29 September 2010

Why might you mistake a shadow for a burglar but never a burglar for a shadow?

If religions are a human construct our task is to find out why that might be the case. There is, after all, no agreed method by which its competing truth claims may be settled and the damaging divisions brought about in humanity by adherence to differing religious belief systems ameliorated.

Fortunately, as this presentation from Andy Thomson suggests, we are getting much much closer to an understanding of the cognitive mechanisms that have evolved in the human brain over evolutionary time that help to explain why humans are prone to (and will continue to), adhere to religious ways of thinking.

Knowing yourself is half the battle. The other half is changing it. I hope we can.

20 September 2010

Popeular Ice Cream - Tut Tut Tut Frutti.

Dear Jo

Well done! What a fantastic four days that was. We’re all exhausted now and hope you are too.

Mrs Clod sais she really hopes you enjoyed the wet fish – not the ones in Westminster, the kedgeree. She was a little dissapointed you couldn’t visit our wet fish counter, maybe next time.

Boy, you really gave them what for this time didn’t you? Plain speaking or what! We particularly enjoyed your subtle pulling apart of those nonsensical enlightenment values so beloved of the great unwashed.

We’re even more excited about you re-evangalising the West and would like to help Archbishop Fisichella on the Pontifical Council for New Evangalisation. Can I suggest we start in Whitby and work our way west from there? Next thursday would be a good day for us to start?

We just wish more heads of state would come to this country and tell us how to live our lives like you did. What do you think of Ali Khameni? He’s a supreme leader after all - though Mrs Clod thinks he might not be as fond of kedgeree as you.

Do you want us to bring the popemobile back? We thought we could bring our tomato plants over to Italy on holiday with us – they should ripen nicely in the back there - we could pop into the Vatican to discuss evangalisation arrangements if you like? Don’t worry if you need it to sell ice cream to the tourists.

Tally Ho Jo! Let's roll back these dark ages.

All the best.

PS. Here’s a pound to get the PCNE up and running.

(with humble apologies to Henry Root - and Claudio for nicking his picture)

17 September 2010

Bread and Dripping - It's Traditional

The thing about ‘traditional values’ is that they are imposed rather than realised. The politicians and religious leaders that talk of them don’t seem overly fond of democracy with a capital D.

When they use the phrase it seems to be in order to get a ‘feelgood’ response from you; rhetoric designed to get you to think that whatever it is that is being proposed is the only sensible thing. After all, traditional = strong, dependable, solid, trustworthy, honest, reliable, secure, tried and tested, wholesome, moral, good. What could possibly be wrong with that? Apple pie and custard all the way down. What could possibly be wrong with ‘traditional values’?

Well, for one thing, you will notice that the appeal rests on the horns of two logical fallacies: the appeal from authority and the appeal from tradition.

You will notice that you are not supposed to question ‘traditional values’.

You might notice that they often stem from very patriachal and authoritarian attitudes in cultures and societies determined to maintain the status quo. Thus has it ever been.

You will notice the implication that ‘modern values’ are conversely bad: modern = fickle, impermanent, faddish, liberal, shallow, self-serving, dishonest, relative and transient.

You might find an appeal to ‘absolute moral values’, with the certainty of ‘rightness’ derived from an interpretation of religious doctrine and tradition. This will be similar in all cultures with differing religious traditions. The technique will be the same and will accuse modern society of moral relativism and tend to cast doubt on legislation designed to eliminate discrimination on grounds of race, gender, sexual orientation and so forth - because it seeks to maintain the right to discriminate based on its traditions.

You will find that it will oppose, (nor recognise the value of), the principle of separation of church and state and will seek close coupling to the power structures of the state so that its own values may be woven into its policies and legislation.

The appeal will include a demand for automatic respect rather than a request for the stage upon which to earn it.

It is like bread and dripping: traditional, but not necessarily good for you or anyone else.

