Tuesday, 31 July 2012

View from America: What is secular art?

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To coincide with the publication of his new book How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom (Houghton-Mifflin) we areposting a series of short films and blog posts by Jacques Berlinerblau, one of the most perceptive commentators on America’s religious and irreligious landscape.

In his fourth dispatch he tries to work out what exactly constitutes "secular art".
The Secular Centre, Episode 4: What is secular art?

One hears the phrase “secular art” bandied about, mostly by scholars and journalists (the latter often reacting to nasty scrums over artistic censorship). Yet after having spent a decade trying to figure out--with a small modicum of success--what the noun “secularism” signifies, I remain flummoxed as to what it connotes when it functions as an adjective.

Three broad possibilities come to mind, none of them particularly convincing. Let me start with my least favorite. We might understand secular art as work that is blasphemous or anti-religious. Ergo, cinema, literature, music and so forth that attacks or denigrates a particular religion, or religion in general, could be parsed under this rubric.

I hesitate about this definition because it inflects the word “secular” with an anti-metaphysical cast. Viewers of Secular Centre understand why I am uneasy with that usage (See episode three, “Secularism is not Atheism”).

A second possibility is one I like considerably better. Here we understand secular art to consist of work that is oblivious to, or disinterested in, religious themes. Thus, art of this nature would have no religious reference points, be they positive or negative.

Initially, this approach works well for me. The difficulties set in when we consider that consumers may find such faith-based references in the “secular art” in question regardless of what the artist intended.

Sometimes, the opposite occurs. The artist produces a work that she or he feels is deeply “religious” or “spiritual” but the audience fails to grasp that—often in the worst possible way (see my discussion of Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” above).

Last, I wonder if we can build on the previous understanding and think of “secular art” as that which celebrates, criticizes, problematises, mocks and extols the human. The God/s may or may not exist, but this work doesn’t get into any of that stuff. Rather, the piece created is humanistic to the core, bracketing out theological issues so as to hone in on mortal beings.

I hope you won’t think less of me if I concede that all of my categories sort of collapsed on me in the video we made above. Friends, I still don’t know what the term “secular art” signifies. But in trying to figure it all out, I sure did have a hell of a lot of fun.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

View from America: Is secularism a boys' club?

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To coincide with the publication of his new book How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom (Houghton-Mifflin) we areposting a series of short films and blog posts by Jacques Berlinerblau, one of the most perceptive commentators on America’s religious and irreligious landscape.

In his fourth dispatch he asks why there are not more women involved in secularism.
The Secular Centre, Episode 3: Is secularism a men's club?

Secularism is a men’s club! That statement is kind of true. That statement is kind of theoretically false. And that statement speaks to the considerable challenges that confront the political growth of the beleaguered secular movement in America.

Let’s start with the part of the statement that is sort of accurate. If you equate secularism with atheism (an association which I urged readers not to make in the last episode of Secular Center), then, yes, you will find that the domain of non-belief is by all statistical indices an awfully “manly ship”.

This does not mean that atheism lacks for intelligent, innovative and influential women. Yet the data reveals over and again that males gravitate to godlessness in proportions that are astonishingly uneven (while women, surveys show, evince a greater affinity for religiosity).

I have never seen a definitive explanation of why this is the case. Some have suggested that women are turned away by the dogmatism of some strains of nonbelief. Although a bit on the essentialist side, it’s a plausible surmise. But why do we see the same imbalanced gender ratios among agnostics? By definition, they are opposed to dogma, be it theist or anti-theist. Yet there as well we see an affluence of dudes.

I’ll let someone else unpuzzle that mystery. For now, I want to move on to the false side of the claim that secularism is a men’s club. In theory, secularism should have considerable appeal to women, be they believers or nonbelievers. This would come to pass if we understood secularism not as atheism, but as a political doctrine that is deeply suspicious of entanglements between Church and State.

On issues such as reproductive freedom, contraception, stem-cell research, and wage equity, to name a few, there is an obvious synergy between secular ideas and issues of concern to women. That’s because secularism is there to push back against traditionalist (and sexist) modes of religious thinking that seek to dictate governmental policy. Once again it is important to recall that women of faith run afoul of such theocratic excesses.

The common interests between the secular movement and believing and nonbelieving women who do not want conservative religious worldviews to rule their lives are obvious. The challenge consists of convincing women that secularism is not the same thing as atheism. From there, it needs to make the case that the disentangling of Church and State is a women’s issue.

Easier said than done. But as I note in the video above, progress will be made when more and more women are permitted to lead secular (and atheist) advocacy groups.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Equal marriage to be introduced in Scotland

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The Scottish government has this morning confirmed that it will introduce a bill to legalise same-sex marriage.

Announcing the plans, Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon stressed that religious organisations will not be compelled to conduct gay marriages, and said that the government will take steps to protect the freedom of speech of those who oppose the legislation:
"The Scottish Government understands and respects the fact that there are very deeply held views in Scotland both for and against same sex marriage and, in coming to our decision, we have had to carefully consider a number of different factors.
We are committed to a Scotland that is fair and equal and that is why we intend to proceed with plans to allow same sex marriage and religious ceremonies for civil partnerships. We believe that this is the right thing to do.

We are also mindful of the fact that the leaders of all of the other parties represented in parliament support same sex marriage and that there is significant parliamentary support for legislation.

However, we are also deeply committed to freedom of speech and religion. The concerns of those who do not favour same sex marriage require to be properly addressed. It is therefore right that the next step in this process will be to consult stakeholders on any provisions that may be required, in either statute or guidance, to protect these important principles and address specific concerns that have been expressed."
Scotland will be the first part of the UK to introduce equal marriage, but England and Wales look likely follow in the near future. The Coalition government recently carried out a public consultation on the issue, and at a reception for LGBT representatives at Downing Street yesterday, the Prime Minister David Cameron told guests that he is "absolutely determined" to introduce the reforms by the end of the current Parliament in 2015.

Update: It's interesting to read the BBC's round up of reactions from various individuals and groups to this news. The strongest reaction comes from the Catholic Church, which says:
"The Scottish government is embarking on a dangerous social experiment on a massive scale. However, the church looks much further than the short-term electoral time-scales of politicians.

"We strongly suspect that time will show the church to have been completely correct in explaining that same-sex sexual relationships are detrimental to any love expressed within profound friendships.

