Category Archives: Freethought

Book recommendation: His Dark Materials

I have just finished reading His Dark Materials, a fantasy trilogy written by Philip Pullman. It’s a delightful series which presents a humanistic worldview, so I thought I’d write a quick recommendation for it here. (Readers unfamiliar with the trilogy may know the title of its first book, The Golden Compass, which was also made into a movie in 2007. The movie didn’t impress me, but the books did!)

The Golden CompassThe story is set in a parallel universe similar to our Victorian England. In this world, humans have animal companions called daemons – sentient creatures that go wherever their humans go, and are inextricably linked to them. There are differences between children’s and adult’s daemons; the daemon of a child can change shape at will, but then settles into one particular form as the child reaches adolescence. The main character of the story is Lyra, a parentless child who has been raised and educated by Scholars at Jordan College in Oxford. When she finds out that all over the country children of low-status families are being abducted, including one of Lyra’s friends from Oxford, she becomes involved in a quest to save them. Along the way, Lyra learns about a mysterious particle that permeates the universe, called Dust, which may have something to do with the difference between children’s and adults’ daemons. Lyra and her allies also come into conflict with a powerful church called The Magisterium, that wants to destroy Dust and obscure the truth about it.

Though His Dark Materials contains adventures and battles and interesting worlds galore, ultimately the story sends a message about the pursuit of knowledge and the spirit of inquiry. There is a scene near the end where the heroes are told by one wise character to never stop learning, and to keep their minds “open and free and curious.” What’s not to love about that?

Something, apparently – as there has been a good deal of controversy about the books and the movie. A number of Christian groups and representatives for the Catholic Church have called the story “dangerous” and “anti-Christian.” An archbishop in New Orleans wrote that the trilogy poses a “special threat to Christianity”! That’s quite the review, if three books can undo what two thousand years of history hasn’t.

I must say I don’t quite understand the protest. While the Magisterium in Pullman’s books bears a number of superficial similarities to the Roman Catholic Church, the reason they are portrayed as the “enemy” is because they want to keep people ignorant. The Magisterium opposes the values of thinking for oneself and making one’s own decisions, and the heroes of Pullman’s story don’t take kindly to that. Is this message inimical to the Christian religion or to the Catholic Church? I’d say it’s up to them to decide. But so far, the prognosis doesn’t look good. In 2007 when The Golden Compass movie was about to be released, a bishop in Austin had the books removed from every Catholic school in the diocese. If the Catholic response to books that encourage thinking for oneself is to ban them, then I would say they’ve conceded Pullman’s point rather nicely.

***
PS: Christopher Hitchens wrote a review of His Dark Materials way back in 2002. Readers may want to check it out, as it’s always a delight to read anything by Hitchens. But beware – it does include spoilers!

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President Jimmy Carter writes about women and religion

I have just come across an article that President Jimmy Carter wrote in 2009 on the intersection of religion and the status  of women in society. The article appeared in the National Times in Australia and is titled, Losing my religion for equality. I find the piece to be mostly good, with a few not-so-good parts mixed in.

President Carter at the LBJ Library in 2011.

President Carter at the LBJ Library in 2011.

In the article, Carter describes how he severed his ties with the Southern Baptist Convention, after sixty years of membership, due to their scripture-based stance that women should be subservient to men. Specifically, the SBC,

…claiming that Eve was created second to Adam and was responsible for original sin, ordained that women must be “subservient” to their husbands and prohibited from serving as deacons, pastors or chaplains in the military service.

Carter notes that this philosophy isn’t just limited to Southern Baptists.

This view that women are somehow inferior to men is not restricted to one religion or belief. Women are prevented from playing a full and equal role in many faiths. Nor, tragically, does its influence stop at the walls of the church, mosque, synagogue or temple. This discrimination, unjustifiably attributed to a Higher Authority, has provided a reason or excuse for the deprivation of women’s equal rights across the world for centuries.

Carter goes on to list tragic consequences of this type of thinking, from the restrictions and injustices heaped selectively on women in many third-world countries, to the discrepancies in pay and status between women and men in Western society. Carter makes the case that this sort of thing really matters.

And that’s what I think is good about the article – Carter’s outright rejection of the idea that women are inferior to men, and his insistence that we stand up to people and organizations who say so. What I dislike is the way he excuses the Bible for its misogyny.

