Tuesday 28 June 2011

Bikini Mary: A terrible Precedent

It is scandalous that a religion in this day and age can use the law of the state to attack freedom of speech. Absolutely scandalous. Will we ever shake off the dark shackles of this church? Will it yet take us back to the dark days of Laundries and paedophilia and nobody prepared to speak out? The all powerful bishop and kowtowing politician?

To make it worse Irish Catholic lawyers are encouraging people outside of Ireland to use the Irish Blasphemy Law to complainto prevent a crime occurring in that Country”. They appear to actively seeking to stir up a controversy:

“The more complaints they have on record the more likely it is that they will have to act. Also the offence of blasphemy is judged by how "outraged" people really are, so complaints will be evidence of that.”

What next – Pakistan using our own blasphemy law to stifle freedom of speech in Ireland?

Fine Gael said before the election that it thought that blasphemy was not a crime. It is now time for them to put an end to this shameful state of affairs. They should revoke the 2009 law and take the opportunity of the presidential election and judges’ referendum in the autumn to have a referendum on removing the reference to blasphemy in the constitution.

Of course these Catholics still try to claim Ireland as their's. Witness Bishop Buckley’s comment:

"Respect for Mary, the mother of God, is bred in the bones of Irish people and entwined in their lives."

No, fear of the power of the parish priest and the shadow of the church-run institutions was bred into the bones of the Irish people.  Not to mention the fact that Ireland is no longer a particularly Catholic country.

Friday 24 June 2011

Jesus - the ultimate Slum Landlord

Reading Rosita Boland’s article on childhood religious education made me wonder what the catechism looks like these days. I can remember well doing the catechism in school though I can’t remember much of the content. I decided to check it out.

Frankly skimming it was enough for me, as looking from the outside in it, it is completely loolally. However some interesting titbits jumped out at me.

According to the catechism on the Vatican’s website, Hell is a real place. I thought they’d made it all metaphorical but apparently not. God, it appears is indeed one sick vicious bastard:

1034 Jesus often speaks of "Gehenna" of "the unquenchable fire" reserved for those who to the end of their lives refuse to believe and be converted, where both soul and body can be lost. Jesus solemnly proclaims that he "will send his angels, and they will gather . . . all evil doers, and throw them into the furnace of fire," and that he will pronounce the condemnation: "Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire!"
1035 The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, "eternal fire." The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.
Since we know neither the day nor the hour, we should follow the advice of the Lord and watch constantly so that, when the single course of our earthly life is completed, we may merit to enter with him into the marriage feast and be numbered among the blessed, and not, like the wicked and slothful servants, be ordered to depart into the eternal fire, into the outer darkness where "men will weep and gnash their teeth."
(my highlighting)

The old Penny Catechism was more succinct:

125. Where will they go who die in mortal sin?
They who die in mortal sin will go to hell for all eternity.

134. Shall not the wicked also live for ever?
The wicked also shall live and be punished forever in the fire of hell.

I’ve no interest in trying to understand the minutiae of Catholic theology – it has as much relevance as all those backstory Middle Earth books, but I certainly come away from this excerpt below thinking that Jesus is the ultimate slum landlord. I mean, if he’s killed the Devil (eh? Has no one told the pope?) and taken over Hell, these Trinity chaps have got a nice little monopoly going on afterlife holiday destinations. 

635 Christ went down into the depths of death so that "the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live." Jesus, "the Author of life", by dying destroyed "him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and [delivered] all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage." Henceforth the risen Christ holds "the keys of Death and Hades", so that "at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth."
(my highlighting)

Dammed if you do and damned if you don’t.

Does God hate you?

This image from Rosita Boland’s Irish Times article on finding her childhood religious indoctrination schoolbook has been doing the rounds turning up on Pharynugla and Eric MacDonald’s site.

Apart from being creepy (I love the juxtaposition of God preferring his babies baptised and the space at the bottom of the page for the child to enter when they were procured for him), it highlights the way religion is a source of division and conflict. The child doing this exercise is being encouraged to divide people into same and ‘other’ with the clear implication that they are superior (“He gives them more gifts”) to anyone not of their faith. This is fostering sectarianism and the modern history of Ireland unfortunately bears out the terrible problems that brings.

I think it interesting as well that apparently God loves some more than others and neglects some children for his favourites. The corollary of this of course is that if God is capable of varying degrees of love, then he must also be capable of hate. So who does he hate? Best ask that child that’s been learning to divvy the world up into Us and Them.

Sunday 19 June 2011

The flaws in arguing from faith for religion

With the arguments for the existence of god or indeed gods so weak, the theologian retreats to the idea that it is all about faith, that is, a leap of faith to believe in something that cannot be arrived at by reason. By this means they can argue that their belief in god is not something that can be argued about rationally and hence religion is a conversation at which science or rationality does not have a voice. Completely coincidently of course, this gets them off the hook for, in the case of christianity, not being able to come up with a half decent proof despite two thousand years to do so.  There are two very obvious problems with this supposed killer "proof" that nail it dead.