"However, in the short term and long term the church does not see same-sex marriage as an appropriate and helpful response to same-sex attraction."
Opponents of the reforms have continually stressed that it is not homophobic to oppose, to use their term, "the redefinition of marriage", but when you analyse comments such as those above (or the warnings of "profound consequences" that you see on the Coalition for Marriage website) it's hard to see how their arguments can be perceived as anything other than homophobic.

The term "homophobia" has, of course, evolved to refer to any form of bigotry and prejudice towards gays, but if we leave aside the debate as to whether opponents of same-sex marriage are bigoted, and just take the word "homophobia" in its literal sense, it would be hard to dispute that groups opposing the reforms are afraid of same-sex marriage. Their warnings of "profound consequences" and "a dangerous social experiment" clearly illustrate this.

What would be useful would be if they could explain exactly what it is they are afraid of. In its statement, the Catholic Church in Scotland suggests that in the future it will be vindicated in its opposition to equal marriage. It's a warning that almost feels apocalyptic in character – what does it think will happen that will have us all running for the hills, overcome with regret that we didn't listen to the Catholic case against same-sex marriage?

To warn of such a scenario is to express a fear of equal marriage, and that surely can only be defined as homophobia.

New Catholic Archbishop of Glasgow claims Labour MP David Cairns died because he was gay

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The new Archbishop of Glasgow, Philip Tartaglia
When it comes to making homophobic statements, the Catholic Church in Scotland has often led the way in Britain in recent years. Cardinal Keith O'Brien, the Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, and Britain's most senior Catholic, has a track record of extreme pronouncements on gay-rights-related-issues, and earlier prompted outrage by comparing the legalisation of gay marriage with the legalisation of slavery.

Considering O'Brien's record, it should perhaps come as little surprise that Philip Tartaglia, the newly-appointed Catholic Archbishop of Glasgow, has stepped into a row over homophobia before he has even officially taken up his new post.

A report in the Scotsman reveals that, in a speech delivered at a conference in Oxford in April, Tartaglia suggested that the tragic death of a 44-year-old Labour MP may have been linked to the fact that he was gay. David Cairns died last year from Pancreatitis but, in remarks reminiscent of the Daily Mail columnist Jan Moir's controversial take on the death of Boyzone singer Stephen Gately, Tartaglia asked his audience to consider whether there is a connection between early deaths and sexual orientation:
"If what I have heard is true about the relationship between the physical and mental health of gay men, if it is true, then society is being very quiet about it.

Recently in Scotland, there was a gay Catholic MP who died at the age of 44 or so, and nobody said anything, and why should his body just shut down at that age?

Obviously he could have had a disease that would have killed anybody.

But you seem to hear so many stories about anger at 'hurtful and ignorant' comments, this kind of thing, but society won't address it."
Alongside his colleague Cardinal O'Brien, Tartaglia has been outspoken in his opposition to the Scottish government's plans to introduce marriage equality. Following his appointment as Archibishop of Glasgow this week, he suggested that “If you defend the traditional marriage, that’s almost considered homophobic hate-speak", adding that he could see himself "going to jail" in the future if he speaks out against gay marriage.

As the British Humanist Association have pointed out, Tartaglia is also a vocal supporter of the anti-abortion lobby, and has endorsed the "40 Days of Life" pickets held outside abortion clinics around the UK.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Scientologists to target Olympic spectators with propaganda

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Scientology may be fond of aliens, but the Olympic mascots Wenlock and
Mandeville are fiercely guarded by the Games' 'brand enforcers'
(Photo: London 2012)
"You don't get rich writing science fiction. If you want to get rich, you start a religion," said L Ron Hubbard in the late 1940s, before turning his attentions from writing science fiction to starting a religion.

Considering that Hubbard's religion, Scientology, would go on to become famous for its ability to extract large sums of money from its followers, it is perhaps appropriate that this summer the Church's UK branch is planning to take advantage of the one of greatest money-spinners of all – the Olympic games.

With a domestic news cycle that has oscillated between excitement and scepticism ahead of this Friday's opening ceremony, anyone following the build up to the games will have become familiar with the organisers' fears of "ambush marketing", whereby companies that have not signed lucrative sponsorship deals seek to take advantage of the fiercely-guarded Olympic brand.

Generally, this would involve the usual suspects such as fizzy drinks names or trainer brands, but with a captive audience of millions in town for the ultimate global event, it's perhaps only natural that religions would seek to use the occasion as an opportunity for a recruitment drive.

Enter Scientology. A leaked letter published on the blog of high-profile defector Mark "Marty" Rathbun reveals plans by the Church's publisher in the UK to distribute L Ron Hubbard's texts en masse to spectators at the Games:
“This year the Olympic Games are going to be held in London, England – starting 27th July, ending on 12th August. There will be an estimated 6.5 million people in attendance from over 200 nations.
In 2010, at the Football World Cup in South Africa, copies of the Way to Happiness booklet were distributed throughout the crowds resulting in it being proclaimed as the least violent World Cup ever.

To achieve the same effects in London, introducing L. Ron Hubbard’s Tech to millions and creating calm, donations are needed for bundles of The Way to Happiness, which in turn will be handed out during the Olympics.

"All you have to do is keep that booklet flowing in the society. Like gentle oil spread upon the raging sea, the calm will flow outward and outward.” – LRH, from Ron’s Journal 33

As I am sure you will agree, this has massive potential to reach a truly international audience!

Staff and public volunteers are being mobilized right now and will be in prominent locations around the Olympic events passing out The Way to Happiness to everyone!

The target is to distribute a minimum of 2 million copies!"
You certainly can't fault the Church of Scientology's ambition. But one question remains – Scientology's acolytes are famously persistent, but will they be a match for the Games' formidable "brand enforcers"? As epic battles of strength and will go, this could be one to watch during London's Olympic fortnight.

Monday, 23 July 2012

"That witch must die!" Resurgence of Pentecostal witch-hunts in Nigeria

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A poster for the "Koboko Night" anti-witchcraft
Pentecostal event in Calabar, Nigeria,
declaring "That witch must die""
This is a guest post by Leo Igwe. Leo is a representative of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), and campaigns tirelessly against the persecution of people accused of witchcraft by Pentecostal pastors is in his home country of Nigeria. You can read more about him in the report on witch-hunts in African that appeared in the May 2011 issue of New Humanist.

On July 27, a local penticostal church is planning a ‘crusade’ at the Cultural Centre in Calabar in Cross River State, south-eastern Nigeria. The theme of the event is: "Koboko Night: My Father My Father This Witch Must Die". The same church has, in March, organised a similar event in Uyo, Akwa Ibom state.

