of what has been reported. 

This is good news for all supporters of equal rights, and confirms that the religious consciences of those who offer services to the public cannot be used as an excuse to discriminate unfairly. The press release does note, however, that "The Court’s judgment does not favour sexual orientation over religious belief: had the Respondents refused hotel rooms to the Appellants because of the Appellants’ Christian beliefs, the Appellants would equally have been protected by the law’s prohibition of discrimination". The appellants claimed that they were not discriminating on sexual orientation but on the couple's married status (they were not married, in their Christian eyes), but in law since civil partnerships must be treated as marriages, there is nothing else on which the couple can lawfully discriminate:
Regulation 3(4) [of the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007] provides that for the purpose of the provisions defining whether discrimination has taken place, when comparing the treatment of two people, the fact that one is a civil partner and the other is married is not a material difference in the circumstances.
The appellants also claimed freedom to manifest their religion under Article 9 of the ECHR. To this, the Court said:
EASOR’s interference with those rights is justified as a proportional means of achieving a legitimate aim: the protection of the rights and freedoms of people such as the Respondents.
Obviously there is a trade-off of rights necessary when applying the law, and thankfully the Courts are dismissing attempts to unfairly discriminate on the grounds laid out in the legislation. This can result in indirect discrimination, against the bigoted, but also against those who unfairly discriminate on religious grounds. I assume that even though religious conscience is protected by the legislation, it is deemed subsidiary to the discrimination against the gay couple because in this circumstance the first is deemed indirect discrimination and the second direct. By the same logic, a gay couple who refused to allow Christians to stay in their guesthouse on the ground of their religious homophobia would also find the courts ruling against them.

So this ruling is not evidence that sexual orientation is given priority over religious conscience in the hierarchy of rights (if this reading is correct). Nevertheless, I do fully expect believers and religious leaders to claim persecution based on this result!

The full judgement is here.

Read more »

Thursday, 14 November 2013

A Dangerous Infection

Sadly disease has struck the shelves of some of the nation's leading magazine retailers, in the shape of the WDDTY bacterium; this is its footprint:

Watch out for it. It's spread by a Lynne Mctaggart, whose rather silly but dangerous views can be sampled here: When 'Science' is a Dirty Word. Note the scare quotes; it's indicative of a schizophrenic approach to the subject. I cannot find details of her scientific qualifications anywhere, but presumably she must have them. She says:
We have been accused of being unscientific, of pedaling [sic] unproven and harmful alternatives, as opposed to the real thing, true ‘scientific’ medicine.
This is true; they have been accused of being unscientific, and they have been peddling unproven and harmful alternatives. She then makes three points, which she says add up "to one indisputable truth: there is nothing remotely scientific about conventional medicine". The points are:

  1. Most of the science behind standard treatments is fiction. This has no supporting reference.
  2. Most treatments haven’t been proven to work. The BMJ are cited here, with no reference. Maybe it's the Clinical Evidence research?
  3. Most treatments cause harm. Again no reference.

Well, these points are not completely off the mark, I don't think. Ben Goldacre says in Bad Pharma that 'Medicine is broken', and goes on to deliver this withering assessment:
Drugs are tested by the people who manufacture them, in poorly designed trials, on hopelessly small numbers of weird, unrepresentative patients, and analysed using techniques which are flawed by design, in such a way that they exaggerate the benefits of treatments. Unsurprisingly, these trials tend to produce results that favour the manufacturer. When trials throw up results that companies don’t like, they are perfectly entitled to hide them from doctors and patients, so we only ever see a distorted picture of any drug’s true effects. Regulators see most of the trial data, but only from early on in a drug’s life, and even then they don’t give this data to doctors or patients, or even to other parts of government. This distorted evidence is then communicated and applied in a distorted fashion. In their forty years of practice after leaving medical school, doctors hear about what works through ad hoc oral traditions, from sales reps, colleagues or journals. But those colleagues can be in the pay of drug companies – often undisclosed – and the journals are too. And so are the patient groups. And finally, academic papers, which everyone thinks of as objective, are often covertly planned and written by people who work directly for the companies, without disclosure. Sometimes whole academic journals are even owned outright by one drug company. Aside from all this, for several of the most important and enduring problems in medicine, we have no idea what the best treatment is, because it’s not in anyone’s financial interest to conduct any trials at all. These are ongoing problems, and although people have claimed to fix many of them, for the most part they have failed; so all these problems persist, but worse than ever, because now people can pretend that everything is fine after all. - Goldacre, Ben (2012-09-25). Bad Pharma: How drug companies mislead doctors and harm patients (Kindle Locations 43-55). HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition. 
Goldacre goes on to document in rather harrowing detail how poor the process is for bringing drugs to market. Unfortunately for Mctaggart, none of that makes her magazine's claims any more believable. Just because medical science has problems does not automatically mean that the alternative does not. For centuries humorism held sway in the medical establishment, with people happily undergoing purges and bloodletting and getting better through regression to the mean. What put an end to it? Science. The only way to progress matters medicinal is to add more science, not to blithely disregard it. But her entire modus operandi is to discredit science in order to promote unscientific alternatives.

Her poor reasoning comes to the fore when she discusses comparative statistics on harm caused by real medicine and alternative 'remedies':
So that risk is: 0.01/1 million for natural substances vs 1000/1 million for drugs.  In other words, the risk of lethal harm from modern medicine is 100,000 higher than that of herbal or nutritional medicine.
This beggars the basic question: which form of medicine is the least scientific?
It should surely be obvious to anyone that a remedy that does nothing is far less likely to cause harm than one that does something. There are, of course, sins of omission, so people are harmed by taking a 'remedy' that does nothing. But her statistics simply highlight that she is peddling treatments that do nothing.
Drugs constitute a one-size-fits-all model, whereas every human being is unique. Drugs that work on me may not work on you and vice versa; most drugs can’t be made smart enough to, say, slot only tab A into slot B without affecting slot C, D and E, because humans are holistic.
Yet, somehow this 'one-size-fits-all model' is fine for the companies that sell Vitamin C, herbal 'remedies' and homeopathy? Of course! By this logic she should have to send a tailored copy of WDDTY to each of her subscribers, lest she is accused of neglecting their uniqueness. She signs off:
True science seeks to drive a stake into science, particularly scientism.
Nevertheless, mainstream science, particularly mainstream medicine, has grown ever more fundamentalist, dominated by a few highly vocal people who believe that our scientific story has largely been written and that the job of science is simply to confirm it.
Thankfully, an enormous body of resistance carries on in defiance of this restricted—highly unscientific—view. May they and all the true scientists like them continue to light our way.
In fact, those who value science and the nation's well-being are trying to organize resistance to this infection; anti-biotics are being developed around the blogosphere! Check out WWDDTYDTY for analyses of WDDTY articles, and Josephine Jones is maintaining a master list of issues relating to this unfortunate publication.

Sadly for Mctaggart, as GP Margaret McCartney said:
I'm astounded that Lynne thinks this is an evidence-based publication. It's anything but. The problem with evidence is that it can tell you things that you'd rather not know. A lot of the time medicine does do harm but that's why doctors and scientists are duty-bound to put their research findings out there and to stop doing things that cause harm. What we shouldn't do is abandon medicine and the scientific method and go straight for alternative medicine with no good evidence that that works either.