If we accept for argument's sake that the leap of faith is a valid argument, then we run into an insurmountable problem. Having by definition excluded reason from the process we are now left in the position of leaping off the cliffs of rationality into one of the multitude of boats below, each a mutually contradictory religion, but aside from the knowledge that one of them is correct, with no way of choosing the right one!  We cannot use reason to decide the merits of each before choosing (this is a leap of faith remember), so we have a very limited choice: choose none or choose randomly. If this is a search for truth, choosing none is the only valid choice. This also illustrates to my mind, that if someone makes a leap of faith to the religion they already believe in, they are either deceiving themselves or us. 

Secondly, everyday experience tells us that under ordinary circumstances the vast majority of people do not change the faith they were indoctrinated in as children. Indeed Islam goes as far as proclaiming the death penalty for its apostates to put them off doing so, while the Catholic Church recently changed its rules to make it effectively impossible to officially leave, as a result of the Irish Count Me Out campaign. If there was fluidity in people's religion, it might suggest that the proposed leap of faith is being made. The carrying over of childhood indoctrination into adulthood religiosity suggests that people assume their religion is true because it is their religion. There are a multitude of religions out there with conflicting claims and gods and all claiming to be true. Self-evidently at most only one of these can be true. There is clearly no active engagement on the part of most to genuinely seek out the 'true' religion, so no leap of faith either, as that implies more than impassive acceptance. Additionally if there was such engagement, it would be reasonable to assume some general migration towards a single religion.

As an aside to this point, of course there have been times when populations have changed their religion en masse (hence the caveat of ordinary circumstances above). This happened frequently in reformation Europe for example when the idea of the king's religion becomes the people's religion appeared. This reinforces the point though as these conversions are essentially political and nothing to do with the truth of religion.

As a closing point on religious proof, my experience and general impression is that outside of theologians, that is for the vast majority of believers, there is in fact little engagement with how to prove god exists or that a particular religion is true, and that if more people were given, and took the time to understand, an honest review of the evidence for god, they would be shocked at the flimsiness of the arguments.

Monday 13 June 2011

Religion does not like Science

Jerry Coyne and Russell Blackford tackle a Huffpo article by Michael Ruse on religion and science's compatibility. It's not very a very convincing article especially with comments like this,

"But is there not the uncomfortable worry that religion -- theology -- is always going to play second fiddle, having to give way in the face of science? ... It may be true that this is a one-way process, but in no way does this imply that theology is inferior."

Yup, it does kind of imply that actually.

Religion seems to have at least four stances with regard to science.

Science as heresy. See christianity's history in Europe with astronomy as a prime example. Arguably creationists fall in this category too, though I'm more thinking of when a religion has the temporal power to kill or imprison those it decides to define as heretics.

Science to be denied. Creationists are the prime example. Their strange twistings of science, but only of those parts that are problematical, are a wonder to behold. I look forward to somebody showing that something like gravity is incompatible with the bible and seeing how they deny that...

Science to be impugned. As religion surrenders its explaining power to science, it attempts to belittle science. The attitude is that science may be able to explain questions like how we came about, the laws of physics, how to fly, how to make effective medicine etc, but that they still hold authority over important questions like the kind of sex God wants to see in bedrooms around the world (He's a bit of a prude apparently). More seriously though, they try to claim morality and ethics as their own, disenfranchising anybody coming from a non-believing scientific background as having anything worthwhile to say about these subjects.

Science to be pwned. This is the attitude of those who realise the truth of science and so have to demonstrate that their religion already knew all of science before science existed. Thus we have Hindu Science and Islamic Science, amongst others no doubt. It is bizarre to read how the Rig Veda has amongst other things the correct value for the speed of light, while a new one to me, the Koran had geology sorted out long before Lyell et al did.

Sunday 12 June 2011

The Government's position on key religious questions

Atheist Ireland received a reply to some key questions it put to Fine Gael (part of our governing coalition) during the election campaign earlier this year. It can be found here but in summary, Fine Gael's position is:

  • Reform of education – it will make publicly-funded schools with a secular ethos available.
  • Constitutional Review – will “consider the continued relevance of religious references in the Constitution”, whatever that means.
  • Blasphemy – It should not be a criminal offence.
  • Religious ethos of hospitals – no interest in addressing.
  • Equality Law – agree that religious bodies should be treated no different to other bodies
  • Tax – no intention to make churches pay their fair share of tax.
We'll see how they perform.

That Census Question on Religion

Following on from my last post, the question is why does it matter how many devout Catholics we have in Ireland? Atheist Ireland tackled this question in the run-up to the 2011 census, making the point that,

the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin says that it “does not make use of baptismal registers for calculating the Catholic population of the Archdiocese of Dublin. It relies solely on the data from the Central Statistics Office, obtained through the census, by which citizens themselves choose to record, or not, their religious affiliation.”
These numbers feed into decisions on funding for schools for example and if they can be used by the Catholic church to defend their control of most of our schools, they will be, even if the church knows they do not represent the number of genuinely devout Catholics (if we use regular mass attendence as a criteria).