Witch belief is strong in Akwa Ibom and witchcraft-related abuse is common and widespread. The activities of churches and prayer houses have been linked to the problem of witch hunting in the region. But very little has been done by local authorities to call these religious extremists to order.

Once again I want to draw the attention of the authorities to the activities of this church and other churches in the region which are fuelling witch hunting in the name of spreading the gospel. These religious entrepreneurs have found a market niche in witch beliefs and are busy exploiting it at the expense of the rights and dignity of our children and elderly persons. They fuel witchcraft fears through their books, films and deliverance sessions, and spread the false gospel that people's problems are caused by witches and wizards in their families and communities.

I submit that these faith groups be sanctioned without delay.

The authorities cannot continue to look the other way, ignoring the havoc being caused by these evangelical throwbacks. The governments of Cross River and Akwa Ibom should act swiftly and bring to justice all witch-hunting pastors, god men and women in these states. They should prohibit all church programs that incite hatred and violence in the name of witchcraft.

The states of Akwa Ibom and Cross River cannot afford to go back to the times when the streets were dotted with children abused and abandoned for being witches and wizards. They should monitor the programs of churches and pastors in the region and ensure that they are not propagating the poisonous gospel of witch hunting or inciting hatred and violence in the name of witchcraft.

For instance, the theme of this latest crusade literally incites violence, and could lead to an upsurge of witch persecution and killings in the region. The title Koboko Night implies torture and abuse of any alleged witch. This could cause some people to go home and start beating up their children or ageing parents whom they suspect of witchcraft.

And adding "this witch must die" makes it more horrifying. It clearly sanctions death and execution of any alleged witch. This clause alone can cause people to murder or commit atrocious acts against family or community members whom they believe are witches. This is particularly worrisome because the Bible  says in Exodus 22:18, "Suffer not a witch to live". Obviously this biblical verse constitutes the evangelical basis of this crusade.

This event, if it goes ahead, will certainly be a big blow to the efforts of the government to address this problem and curb the cultural scourge of witch hunting. It will be a clear sign of lack of political will and commitment on the part of the authorities to tackling the problem. The government and people of Cross River should not allow this program to be held. They should arrest and prosecute those behind it. That will serve as a deterrent to other witch-believing churches and pastors. Witchcraft accusation is a crime under the law. Also inciting hatred and violence in the name of witchcraft is a criminal offence. So the law is very clear on this and should be employed by the authorities to bring these evangelical rascals to book.

Witch hunting must stop. Witch-hunting churches and pastors must be stopped.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Sanal Edamaruku update: Indian Catholics demand apology over miracle debunking

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Sanal Edamaruku at the Church of Our Lady
of Velankanni in Vile Parle, Mumbai, where crowds had
flocked in March to see an alleged miracle
As regular readers will be well aware, we have been campaigning in support of Sanal Edamaruku, the head of the Indian Rationalist Association who is facing jail over his debunking of a purported miracle at a Catholic Church in Mumbai. For a summary of the how the case came about, read our petition, which you can also add your name to if you haven't already.

Last time we provided an update on Sanal's situation, the High Court in Mumbai had refused him "anticipatory bail", which would have enabled him to fight the case without fear of pre-trial custody, and police officers had begun seeking his arrest in his home city of Delhi. In order to avoid jail, Sanal had left India for Europe.

In terms of the potential for arrest, the situation remains the same – he still faces arrest if he returns to India, and as a result he remains in Europe. But in the meantime, details have emerged as to what those who reported Sanal to the police over his debunking of the dripping crucifix in the Church of Our Lady of Velan Kanni in Mumbai are demanding in return for withdrawing their complaints.

Last weekend, a piece appeared in the Sunday Indian newspaper by the Christian journalist John Dyal, who is well known for his civil rights activism on behalf of India's religious minorities. As a former president of the All-India Catholic Union, Dyal is a respected figure in India's Catholic community, and he used his Sunday Indian column to call on the Catholic groups that reported Sanal to withdraw their complaints. While Dyal is critical of Sanal's approach to debunking religious complaints, he does not believe that legal action is justified:
"I believe Christ is absolutely capable of defending Himself, if perhaps not the church in India. These statements by Sanal or the probe by his Rationalists must not be taken as an attack on the church or on the community. It certainly is not an attack on the faith in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
The faithful of Mumbai think they are defending faith when they go on hunger strikes against books of fiction or films from Hollywood and Bollywood. But in reality they are defending their own positions and constituencies and do not want them to be exposed to the sunlight.

Christ does not have to drip water from crucifixes to prove the love he has for each one of us. His healing is deeper and needs no instruments. I have experienced this in my own life. Catholics of Mumbai possibly realise the controversy is not getting the Church any new friends, nor is it adding to its lustre.

It is time the church leadership really forgave Sanal. He has learnt his own lesson – not to mock at genuine faith of the people and not confuse a passing popular fancy for a “miracle”, however untenable, to say the community is being taken for a ride by the church. The police case against Sanal Edamaruku should be withdrawn as a sign that a mature Church in India needs no props for the depth of its faith in God."
Sanal has been in touch with us this week, and informed us of correspondence between Dyal and himself following the publication of the Sunday Indian piece. Dyal has been in touch with those behind the complaints (three local Mumbai Catholic groups with close connections to the Archdiocese of Bombay complained to the police), and through this correspondence we now know what they expect from Sanal in exchange for dropping the complaints.

The Mumbai-based Catholic Secular Forum was one of the groups that complained, and its founder Joseph Dias has told Dyal that he will drop the complaint in exchange for an apology from Sanal. Unsurprisingly, Sanal refuses to apologise for exercising his right to free speech in criticising religion:
"I can understand that Joseph Dias might be inspired by the stories of Inquisition and Witch-Hunting in the Middle aAges. We live in the 21st century. There are courageous people who would defend the right to speak what they are convinced about, even if stakes are invoked against them. I am one amongst them. I would not apologize or succumb to any pressures."
Our petition calling on the Catholic authorities to withdraw the complaints has now acquired more than 10,000 signatures, but clearly this has not been enough to convince them that this legal action against Sanal is misguided. We need to keep up the pressure – we are looking at passing the petition on to Catholic authorities here in Europe, including the Vatican, but in the meantime, the more signatures it gets, the better.

Please take the time to sign if you haven't already, and pass it on to anyone you can.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

View from America: Secularism and atheism are not synonyms

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To coincide with the publication of his new book How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom (Houghton-Mifflin) we areposting a series of short films and blog posts by Jacques Berlinerblau, one of the most perceptive commentators on America’s religious and irreligious landscape.