Read more »

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

The Problem of Theistic Philosophers of Religion

Roman Catholic Dr Tim Stanley has written a paranoid piece attacking Richard Dawkins and 'atheist trolls' who constantly mock his beliefs. He writes:
When you insult my faith you go right to the heart of what makes me me. When you're trying to convince me in 140 characters of sub-GCSE philosophical abuse that God doesn't exist, you're trying to take away the faith that gets me up in the morning, gets me through the day and helps me sleep at night. You're ridiculing a God without whom I suspect I might not even be alive, and a God that I prayed to when my mother was going through cancer therapy. You're knocking a Church that provides me with compassion and friendship without asking for anything in return – perhaps the greatest, most wonderful discovery of my adult life. You see, people don't generally believe in God for reasons of convenience or intellectual laziness. It's usually fulfilling a deep need – filling a soul with love that might otherwise be quite empty and alone. In short, when you try to destroy someone's faith you're not being a brilliant logician. You're being a jerk.
Well, maybe not so paranoid. He has a point, does he not? If Stanley is typical of theists, and I suspect he may be, then they invest much more emotionally in their faith than non-believers do in their belief systems. Attacking their beliefs is an attack on them, if they identify so closely and emotionally with them. This is not to say that non-believers are not passionate about science, or truth, or rationality, or even humanism, but they appear to be typically less emotionally invested in them. They might 'pray' to science to help their mother get through cancer therapy, but that prayer would lack the personal element that marks out theism.

Stephen Law has written in his book Believing Bullshit about the emotional factor in forging people's beliefs: might harness the emotional power of iconic music and imagery. Ensure people are regularly confronted by portraits of Our Leader accompanied by smiling children and sunbeams emanating from his head (those Baghdad murals of Saddam Hussein spring to mind). Ensure your opponents and critics are always portrayed accompanied by images of catastrophe and suffering, or even Hieronymus-Bosch-like visions of hell. Make people emotional dependent on your own belief system. Ensure that what self-esteem and sense of meaning, purpose and belonging they have is derived as far as possible from their belonging to your system of belief. Make sure they recognise that abandoning that belief system will involve the loss of things about which they care deeply.
Such practices have been part of atheistic ideologies, of course, but they are the bread and butter of religion.

So it seems obvious to me that theists operating in philosophy are going to struggle to do philosophy when it touches on their faith beliefs. If such a philosopher ring-fences their faith beliefs, and has a heavy emotional investment in them, this automatically biases their work, and the less bias a philosopher can bring to their analysis, the better the philosophy. I questioned the coherence of 'Christian Philosophy' here, whilst accepting it as a term for philosophy conducted by Christians. This does not mean that I think Christians, or theists, cannot be good philosophers. Clearly they can. But just as scientists use the scientific method to counteract the problems even the best of them have investigating reality, so it would benefit philosophers to adopt practices that counteract their biases. This also applies to non-believers, but more so to believers.

Paul Draper and Ryan Nichols have a piece in the latest issue of The Monist, called Diagnosing Bias in Philosophy of Religion. Ryan Nichols writes about it here, for those who want to read some more about it. The abstract says philosophy of religion is:
... too partisan, too polemical, too narrow in its focus, and too often evaluated using criteria that are theological or religious instead of philosophical. Our diagnosis is that, because of the emotional and psychosocial aspects of religion, many philosophers of religion suffer from cognitive biases and group influence.
The piece investigates some evidence that supports my intuitions about theistic philosophers. I don't think it's an open and shut case, but it is suggestive, I think. As per the abstract, they discuss four symptoms of poor health in philosophy of religion:
[I]t is too partisan, too polemical, too narrow in its focus, and too often evaluated using criteria that are theological or religious instead of philosophical.
Partisanship seems obvious, on both sides. The polemicism they worry about includes the sort of language that is often used: the language of conflict and opposition. On focus, they write:
Typically, religion is unreflectively equated with some form of theism or even classical theism, and atheism is equated with naturalism or even physicalism, ignoring the broad and plausible territory between those extremes. Alternatives like "generic theism" (that is, theism combined with a rejection of all alleged special revelations), pantheism, ietsism, and deism are rarely mentioned, and when they are mentioned they are usually dismissed as positions that very few people hold, which is not only spectacularly false, but hardly an appropriate constraint on philosophical inquiry. Even worse, it is often just assumed that the only viable forms of theism are Muslim, Christian, or Jewish.
This is very true. William James dismissed Islam as a live option for belief and, of course, in a similar way most religious believers do not take other religious beliefs as seriously as those they have faith in. I mean, they do not invest the time and emotional energy in the many religious beliefs from around the world that theists in those countries take as seriously as their own. This means that many possible philosophical positions are dismissed out of hand because of pre-existing beliefs. This is a problem for everyone, not just believers, of course, but one would expect a religious believer's emotional investment to make it a bigger problem for them.

Then they point out that too often positions are criticised based on religious beliefs, such as incompatibility with scripture:
Reinforcing such behavior is the fact that the motto of one of the premier journals in the field is "faith seeking understanding." This motto echoes the belief of some of the most influential philosophers of religion (e.g. Plantinga 1984) that philosophers who happen to be Christians should take the truth of Christian doctrines (as they happen to interpret them) as a starting point for philosophical inquiry.
They look at psychological studies to see if they support these contentions. They note that for confirmation bias:
...the strongest effects were among sophisticated, smart participants, and participants with strong prior commitments about the issues.
So if stronger prior commitments are reflected in those with more emotional investment in a belief, they would suffer the strongest confirmation bias:
We have several reasons to think that similar results are sure to be found when the above experiments are replicated with arguments about religion, especially when using philosophers of religion as participants. First, philosophers are emotional creatures like other humans. Second, professional philosophers of religion would score high on tests of sophistication about arguments in philosophy of religion as opposed to control participants. Third, many religious philosophers of religion, having committed their whole lives to a body of religious doctrine, have strong emotions about their religious beliefs. The last two observations set religious philosophers of religion apart from other groups of  philosophers —from, say, four-dimensionalist metaphysicians.
I think there is some truth to this, although there seem to be many controversies in philosophy that raise high emotions and are not exclusively religious. Consider the existence of objective morals, the free will debate and the hard problem of consciousness, for example. But many theists, like Stanley, make a point of highlighting the importance of their faith, suggesting it is more deeply held than non-belief. I'm inclined to agree with them. If a theist holds this position then they would have to agree, if they accept the studies cited, that they are more prone to certain biases. Draper and Nichols continue:
There are good reasons to believe that the emotional attachments that many religious philosophers have to their religious groups are exceptionally strong. 
Among the group memberships a professional philosopher might have, few if any compete with religion for social, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive importance.
If religious philosophers of religion have social and psychological tendencies at all similar to those found in religious people in general, then symptoms like excessive partisanship and narrowness of focus, and perhaps even the blurring of religious and philosophical criteria of evaluation, are to be expected.
Echoing Stanley's sentiments, they point out:
The attachment system operates in Christianity, for example, by making Jesus, God, or Mary functional attachment figures and fictive kin.
For religious persons, including religious philosophers of religion, who are attached to God the Father and who have an emotional conviction that their Father loves them, reading an argument that their Father does not exist primes negative emotional responses (whether above or below levels of conscious awareness).
They caution:
Bias is no doubt a problem in all areas of philosophy, but given the large percentage of religious believers in philosophy of religion, the emotional depth of religious attachments, and the strong connection between bias and the emotions, there is good reason to believe that it is much more damaging to inquiry in philosophy of religion than to inquiry in most other areas of philosophy. 
I think that most theists would agree that they have a more emotional attachment to their beliefs than non-believers, so I think they should agree with this diagnosis. Draper and Nichols make some strong recommendations to counteract any bias:
Our first recommendation is for philosophers of religion to distance themselves in every way possible from apologetics, whether theistic or atheistic.
This seems sensible, and may be why I sense that quite a few non-believing philosophers of religion are antipathetic to 'new atheism'. They may consider it too polemical, too atheistically apologetic.
Second, we recommend that philosophers of religion use argument construction less often as a method for making cases for the positions they hold, and more often as a method of testing those positions.
This is a fascinating recommendation, and a difficult one to pull off; but when a philosopher puts forward a really good argument against their own position, you know that good philosophy is occurring. I know I'm not very good at it! But I admire those who are.
A third recommendation is to make a conscious effort to allow, as J.L. Schellenberg puts it, the voice of authority to grow dim.
Indeed. Argue the case; don't defer to Aquinas or Descartes. I realise I say this in a blog citing Draper and Nichols, but then, I am no philosopher!
Finally, our fourth recommendation, which is the hardest of all to follow, is to make a conscious decision to accept genuine risk.
I really think that this is where many with faith would draw the line. The point of faith, I think, is to separate doctrine and dogma, to put them beyond risk. This is counter to this recommendation.
Even if a scientist is sure of some cherished hypothesis, testing that hypothesis by experiment is (in many though admittedly not all cases) inherently risky. Apologetics by comparison is very safe insofar as pursuing it is very unlikely to result in the apologist rejecting any of the central doctrines of the religious community he or she serves. Philosophy should be riskier - the philosopher of religion must be prepared to abandon cherished beliefs.
Theists can risk their beliefs, however, or none would ever lose their faith. Draper and Nichols compare the contrasting attitudes of Rudolf Otto and Gary DeWeese.
Otto says, "The earth disappeared from under my feet. That was the result of my studies at Erlangen. I went there not so much to quest for truth, but more to vindicate belief. I left with the resolve to seek nothing but the truth, even at the risk of not finding it in Christ" (Almond 1984, 12). Although Otto remained throughout his career a theologian by title, he was an exemplary philosopher of religion in many ways. He is famous, of course, because he wrote one of the greatest works in the history of the philosophy of religion, namely. The Idea of the Holy. It is abundantly clear that, had Otto not rejected apologetics in favor of a more philosophical approach to religious inquiry, he would not and could not have written this masterpiece.
As Christian scholars we are of course free to entertain all manner of "what if" questions, some heterodox, some heretical.... While we're free to entertain such thoughts, I believe we are constrained by our faith to answer them in certain ways. If it seems to me that if a particular claim is well-argued but it contradicts a significant tenet of the faith . . . , then I should seek to refute rather than defend it.