Carter blames the problem of misogyny in the Bible on “interpretation,” and a self-serving bias on the part of religious leaders:

The truth is that male religious leaders have had – and still have – an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter.

While I agree that many religious teachings are invented for self-serving reasons, it cannot be true that religious texts are completely malleable to any interpretation. For example, how can the following passage from the Bible possibly be interpreted to exalt women?

A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. (1 Corinthians 11:7-10)

How about this passage?

I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you. (Genesis 3:16)

Or this?

Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. (Ephesians 5:22-24)

There is no way to interpret these verses in a positive light; the best one can do is pretend they don’t exist. The problem with the texts of the Bible then is not just one of interpretation, but one of content. The inferior nature of women is a theme that runs throughout. Carter is right to speak out against this, but wrong to try to exonerate the Bible (or other religious texts) in a way that isn’t rationally doable.

Why do I think this is important? Because if we ignore the parts of religious texts that we don’t like, we are never forced to face the obvious fact – that those texts are full of passages that are wrongheaded, immoral, or factually incorrect. In the United States alone, there are millions of christians who are anti-science, anti-women’s rights, and anti-gay. Their religion forms part of their defense against better, more humanistic ideas. What these christians need to do is not ignore questionable passages from their holy book, but pay attention to them, so that at some point they realize that maybe they shouldn’t put so much faith in something so full of error.

On this point, President Carter seems to be still in denial. He finds fault with the humans who interpret religious texts, but he gives a free pass to the idea of putting faith in texts that are morally and factually questionable. Carter encourages us to think for ourselves when it comes to women’s rights. We know that women are just as smart, talented, and capable as men. I would just take that idea one step further, and say that we should think for ourselves on every subject, and not give credence to silly ideas simply because they have been held up as holy.

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Why harassment isn’t free speech

One of the limitations on free speech in American public schools is when speech becomes harassment. What constitutes harassment, and why is it a good idea to put limits on this sort of behavior?

Here is an interesting example from a high school in Nova Scotia. Granted, Canadian law isn’t American law, but it’s the case that I care about. A student named William Swinimer was suspended for wearing a t-shirt to school with the slogan, “Life Is Wasted Without Jesus.” Now this, alone, would not be an actionable offense in the US or in Canada. In a previous post on student speech, I discussed students’ rights to express all sorts of potentially offensive ideas via their dress (one student wore a Jesus costume to his school’s “Fictional Character Day”). Swinimer, however, had been repeatedly preaching his religion and telling other students that they would go to hell. He was, it seems from the report, disrupting the school learning environment and making it more difficult for other students to learn. As a result, he was ordered to stop wearing the offending t-shirt (which he had worn every day for several weeks). When he continued to wear the shirt, Swinimer was suspended for five days.

Is this the right approach? It seems to me that the distinction between speech that should be protected in schools (including speech that is unpopular or offensive), and behavior such as the above, is a valid one to make. The Washington chapter of the ACLU has an article explaining why behavior such as Swinimer’s constitutes “harassment,” and why it should be restricted:

Students do not abandon their rights to freedom of speech at the classroom door. A school should allow students to speak freely so long as their speech does not substantially interfere with the educational process or the rights of other students. However, certain conduct may be prohibited in a school setting even where it could not be punished in other settings.

For example, it does not violate freedom of speech when teachers require that students stop extraneous conversations and pay attention in class; this form of student speech interferes with the educational process. In the same way, harassment of students by other students interferes with the operation of the school and infringes on the rights of the harassed students to enjoy equal treatment under law and equal educational opportunity. Schools have a compelling interest in eliminating discrimination and harassment, and this goal may be pursued in a manner that does not abridge the right to freedom of expression.

In a previous post (linked above), I discussed why free speech, and therefore the free exchange of ideas, is important. It makes our society better to be able to say what we think, and respond to ideas that we find false or pernicious. Censorship does not solve problems. Harassing individuals, however, and interfering with their ability to learn is a problem, and should rightly be prohibited. In certain cases where harassment or bullying of a group is particularly prevalent or severe, we have an even greater responsibility to see that those students are protected, lest something terrible happen. This is why it was disgusting last November to see Michigan Republicans attempt to pass a law to let school bullies off the hook if they acted out of a “sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction.” Against a national backdrop of anti-gay bullying and teen suicide, Republicans wanted christians to have free license to disparage students for being gay.