In his third dispatch he considers the relationship between atheism and secularism, and explains why they are not interchangeable concepts.
The Secular Centre, Episode 3: Secularism and atheism are not synonyms

No term in the American, or even Western, political lexicon is more widely misunderstood than “Secularism.” It’s an -ism that is constantly – and sometimes intentionally – confused with other –isms.

Opponents equate Secularism with Stalinism, Nazism, totalitarianism and socialism. Supporters associate it with liberalism, humanism, and rationalism. Yet foes, as well as friends of late, also assume it’s really the same thing as atheism.

Atheism and secularism are both important and noble –isms. But they are not the same thing. Secularism unlike atheism does not pursue metaphysical queries. That is to say, secularism is speechless – agnostic, if you will – on the problem of the existence or non-existence of God.

That question is above its pay grade. Secularism doesn’t ask, as some of the best atheist philosophy does, how humans should exist in a world without God (or, with more nuance, in a world like the one Jean-Paul Sartre described where we are forlorn of God). Nor does secularism try to figure out the operating principles – be they scientific, ethical, or otherwise – of a godless universe.

To that, Secularism responds: “These are important and fascinating questions. I’d love to look into all of that. Can you recommend some good books? I’ll be sure to read them as soon as I stop getting waterboarded by the Religious Right in the United States and abroad!”

The secular vision developed in Christian political philosophy (one might say the atheist vision developed there as well. That’s a different story for a different day. But if you’re curious read Professor Alan Kors’ Atheism in France 1650-1729: The Orthodox Source of Disbelief).

Secularism’s philosophical roots may run as deep as the writings of the Hebrew Bible, Paul and Augustine. Yet for our purposes we should understand modern Secularism as a development whose major architects were Martin Luther, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

A blog post is not the proper place to develop such an argument and I have, fortuitously, written an entire book about this subject. But to put it as pithily as possible, let me note that each of these (religious) men was deeply skeptical of any sort of contact between the State and the Church.

A secularist, then, dwells not in the atheist realm of theology or anti-theology, but in the domain of politics. A secularist asks: how can we get this here Church/Mosque/Synagogue to be treated justly by government? How can we make sure that this here Church/Mosque/ Synagogue doesn’t take over the government? How can we keep this religious group from trying to exterminate that one? How can we assure religious freedom and freedom from religion for all? How can we make it so that Christians and Atheists, Muslims and Agnostics live in peace and order?

Those are the subjects that interest Secularism. Many atheists, understandably, are interested in these subjects as well. Let’s call them “secular atheists.”

Of course, there are also non-secular atheists. Those would be the ones whose metaphysical assumptions lead them to deny the legitimacy of the “Church.” As such, they make an inference about Churches (i.e., that they really should not exist) that is completely alien to the logic of the secular idea.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Schools opting out of cervical cancer vaccination for religious reasons

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Religious objections mean that several schools in England have opted out of providing their female students with the HPV vaccination, which can help prevent cervical cancer, the Guardian reports.

A study by GP magazine has found that 24 schools are not taking part in the HPV vaccination programme, which is available to girls aged 12 to 13. Because the vaccination immunises girls against two strains of the HPV (Human papillomavirus), which can lead to cervical cancer, and the virus can be sexually transmitted, many of the schools that have opted out have done so for religious reasons, based around concerns that providing teenage girls with the vaccination could encourage promiscuity. Some of the reasons given by the schools include "not in keeping with the school ethos"; "pupils follow strict Christian principles, marry within their own community and do not practise sex outside marriage"; and "the school does not want parents/students to feel pressured by peers or the school setting".

Cervical cancer currently kills 1,000 women in the UK every year, and 70 per cent of cases are caused by the HPV virus.

National Trust to review exhibition at the Giant's Causeway

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Just a quick post to follow on from my recent posts on the the inclusion of creationism at the Giant's Causeway visitors' centre in County Antrim.

Having caused controversy by consulting with the evangelical Caleb Foundation and including a reference to creationist explanations for the Causeway's formation at the new visitors' centre, the National Trust has announced that it intends to review the contents of the exhibition. A post on the National Trust Press Office blog reads:
The National Trust has welcomed over 25,000 visitors through the new Giant’s Causewayvisitor centre since we opened its doors at the beginning of July.

We have been delighted with the positive feedback we have seen and heard from our visitors.

However, one small part of the visitor centre’s interpretive display has caused mixed reactions, mainly from people reacting to media coverage and online discussions.

The display in question focuses on the role that the Giant’s Causeway has played in the historical debate about how the earth’s rocks were formed.

Our intention in this section was to provide visitors with a flavour of the wide range of opinions and views that have been put forward over the years.

Our intention was not to promote or legitimise any of these opinions or views.

Unfortunately, elements from this part of the display appear to have been taken out of context and misinterpreted by some.

A spokesman said: “Having listened to our members’ comments and concerns, we feel that clarity is needed.

“There is clearly no scientific debate about the age of the earth or how the Causeway stones were formed.

“The National Trust does not endorse or promote any other view.

“Our exhibits, literature and audio guides for visits to the Causeway stones and this renowned World Heritage Site all reflect this.

“To ensure that no further misunderstanding or misrepresentation of this exhibit can occur, we have decided to review the interpretive materials in this section.”
This is good news. As I have stated in previous posts, it was always clear that the National Trust never intended to endorse creationism, or present it as a serious explanation for the Causeway. But by consulting with the Caleb Foundation and subsequently referencing creationism, they played into the hands of those who promote a "teach the controversy" approach, allowing them to hail the new Causeway visitors' centre as a victory for their perspective. This was clear from the Caleb Foundation's statement on the subject, which stated that the National Trust had "[set] a precedent for others to follow" in creating educational exhibits. The decision by the Trust to review the contents of the exhibit would suggest that they have learned from the experience, and hopefully means that a precedent for including creationism in exhibits has not been set.

Government approves creationist free schools – "teach the controversy" on the rise in the UK

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Ever since the Coalition government announced its free schools policy in 2010, secularist and humanist campaigners have expressed concern about the large proportion of religious groups seeking to run such schools, and have sought assurances that the teaching of creationism would not be permitted in any school approved by the Department for Education.