I think theistic philosophers might argue that non-believers are as susceptible to the problems outlined by Draper and Nichols. In this piece, for example, Christian philosopher Randal Rauser considers the naturalist response to Thomas Nagel's recent book as indicative of something:
What happens if you violate naturalism? Here I’ll be brief because the fallout from Thomas Nagel’s book Mind and Cosmos has been well documented elsewhere. Just consider Andrew Ferguson’s fascinating article “The Heretic: Who is Thomas Nagel and why are so many of his fellow academics condemning him?” It is no surprise that scholars are heaping insults on Nagel, a worldclass philosopher and atheist, for daring to challenge philosophical naturalism. After all, this ain’t just mere epiphenomenalism. This is a theory that goes to the very foundations for many of these folk. Kind of like challenging the incarnation at a Christian school, eh?
I'm not sure this is a true analog with religious belief, but it may be. And if it is, then the religious will have to give up any claim to special respect for their beliefs, à la Stanley. Either they claim they have a more emotional connection to their beliefs than non-believers, and accept the psychological consequences of that, whatever they turn out to be, or they agree that non-believers can treat their religious beliefs as any other non-religious belief; Dawkins and 'atheist trolls' are free to attack them without believers claiming a 'special' identity with their beliefs.

Read more »

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

William Lane Craig, Agony Uncle

In a remarkable question of the week, William Lane Craig responds to a common conundrum for theists: what to do when you fall in love with a non-believer, and in marrying them thereby go to hell!?

Yes, really; this chap (I assume) is worried that he will go to hell if he marries a non-believer. Rather than celebrating the joyous confluence in the lives of two human beings, and revelling in it for what it is, he seems pre-occupied with just his own well-being. This does not sound like the sort of selfless behaviour that characterises a healthy loving relationship. Whatever happened to true altruism?

His lover has said, sure, I'll convert to any religion to be with you (pretty selfless for a non-believer!):
So my question is this: if she does convert, how could I be sure that she really believes in Christianity? 
One might ask: how can one be sure anyone believes in any religion? The differences between religions are largely a result of arbitrary cultural currents, since their beliefs occupy that territory beyond the universally verifiable, so on the plus side it's pretty easy for someone to commit to something that might be as true as the next belief system; but on the minus side, theists are typically not impressed by people who treat their specific belief as a happy accidental one.

Craig's initial thoughts seem to hint at the difficulty of determining another's beliefs:
When I first read your question, Shane, I thought, “He’s got nothing to worry about! She’s ready to become a Christian, and the sincerity of her commitment is between her and God.”
But, he's worried:
But the more I thought about it, the more I came to think that you do, indeed, face a rather difficult situation.
Is he concerned about this couple's well-being? Well, not so much:
Forget about going to hell. What you should worry about, rather, is ruining your life by marrying someone who is a nonbeliever and therefore not God's will for your life. You don’t want to wander off the trajectory that God has in mind for you and so miss all that He has in store for you.
Craig agrees that this guy should be worrying about himself first of all. Apparently God has some trajectory in mind for him that, despite his omnipotence, could be diverted by this heathen-ess.
Well, the problem is that in this case her motives for becoming a Christian seem not to be that she has fallen in love with Christ but that she has fallen in love with you!
How could she have made such a schoolgirl error?!
A person who says that “she would convert to any religion” to be with you reveals that she has not understood that Christianity makes objective truth claims about reality.
Sure, but by saying that she would convert to any religion to be with the guy, she may have noticed that the objective truth claims of various religions are not objectively verifiable.
She seems to think of embracing a religion as akin to following fashion: you can change fashions without concern for truth. Such a woman has not yet arrived at the point that she can be trusted. For she seems willing to say or do whatever it takes to get the object of her desire.
And a Christian is doing what, exactly? Should not a Christian say or do whatever it takes to get the object of their desire, Jesus Christ?
You need to wait until you have proof-positive that she has fallen in love with Christ for his own sake, not for yours, and wants her whole life to be lived in obedience to him as Lord.
Despite homophobic Christian talk on the sanctity of marriage as one man, one woman, here Craig seems to be insisting that there be three people in every marriage: a husband, wife and Jesus Christ.
The difficulty, Shane, is that meanwhile you are in danger of getting inextricably bound up emotionally with her, so that your love of her will seduce you to do something that your mind tells you not to do. So you need to create some emotional space between you and her while you wait to see if her commitment to Christ is genuine.
Nice. Much better to eschew the possibility of a lifelong relationship with a potential soul mate than to risk the wrath of an imaginary god.

Read more »

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Andrew Brown Struggles to Contain his Contempt!

The writing of Andrew Brown often comes across as contemptuous, airily dismissive and lacking in nuance. To be charitable, I assumed this was a fault in his writing; after all, being contemptuous, airily dismissive and lacking in nuance is the sort of criticism he regularly levels at Richard Dawkins and any other 'new atheists' who offend him.

