Feel like bashing a disgusting religious apologist?

15 01 2009

Have a crack at Madeleine Bunting, who not only completely misses the point of the atheist ad campaign on London’s buses, but in the same breath manages to be excruciatingly patronising about religious working poor (but we’ll get to that).

At first I thought it just plain daft; why waste £150,000 putting a slogan on hundreds of London buses: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” It managed to combine so many dotty assumptions – belief in God as a source of worry or as a denial of enjoyment – that I couldn’t see who it was supposed to convince. Besides, how can “probably” change someone’s mind?

What is the point of the campaign, by the way? Let’s take a look at the FAQ section of the campaign’s official website, which is more than Bunting bothered to do:

The campaign began when comedy writer Ariane Sherine saw an advert on a London bus featuring the Bible quote, “When the Son of Man comes, will He find Faith on this Earth?” [sic]. A website URL ran underneath the quote, and when Sherine visited the site she learned that, as a non-believer, she would be “condemned to everlasting separation from God and then spend all eternity in torment in hell”.

Incidentally, some Christians in the UK have complained to the Advertising Standards Authority that the ad—which reads “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life”—is “offensive” (while, presumably, ads condemning non-believers to eternal torment and hellfire are not offensive).

Anyway, Bunting continues:

Then I thought about how it might look through the eyes of some of the people who travel on the buses I use from Hackney. The ones who look exhausted returning from a night shift of cleaning. Often they have a well-thumbed Bible or prayer book to read on their journey. And along comes a bus emblazoned with that advert. A slogan redolent of the kind of triumphal atheism only possible when you have had the educational opportunities, privileges and material security of the British middle class. The faith of this person is what sustains their sense of hope and, even more importantly, their sense of dignity when they are confronted every day by the adverts of affluence that mock them as “losers”, as failed consumers. Ouch, I winced that we can be so blindly self-indulgent to this elitist patronising.

Yes, Bunting: how can you be so elitist and patronising—not to mention positively Straussian? Suggesting that while we middle-class types can afford the luxury of our non-belief, the poor benighted plebs with whom you are forced to share a bus, and into whose psychology you claim profound insight in spite of such a fleeting acquaintance, need a faith to cling to. And who do those mean and nasty atheists think they are, with their mean and nasty bus slogans, making her fellow passengers, whose inner life Bunting purports to know intimately, feel bad about themselves? Perish the thought that the atheist bus campaign might be directed at these passengers also. No, no, says Bunting: they haven’t the education to cope with that.

Madeleine Bunting is a textbook illustration of the argument that religious moderates give cover to religious fanatics. Not in the least because, like many other religious moderates, she seems more concerned with demonising non-believers than with combating extremism and fundamentalism. To a moderate like Bunting, secularism, not fundamentalism, is the real Enemy.

Oh, and she doesn’t miss the opportunity to scoff at atheists’ support for Obama:

The irony of course is that the trio of intellectuals roped in to launch the advert, led by Richard Dawkins, are in all likelihood going to be celebrating the presidential inauguration of a passionate Christian, Barack Obama, next week – a man commonly agreed to be one of the most intelligent politicians of our age. But what they might prefer to overlook is that he chose – after an agnostic upbringing with doses of atheism from a distant father – to become a Christian in his 20s. “I felt God’s spirit beckoning me and I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth,” he writes in his book, The Audacity of Hope. You can’t do pick and mix on Obama: he is pretty forthright that Jesus died to redeem his sins.

There is no irony, of course, because simply being an atheist or a secularist does not preclude one from supporting public figures who have strong religious beliefs. (Even when they invite bigots such as Rick Warren to preside over the inauguration.) What matters is whether they advocate policies based on an appeal to reason, evidence and reality . . . and not on the basis of “because my sky-daddy says so.” And on that score, I’ll give Obama himself, c. 2006, the final word:

Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

The Religion Report and the Archbishop’s unnecessary persecution complex

22 10 2008

Most of what Archbishop Phillip Wilson of the Australian Catholic Bishop’s Conference has to say in his statement about the axing of The Religion Report is sensible. He points out that according to the 2006 census, 70% of Australians identify themselves with a religion, which doesn’t imply that 70% of Australians are ululating fundies, but does suggest “in theory at least, seven in 10 people will have a nominal interest in seeing, hearing or reading about matters of religion.” He notes the following that The Religion Report appeared to have garnered among atheists and agnostics, judging by the online response to the axing of the programme. Religion is socially relevant, he argues, because it “calls for engagement with one’s neighbour, and in the Christian tradition from which I come, this has meant that for more than 2000 years, religion has been at the forefront of public discussion.”

