Archive for the ‘issues’ Category

Life without freedom is wasted

2012/05/07

I am delighted to be living in Canada again. I love being close to family once again. I love being back in the land and climate of my youth.

I have always been proud of Canada’s democracy. For all its warts, it is a more comfortable balance of freedom and social support than either the UK or the USA.

But I think it’s worth pointing out one of the latest warts to appear. A high school student in Nova Scotia is on suspension for the message on a t-shirt that he likes to wear. The message is this:

Life is wasted without Jesus

The justification for the suspension? “Some people find it offensive.” Really?

As I’ve said before in defense of atheist slogans, offending someone cannot, must not, be taken as justification for censorship. Offensive speech is important. If the message is true, then suppressing it is suppression of the truth. If it is untrue, then suppressing it hides sentiments that may be corrosive to the truth. If they are hidden, they cannot be effectively countered.

It seems to me to be particularly heinous to try suppressing this message in an educational setting. High school students are on the verge of becoming full participating members of society. What does this censorship teach them? That it’s okay to suppress unpopular opinions if you have the power. That peace of mind is more important than open discussion of difficult issues. That Christian beliefs are being suppressed.

For what it’s worth, atheists seem divided on whether this particular t-shirt message is acceptable. Also, I notice that there are some subtleties that weren’t apparent on first sight – see here, for example.

The best argument on the pro-suppression side is that kids are more easily affected by emotional sentiments like this. I understand. And, just to be clear, I find the t-shirt’s message offensive. But in ambiguous situations like this, I prefer to err on the side of freedom.

Let the kid know he’s being an ass, but don’t suppress his right to be an ass.

What is religious freedom?

2012/03/15

Religious groups and Republican presidential hopefuls Rick Santorum, Mitt RomneyNewt Gingrich, and even Ron Paul, are claiming that the recent health care reforms in the US amount to an attack on religious freedom.

It seems that employers who offer health benefits cannot choose to omit “objectionable” services on the basis of religious dogma. Specifically, they cannot exclude coverage for contraceptives. Opponents of the reforms assert that, by being forced to contribute to health plans that cover these services, their religious freedom is being tossed aside.

First of all, let me say that I understand their objection. While I don’t share it, I understand that if you believe contraceptives are evil, it must be galling to be in a position where you may be financially supporting their use.

On the other hand, does this policy really net out as an attack on religious freedom?

Let me share a couple of reasons I think it is not.*

First, let’s look at parallel cases. What about a church that takes literally the old testament injunction about punishment for disobedient children? Is it religiously intolerant for the civil authorities to prohibit stoning them? No.

What about people who come from a culture where an man’s honour is more important than his wife’s or daughter’s life? Is it religiously intolerant to treat him as a murderer for satisfying his (often religiously-motivated) sense of honour? No.

Why are these not cases of religious intolerance? Because the rights of the victims not to be beaten or killed trump the rights of their attackers to satisfy whatever code of ethics they are following.

And, whether you agree with it or not, modern developed societies have decided that individuals have rights to reproductive freedom – to decide whether to separate acts of sex from acts of reproduction, through the use of contraception, and to not allow an embryo to develop into a full human being, through abortion. So far, it seems to me that the current issue is parallel with these other, less controversial issues.

Also, remember that individuals, not organizations, have rights. They are human rights, not corporate rights. So, when two “rights” appear to be in conflict – on the one hand the individual’s right to reproductive choice; on the other hand the employing organization’s right to express religious prohibitions – it is always going to be the individual’s right that triumphs.

Note that, in most cases, these will not conflict. Employees of Catholic hospitals will tend to be observant Catholics, for example. But there are plenty of Catholics who disagree with the Catholic Church’s stance on contraception. (Just as there are Jews who eat non-Kosher. I think this observation refutes William Lori’s very clever “ham sandwich defense“.)

Nothing in the law requires anyone to use contraception (contrary to the shrieks of some self-perceived victims of this law). So the question in my mind is this: should a person be free to choose contraception, as they would other (covered) medical services? Or should the employer be given veto right? If the relevant human rights laws assert a right to reproductive health services (such as contraception and sterilization), then that’s that. Rights are rights. If you disagree, try to get the rights legislation rescinded.