I have to take this back, however; his writing is not at fault. It turns out that his articles brilliantly capture his entire aspect:

Brown looks like someone has left a turd in the seat across from him, but it's only the mild-mannered moderate wing of new atheism, Daniel Dennett. Imagine if it were Dawkins himself! All four horsemen might make him faint; a photo of Hitchens could stand in for the great man and no doubt out-think Brown.

To be fair, upon seeing this video Brown realised what it showed:

It's strange that someone does not see the problem of contemptuously condemning contempt. Among many other things that upset him about Dawkins, it is his contempt for religious beliefs that he finds troubling:
The really extraordinary thing is ... that he supposes that displays of naked contempt are the way to win over agnostics.
Not for the first time, Andrew Brown is guilty of hypocrisy.

Read more »

Thursday, 4 July 2013

The Problem of Non-God Objects and the Evil God

Justin Schieber has a post up that formalises one reason I have always found belief in the Christian God untenable. He calls it The Problem of Non-God Objects, and it's really another problem of evil issue.

For me, I have always wondered why a god, if he's sitting in his reality, which is, by the Christian God's definition, maximally perfect, would degrade it by introducing suffering beings. Theodicies suggest we are not in a position to know that our suffering will result in a greater good, but that cannot be why he did it, since his reality is already maximally good so a greater good can only arise once he has introduced a situation which is not optimal. Or they suggest that beings with free will were necessary to allow them to choose him to worship, and beings with free will necessarily introduce suffering, but of course any omniscient god would know this already so, again, why would he do it? At best I could imagine that evil introduced was balanced out by goods greater than the most perfect good, and so the equation balances out to be maximally perfect. But goods greater than the most perfect good is surely a contradiction in terms.

Schieber sets the argument out thus:
P1: If the Christian God exists, then GodWorld is the unique best possible world.
P2: If Godworld is the unique BPW, then the Christian God would maintain GodWorld.
P3: GodWorld is false because the Universe (or any non-God object) exists.
-Therefore, the Christian God, as so defined, does not exist.
Note: The term ‘GodWorld’ refers to that possible world where God never actually creates anything.  This argument takes for granted that God’s initial act of creating the universe (or any non-God object) was a free act and not born out of necessity.)
Christian philosopher Randal Rauser responded to the argument with two objections by analogy. He thinks there is something intuitively wrong with the argument, although he does not explicitly deny its validity or attack the premises. First:
...what if you should hear an argument to the end that it is impossible for mental states to affect the physical world? (Perhaps the argument seeks to establish the truth of epiphenomenalism.) Do you think it would be more reasonable to accept the conclusion that mental states cannot affect the physical world? Or would it be more reasonable to conclude that there is likely something wrong with the argument?
I think demonstrating invalidity and attacking the premises would be better, but I understand what he is getting at here. In fact, it is often a feeling I have about ontological, cosmological and fine-tuning arguments for God. I can see valid arguments but they are obviously wrong (to me), so one wonders what is wrong with the premises? I think that is what Rauser is getting at here, and I think it's a pretty normal philosophical gambit; it is reasonable, in the first place, to go with our intuitions, and we need good reasons to go against them. They are often shown to be wrong, of course, but in those cases we have good reasons to go against them.

Second, he says:
....imagine two automobile museums devoted to the muscle car. Each museum has a perfect model of every muscle car ever built from the 1964 GTO straight up to the 2013 Shelby Mustang. However, the second muscle car museum also has an unrestored, rusty 1970 Camaro in the backlot. Which is the greater muscle car museum?
Frankly, my intuitions would suggest neither. Both museums are perfect and the addition of one unrestored, rusty 1970 Camaro on the backlot of one of those museums is not sufficient to change that.
Both museums are perfect? So Rauser appears to see the world around us as perfect (he doesn't recognise that a degradation reduces the perfection in the second museum, so, by extension, he would not in the rest of the world?), which, I have to admit, should be the conclusion of a believer in an omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipotent god, so hats off to him for that, if that is what he thinks. Voltaire had great fun with that notion.

In true Stephen Law stylee, then, I wondered how the argument would look if we switched the Christian God for the God of Eth:
P1: If the Evil God exists, then GodWorld is the unique worst possible world.
P2: If Godworld is the unique WPW, then the Evil God would maintain GodWorld.
P3: GodWorld is false because the Universe (or any non-God object) exists.
-Therefore, the Evil God, as so defined, does not exist.
Does Rauser think it is reasonable to conclude that there is 'likely something wrong' with this argument, and so Evil God exists? (Well, no, obviously! But I suppose he may still conclude that the argument is 'likely something wrong' and there are other reasons for not believing in the evil god). Imagine two automobile museums devoted to the muscle car. Each museum has the worst possible model of every muscle car ever built from the 1964 GTO straight up to the 2013 Shelby Mustang. However, the second muscle car museum also has a restored, shiny 1970 Camaro in the backlot. Which is the worse muscle car museum? Would his intuitions suggest neither? Well, perhaps, to be consistent, they would, but this strikes me as a hopelessly sceptical view of the world. Not only can he not recognise when something is worse than something else, he cannot recognise when something is better than something else.

I think we would all, theists and atheists alike, agree that Rauser's arguments here do not work any better against the good god argument than they do the evil god argument, and we both agree the evil god does not exist, but one set of us believes the good god exists. A believer would presumably conclude that the argument against the evil god does not work, and would have to look for different arguments to dismiss the existence of Evil God. I'm sure such arguments exist, of course.

But I think the exercise shows that we can still run the evil god argument against Rauser's objections and conclude something from that exercise. The atheist would be confirmed in his belief that the objections do not work well; the theist would have some work to do to figure out why they themselves do rule out an evil god, because it is not because of all the good in the world.

Read more »

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

More Wealth Inequality in the UK

Following on from my previous post on the subject, I'm adding a further graphic to illustrate the wealth imbalance in the UK (click graphic to enlarge):

The data is drawn from the same source as before. The figures above the percentages represent individual wealth at those points in the spectrum, so readers can gauge their own position (for shadenfreude or covetousness!).

Apart from the occasional half-hearted condemnations of bankers and executive culture, the press in the UK obsesses on welfare claimants and immigrants. The data shows that wealth inequality is the major driver of dysfunction in developed societies:
People in more equal societies live longer, have better mental health and have better chances for a good education regardless of their background. Community life is stronger where the income gap is narrower, children do better at school and they are less likely to become teenage parents. When inequality is reduced people trust each other more, there is less violence and rates of imprisonment are lower.
Rather than restricting welfare for the poorest in society and returning vast sums to the richest, then, we should be voting for politicians who look to redress the imbalance so apparent in the graphic above.

h/t again to Mother Jones for the original article.

Read more »

Sunday, 21 April 2013

What Does it Matter What One Believes?

As a 'new atheist', Richard Dawkins has been subjected recently to a campaign by right-on lefties who want to stifle criticism of Islam. Their unfortunate modus operandi is to devalue the notion of Islamophobia; the reprehensible practice of unfair discrimination against Muslims.