I would add at this point that “engagement with one’s neighbour” hasn’t always taken on benign manifestations, as many an apostate, backslider or outgrouper who has lived to tell the tale can attest. Still, the Archbishop’s point stands. Religion is relevant to theists and non-theists alike, albeit (at least in some cases) for different reasons, and therefore it is newsworthy.

Therefore it merits the professional, journalistic treatment that Crittenden’s programme provided (well, most of the time). Read the rest of this entry »

Things they’d have difficulty believing in Salt Lake City XXVII

21 09 2008

The week in fundie . . .

Hello! Im HPV. Vaccinating your daughter against me makes baby Jesus cry!

Hello! I'm HPV. Vaccinating your daughter against me makes baby Jesus cry!

  1. Religious woo-woo is now being incorporated into the treatment of US military service veterans, the Washington Post reports. Patients are now undergoing routine “spiritual assessments,” and according to Annie-Laurie Gaylor of the Freedom From Religion Foundation are being evaluated on how many times a day they admit to praying. “If you don’t pass the test,” says Gaylor, “the answer is to give you more religion.” More alarmingly, the Post recounts the tale of an orthodox Jew who in 2005 was denied treatment for his kidney stones after he filed complaints against an Iowa veteran’s hospital. Despite telling hospital staff repeatedly that he did not want a chaplain visit, a Protestant pastor continued to enter his room and preach, warning him that he would go to Hell if he did not accept Jesus Christ as his saviour. This kind of thing has been perfectly kosher, of course, since the US Supreme Court ruled that US taxpayers “lack standing in challenging the White House’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.”
  2. Shorter Pope Benedict: Catholics are a persecuted minority in Europe because European governments are secular and pass laws the Vatican doesn’t like. (New York Times)
  3. In a recent survey in a particular Western country, it has been discovered that more than one quarter of teachers believe creationism should be taught in the classroom. Which country? The US? No. The UK. (Telegraph)
  4. Call me a militant atheist fundamentalist bigot, but it is my view that when parents or schools for dogmatic reasons decide to opt out of medical treatment for the children in their care that could prevent them from contracting a potentially fatal disease later in life, these bullies should be charged with criminal negligence. In the Canadian province of Winnipeg, four private religious schools have opted out of a human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination programme aimed at Grade 6 girls across the province. HPV, by the way, is a cause of nearly all forms of cervical cancer. The schools in question named “religious reasons[: . . .] Some parent groups worry the vaccine sends the wrong message and may encourage preteen girls to engage in sexual activity.” And there’s apparently nothing that health authorities in Winnipeg can do about it. Let’s not choke each other’s chickens, here. This is about dirty old men getting positively giddy over the prospect of female genital disfigurement and womens’ suffering, absolving themselves at the same time with a sanctimonious appeal to the notion that they deserve what they get because sluttery makes Sky-Daddy mad. (The “She was asking for it, Your Honour” defence.) It’s also about so-called secular liberal democracies bending over backwards to pander to such rank sociopathy, even when it endangers the lives of those who are not allowed to choose for themselves. Any legal system which does not treat religion-inspired negligence in the same way it would treat any other kind of negligence constitutes the state sponsorship of religious dogma—the particular dogma in question being that it is more important to save souls (the existence of which has never been demonstrated) than to save lives. (Vancouver Sun)
  5. 55% of Americans are insane. Read the rest of this entry »

Does the advancement of religion = charity?