It is more complicated than this, of course. If health care in the US were a universal, socialized operation – as it is in most of the developed world – then these conservative religious employers would have no reason to worry. It would not be their money, but general tax money, paying for the services. (Yes, there would of course be taxpayers who would object to supporting these procedures – but that’s a different kettle of worms.)

The point is that, yes, as things stand, it looks like employers – even those affiliated with particular religious beliefs – are required to offer comprehensive health insurance. They don’t get to opt out, any more than religious educational institutions would get to opt out of child abuse laws just because they “sincerely believe” that lashes are the only appropriate, god-sanctioned way to enforce discipline.

Religious freedom doesn’t mean that you can use sincere religious belief as a loophole to ignore laws you don’t like. It means that laws cannot be created solely to discriminate against particular religious groups. It means that laws must be applied equally to all people, regardless of religious sentiment.

Is the current solution imperfect? Sure. Even more enlightened, socialized health care systems are imperfect.

Is the “Obamacare” solution eroding religious liberty? Of course not.

I’ll close with a quote from a very well-written editorial on the issue. I encourage you to read the whole thing, but this is the core:

The courts have consistently held that freedom of religion is not absolute. Religious actions have been regulated throughout American history to preserve or promote the public good. Providing health care, including contraceptives, is a public good. Religious practices have been banned when they are contrary to the public good. Freedom of belief is absolute; freedom to act on the basis of belief is regulated and must not injure others.

Footnote:

* Of course, it may be that these attacks over-state what the law demands of employers. See here for another perspective.

Consultation almost over

2011/12/05

If you haven’t participated in the Scottish Government’s consultation on same-sex marriage, please go do it now. (Obviously, this is mainly directed at residents of Scotland.)

There is a well-organized campaign to limit (and, I suspect, ultimately roll back) the equality that same-sex couples are just beginning to enjoy in Scotland. My friend Cath has posted a heartfelt commentary over at her blog in which she opposes the rights of same-sex couples. She believes her right to worship as she wishes, and her minister’s right not to solemnize unions that he believes God disapproves of, are likely to be compromised if liberal churches are granted the ability to perform same-sex unions. I can imagine this happening, but it seems unlikely. In any case, a potential, avoidable violation of her freedom of conscience does not trump the existing, actual violation of the freedom of conscience of the liberal churches.

So go answer the consultation. Remind the government that the conservatives are not the only people of conscience, willing to put their voices and their votes to work for their values.

Also, I hope you agree with me and Cath that, whatever rights are granted to humanist and liberal religious wedding officiants, no minister of religion (or humanist celebrant) should be required by law to officiate at same-sex unions.

That’s all. Sorry for the sloppy editing – I have little time these days, but wanted to get this out as soon as possible. The consultation ends on Friday, so respond now!

The flock is not the flocker

2010/09/21

Humanitie is out again, so here’s my latest column.  Here is the Not-Quite-So-Friendly Humanist’s take on the issue we decided to tackle this time around.  We decided to blog on the Pope’s visit to the UK.

The pope will be is visiting as a head of state and as a moral authority.  Both of these roles are highly dubious in our modern democratic context.  Ignoring a mountain of other things, the fact alone that this man seems to have been involved in an institutional cover-up for dozens of child rapists should prevent any decent head of state from inviting him to visit.

It’s important to remember, however, that the Catholic Church is composed not only of pedophile priests and those who cover up for them, but also of non-pedophile priests and non-corrupt administrators.  Even more, it is composed of hundreds of millions of people trying to live as well as they can in a confusing world.

And before anyone retorts that passive acceptance of repressive and harmful dogmas is hardly respectable, let me introduce a couple of Catholic organisations that specifically combat the church’s problems – both doctrinal and institutional:  “Catholics for Choice” and “Catholics for a Changing Church“.

Here is what Catholics for Choice say about themselves:  “We are part of the great majority who believes that Catholic teachings on conscience mean that every individual must follow his or her own conscience – and respect others’ right to do the same.”  That sounds a lot like the humanist principle of free-thinking.  The group “helps people and organizations confidently challenge the power of the Catholic hierarchy which uses every means at its disposal to punish and publicly shame Catholics who don’t unquestioningly follow its edicts. The hierarchy also seeks to impose its narrow view of morality – and dangerous positions on public health issues – on Catholics and non-Catholics around the world.”  This is a firm condemnation of the same institutional abuse of power that humanists find so repugnant in the Catholic hierarchy.