Despite concerns about some applications, most notably a proposal by the evangelical Everyday Champions Church in Nottinghamshire, the government has constantly stressed that it would not allow creationists to open free schools. Responding to concerns over the Everyday Champions application in March 2011, a DfE spokesperson said that creationism would not be accepted in any new schools:
"The education secretary is crystal clear that teaching creationism is at odds with scientific fact. Ministers have said they will not accept any proposal where there are concerns about the people behind the project."
And indeed, the Government was true to its word – it rejected the Everyday Champions application in October 2011, informing the church that Education Secretary Michael Gove could not accept its plans to teach creationism:
"The Secretary of State carefully considered your application, the views and beliefs of your organisation as set out in your application, your responses at interview and information about your organisation available in the public domain. He was unable to accept that an organisation with creationist beliefs could prevent these views being reflected in the teaching in the school and in its other activities. It is his firm view that the teaching of creationist views as a potentially valid alternative theory is not acceptable in a 21st century state funded school."
The issue appeared to be settled, particularly once, in January of this year, the DfE revised its "model funding agreement" for free schools in order to state that schools:
"...shall not make provision in the context of any subject for the teaching, as an evidence-based view or theory, of any view or theory that is contrary to established scientific and/or historical evidence and explanation."
Unfortunately, it now turns out that the issue was far from settled. This week, it has been revealed that three schools with intentions to teach creationism have been approved by the Education Secretary. They are:

Grindon Hall Christian School, Sunderland: This is currently a private school, but will open as a free school in September, having been approved by the Government last October. On its website it has a "Creation Policy" [Word Doc], which states the following:
"... we vigorously challenge the unscientific certainty often claimed by scientists surrounding the so-called “Big Bang” and origins generally.

We believe that no scientific theory provides – or ever will provide – a satisfactory explanation of origins, i.e. why the world appeared, and how nothing became something in the first place.

We will teach evolution as an established scientific principle, as far as it goes.

We will teach creation as a scientific theory and we will always affirm very clearly our position as Christians, i.e. that Christians believe that God’s creation of the world is not just a theory but a fact with eternal consequences for our planet and for every person who has ever lived on it.

We will affirm that to believe in God’s creation of the world is an entirely respectable position scientifically and rationally."
Exemplar – Newark Business Academy: The people behind this school, which was approved last week and will open in September 2013, are the same who proposed the rejected Everday Champions Academy. The school will teach creationism in RE instead of in science.

Sevenoaks Christian School: approved last week, and due to open in September 2013. On its website it acknowledges that it can not teach creationism in science, but seems to imply that it will do so in RE instead:
"Christians believe that God made the world, loves the world and is pleased with his creation. In RE we plan to teach about this and our responsibility as stewards of this precious earth. The government has said that free schools cannot teach “creationism” or 'intelligent design' in science lessons as an alternative to the theory of evolution and we are content to accept this."
Responding to the controversy over its approval of the three applications, the DfE has stressed that "no state-funded school is allowed to use science lessons to teach creationism as fact", adding that "free schools teaching creationism as fact [are] subject to action by the DfE, including prohibiting them from operating".

There are two points to raise in relation to the DfE's response. The first concerns creationism in science lessons. The DfE are adamant that creationism can not be taught as "fact". Rightly so – but it is simply not enough to prohibit the teaching of creationism as "fact". As I mentioned last week in a post on the controversy over creationism at the Giant's Causeway, a recognised creationist tactic, outline in the "Wedge Strategy" devised by the American Discovery Institute, involves undermining the teaching of evolution by handling it as one possible theory alongside other possible "theories", such as creationism or Intelligent Design. By "teaching the controversy", creationists seek to undermine the acceptance of evolution in order to "permeate religious, cultural, moral and political life" with creationism and ID.

The approach to science proposed by Grindon Hall Christian School is a perfect example of this strategy in action – the school know that they can not teach creationism as "fact", so instead they will teach it as a "theory", with the intention of planting doubts in their students' minds about evolution. 

The second point to raise about the DfE's response concerns RE lessons. Since there are regulations concerning the teaching of creationism in science lessons, it seems some schools seek to get around those regulations by teaching it in RE. Should this be allowed? You could argue this is to be expected in religious education lessons at a religious school, but it's worth considering the impact on the students' education. If pupils are learning about evolution as a "theory" in science lessons, but then being told that creationism is in fact the proper explanation for life in their RE lessons, science education is damaged in the long term. Once again, it's an example of "teach the controversy" in action, and that strategy should not be allowed to permeate Britain's state-funded schools.

If you're worried about the Government's approval of free schools with creationist outlooks, head over to the British Humanist Association's website, where you will find details of how to write to both your MP and Michael Gove to express your concerns.

And please do discuss all this in the comments.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Giant's Causeway controversy: creationists continue to claim victory

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The new visitors' centre at the Giant's Causeway continues
to generate controversy
Last week, the National Trust drew a great deal of criticism when it emerged that educational audio tours new visitors' centre at the Giant's Causeway in County Antrim contained a reference to Young Earth Creationist explanations for the origins of the spectacular rock formation.

The National Trust was quick to clarify its intentions in including the reference to creationism,  emphasising that it "fully supports the scientific explanation for the creation of the stones 60 million years ago", and pointing out that alternative explanations were only referred to in order to demonstrate how "the Causeway played a role in the historic debate about the formation of the earth, and that for some people this debate continues today".

While it was clear that the National Trust was not promoting creationism as a plausible explanation for the formation of the Causeway, many observers were still troubled by the fact that it had consulted with Northern Ireland's most prominent creationist organisation, the Caleb Foundation, when planning the contents of the visitors' centre. The Trust has stressed that the Foundation was just one of a "wide range of groups" that was consulted, but the problem is that by doing so, and by including creationism in the final exhibition, it has provided an opportunity for the Caleb Foundation to exploit its relationship with one of the country's most prestigious conservation organisations and claim the inclusion of creationism at the Causeway visitors' centre as a significant victory. For evidence of this, look no further than the statement released by the Caleb Foundation last week, which praised the National Trust for its "acknowledgement both of the legitimacy of the creationist position on the origins of the unique Causeway stones and of the ongoing debate around this", and went on to suggest that the Causeway exhibition should serve as an example to other educational exhibitions:
"This is, as far as we are aware, a first for the National Trust anywhere in the UK, and it sets a precedent for others to follow. We feel that it is important that the centre, which has been largely funded out of the public purse, should be inclusive and representative of the whole community, and we have therefore been engaged in detailed and constructive discussions with the Trust in order to secure the outcome we have today."
The reference to creationism at the Causeway may only represent a small concession to the creationist view, but what the National Trust needs to be aware of is that winning such small concessions forms a key part of creationist strategy. By encouraging organisations such as the National Trust to acknowledge creationist perspectives, it is possible that the Caleb Foundation are following the "Wedge Strategy", a tactic devised by creationists in the United States, most notoriously the Discovery Institute, in order to "permeate religious, cultural, moral and political life" with creationism and Intelligent Design.