Maybe first was Nathan Lean on, who said, with nothing to support it other than new atheist criticism of Islam:
The New Atheists became the new Islamophobes, their invectives against Muslims resembling the rowdy, uneducated ramblings of backwoods racists rather than appraisals based on intellect, rationality and reason.
He even immediately followed this crass accusation with an example proving himself wrong:
"Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death,” writes Harris, whose nonprofit foundation Project Reason ironically aims to “erode the influence of bigotry in our world.”
Go figure. Murtaza Hussain produced a febrile piece on the usually more temperate Al-Jazeera website sensitively titled Scientific racism, militarism, and the new atheists that included this on Dawkins's fellow horseman Sam Harris:
Harris engages in a nuanced version of the same racism which his predecessors in scientific racism practiced in their discussion of the blanket characteristics of "Negroes". 
New atheists, of course, are the nasty and militant ones for objecting to the baleful influence of Islam, not Hussain for accusing of racism Harris and everyone who has been tarred with the new atheist brush. Go figure.

Then liberal commentator Glenn Greenwald tweeted this nonsensical article approvingly and got into a spat with Harris himself, who understandably thought that someone of a liberal persuasion would object to Hussain's wild speculations and mistaken inferences:
I’ve had pleasant exchanges with Greenwald in the past, so I wrote to him privately to express my concern. As you will see, I came right to the point. I was simply outraged that he would amplify this pernicious charge of racism so thoughtlessly. However, I am even more appalled by his response. The man actually has thought about it. And thinking hasn’t helped.
Other faitheists and theists have taken the opportunity to jump on the bandwagon: the laughable Theo Hobson, a mythicist called Neil Godfrey, and, one of the usual culprits, Andrew Brown, suggests Dawkins should stop pouring scorn on the Muslim belief in creationism:
However, this is where Dawkins' scorn does some real damage, even among people who have never otherwise heard of him. Because there is a self-consciously oppositional culture among young poor Muslims, who feel themselves stigmatised and disadvantaged, they can tend to embrace creationism simply because they know it's wrong by the lights of the majority. Dawkins' dismissal of Muslim creationism as "alien rubbish" was not only found as a YouTube clip on the EDL website for a while, but also used in the propaganda of Harun Yahya, the Turkish creationist and self-publicist. The emotional logic is clear: if this rich, sneering white man is against it, it must be good for disaffected young Muslims who feel that they are themselves treated as "alien rubbish".
The logic here is stunningly thoughtless; presumably Brown thinks Dawkins should continue to ridicule Christian creationism (Brown did, after all, call creationists in Northern Ireland a 'crank group' and compared them to saucer-cultists and leprechaunists), but refuse to ridicule Islamic creationism? But that would indeed be discriminating against Muslims unfairly. To pull one's punches against one religion would be simply unfair on its congregation, who deserve, and should expect, to have their beliefs exposed to the same ridicule and scorn as everyone else's.

Today Dawkins tweeted about Mehdi Hasan who, apart from being a pretty good journalist in other respects, I understand, also believes in a winged horse. This is a belief worthy of ridicule; and scientific ridicule at that, since evolution shows that mammals have four limbs and such a horse is usually depicted as having six limbs. Oh, but of course it's a magic horse from heaven, so evolution is irrelevant, believers would say, which just increases the risibility of the belief for anyone who doesn't believe in magic horses from heaven.

So far, so Dawkins. But then Labour MP Tom Watson, stalwart of the anti-Murdoch campaign, replied:

On the face of it, Watson thinks that pointing out someone's silly belief makes one a 'gratuitously unpleasant man'. Watson, a man not known for his tenderness, thinks Dawkins could 'try a little tenderness'! Well, that certainly made me laugh. However, I guess Watson saw what a daft thing this was to say, so he changed his focus to Dawkins's second sentence:

His first complaint was clearly about Dawkins's tone, but now he straw-mans Dawkins by translating "And New Statesman sees fit to print him as a serious journalist" to "people with faith cannot contribute to civic society with their journalism".

This is dishonest, but does show something important; the reason Watson feels free to defend the winged horse belief is because it's a religious belief. And, possibly more importantly given the recent hysteria, a Muslim belief. If Dawkins was ridiculing saucerists or leprechaunists, I doubt Watson would intervene. This is supported by a later tweet:
This is not what Dawkins said, of course, but it does raise interesting questions of how much one's beliefs might discredit one. Plainly in society today, religious beliefs that are worthy of ridicule are nevertheless protected from ridicule because they are religious. Religious beliefs, particularly Christian ones, are given credibility by society's attitudes to them. They are still afforded platforms in the press and television media, including the BBC; religious leaders bypass democracy and are allowed a central role in law-making; the Church of England is central to the UK's constitution. Given this, it would bring the entire establishment into disrepute if Dawkins's attitude became the norm, in Parliament, the press and the broadcast media. But that is really the aim of the so-called new atheism; to strip religion of its privileged position, and let its ideas swim in the free marketplace of ideas.

Add to this the unfortunate conflation by left-wingers of Islamophobia with valid criticism of Islam, and we can see why Watson felt the need to intervene. He is a political animal, and prioritises protection of Muslim individuals because he sees politics as more important than religion. On this he may be right, and his aims are laudable. It seems plausible that some racists do adopt the pose of Islamic criticism as a route to the othering of Muslims. Sadly, these recent articles are attacking the wrong target, so they will make the task of combating genuine Islamophobia more difficult.

Interestingly, Watson actually thinks that what one believes should disqualify one from the public forum; this is what he said about shock jock Glenn Beck:
The Glenn Beck show in no way achieves those vitally important aims. That type of journalism is dangerous and can have wide-ranging negative effects on society. The kind of material broadcast by Glenn Beck is not unique; a number of other "shock jocks" operate in the States. However, none has displayed intolerance on such a frequent and irresponsible scale as Glenn Beck. It is vital that that kind of "news" is not made or broadcast in the UK. However, the proposed acquisition of BSkyB by News Corp means that there is an increased threat of its becoming a reality. (my emphasis)
Now to be fair, Watson is attacking the content of Beck's journalism here, not his beliefs directly. But the content is informed by Beck's beliefs, and I think Hasan's recent interview with Dawkins shows that his beliefs clearly influence his contributions to the public forum (negatively). My feeling is that it is fair to point out when someone believes something ridiculous; Bill Maher has curious ideas about vaccines, Michael Shermer is way too libertarian for my liking, and Sam Harris is just plain wrong on gun law and, probably, moral objectivity. Does this discredit their other pronouncements? Yes, I think it does to a degree, but not necessarily fatally; it depends on the belief. Some beliefs are just sillier than others. Creationism is sillier than the (still silly) theistic evolution. Winged horses are sillier than golden plates, even.

Given that, I think it's fair to wonder aloud if a reputable organ like the New Statesman should publish Hasan as if he were a serious thinker, which I think a serious journalist should be.

Look at it this way; Dawkins is suggesting that if Mehdi Hasan believed in alien lizards, like David Icke, the New Statesman would not continue to publish his journalism without comment. Does Hasan's credibility suffer by his beliefs? I think, like Beck's, and Icke's, it does.


Blimey, true to form Andrew Brown writes another incoherent piece with the Islamophobic slur in the URL, in which he says "On Sunday afternoon [Dawkins] was at it again, wondering why the New Statesman employs an imaginative and believing Muslim". Dawkins did not wonder that, of course, as anyone who reads the tweet can see. Brown's attack is confused - he wants to call Dawkins Islamophobic but admits:
Anyone who follows him knows he is an equal opportunities bigot who is opposed to Christians of every colour as well.
So a person is a bigot now even if they don't discriminate in their opprobrium! Someone contact the OED. As I say above, the insidious effect of this sort of nonsense is that language becomes debased and we cannot identify genuine bigots for what they are.

Read more »

Friday, 12 April 2013

Walk in the Dark with a Mystery, or Walk in the Daylight Alone?