In a similar vein, Catholics for a Changing Church declare that “Justice in the Church should be manifest and subject to public scrutiny and aim at least to equal the spirit of justice in the civil community. It should be based on the love, understanding and trust that ought to exist between Christians. Canon Law should be radically reformed in accord with these principles.”  Humanists may disagree about the beliefs that undergird these values, but we cannot disagree with the values themselves:  public accountability of those in power, and being motivated by love and understanding.  Note that they are holding up the “civil community” – what many religionists (for example, this guy!) decry as the secularised public arena – as a standard for the church to live *up* to.

We could ask why these obviously open-minded and ethical people don’t just leave the church.  Isn’t that a much easier way to win free of its oppressive dogmas and policies?  But when a community is being oppressed, it can be better to remain and work to improve it than to simply leave.  Remember that these people have family in the church, personal history, and of course, retain many of the beliefs of Catholicism.  Is it really rational to expect them to leave?  And is it really a bad thing to know that there is a movement within the church campaigning for change?

So where does that leave us as humanists?  I’m not about to suggest we shut up and hope that the church reforms from within.  But, when we point out the evils of the dogmas and the hierarchy, I think it is worth sparing a word or two of encouragement and praise for those brave Catholics who remain in the church and challenge its outdated and harmful aspects, just as we praise the thinkers of the Enlightenment who forged modern humanist principles amid a sea of fearful dogma.

Here are some other thoughts on the pope and his visit:


Not about gun licensing

2009/10/27
The following is the near-verbatim contents of a letter I recently received. It has been redacted for the privacy of the individuals involved, and cunningly revised. Can you tell what the letter was actually about? (Note: this is an issue that affects British people, and those in some other countries. It will be unfamiliar to Canadians and Americans.) Can you tell what bothers me about it?

WARNING: THIS PROPERTY IS UNLICENSED

To the Legal Occupier,

We’re writing to inform you that we have authorised Enforcement Officers to visit your home. If they find evidence that you own a firearm illegally, they can take your statement under caution in accordance with the relevant criminal law.

We are taking this step because:

  • According to our records, there is no Firearm Licence for this address
  • You must have a Firearm Licence to own a firearm
  • We have tried to contact you about this, but have received no reply

An enforcement visit is the first step in our action to seek prosecution. Please be aware that should your case go to court, your statement can be used as evidence. The maximum penalty is a fine of £XXXX. We take this offence extremely seriously, and catch around 1,000 evaders every day.

We strongly advise that you act to stop our investigation by buying a Firearm Licence. You can do this in minutes by visiting http://www.firearmlicensing.co.uk or by calling 08XX XXX XXXX. A licence costs £XXX.XX for a rifle and £XXX.XX for a pistol.

Yours faithfully,

XXXXXX XXXXXX
Regional Manager
Scotland East Enforcement Team

If you have recently moved home, please transfer your old Firearm Licence to your new address. You can do this at http://www.firearmlicensing.co.uk/moving or by calling 08XX XXX XXXX. Please have your Firearm Licence number to hand.

If you don’t have a firearm, please let us know by calling 08XX XXX XXXX.

How to Pay:

  • Visit http://www.firearmlicensing.co.uk to pay by Direct Debit, debit card or credit card.
  • Call 08XX XXX XXXX to pay by Direct Debit, debit card or credit card
  • Go to any PayPoint outlet to pay by cash or debit card.
  • More ways to pay are listed overleaf.

Overleaf, it is finally mentioned that if you, in fact, don’t have a firearm, you can let them know. They will then verify the situation. People who are deemed unable to use a firearm because of infirmity can get a reduced rate or a free licence, depending on circumstances. Payment details and a change of address form take up most of the back side.

Saqib Ali – my new hero

2009/09/29

Saqib Ali, an American politician and a Muslim, supports gay marriage. Not personally – it goes against his faith. But he understands that his job as a legislator is to represent his constituents and to uphold democratic values.

In an editorial, Ali says “If I tried to enforce religion by law — as in a theocracy — I would be doing a disservice to my both constituents and to my religion.” So, as a legislative policy, he supports extending marriage rights to same-sex couples. He is not subverting his values to those of the society he finds himself in. He is simply finding a path that allows him to stay true to his values, while upholding his responsibility to the people he represents. (There are many ways to oppose gay marriage without making it illegal; just as there are many ways to oppose abortions without making them illegal.)