Aware that they can not simply convert the American public to creationism overnight, the architects of the Wedge Strategy aim to persuade politicians, journalists and educators that the correct approach to "debates" around evolution and the age of the Earth is to "Teach the Controversy", giving perspective such as creationism and Intelligent Design a hearing alongside scientific theories. Through "Teach the Controversy", creationists hope that their perspective will acquire a greater presence in educational establishments and the media. In short, once one school, or one museum, or one newspaper, starts to deal with evolution alongside creationism, others will follow.

Having hailed the inclusion of creationism at the Giant's Causeway in its own press release last week, the Caleb Foundation has continued to celebrate. In a post that appeared yesterday on the Belfast Newsletter website, the Foundation's press officer David McConaghie echoed the message of the initial press release, welcoming the National Trust's actions as a victory for "inclusivity":
"For the first time a younger earth interpretation has now been included as part of an official site such as this. The National Trust did so without abandoning its own commitment to the majority interpretation. If the Trust can do so – why couldn’t others? Clearly they could.

This new feature at the Causeway Centre also has another wider significance. Every church group, Sunday school, youth fellowship etc can now go to the Causeway Centre, take on board what is said about the continuing debate and, from that starting point, tell children, young people, men’s groups, ladies’ fellowships or senior citizens about the wealth of evidence in all branches of science – evidence that some would seek to suppress – in all creation, that points to the hand of a sovereign God in this world. From there, they can show how this is in harmony with the Bible’s revelation of the grace of God in reaching down to mankind to redeem from sin.

Where once the only view on display was of an old earth, there is now reference to another perspective. The availability of more information will promote healthy, informed debate – surely that is a good thing."
While it's not clear that the Caleb Foundation have consciously followed the Wedge Strategy, what is clear is that their involvement in the Giant's Causeway project has produced an outcome entirely in keeping with the aims of the strategy and the "Teach the Controversy" approach. It is for this reason that the National Trust should never have become involved with an organisation like the Caleb Foundation, and would do well to avoid doing so in the future.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Use church schools to evangelise, says Anglican bishop

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 The Rt revd John, Pritchard,
Bishop of Oxford
The chairman of Church of England's board of education has announced that Anglican schools must do more to pass on the "Christian story" to their pupils. Addressing the Church's General Synod in York, the Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Revd John Pritchard, spoke of the need to counter “creeping scepticism about religion”, and in a report to the Synod revealed plans to alter the Church of England school curriculum to place “faith and spiritual development” at its heart
“If we miss the importance of this report the Christian story will continue to slide out of cultural memory. But if we seize the moment, we could be embedding that story in the life of the nation in a way we haven’t been able to do for decades. I’d put it as strongly as that.”
The Bishop went on to emphasise the fact that the Church of England's school network provides it with the opportunity to preach Christianity to large numbers of children on a daily basis:
“Church schools are under suspicion or attack in many corners of society . . . the pressure is on and our response must not be defensive but confidently on the front foot. Nationally we have a million parishioners in our schools every day. And these children have a whole hinterland of families. What an opportunity – are we up for it?”

Do we train our clergy for that opportunity or do we see engagement with schools as optional? The clergy ought to have a camp bed in there.”
In some ways, the news is hardly surprising – religion uses religious schools to evangelise shock horror! – but for those atheist or agnostic parents who send their parents to a Church of England school because they don't really have a choice, an evangelisation push is unlikely to be a welcome development. Church of England schools are often seen as offering a fairly mild religious education but, if the Bishop of Oxford has his way, that could be about to change. And if does, the Church may find that more people start to question why it has control of large numbers of publicly-funded schools.

Monday, 9 July 2012

View from America: can an evangelical athlete conquer the Godless Big Apple?

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To coincide with the publication of his new book How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom (Houghton-Mifflin) we areposting a series of short films and blog posts by Jacques Berlinerblau, one of the most perceptive commentators on America’s religious and irreligious landscape.

In his second dispatch he asks how the arrival of the American footballer Tim Tebow, America's most famous evangelical athlete, will go down in the country's most secular city.
The Secular Centre, Episode 2: Making Secular Sense of an Evangelical Sports Icon

Tim Tebow, perhaps the most high-profile Evangelical athlete in American history, is going to be playing in New York City – which is not, I hasten to add, a region of the country known for its commitment to biblical worldview.

For those in the audience who know little about that other football, the American variety, let me try to equip you with a few salient facts. Mr. Tebow was a college football star at the University of Florida where he wore his faith not only on his sleeve but in his eye black as well (If you are a non-American person who has no idea what eye black is or does, don’t fret. I don’t know what it does either; for an image, however, see the video above).

According to one account, 92 million people googled the scriptural verse John 3:16, after Mr. Tebow had it inscribed in his aforementioned eye black during a college championship game. When the young man was drafted to the professional National Football League by the Denver Broncos in 2010, the critics pointed out that, in terms of throwing mechanics, passing accuracy, natural gifts and so forth, he was a middling to terrible quarterback.

Supporters, however, riposted that he did have this odd tendency to win football games, often with unbelievable, last-second heroics (The clip you see above of him scampering through the New York Jets’ secondary with time running out, incidentally, precipitated my own nervous breakdown at a morose airport bar in San Francisco). The man may not have the usual talents, but he abounds in what Yanks like to call “intangibles”.

Tebow, and the religious “Tebowing” he is known for, certainly have a receptive audience in the American Mountain West. New York is a different story and most Gothamites were shocked when he was traded to the city’s long-suffering, theodicy-inducing, second-sister franchise, the Jets. (The Broncos could part ways with Tebow because they had just acquired Peyton Manning, one of the greatest quarterbacks to play the game).
Tim Tebow is famous for his on-field displays of devotion

What Tebow is doing in New York is not only a cultural mystery, but a football mystery as well. The team already has a perfectly good quarterback, Marc Sanchez. The laid-back California dude – who was once caught on camera supping on a hot dog during a blowout – led the Jets to two conference championship games in his first two seasons. Pessimists are quick to predict that the charismatic, prayerful Tebow will quickly divide the locker room and send the moody Sanchez (whose third season last year was a bit of a disappointment) into a brooding tailspin.