Brittania's Lament

I watch you drag and drone and bluster,
Light the candles, flap and fluster,
Silken robes and cups of gold,
Ancient when the world was old,
Cloaked in culture’s faded glory,
Heaven, Hell and Purgatory,
Saints and spirits through the ages,
Silver crosses, gilded cages,
All the trappings man can render
Asking faith in faith’s defender.
I watch you simper, fawn and scrape,
Tugging on the pontiff’s cape,
Out you reach, at every whim,
To shower praises onto him,
Lapping up the words he spills,
And ranting on the nation’s ills,
Some are earnest, some are cynics,
All are supine, all are mimics,
Do you think that I, of yore,
Have not this pageant seen before?
An ancient line have I to boast,
Of glories heaped from coast to coast,
And boastful often have I been,
About my blessed fields of green,
About my people, fair and strong,
Who love the right and shun the wrong,
Of all the battles they have fought,
Whom pain and pride have wisdom taught,
Who mapped the skies and sailed the sea,
And cast off wretched tyranny.
And, yes, their pride has often led
To horrors heaped upon my head,
To slavery and pointless war,
Repression of the humble poor,
The flames of hatred often fanned,
Across my green and pleasant land,
Such wisdom rarely comes for free,
The price, too often, agony,
But slowly, though the cost was vast,
They learned the lessons of the past.
I picture now a flame-haired queen,
With lustrous locks of auburn sheen,
Atop a chariot of pine,
Her image now the cast of mine,
By war usurped from hearth and home,
Resisting all the might of Rome,
A woman, powerful and great,
An image that you roundly hate,
For you, oh lordly Pontifex,
Decry the worth of female sex,
Condemn full half of humankind
Unwilling still to change your mind,
To free from bondage to the womb,
And let their chained potential bloom,
And rather numbers be increased,
Than even one become a priest.
I see another, ‘neath a horse,
She bleeds her last upon the course,
A sacrifice to free her nation,
Know I stand for Liberation.
I picture now a doctor brave,
He sweats to find the means to save
The lives of thousands wracked with pain,
Applying skills of hand and brain,
To isolate and grow in mass
The mould upon the moulded glass
Penicilium Notatum
Thanks to which his patients hearten
That their suffering is ended
Lives renewed and bodies mended,
Hope resounds and interest swells,
In new research on human cells,
And means to combat all diseases,
Come as what we know increases.
Yet, you would see progress thwarted,
Lives unnumbered blithely slaughtered,
Just on dogma’s ancient teaching,
‘gainst the hand of man o’erreaching
Deadly philistine defiance,
Know I stand for Good through Science.
Now I see a man has died,

An apple laced with cyanide,
Never mind he changed our lives,
And from his works our world derives,
That mathematics overjoyed him,
Still my people have destroyed him.
Like they did with witty Wilde,
Yet another darling child,
Both were hounded, for the same,
Love that dare not speak its name.
But, at last, my people learned,
Ancient attitudes were turned,
Love was vaunted over hate,
Man or woman, gay or straight,
Rights to marry, rights to love,
Shouted to the stars above,
This you scorn, and evil call,
Vaunting shame and hurt for all.
Turn from such a sordid sequel,
Know I think that All are Equal.
I watch you prostitute my fame,
By trading on my hard-won name,
By selling out on all I gave thee,
All your history has made me,
Writ in grease, a coward’s charter,
Spitting on my Magna Carta,
Spurning Hume and Hobbes and Milton,
Telling lies to tortured children,
Acquiescing in corruption,
Trading truth for pained induction,
Welcoming this king of priests,
To share the bounty of your feasts,
Vilest hatreds flat ignoring,
All my noble virtues whoring.
This is not your finest hour,
Led by fools obsessed with power,
Greeting critics with derision,
All to pander to religion.
Well, you’ve made your choice, now bear it.
Know Britannia does not share it.

(with thanks to my friend VP for permission to reproduce his wonderful poem which encapsulates how many of us feel)

09 September 2010

Balls and Burqas

The formulation of law at the intersect between civil liberty, individual freedom and control by the state has always been thorny territory: a patchwork of compromise, a no mans land where we all must live.

The libertarians and the anarchists can’t be doing with it. They would rather kick the law up its backside till it goes nee-nawing off into the wilderness.

The control freaks would prefer to see every inch of our land covered by CCTV and by laws governing when and where you can hang your washing out and sneeze or fart in public.

Thus the protracted debate on the proposed law to ban the wearing of the burqa in France and other EU countries rumbles on and on, supported, it has to be said, by majority public opinion in most EU countries except perhaps the UK. Mind you, popular public opinion has never been a productive basis on which to build legislation, though clearly, some politicians are so tempted.

Obviously the debate goes way beyond what rags you are (or are not), allowed out in. Emotions run high, tempers flare, misunderstandings occur. It is definitely not a debate about fashion. But it does seems to take place in a fog ridden no-mans land, where it is easy to get lost, side tracked into argumentative cul-de-sacs. To get exasperated and confused by the demands to manifest religious expression in the public sphere (regardless of issues of security, equality, social cohesion, womens rights, employment law, integration and this that or whatever else. Equally, to get waylayed by arguments about the oppression of women within patriarchal fundamentalist religious cultures;with people second guessing what is going on in the mind of a women wearing a burqa and, (even if you could know that without asking), to reject it out of hand because of ones own cultural prejudice. All of that is going on and I suppose, in the end, it is all an attempt to get to the nitty gritty at the heart of the issue.

Which is what, exactly?

I have been lost in this fog too, havering between this or that position, getting confused, trying to juggle too many complex issues in my brain at once, or swayed by passionate arguments and, in the end, tending to side, (but not wholeheartedly), with the view that it would be contrary to our ‘values’ to impose such a law. That could be very wrong.

So here, I just want to avoid all these cul-de-sacs and focus very narrowly on considerations that will stem from an examination of EU Human Rights Legislation in the hope that it will help blow some of the fog away from my brain.

We enact laws that do, to a greater or lesser degree, reflect the core values society holds. If not that, then at least they give some indication of what those values might be. In the case of the French rebublic then, the notions of liberty, equality and fraternity, of laïcité.