Friendly Atheist has this video up in a post by Paul Fidalgo. As Paul says, it's quite heartbreaking, especially given the recent news. In it Kay Warren, wife of Rick, says:
I would rather be in relationship with a god who in many ways remains a mystery. And walk in the darkness with a god who in some ways remains a mystery, than to try to walk in complete daylight without him.
That seems to me to be such a sad thing to say, although maybe many people identify with it; who wants to be alone in the universe? But wanting something does not make it so, although we are excellent at conjuring beings out of thin air.

I remember as a kid growing up on an estate with dark, rather forbidding woods behind the houses. I used to gather the kids together and we would go down into the wooded valley where the foundations of an old hut remained, and play in the mud and the streams and the trees. The foundations of the hut had the look of a footstep. A large one, obviously, so I used to regularly scare the other kids by telling them how it was a giant's footstep, and that I had seen the giant once. In fact, I would say, looking nervously about, I think I can hear him coming now. With not much more than that, I would put the heebie-jeebies up the gang and a rushing, stumbling, all out retreat from the woods would ensue.

And here's the odd thing; I would get caught up in the panicky evacuation too, just as frightened as the others! I was excellent at invoking beings with completely bogus emotional manipulation, and I don't doubt that everyone else is too. There we were running in the dark with a mystery (and quite thrilling it was too), and we have at least one believer who would rather remain in those woods than escape to the daylight.

But what we prefer does not determine what is true. We would prefer the universe to be one of innate justice and goodness, but as Kay Warren appears to have noticed, sadly, that does not appear to be the one we live in.

Read more »

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Craig Slips Down the Fallacy Slide

William Lane Craig's serious response to same sex marriage advocates is to say that if marriage is treated as a social construct (which it is) rather than something with an essence (which it is not), this means 'anything goes', including goat marrying.

In his latest Question of the Week in which he allows that the law should be blind to the sexual orientation of those who want to marry, he says:
Marriage is by its essence a relation between a man and a woman.
The real question here, it seems to me, is whether marriage has an essence or is merely a social construct akin to driving on the right- versus left-hand side of the road. Those who espouse same-sex marriage want to deconstruct marriage so that what counts as marriage is just a matter of convention. Once we start down that route, anything goes: a man and two women, a man and a child, two men and a goat, etc. I see no reason at all to start down that road.
This is obviously the slippery-slope fallacy. There really is no more reason for the law to change to allow inter-species marriage after same-sex marriage is recognised than before it. It's revealing that one of the leading apologists for Christianity would resort to such a poor argument.

The history of marriage is the history of a social construct, although to say it is 'merely' a social construct is akin to saying that religion is merely a social construct. Of course it is, but there is more to it. The word represents a vast range of real world activities past and present, and normally it would hardly matter about the word, because it would simply come to also represent marriage between two men or between two women - which it has, for many of us, as a matter of fact. It's interesting that Craig considers the phrase 'gay marriage' misconceived, yet still says:
Laws permitting gay marriage would be clearly unconstitutional, since they would not be blind to the sexual orientation of the persons involved.
It's entirely clear what this means; Craig understands that the phrase is readily understood, even if he thinks it misconceived because he thinks marriage has an essence. But, of course, 'marriage' represents something that is going on in society, and it already exists, whether he likes it or not.

So the battle is not to stop marriage from changing; it has changed before and will change again, so the start down the road that Craig so fears has already happened - and it was nothing to do with same sex marriage, note.

The opposition here is just down to good old fashioned religious bigotry, I'm afraid.

Read more »

Thursday, 28 March 2013

The Wrong Side of History II

(Opposition to Same Sex Marriage)

We have a massive collapse of marriage ongoing, a collapse that is rooted in our cultural inability to address the ways in which gender matters.
The next generation’s endorsement of gay marriage is going hand in hand with a massive retreat from connecting marriage and childbearing. Almost six in ten women with only a high-school diploma now become mothers out of wedlock. It’s the new normal.
[If the Supreme Court overturns DOMA and throws out Proposition 8] the Supreme Court takes away the core civil rights of 7 million Californians to vote on the marriage question. 
And the Left cares only about gay marriage.
(Maggie Gallagher on Marriage)
Since all the legal rights of marriage are already available to homosexual couples, it is clear that this proposal is not about rights, but rather is an attempt to redefine marriage for the whole of society at the behest of a small minority of activists. (Keith O'Brien)
The same would happen if same sex unions were defined as marriages, further aberrations would be taking place and society would be degenerated further than it has already degenerated into immorality. (Keith O'Brien)
In saying this we are not arguing that the current legislation on civil partnerships should be
repealed. That is a route that the State has chosen to go down and it is not the issue at
stake here. Indeed there are those who wonder what all the fuss is about – given that civil
partnerships already give all the same legal rights as marriages.
We do not however think that instigating gay marriage and thus undermining even further the Christian foundations of this society will lead to a better or fairer nation.   Indeed in our view, it will lead to further social disintegration, sexual confusion and greater intolerance, where any in public life or service, who dare to uphold the Christian view of marriage, will be ostracised and discriminated against. (Gordon Wilson and Rev. David Robertson)

See The Wrong Side of History I.

Read more »

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

The Wrong Side of History I

(Opposition to Racially-integrated Education, responses to Brown v. Board of Education.)
It is high time we thought of normalcy and routine for our young. We decry such [a] state of affairs in the home and constantly blame juvenile delinquency etc. on this lack of security and home balance. (Letter from Ainslee B. Dohme and Alvin R. L. Dohme)
In the belief that a public school system here consisting of an admixture of colored and white children will bring unending violence and strife to the detriment of both races, we earnestly petition you to make every effort to devise a means of maintaining public education without a comingling of the races. (Petition from the citizens of Halifax County)
 (Mourning card from Warren Spitler Covington to Governor James Lindsay Almond)

(Telegram from L. S. Key, Charlottesville, to Governor James Lindsay Almond.)
White and Negro children in the same schools will lead to miscegenation. Miscegenation leads to mixed marriages, and mixed marriages lead to mongrelization of the human race. (Jackson Daily News, Mississippi.)
The 17 Negro children have adequate and convenient schools to attend, most of which are much more modern and attractive to the students than the older school buildings occupied by a great many of our white children. (C. Edgar Winn, letter to The Virginian-Pilot)
Does the Negro have more right to force his way into a white school than a white person has to go to a 100% white school? In ruling he has, the Supreme Court brought out a radical sociological edict that upset every previous Supreme Court decision that bore specifically on the problem of mixing young children at the impressionable age. (Garland B. Porter, letter to The Virginian-Pilot)
One needs only to read the newspapers to note that there is a continuous struggle between national Democrats and national Republicans to curry the favor of the Negro vote in the North. For this reason, at the instigation of American leftists, the South is being sacrificed on an altar of politics. (John W. Ball, letter to the Richmond News Leader)

Sounds eerily familiar.

Read more »

Monday, 11 March 2013

Wealth Inequality in the UK

Watch this excellent video which illustrates something that many people find difficult to picture - the extraordinary inequity of wealth distribution in the developed world. This graphically represents US inequality:

The US is close to the most unequal country in the world, by wealth; here's the key graphic again, this time from Mother Jones:
Now, things aren't so bad in the UK, so I thought I would just re-draw that top graph, the actual distribution of wealth, for the UK*, for comparison:

So we can see that the UK distribution of wealth is not even better than what Americans think their own distribution is, let alone what they think it should be.