On the cultural side of things, many are wondering how Tebow will integrate into his new environs. New York is one of the (last) citadels of true American secularism and perhaps the most un-Evangelical friendly city in the nation. It is a coincidence, for sure, but I have been calling attention to efforts by conservative Christian groups to “take back” New York City (as I note in my forthcoming book with a nod to Sinatra “If they could make it un-secular there, they could make it un-secular anywhere”). This Reconquista, if you will, has mostly failed, but were Tebow to bring a Super Bowl victory to this godforesaken team, his missionizing influence in the Big Apple could conceivably be immense.

In trying to think through the Tebow problematic secularly, I find myself unable to Red Card the lad for anything in particular. Yes, he trumpets his faith on the playing field. Yes, I’d prefer that he would not do that. But he is certainly violating no laws in doing so.

Too, there is a charitable dimension to his advocacy, which cannot be gainsaid. The Tim Tebow Foundation, for example, works with orphanages and disadvantaged youth and is in the process of building a children’s hospital in the Philippines (where Tebow, the son of missionaries, was born).

Up until now, then, no complaints. That could change and if the past indiscretions by other Evangelical icons are a guide, it just might. But at present, secular Jets fans can sit back and enjoy both the action and the drama.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Update: National Trust statement on Giant's Causeway creationism controversy

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As I blogged this morning, the National Trust has come under fire today for including a reference to creationism in educational material at the new visitors' centre at the Giant's Causeway in County Antrim.

In response to the criticism they have been receiving, the National Trust have released a transcript of the section of an audio guide that references creationism:
"Like many natural phenomena around the world, the Giant's Causeway has raised questions and prompted debate about how it was formed.

This debate has ebbed and flowed since the discovery of the Causeway to science and, historically, the Causeway became part of a global debate about how the earth's rocks were formed.

This debate continues today for some people, who have an understanding of the formation of the earth which is different from that of current mainstream science.

Young Earth Creationists believe that the earth was created some 6000 years ago. This is based on a specific interpretation of the Bible and in particular the account of creation in the book of Genesis.

Some people around the world, and specifically here in Northern Ireland, share this perspective.

Young Earth Creationists continue to debate questions about the age of the earth. As we have seen from the past, and understand today, perhaps the Giant's Causeway will continue to prompt awe and wonder, and arouse debate and challenging questions for as long as visitors come to see it."
The National Trust have also provided the National Secular Society with a statement explaining their reasoning for including creationism:
"The interpretation in the visitor centre showcases the science of how the stones were formed, the history of this special place and the stories of local characters.

We reflect, in a small part of the exhibition, that the Causeway played a role in the historic debate about the formation of the earth, and that for some people this debate continues today.

The National Trust fully supports the scientific explanation for the creation of the stones 60 million years ago."
While it is clear from the transcript and the statement that the National Trust is not endorsing creationism in the Giant's Causeway exhibition, this clarification still does not help to explain why the Trust consulted with the evangelical Caleb Foundation, which recommended the inclusion of creationism, in the first place. While the exhibition simply references creationism as a view that some have taken, both historically and in the present, towards the origins of the Causeway, the fact that they were consulted at all has enabled the Caleb Foundation to hail the new visitors' centre as a vindication of their creationist perspective. This is clear from the statement released by the Foundation, which welcomes the National Trust's "acknowledgement both of the legitimacy of the creationist position on the origins of the unique Causeway stones and of the ongoing debate around this". And more worryingly, the statement goes on to suggest that the inclusion of creationism in the Causeway exhibition should be used as a guide for exhibitions at other sites of scientific interest:
"This is, as far as we are aware, a first for the National Trust anywhere in the UK, and it sets a precedent for others to follow. We feel that it is important that the centre, which has been largely funded out of the public purse, should be inclusive and representative of the whole community, and we have therefore been engaged in detailed and constructive discussions with the Trust in order to secure the outcome we have today."
As I wrote in my post this morning, while the National Trust may have acted with good intentions, by consulting with the Caleb Foundation and including creationism in the exhibition, they have handed a PR victory to creationist campaigners. In creating educational exhibitions, it would surely be better if such groups were not consulted at all.

Creationist view on show at new Giant's Causeway visitors' centre

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The Giant's Causeway in County Antrim
(Update, 5 July 2012, 4.40pm - the National Trust has released a new statement on this. See our most recent blog post)

Visitors to the Giant's Causeway in County Antrim can now learn all about the formation of one of the British Isles' great natural wonders following the opening of a new visitors' centre at the UNESCO World Heritage Site, built to replace a previous centre that was destroyed by fire in 2000.

However, those expecting a straightforward geological explanation for the stunning cluster of basalt columns, formed by volcanic eruptions up to 60 million years ago, could be in for a surprise, as the information at the new visitors' centre covers creationist explanations alongside the hard science.

According to a statement from the National Trust, which owns the site and built the new centre, this is intended to provide visitors with an understanding of the debates that have taken place over the centuries around the origins of the Causeway:
"The Giants' Causeway has always prompted debate about how it was formed and how old it is.

One of the exhibits in the Giants' Causeway Visitors' Centre interpretation tells the story of the part the Giants' Causeway played in the debate about how the Earth's rocks were formed and the age of the Earth.

This is an interactive audio exhibition in which visitors can hear some of the different debates from historical characters.

In this exhibition we also acknowledge that for some people, this debate continues today and we reflect and respect the fact that creationists today have a different perspective on the age of the Earth from that of mainstream science."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the inclusion of creationism in the new exhibition has been welcomed by Northern Ireland's evangelical Christians. The evangelical Caleb Foundation was consulted by the National Trust during the construction of the Causeway centre, and in a statement on its website it hails the exhibition for its vindication of creationist viewpoints:
"As an umbrella organisation which represents the interests of mainstream evangelical Christians in Northern Ireland,we have worked closely with the National Trust over many months with a view to ensuring that the new Causeway Visitor Centre includes an acknowledgement both of the legitimacy of the creationist position on the origins of the unique Causeway stones and of the ongoing debate around this. We are pleased that the National Trust worked positively with us and that this has now been included at the new Visitor Centre.

We fully accept the Trust’s commitment to its position on how the Causeway was formed, but this new centre both respects and acknowledges an alternative viewpoint and the continuing debate, and that means it will be a welcoming and enriching experience for all who visit.

This is, as far as we are aware, a first for the National Trust anywhere in the UK, and it sets a precedent for others to follow. We feel that it is important that the centre, which has been largely funded out of the public purse, should be inclusive and representative of the whole community, and we have therefore been engaged in detailed and constructive discussions with the Trust in order to secure the outcome we have today.