Thanks to the Friendly Atheist for making me aware of this.

Competing religious liberties

2009/08/05

This is further to a post from a few weeks back about a petition to expand religious freedom regarding civil partnerships.

Civil partnerships are the closest thing same-sex couples in the UK have to marriage. Religious organizations are not allowed to perform civil partnerships in the UK. Several religious communities, including the Unitarians that I heard it through, would like to perform these ceremonies, and feel that it is an arbitrary restriction on their freedom of conscience not to allow them to do so. I completely agree, and support them in their effort to reform the law.

Some weeks later, I was chatting with a conservative Christian friend of mine, and this topic came up. I thought this was a straightforward issue – nobody could reasonably oppose the petition, even if they didn’t want to support it.

My friend put an interesting argument for the other side, though. She said that, if religious groups are allowed to perform these ceremonies, equality legislation regarding the provision of services to people regardless of sexual orientation might lead to churches being forced to perform civil partnership ceremonies. Otherwise, they’d be up for human-rights violations for unfairly discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation. This, she said, would unfairly impose on their freedom of conscience.

I actually agree – such an eventuality would be unjust in much the same way that the current situation is unjust: it would prevent people from exercising their freedom of conscience.

Now, the obvious (not just to me) solution to the whole mess is to separate state marriage from church marriage entirely. If you want government recognition of your marriage, you would register it at a government office. No church ceremony would have any legal weight, and therefore churches could be put under no obligation to perform services that their consciences object to. Her church would be safe from discrimination. The Unitarians and other liberal churches would be free to treat same-sex unions the same as opposite-sex unions. Everybody would be happy.

But of course, the complete disentangling of church and state, especially in Britain, especially for marriage, would be a difficult task. (A worthy task, I think, but a difficult one.)

So we seem to be left with the choice about whose freedom of conscience to protect – the liberals’ or the conservatives’? (Put more personally, is it my freedom of conscience, or my friend’s, that gets violated?)

But that’s not really the choice before us. It’s a choice between a real and present restriction on the liberal churches’ freedom on the one hand, and a hypothetical and avoidable restriction on the conservative churches’ freedom on the other. The liberal churches are currently currently unable to treat same-sex couples as equal to opposite-sex couples, and this deeply offends their moral sensibilities. The conservative churches are not forced to do anything. The only way they would be is if legislators made the law more equal without including protection for freedom of conscience. I seriously doubt that they would overlook such a detail, given the undeniably strong political force wielded by the religious lobby. Not only that, but many others (such as me) would object to conservative churches being forced to marry couples they don’t want to – be they of the same-sex, of different religions, of different races – whatever.

So again, I’m back to my original position. The ideal solution would be to keep church ceremonies completely separate from state-recognized marriage. This isn’t a radical idea – even Mexico, with a largely religious population, does it. In Britain, the solution more likely to be worked out in the short term is to remove the prohibition on churches performing same-sex marriages, while maintaining the important freedom of conscience that would allow conservative churches to continue discriminating in this area.

Marriage equality

2009/06/15

There’s a Downing Street petition to get the British government to allow religious groups to perform civil partnerships (the closest Britain has to same-sex marriages) in religious buildings.

Currently civil partnerships are not permissible in religious buildings or buildings used primarily for religious purposes. Some faith groups are open to civil partnerships but are unable to perform legal partnership ceremonies under the current restrictions. This provides the churches the freedom to decide for themselves.

I find it deeply encouraging that religious organizations are calling for an expansion of same-sex marriage rights as a matter of religious freedom. (Read more in this article.)

We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to Amend the Civil Partnership Act 2004 to allow faith groups to perform civil partnerships within their religious buildings.

If you are a British resident (religious or not), I encourage you to sign this petition.

As a side-note, I hadn’t realized until recently how many bizarre and arbitrary rules surround weddings in this country. For example, did you know that

If you are having a Civil Ceremony your choice of reading must be a non-religious one, whose use must be authorised by the Superintendent Registrar before your wedding day. (source)

I strongly suspect that rules like this (as well as the fact that we have “civil partnerships” rather than simply marriage for same-sex couples) are connected with the fact that Britain has an established church. It is a fact that continues to irk me, in this otherwise fairly enlightened nation – though some people think it’s fine and dandy. (Readers are invited to count the fallacies of reasoning in the article linked from the previous sentence.) But that’s a rant for another time.