If the census asked a less leading question than "What is your religion?", such as "How religious are you?", then we might get a better picture. Unfortunately Atheist Ireland was unable to get the question changed for the 2011 census. I think the census results will be published in July and it'll be interesting reading. However it is unlikely to be an accurate reading, as far as religion is concerned.

Friday 10 June 2011

So just how Catholic is Ireland really?

 I think it was Michael Nugent of Atheist Ireland at the recent World Atheist Convention in Dublin that made the point that the Irish public mind has changed but that our institutional minds are still living in Catholic mindset; that it is not the public, but our institutions we need to tackle.

To me, attending mass on Sunday is a good benchmark of how Catholic we as a country are, as this is one of the prime aspects of being a practicing Catholic. 

In the 1970’s apparently 91% of Irish Catholics attended weekly Sunday mass. By 2006 this had dropped to 48% even though 87% of Irish people identified themselves as Catholic. 

Today in 2011, only 18% of the Catholic population of Dublin attends Mass on Sundays and there are parishes in Dublin where attendance is below 2%. In the rest of the country it is reportedly still as high as 45-48%. However given that Dublin in the 2006 census accounted for 1.2 million of the state’s 4.2 million residents, this suggests that as a back of an envelope calculation that approximately 39% of Irish people attend mass on Sunday. 

If roughly 60% of Irish people are either not Catholic or so lax that they do not attend mass weekly, then I think it is safe to say that we are not a devoutly Catholic country as the stereotype and often our political masters like to portray.

What does the future hold?

A UNICEF survey of 16 – 20 year olds in Ireland included the following two questions:

What phrase would best describe your religion?

12%     I am religious and go to religious gatherings
23%     I am religious but don’t go to church regularly
24%     I’m not religious
14%     I used to go but not so much anymore
21%     I’m spiritual but not religious
2%      I have alternative spiritual interests
4%      None of these

Does your religion or spirituality bring you happiness?

12%     Yes lots
27%    Yes some
57%    Makes me neither happy nor unhappy
3%       No it makes me unhappy
2%       No it makes me very unhappy

This strongly suggests that the future in Ireland is not very religious and our political institutions should acknowledge this and legislate appropriately.

Also for interest, on the Irish Census website can be found a fascinating summary of the evolving religious profile of Ireland from 1881 to 2006.

Why the Irish Blasphemy Law matters to everyone, not just atheists.

Pretty much everyone was nonplussed by the 2009 introduction of a blasphemy law in Ireland. It was downplayed as something that would never be used. But in this global age, unintended consequences can abound.

Since 1999, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) has been putting resolutions before the UN on Defamation of Religion. These have been widely interpreted as an attempt to effectively create an international blasphemy law with an emphasis on Islam.

For example the Ten-year strategic action plan arising from the 2005 OIC Summit contains the following:

Article 7 (Combating Islamophobia)
1. Emphasize the responsibility of the international community, including all governments, to ensure respect for all religions and combat their defamation.
3. Endeavor to have the United Nations adopt an international resolution to counter Islamophobia, and call upon all States to enact laws to counter it, including deterrent punishments.

In 2011, with support declining as Western countries were more vocal in the dangers of this strategy, the OIC switched tactics to protecting believers rather than religion. 

The point here of course is that religions are not persons and as such do not have rights. Religions do not have a right to be not offended. Enshrining blasphemy in international law would allow religious groups and states to ride roughshod over freedom of expression everywhere. How blasphemy law works in Muslim countries should give us an idea of how such a law could be used.

But to my main point. The bizarre introduction of a blasphemy law in Ireland in 2009, which nobody wanted or was looking for, was equally bizarrely played down by the Fianna Fail government that introduced it, as being purposefully ineffectual and not worth getting excited about. Leaving aside why this law was introduced, the point I want to make is that we need to jealously guard our freedoms and not undermine them so thoughtlessly. This Irish blasphemy law was used, word for word, in part of the 2009 OIC resolution. So we find ourselves being used as ammunition in an attack on freedom of expression.

Article 36 of the Irish Defamation Act 2009 defines blasphemy as:

For the purposes of this section, a person publishes or utters blasphemous matter if—
(a) he or she publishes or utters matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion, and
(b) he or she intends, by the publication or utterance of the matter concerned, to cause such outrage.

Pakistan in October 2009, on behalf of the OIC, made a proposal to the United Nations’ Ad Hoc Committee on the Elaboration of Complementary Standards with regard to “Discrimination based on Religion or Belief”.  It is composed of six points or articles and can be found here but the first article is as follows:

States Parties shall prohibit by law the uttering of matters that are grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion

Notice anything?