So to return to the current issue, while I defend William Swinimer’s right to express offensive beliefs in school, I think it’s good to draw the line at pestering other students and disrupting the learning environment.

(via Butterflies and Wheels)

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Some good advice

For my final post on free speech this week, I thought I’d share the transcript of a 2008 commencement speech given by Singaporean author and lawyer, Adrian Tan. The speech is good (and not overly long), but what stands out for me is Tan’s advice to “be hated.”

…every great figure who has contributed to the human race has been hated, not just by one person, but often by a great many. That hatred is so strong it has caused those great figures to be shunned, abused, murdered and in one famous instance, nailed to a cross.

One does not have to be evil to be hated. In fact, it’s often the case that one is hated precisely because one is trying to do right by one’s own convictions. It is far too easy to be liked, one merely has to be accommodating and hold no strong convictions. Then one will gravitate towards the centre and settle into the average. That cannot be your role. There are a great many bad people in the world, and if you are not offending them, you must be bad yourself. Popularity is a sure sign that you are doing something wrong.

So true! And it’s rarely said. Few people take kindly to being told they’re wrong, or that they have to change. Say what you believe, and don’t let offense be an excuse to stop talking.

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Kenan Malik on banning hate speech

I might as well declare this “Free Speech Week” here on my blog. I’ve posted twice on the subject already this week, and today’s post will mark my third. I’m glad, for the following is something I’ve been meaning to share.

Writer and blogger Kenan Malik recently posted the text of an interview he gave on the subject of hate speech. He’s titled the post, Why hate speech should not be banned.

As I wrote yesterday, free speech is a difficult issue, and I find myself frequently in need of a reminder as to why disparagement of persons based on their immutable characteristics – in other words, hate speech – should be protected. Malik gives clear, well-thought out answers to this question and many related ones. Normally I would offer some highlights, but really the entire interview is engaging and informative, and well worth one’s time. Do give it a look.

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Yes, you can still be offensive in school (and why this is a good thing)

Free speech is a difficult issue. I’ve read the arguments in favor numerous times, but despite this fact I find that I must frequently remind myself why a hateful or ignorant opinion must be allowed free expression. Two days ago, I discussed the free speech rights of a high school student who wore a Jesus costume to school, and some commenters (mostly on Facebook, rather than here) disagreed with my opinion. It is because free speech is such a difficult issue that I find these objections well worth getting into. In this post, I take a look at fairness in censorship, hate speech, and the difference between freedom of expression inside and outside public school.

First, a recap: On Monday I posted about an incident at a high school in Tennessee. The school held a Fictional Character Day, in which students could come to school dressed as their favorite fictional characters. One student, Jeff Shott, dressed as Jesus. He was warned by the school administrators that if his costume caused a class disruption of any kind, he would be forced to remove the costume. So Shott decided to take the costume off right then and there.

I argued that it was silly for (students who were presumably) christians to get upset by someone asserting that the (supernatural) Jesus is fictional. After all, this is what practically every jew, muslim, hindu, buddhist, atheist, and agnostic in the school believes. More importantly, I argued that the school was wrong to punish Shott for class disruption caused by other students. Shott was following the rules. The idea that a student could be so upset over the assertion that their religion is untrue that they would cause a classroom disturbance, and that a school administrator could put the responsibility for such immaturity on Jeff Shott, and punish him for asserting an unpopular opinion, is outrageous. This sort of issue is exactly what free speech is about.

Note, first, the thread of minority oppression in this incident. According to Shott’s retelling, when Shott was called to the principal (Dr. Farmer)’s office to discuss his costume, he was asked to state who he was portraying. After he answered, “Jesus Christ,” Farmer said he had been hoping the answer would be Zeus, or some other mythological deity. Now I do not know if the words “mythological deity” were Shott’s or Farmer’s, but the mention of Zeus makes the intent clear. It is perfectly alright to dress up as fictional characters from unpopular religions, but you’d best leave christianity alone. The tenets of christianity have a privilege that other beliefs do not have.

And thus we get into the reason why protecting free speech is so important – there is a tendency to marginalize opinions that we disagree with, that are controversial, or that we find offensive. This is what we must watch out for, because human logic is fallible, popularity is a fickle thing, and offense is in the eye of the beholder. How long will it be before someone declares your ideas offensive, and therefore off the table? There is no protection against this other than the protection of free speech.