EDIT: The UK figures are - Top 20% own 69% of the wealth, next 20% the next 18% (top 40% own 87%), next 20% the next 9% (top 60% own 96%), next 20% the next 3.5%. The bottom 20% own 0.5% (that's half of one percent) of the country's wealth. That's right, the bottom 1 in 5 only own a two-hundredth of the wealth, and the bottom 2 in 5 only own a twenty-fifth of the wealth. Half the population own less than a tenth of the wealth. I think, apart from the measurable bad outcomes that result, everyone with a sense of fairness would concede that is not fair, as the bottom chart shows.

For the reason why this matters, check out the Equality Trust.

* I calculated the figures from this data, which listed the wealth of each percentile except the top 1%, for some reason (ungraphable!). I guestimated the wealth of the top 1% from this article, which cited data saying they owned 25% of the wealth in the UK (it's 40% in the US, according to the video above). Not terribly scientific I agree, but I doubt the actual figures are much different.

Read more »

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Homeopathy sent to Room 101

Which is nice.

Sadly, BBC iPlayer does not allow embedding, so I can only give you this link and this screenshot:

Comedian Ben Miller, a physics graduate, opted to send homeopathy to Room 101, in the BBC program based on Orwell's dystopian vision of the future:
You asked me once, what was in Room 101. I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it. The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world. (O'Brien in 1984)
Presenter Frank Skinner said that no-one on the (production) team knew what it meant, and everyone on set appeared surprised by its stupidity and implausibility once Miller explained it to them. Comedian Jo Brand (a nurse in a former life, for goodness sake!) said "Are you rubbishing the whole of homeopathy?". To his eternal credit, Miller replied:
No, I'm not rubbishing it; it is rubbish.
Cue a round of applause. To his eternal credit, Skinner chose to put homeopathy into Room 101. (Skinner is an excellent comedian with a gift for wordplay, but sadly has a history of woo-mongering himself.)

Cheers all round!

Read more »

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Christian Bias in the Media

Some Christians occasionally claim they are being persecuted; Andrew Copson of the BHA pointed this out on the BBC this morning when discussing the ECtHR cases:
[Christian lobby groups] have used [these cases] to whip up a narrative, a very false narrative, of Christian persecution in this country...
The media in the UK continues to report issues with a pro-religion, pro-Christian bias. To illustrate, consider the reporting of these cases today. Despite Christians losing three out of four, the BBC headline is BA discriminated against Christian:

It's all about the exception to the rule. This despite the analysis inside of Robert Pigott, their religious affairs correspondent, who correctly identified the real significance of the judgements:

His words:

It's perhaps more significant that Shirley Chaplin's case was dismissed, along with those of Gary McFarlane and Lillian Ladele. Today's judgement sets the legal seal on years in which traditionalist Christians have tried, and failed, to defend their values against secular ones in British courts.
The message coming from Strasbourg is that although people are entitled to hold religious views, that right is severely limited in the workplace when it comes into conflict with the rights of other people. The judgement also hands considerable discretion to employers to set reasonable policies and then insist that employees follow them whatever their religious beliefs.

And this is not an isolated incident; Christian bias in our media is legion. Here is how this case has been reported across the UK media online:

ITN: Christian wins 'cross' battle
The Guardian: Cross ban 'infringed worker's rights'
The Daily Mail: 'Thank you Jesus'!
The Telegraph: Christians face 'lawful exclusion' from jobs
Interestingly, The Telegraph does highlight the Christian losses, but does not frame this in a context of plurality and tolerance for all, but feeds the Christian persecution complex.

It really is too much for Christians, in a country where the media continue to report religious matters like this, where there is an established church, with unelected representatives in Parliament, whose leaders are given many a soapbox from which to preach, to complain about persecution. They have their religious freedom, but balanced judgements have to be made for the good of all (not just Christians) when competing rights come into conflict with each other. That is all that has happened in the UK courts in these recent matters, as the ECtHR ruling confirms.

Read more »

Thrown to the Lions?

That Christians are being persecuted was the rather hysterical tenor of an article by Paul Diamond in the Telegraph a couple of days ago - Christians' rights: Martyred on a cross of secular liberalism. The martyr he cites is Harry Hammond, an unfortunate, but homophobic, street preacher who maybe was the victim of some injustice, back in 2002. That goes no way to showing anything more, however, than that one man was treated unfairly by the authorities in one instance. This is not an attack on religion, says Diamond, but on Christianity:
And this is not an erosion of rights for people of faith - Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs continue to be protected by the law - but for people of one particular faith: Christianity.
The assertion is that the British legal system is now antipathetic, to say the least, to Christianity:
It seems that the British legal system is intent on removing the Judeo-Christian foundation of our laws, which have served us for a thousand years, replacing them with a secular, liberal worldview which dispenses tolerance to all those who agree with it and relentless hostility, or even persecution, to those who do not.
Hmm. This hardly seems supported by the facts. But today the ECtHR has ruled on four cases of supposed discrimination against Christians, so we should have some more evidence to judge this by.

The Court's assessment starts with an excellent summary of the issues at stake:
79. The Court recalls that, as enshrined in Article 9, freedom of thought, conscience and religion is one of the foundations of a “democratic society” within the meaning of the Convention. In its religious dimension it is one of the most vital elements that go to make up the identity of believers and their conception of life, but it is also a precious asset for atheists, agnostics, sceptics and the unconcerned. The pluralism indissociable from a democratic society, which has been dearly won over the centuries, depends on it (see Kokkinakis v. Greece, 25 May 1993, § 31, Series A no. 260-A).
I rather like that reference to 'the unconcerned', an often over-looked constituency, and the recognition that freedom of thought and conscience are also a 'precious asset' for atheists et al is important. The first case they rule on is that of Nadia Eweida; British Airways refused to allow her to wear her cross visibly. Did the ECtHR consider that she had been persecuted by domestic law? In Para 92 they considered the question, and concluded:
The Court does not, therefore, consider that the lack of specific protection under domestic law in itself meant that the applicant’s right to manifest her religion by wearing a religious symbol at work was insufficiently protected.
So that's a No, then. However, they did consider that the domestic courts had made the wrong decision in this case. It's worth quoting the three paragraphs on the subject to get a sense of the balancing of competing interests involved:

93. When considering the proportionality of the steps taken by British Airways to enforce its uniform code, the national judges at each level agreed that the aim of the code was legitimate, namely to communicate a certain image of the company and to promote recognition of its brand and staff. The Employment Tribunal considered that the requirement to comply with the code was disproportionate, since it failed to distinguish an item worn as a religious symbol from a piece of jewellery worn purely for decorative reasons. This finding was reversed on appeal to the Court of Appeal, which found that British Airways had acted proportionately. In reaching this conclusion, the Court of Appeal referred to the facts of the case as established by the Employment Tribunal and, in particular, that the dress code had been in force for some years and had caused no known problem to the applicant or any other member of staff; that Ms Eweida lodged a formal grievance complaint but then decided to arrive at work displaying her cross, without waiting for the results of the grievance procedure; that the issue was conscientiously addressed by British Airways once the complaint had been lodged, involving a consultation process and resulting in a relaxation of the dress code to permit the wearing of visible religious symbols; and that Ms Eweida was offered an administrative post on identical pay during this process and was in February 2007 reinstated in her old job.
94. It is clear, in the view of the Court, that these factors combined to mitigate the extent of the interference suffered by the applicant and must be taken into account. Moreover, in weighing the proportionality of the measures taken by a private company in respect of its employee, the national authorities, in particular the courts, operate within a margin of appreciation. Nonetheless, the Court has reached the conclusion in the present case that a fair balance was not struck. On one side of the scales was Ms Eweida’s desire to manifest her religious belief. As previously noted, this is a fundamental right: because a healthy democratic society needs to tolerate and sustain pluralism and diversity; but also because of the value to an individual who has made religion a central tenet of his or her life to be able to communicate that belief to others. On the other side of the scales was the employer’s wish to project a certain corporate image. The Court considers that, while this aim was undoubtedly legitimate, the domestic courts accorded it too much weight. Ms Eweida’s cross was discreet and cannot have detracted from her professional appearance. There was no evidence that the wearing of other, previously authorised, items of religious clothing, such as turbans and hijabs, by other employees, had any negative impact on British Airways’ brand or image. Moreover, the fact that the company was able to amend the uniform code to allow for the visible wearing of religious symbolic jewellery demonstrates that the earlier prohibition was not of crucial importance.
95. The Court therefore concludes that, in these circumstances where there is no evidence of any real encroachment on the interests of others, the domestic authorities failed sufficiently to protect the first applicant’s right to manifest her religion, in breach of the positive obligation under Article 9. In the light of this conclusion, it does not consider it necessary to examine separately the applicant’s complaint under Article 14 taken in conjunction with Article 9.