Whether such laws shine or not in practice will not be my concern here. I don’t want to get lost in other arguments about whether laws are impractical, inoperable or unenforceable. We don’t, (or shouldn’t), shy away from creating laws because they will upset someone or be difficult to enforce. We create them because we have a notion that they will contribute to the common good somehow: they will have a net benefit to society, enhancing fairness, equality, justice or some other quality we consider desirable – (and yes, I know not all laws are created for these reasons).

So let’s fast forward then to the point where a law banning the wearing of the burqa in public is on the statute book in an EU country, and a test case is placed before the Strasbourg court for consideration. Of the EU countries, Belgium is the one furthest along the road to imposing an outright ban, with France following close behind.

Let us suppose that the respondent brings a case under article 9 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms - as follows.

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, 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.

Article 9 then, enshrines the absolute right to hold a belief 9(1), and the qualified right to manifest that belief 9(2). The court will then have to consider whether there is justification under 9(2) for limiting or interfering with a muslim womans choice to manifest her belief by wearing a burqa.
And let us not get side tracked into considerations of a particular woman, in a particular place such as a university, a bank, an airport, a government office, a hospital, a place of employment or some other institution where limitations of freedom under 9(2) are justified for more or less obvious reasons and will be upheld by Strasbourg. We are talking of a woman in a public space and considering in 9(2) where and why a limitation on her freedom to so dress may be justified in law. Remember, for the time being anyway, to set aside such arguments as: because I don’t like it, because it makes me feel uncomfortable, because the women is being oppressed. All those things may be true but they are not relevant here. The French government is bound (as are we) by this convention and must therefore get any law they choose to adopt through the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) where a challenge is bound to end up.

The appellants case must turn then on one or a combination of the following from 9(2): the interests of public safety, the protection of public order, health or morals, the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. The EHCR will, presumably, concern itself with whether or not the respondants Convention rights have been violated, and if so, will put the reasoning put forward under 9(2) under intense scrutiny. Would the court consider it a proportionate response to the problems being addressed, or, as Poole sugests - (Of Headscarves and Heresies, 2005, p691-695) - "a recipe for judicialisation on an unprecedented scale." I think he is wrong and is placing too much emphasis on the ‘slippery slope’ argument.

Here again, we might get side tracked into arguing that since Islam itself denies the freedoms outlined in 9(1) it would be somewhat hypocritical of it to then rely upon its protections. Or we might point out that it is all very well protecting the rights and freedoms of others, but what about protection for the rights and freedoms of the poor women compelled to wear a burqa? One might take the view that the wearing of such garb symbolises an aggressive challenge to laïcité, promotes parallel communities in society. living alongside but not with each other, and profoundly hinders social cohesion and integration within those communities. We might argue that a ban on the burqa and niqab will worsen the plight of women and make them prisoners in their own homes. We should explore all of these avenues of course but I am still going to stick with law here.

I think a respondents claim of article 9 violation will fall, not at 9(1), where interference may well be granted, but at 9(2) based on precedence (see Sahin v Turkey (2005) 41 EHRR 8). Here the European Court said:

"The Court observes that the role of the Convention machinery is essentially subsidiary. As is well established by its case law, the national authorities are in principle better placed than an international court to evaluate local needs and conditions. It is for the national authorities to make the initial assessment of the 'necessity' for an interference, as regards both the legislative framework and the particular measure of implementation...

Where questions concerning the relationship between state and religions are at stake, on which opinion in a democratic society may reasonably differ widely, the role of the national decision-making body must be given special importance. In such cases it is necessary to have regard to the fair balance that must be struck between the various interests at stake: the rights and freedoms of others, avoiding civil unrest, the demands of public order and pluralism.

A margin of appreciation is particularly appropriate when it comes to the regulation by the Contracting States of the wearing of religious symbols in teaching institutions, since rules on the subject vary from one country to another, depending on national traditions, and there is no uniform European conception of the requirements of 'the protection of the rights of others' and of 'public order'."

Although this case related to a headscarf prohibition in an educational establishment it went on to say that the "Turkish Constitutional Court was entitled to consider the headscarf prohibition necessary to safeguard the principle of secularism which guaranteed freedom of individual conscience, equality before the law, protection from external pressures and the rights of women." And it is difficult to see why this principle of safeguarding the principles of secularism should be not be applied to the wider society.

I used to hold the view that it was no business of the state what one wore in the public arena. I now think there may be justification for a limitation on freedom to wear partial or full face coverings on the principle that everyone should be identifiable in public and that Strasbourg might well be minded to uphold this on grounds of public safety and security. We shall have to wait and see. It depends on how the law is drafted.

Is it a minor opression to counter a major opression.? Probably.

Are there suitable dress alternatives for muslim women that fulfill the requirements of Islamic dress code without partial or full face coverings? Certainly, many.

Will political Islam scream discrimination from the rooftops? Certainly.

Will there be worse than that? Possibly.

Will the outcome in the end bring a net benefit to society? I don’t know.

Perhaps it is just that I am in no mood at the moment to compromise with a culture that enshrines the brutal suppression of womens human rights and freedoms and hands out barbaric degrading, and inhuman punishments to women on a daily basis.