One of the comments I received on Monday (again, this was on Facebook, not here), was that a student wearing a fictional Jesus costume is actually persecuting christians! My, this is setting the bar for persecution rather low. If telling someone that they are wrong amounts to persecution, then I daresay my friend was persecuting me when he disagreed with my blog post. And who cares if he was? Who cares if he was telling me I’m wrong? I have never found it to be such a terrible thing. Unpleasant, certainly, but far more pleasant than an unfree exchange of ideas.

Furthermore, this suggestion demonstrates an obliviousness to the privilege that christians in America enjoy. On the subject of articles of dress that assert certain beliefs, my friend called out Jeff Shott for his assertion (via costume) that christians are wrong, but failed to say anything about the crosses that christians often wear, which assert that atheists such as myself, as well as jews, muslims, hindus – basically anyone who isn’t christian – are wrong. As a matter of fact, I find many of the basic tenets of christianity (which are, again, asserted by the wearing of the cross) to be immoral and downright offensive, so may I silence christians from voicing their opinions, as well? This is an obvious double standard.

Commenters also provided me with further examples to consider. What if a student had come to school wearing Nazi or Ku Klux Klan gear, or a T-shirt with an anti-minority group slogan? What if a student had worn a Hitler costume to Fictional Character Day, and this greatly upset someone whose family had been affected by the Holocaust? Would it be right to make such a student remove his or her costume?

These are important questions to ask, and I will get to them in a moment. First, let us notice a few things. Do you see any important differences between the assertion that “Jesus didn’t exist,” and the assertion that “You are an inferior human being,” which is the sort of thing that hate groups like the neo-Nazis and the KKK often assert? The former statement attacks an idea; the latter attacks a person. Furthermore, if a person is attacked for their race, gender, sexual orientation, and so on, that is something they cannot change. Beliefs can change – and should! – based on evaluation of evidence, but if someone despises you for who you are, there’s nothing you can do about it.

So we are getting into the category of tougher examples as far as free speech is concerned. This is no longer the mere (and yes, I say “mere!”) assertion that a popular religion is wrong. This is hate speech. Hate speech is, aside from a few exceptions, protected by the First Amendment. But the question for this blog post is, how far does that protection extend into public schools? How far should it extend?

The examples above that my friends provided were thought-provoking, and it wasn’t obvious to me what the answer should be. Like I said, free speech is a difficult issue. So I did some research. It turns out that public school students (and teachers) have all of their First Amendment rights more or less intact!

The seminal court case on this issue was Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969). The Tinkers were Iowa public school students (siblings), who decided to wear black arm bands to school to protest the Vietnam war. Their respective schools banned the arm bands, and punished students who continued to wear them. The Court ruled that such a violation of free speech was unconstitutional, so long as the speech would not “materially and substantially interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school.” This became known as the “Tinker test” (which I will comment more on in a moment). There are a few other limitations on students’ speech, with regard to defamation, obscene speech, “true threats,” and harassment. These restrictions are well-explained in this PDF from the  ACLU of Washington State. Suffice to say, offending someone for any reason is not enough to constitute harassment.

Since Tinker v. Des Moines, numerous decisions have upheld the right of students to wear controversial and “offensive” (I put this in quotes because it is subjective) clothing to school (see this PDF from American University Law Review for a summary). One such case involved the donning of a T-shirt with the slogan, “Homosexuality is a sin! Islam is a lie! Abortion is murder! Some issues are just black and white!” Let me stress that this sort of speech is protected by the First Amendment, even in public schools.

Is this a good thing for our society? I think so. As I said above, by protecting all speech we ensure that someone else’s subjective evaluation of our words will not be used to silence us. The ACLU echoes this point, as well as several others. To paraphrase, the free exchange of ideas is paramount in a free society. Limiting free speech for the purpose of combating bias (say, against racial minorities) traditionally does not work – it merely suppresses the symptom – hateful speech – without addressing or exposing the underlying bigotry. The best response to speech you don’t like is more speech.