So that's a Yes, the domestic authorities failed to protect Ms Eweida's right to manifest religion. I think it's plain that this is still seen as a judgement call, weighing the competing rights, but the Court decided 'there is no real encroachment on the interests of others'. Certainly it seems to me that there is very little encroachment on the interests of other individuals, although clearly the interests of the company were affected. I must say, this conclusion seems reasonable to me, and the BA relaxation of rules should really have come a lot sooner after Ms Eweida objected to her treatment. I can't even imagine what was going through the minds of her superiors when they insisted she hide her cross, displayed as unobtrusively as it was.

The second case is Shirley Chaplin. She was a nurse who had been asked to remove a cross and chain she was wearing:
The evidence before the Employment Tribunal was that the applicant’s managers considered there was a risk that a disturbed patient might seize and pull the chain, thereby injuring herself or the applicant, or that the cross might swing forward and could, for example, come into contact with an open wound. There was also evidence that another Christian nurse had been requested to remove a cross and chain; two Sikh nurses had been told they could not wear a bangle or kirpan; and that flowing hijabs were prohibited. The applicant was offered the possibility of wearing a cross in the form of a brooch attached to her uniform, or tucked under a high-necked top worn under her tunic, but she did not consider that this would be sufficient to comply with her religious conviction. (Para 98)
Here we see very clear evidence that there is no Christian persecution going on at all; other religion's manifestations were also the subject of health and safety measures.
The Court considers that, as in Ms Eweida’s case, the importance for the second applicant of being permitted to manifest her religion by wearing her cross visibly must weigh heavily in the balance. However, the reason for asking her to remove the cross, namely the protection of health and safety on a hospital ward, was inherently of a greater magnitude than that which applied in respect of Ms Eweida. Moreover, this is a field where the domestic authorities must be allowed a wide margin of appreciation. The hospital managers were better placed to make decisions about clinical safety than a court, particularly an international court which has heard no direct evidence. (Para 99)
A clear ruling that the domestic authorities in such a case must be allowed a wide margin of appreciation, so that's a No:
It follows that the interference with her freedom to manifest her religion was necessary in a democratic society and that there was no violation of Article 9 in respect of the second applicant. (Para 100)
The third case is Lillian Ladele:
She believed that same-sex unions are contrary to God’s will and that it would be wrong for her to participate in the creation of an institution equivalent to marriage between a same-sex couple. Because of her refusal to agree to be designated as a registrar of civil partnerships, disciplinary proceedings were brought, culminating in the loss of her job. (Para 102)
The Court noted that her objection was religious, and:
The Court recalls that in its case-law under Article 14 it has held that differences in treatment based on sexual orientation require particularly serious reasons by way of justification (see, for example, Karner v. Austria, no. 40016/98, § 37, ECHR 2003-IX; Smith and Grady, cited above, § 90; Schalk and Kopf v. Austria, no. 30141/04, § 97, ECHR 2010). It has also held that same-sex couples are in a relevantly similar situation to different-sex couples as regards their need for legal recognition and protection of their relationship, although since practice in this regard is still evolving across Europe, the Contracting States enjoy a wide margin of appreciation as to the way in which this is achieved within the domestic legal order (Schalk and Kopf, cited above, §§ 99-108). Against this background, it is evident that the aim pursued by the local authority was legitimate. (Para 105)
Some interesting notes there, on the same-sex marriage issue as the Court sees it. They conclude:
In all the circumstances, the Court does not consider that the national authorities, that is the local authority employer which brought the disciplinary proceedings and also the domestic courts which rejected the applicant’s discrimination claim, exceeded the margin of appreciation available to them. It cannot, therefore, be said that there has been a violation of Article 14 taken in conjunction with Article 9 in respect of the third applicant. (Para 106)
So that's another No. It's worth reading the preamble, though, to see that they are concerned that Ms Ladele lost her job over her religious beliefs, a heavy price to pay. Such consequences should not be taken lightly, and we should applaud all courts that weigh these matters conscientiously.

The fourth case is Gary McFarlane:
Employed by a private company with a policy of requiring employees to provide services equally to heterosexual and homosexual couples, he had refused to commit himself to providing psycho-sexual counselling to same-sex couples, which resulted in disciplinary proceedings being brought against him. His complaint of indirect discrimination, inter alia, was rejected by the Employment Tribunal and the Employment Appeal Tribunal and he was refused leave to appeal by the Court of Appeal. (Para 107)
Again the Court agrees that these are beliefs motivated by his religion. It's important to note that Christians are using their religion specifically to ground their homophobia. This should not be forgotten when some dismiss the evil wrought by religion through dogma.

The Court concluded:
However, for the Court the most important factor to be taken into account is that the employer’s action was intended to secure the implementation of its policy of providing a service without discrimination. The State authorities therefore benefitted from a wide margin of appreciation in deciding where to strike the balance between Mr McFarlane’s right to manifest his religious belief and the employer’s interest in securing the rights of others. In all the circumstances, the Court does not consider that this margin of appreciation was exceeded in the present case. (Para 109)
It should be noted that this is allowing that the state had not exceeded its margin of appreciation; they expressed serious concerns over the consequences suffered by Mr McFarlane. Nevertheless:
110. In conclusion, the Court does not consider that the refusal by the domestic courts to uphold Mr McFarlane’s complaints gave rise to a violation of Article 9, taken alone or in conjunction with Article 14.
So we have another No, there is no violation of Article 9:

Article 9 – Freedom of thought, conscience and religion
1. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, and to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.
2. Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

So we have a picture building that does not support the sentiments expressed by Paul Diamond in his Telegraph article. Certainly there are provisos; one case out of four shows a fault in the domestic courts, but we see from them all that these are difficult judgement calls - consider the dissenting decision on Ladele, for example (final page of judgement):
She never attempted to impose her beliefs on others, nor was she in any way engaged, openly or surreptitiously, in subverting the rights of others. (Para 7)
A person can be homophobic (that is their right), so long as it does not encroach on the interests of others.

I think it will always be the case that mistakes will be made by courts when weighing competing rights - this is the price we pay for living in a pluralistic, democratic society. But to conclude from such marginal cases that Christians, in particular, are being persecuted is simply not supported by the details of this judgement.

Read more »