[Correction: Cath has rightfully called me out on a point of fact in the preceding paragraph: although England has an established church, Scotland does not. I apologize for my lapse in fact-checking. I maintain that it is the strong history and tradition of Christian privilege in this country that makes daft rules like the one quoted above possible.]

I’d like to thank Maud, the minister at the local Unitarian church, for bringing this petition to my attention.

Thanks, Maud.

My European representatives

2009/06/12

Last week, I voted for the first time in the European election. (For those not familiar with the EU electoral system, voting is granted on residency rather than nationality, so although I have only a Canadian passport, I am still able to vote.)

The results are out. I have yet to make heads or tails of the overall results. Since each of the 27 member countries fields its own parties, the resulting body is inevitably a jambalaya of different interests.

But at the national level, one can get a fair idea of what any given country has fielded. The UK results are troubling in two ways.

First – a topic I’ve complained about before – only about a third of the eligible electorate turned out. In a country with almost 50 million eligible voters, only 15 million of us bothered to participate. There are sometimes good reasons not to vote – medical emergencies, natural disasters, and the like – but a good many of those who don’t vote had bad reasons. Couldn’t be bothered to vote. Didn’t think it would make a difference. Hadn’t read up on the issues. Not interested in politics.

Though it may lose me the title of “friendly” humanist, I have to say that all of those are pathetic excuses. Democracy is not something that other people give us, as some kind of birthright. It’s something we must continually exercise. It is all too easy to lose. Look at the Belgians and the Luxembourghers – they had a 91% turnout!

Second, I am frankly embarrassed at the representation that my fellow British voters chose.

A quarter of a million Britons supported the joint ticket Christian Party and Christian People’s Alliance. I have nothing against people believing what they like, and living their own lives in accordance with their beliefs, but these parties’ platforms are fully oriented toward establishing a theocracy. I guess the lessons of Britain’s history of state-sponsored religion are lost on some people. (Catholic-Protestant violence both ways, the persecution of the Covenanters, and probably others I haven’t yet learned of.)

Fortunately, the Christian parties fell short of enough votes to send a single candidate to the European Parliament.

More appalling is the fact that the British National Party 2 seats. This is an openly racist, xenophobic party. (Membership is open only to whites, for example.) And almost a million British voters thought they would make the best representatives in Europe. Scary.

I’m also disturbed that UK Independence Party got 13 seats. While they are not as scary as the BNP (they even make a point of saying they’re not racist), their policies tend toward the unrealistically insular “Britain for British”, “cut all immigration” sentiment, which sets off warning bells for me. And they got the 2nd most votes of all UK parties in this election, with 2.5 million.

I don’t fully understand the EU, and I have strong reservations about some of its influence, but xenophobia is not a helpful reaction. (I need to acknowledge, though, that my opinions are those of a Canadian working in Britain. In addition, academia seems to have more international representation than almost any other employment sector.)

Having said all that, I do want to point out that, if my neighbours really want to vote for these people, then these people should be their representatives.

That’s democracy for you.

Even when I hate how someone exercises their power, denying them that power is not an appropriate response. (You know the Belgians and Luxembourghians I praised earlier? Each country sent 3 representatives from its dominant Christian political party. I’m far more encouraged at the turnout than discouraged at the religious sentiment.)

Until they cross the line and start undermining the freedoms that democracy relies on – like freedom of expression and of conscience, and basic human rights. Which I suspect fringe groups like the BNP and the pro-theocracy crowd might do, given the chance.

Honestly: for the most part, this is a great country. But sometimes its people make my head spin.

Image credits:

EU flag image from Wikimedia Commons, multiple authors (see linked page). Public domain.

Jambalaya image
from Wikimedia Commons, copyright Cliff Hutson. Licenced under the GNU Free Documentation License and the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license.

Responding to the ridiculous

2009/04/27

There are many things I could say about the issue of same-sex marriage. Videos like this one make me want to rant long and hot. (Thanks to Hank and Eric at Dangerous Intersection for bringing it to my attention.)

But, fortunately, there are many responses already (thanks again to the folks at Dangerous Intersection) that use a technique more powerful than any I have yet mastered. Humour. Here is a selection (try a YouTube search for more):

(Mileage will vary – some viewers may not share this sense of humour.)


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