It might be argued that this is all well and good when it comes to society at large, but should it apply to our children attending school? Shouldn’t they be, you know, protected from hate? Again, I see more good in protecting free speech. First of all, it is impossible to be objective about what speech is “bad.” People will always label speech that threatens their views as “wrong” or “offensive,” regardless of whether there is any truth to that claim. More importantly, children should be full participants in the democratic free exchange of ideas – we can’t expect them to handle ideas they find odious with maturity or sensibility if we do not teach them this skill. The Supreme Court over the years has spoken strongly in favor of this principle [emphasis mine]:

“The Fourteenth Amendment, as now applied to the States, protects the citizen against the State itself and all of its creatures — Boards of Education not excepted. These have, of course, important, delicate, and highly discretionary functions, but none that they may not perform within the limits of the Bill of Rights. That they are educating the young for citizenship is reason for scrupulous protection of Constitutional freedoms of the individual, if we are not to strangle the free mind at its source and teach youth to discount important principles of our government as mere platitudes.

Students in school as well as out of school are “persons” under our Constitution. They are possessed of fundamental rights which the State must respect, just as they themselves must respect their obligations to the State. In our system, students may not be regarded as closed-circuit recipients of only that which the State chooses to communicate. They may not be confined to the expression of those sentiments that are officially approved. In the absence of a specific showing of constitutionally valid reasons to regulate their speech, students are entitled to freedom of expression of their views. As Judge Gewin, speaking for the Fifth Circuit, said, school officials cannot suppress “expressions of feelings with which they do not wish to contend.”

My last argument for the protection of speech, both inside and outside of school, is that offensive, idiotic, or just plain wrong expressions of opinion should not get us down. We are bigger than bad ideas! It doesn’t matter if I tell you that Jesus is fiction, or if you tell me that I’m going to hell because I am an atheist. These opinions may upset us, but it is more upsetting when we cannot voice our opinions at all. These are the lessons that Shott’s high school could have taught!

The only major point on which I disagree with the US courts is regarding the Tinker test. As I said two days ago, we cannot allow other students’ actions to dictate whether free expression is protected or not. There is nothing fair or right about protecting an opinion one day because no one caused a disruption over it, and censoring an opinion the next day because someone did. I agree that a certain degree of order, and more importantly, safety, must be maintained, but we must be careful not to allow loud and unruly persons to take away our basic freedoms. It may be the case that Jeff Shott’s costume, had he continued wearing it, would not have offended sensibilities enough to cause any kind of classroom disturbance. However, on that day or any other, there would be nothing to stop interested parties from causing a disturbance on purpose in order to silence Shott (or anyone else they disagreed with.) It does not protect free speech to put the power of censorship in the hands of those who would be most tempted to use it.

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The Thinking Atheist on unfalsifiable faith claims

TheThinkingAtheist (aka Seth) gave an excellent lecture at the Oklahoma Freethought Convention last month, on the topic of challenging faith claims made by the religious. The whole thing is worth a listen, but I was particularly impressed with the first sixteen minutes, in which Seth lucidly showed why claims by religious people that God answers prayers and works miracles here on earth do not make any sense – in fact, such claims are unfalsifiable to begin with.

For example, Seth talks about a hypothetical American teenage boy who is the victim of a shooting. After being shot, the boy is rushed to the hospital, where one of several possible scenarios plays out.

  1. Imagine first that the boy makes a full recovery – the bullets missed all of his vital organs, thank God. He’ll need time to heal, but he won’t suffer any permanent damage. “It’s a miracle,” the religious will say. God is good.
  2. Second, imagine instead that one of the bullets had hit the boy’s spinal cord, leaving him paralyzed. He’ll have to live the rest of his life in a wheelchair… but he’s alive! “God must have had more work for him to do on this earth. Praise the Lord he’s still with us.” God is good.
  3. The worst-case scenario is that the boy dies. His wounds were too severe; the doctors couldn’t save him. “God must have been done with him here on this earth. He’s in a better place now, with no violence and no pain. He’s been called home.” God is good.

In each case down the line, the requirements are relaxed for what state of affairs would lead to the conclusion that God is good. By the time you get to the third scenario, you’re confronted with the fact that an innocent boy is dead, and God still gets credit for being good. At this point you have to admit that the statement has no requirements on its being true at all. It’s simply true no matter what happens- and so, what does it even mean to say that God is good? Apparently it means that the world will go on as it does. Your children might get shot in the street. Or they might not.

In his lecture Seth goes through many examples of this kind of thinking, drawn from his experiences as someone who was a fundamentalist Christian for thirty years. It’s very well presented – do check it out!

(via Friendly Atheist)

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