We want to thank senior National Trust officials who have worked closely with us over a prolonged period, and we are pleased that this constructive engagement has helped to bring about such a positive result."
For those who oppose the teaching of creationist views in a scientific context, the National Trust's collaboration with the Caleb Foundation, and the way in which the Foundation has celebrated the inclusion of its views, will serve to strengthen the arguments against "teach the controversy" arguments. From the National Trust's perspective, it seems that the inclusion of creationism is largely intended to highlight the way in which the understanding of the Causeway's origins has developed over time, but by working with the Caleb Foundation and including creationism alongside science, they have enabled evangelicals to exploit the situation and argue that creationism has been vindicated and legitimised by one of Britain's oldest and most respected conservation societies.

For this reason, when the aim is to educate young people, and the wider public, about science, it is perhaps better to steer clear of "teach the controversy" approaches, no matter how well-intentioned the reasoning may be.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Sanal Edamaruku's situation worsens: still facing arrest over debunking of Catholic miracle

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Sanal Edamaruku at the Church of Our Lady
of Velankanni in Vile Parle, Mumbai, where crowds had
flocked in March to see an alleged miracle
Last month we started a petition in support of Sanal Edamaruku, the President of the Indian Rationalist Association facing charges of “deliberately hurting religious feelings" over his exposure of a supposed miracle at a Catholic church in Mumbai. Edamaruku pointed out on TV that the source of "holy water" dripping from a crucifix in the church was in fact a leaky pipe, and this prompted three local Catholic organisations with close connections to the Catholic Archdiocese of Bombay to file complaints against him with the police.

Having been denied "anticipatory bail", Edamaruku was at risk of being held in custody ahead of any trial, and was forced to avoid his home whole he filed for anticipatory bail with the High Court in Mumbai.

Unfortunately, the situation has now worsened – his appeal for anticipatory bail with the High Court has been tossed out again (the higher court insists it goes through the lower courts first), which means arrest will lead to certain imprisonment for an indeterminate period. In the last two days police have turned up at his home in Delhi twice with an arrest warrant. He is currently in Europe (at an undisclosed location) but is worried that the Indian authorities will insist he returns to India to face the charges.

All of which means it is essential that we keep up the pressure – our petition calls on the Catholic Archdiocese of Bombay to urge the local Catholic groups to drop the complaints against Edamaruku. This currently has 6,702 signatures from supporters of free speech around the world, but would benefit from many more.

Please take the time to sign the petition, and pass it on to anyone you think would be concerned about the misuse of India's hate speech laws to suppress scientific knowledge and reasonable criticism of religious mysticism.

Update: 4 July 2012, 4:10pm: Edamaruku has updated his website with details of the attempts to arrest him:
This morning, officers of the Delhi Police reached Sanal Edamaruku’s house to arrest him. They came upon directions of a Delhi court to execute an arrest warrant issued by a Mumbai Metropolitan Magistrate Court (second highest Criminal Court). If Sanal had been at home, he would be in jail now
The officers were informed that Sanal is presently out of Delhi and traveling. They insisted on details of his whereabouts, addresses and contact numbers. Some hours later, they came again to press for information, to no avail.

With this dramatic turn of events, Sanal Edamaruku’s persecution has reached a dangerous new level.
Read the full update on the Rationalist International website

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

View from America: Healthcare and contraception – whose 'religious freedom' is it anyway?

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To coincide with the publication of his new book How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom (Houghton-Mifflin) we will be posting a series of short films and blog posts by Jacques Berlinerblau, one of the most perceptive commentators on America’s religious and irreligious landscape.

In his first dispatch he discusses how President Obama’s health reforms are going down with America’s Catholic Bishops.

Welcome to Berlinerblau’s Secular Center, please feel free to give us your views in the comments.
The Secular Center, Episode One: Whose “Religious Freedom” is it Anyway?
With the United States Supreme Court handing Barack Obama a stunning victory on health care this past week, the media has mostly ignored The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ ongoing “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign.

Fortnight for Freedom is a two-week protest against the Obama administration’s Health and Human Services mandates. The mandates – requiring most insurance providers to cover contraception for women free of charge in their health plans – have been understood by the bishops to be a massive violation of “religious liberty”.

Perhaps because it has been a rather busy week in DC, and perhaps because Washington is experiencing its annual Crippling Power Outage, and perhaps because the HHS controversy has been lava-spewing all year, the press hasn’t rally paid much attention to this latest eruption. But don’t take your eyes off the volcano.

As I have noted elsewhere, when traditionalist Catholics and White Conservative Evangelicals join in common cause they are an electoral force to be reckoned with (think of the so-called “values voters” who handed the presidency to fledging incumbent George W. Bush 2004). Although they do not share the Church’s doctrinal disapproval of contraception, the aforementioned Evangelicals have gladly joined in the scrum. And this is why the current silence surrounding “Fortnight for Freedom” initiative is deceptive.

With the Right whipped up into a frenzy about the last week’s Supreme Court ruling and with Obama and Romney locked in a close race, the “religious freedom” issue could become pivotal in the November elections. In fact, the latter term is quickly becoming a rallying cry in conservative precincts and the Bishops, perhaps inadvertently, are leading the way.

Understanding the volatility of the situation, the Obama administration did suggest a compromise back in March. Here the insurance companies themselves would foot the bill for contraception. Under the proposed accommodation, the Catholic Church would not be directly subsidising behaviours it finds immoral. But the Bishops again found this use of “third-party administrators” unacceptable (though in their defence there is some ambiguity about how completely self-insured Catholic institutions would go about availing themselves of a third-party).

The Catholic Church has again and again insisted that this is not a “contraception” issue, but a “religious freedom” issue. This is where today’s pilot episode of The Secular Center takes its cue. For even by the logic of “religious freedom” arguments, there is a glaring contradiction in the Bishops’ position.

I’ll let you watch the episode to figure out what that contradiction is, but suffice it to say that “religious freedom” must entail the freedom of Catholics to practice their religion in ways that don’t align with the counsels of the Bishops. Lest we forget, freedom from someone else’s conception of religion is also “religious freedom.”

I hope you enjoy Episode One of The Secular Center, an attempt to reclaim the term “secular” from foes and occasionally even friends. We’ll be ramping up production in the coming weeks and we look forward to hearing your comments and thoughts on the show the issues we examine.

Jacques Berlinerblau is an associate professor of Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University. His forthcoming book is How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom (Houghton-Mifflin)