11 08 2008

Max Wallace, director of the Australian National Secular Association, writing in The Australian, welcomes the Treasury review of tax concessions to religious charities. However, he also notes a disturbing definition of “charity,” a residue of Elizabethan English law, that has made it difficult for courts and legislatures to determine the limits of tax exemption for churches:

The Statute of Elizabeth (I) of 1601 created four heads of charity: the relief of poverty; advancement of education; advancement of religion; other purposes beneficial to the community. Historically, monarchs and churches had usually been tax-exempt. [. . .]
All religious organisations that satisfy the legal definition of religion in Australia are tax-exempt. The Australian Taxation Office makes these determinations when organisations apply. The definition of religion in Australia was decided in the 1983 High Court Scientology case, in which the court defined religion as any belief in a supernatural being, thing or principle and canons of conduct that give effect to that belief. An organisation must have a building, be paying a stipend to a minister with a congregation, perform rituals and be open to the public.

Second, in Australia, under our charity law the dominant purpose of a religious organisation’s activities must be the “advancement of religion”. It does not matter if the religious organisation is running a commercial business, so long as the dominant purpose of the activity is religious.

This opens the door for any religious organisation to tithe its members, parlay the donations into a considerable sum, then invest it in a commercial business or investment whose profits will be tax-exempt. All things being equal, with tax-exempt status, a business can grow quickly. There is no requirement for any of these profits to be applied to the relief of poverty or any of the many other charitable causes because the advancement of religion, that 17th-century idea, is deemed to be charitable in itself. It does not matter what kind of religion it is, so long as it has a supernatural belief.

Wallace mentions the Grassley hearings into the financial shenanigans of prosperity churches in the US, where obscenely-wealthy televangelists have claimed tax-exemptions for multi-bathroom Pacific oceanside mansions by classifying them as “parsonages”—a sign that churches there no longer appear to enjoy the carte-blanche they once did under the Bush Administration regarding what does and what does not count as tax-exempt. Whether the Australian Treasury will have similar success holding Australian churches’ proverbial feet to the flame will depend on how Queenie’s definition of charity will be interpreted.

National Day of Reason: Is Australia a secular liberal democracy?

1 05 2008

And if it isn’t, should it be?

I’ve been engaged in discussion with Ninglun over these very questions, and it seems to me that the answer lies in how Section 116 of the Australian Constitution is interpreted. The section reads:

Australian Constitution – Section 116 – Commonwealth not to legislate in respect of religion

The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth. [Emphasis added]

Ninglun’s position is that while Australia may officially “neutral” with regard to religion, it cannot be described as “officially secular.” Mine is that Australia cannot possibly be neutral with regard to religion unless it is secular. If an Australian government takes a policy position that is based upon a religious doctrine–a policy position for which no secular, well-reasoned justification is offered–then it is effectively imposing observance of that particular religion. It is privileging one particular religious perspective over the perspectives of other religions as well as the non-religious, and would therefore be neither neutral with regard to religion, nor secular.

Why is it important that governments in liberal democracies, in pluralistic societies like ours, present to the electorate secular, well-reasoned justifications for their policy positions? Because they need to speak to us in a language that we all–not just the majority, but all of us–can understand and engage with. Barack Obama puts it much better than I ever could:

Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

Anything less is neither liberal nor democratic. Read the rest of this entry »

Things they’d have difficulty believing in Salt Lake City

9 12 2007

Given that I’ve had to reincarnate FPO in WordPress anyway, I’ve decided to revamp the Wonderful World of Magical Thinking series ever so slightly with a new title, “Things they’d have difficulty believing in Salt Lake City,” taken from Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. Entries will still be categorised under the label “Magical Thinking,” and will still bring you the latest news, both depressing and amusing, in fundamentalism, irrationalism and dogmatism. Without further ado . . .

The week in fundie . . .

  1. Republican presidential candidate sums up his commitment to liberal democracy with a simple remark: “Freedom requires religion.” (CNN)
  2. Texas Education Authority director is forced to resign for her bias in favour of teaching science in the science classroom. (The Austin-American Statesman)
  3. Canadian secular humanist group Family of the Heart has a page of conference papers and presentations on Fundamentalism that is worth exploring.
  4. North Dakota middle school teacher shows her class the GodTube “Letter from Hell” in order to–get this–show the effects of drunken driving.”(Via Pharyngula)
  5. Only the fundamentalist brain could have dreamed up this equation: Prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity = “homosexual indoctrination.” 


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