You may have heard, early last month, that Ireland has passed a new law regarding blasphemy. There also seems to be some confusion on the matter – is this a new law, making blasphemy illegal where it was previously not? Or is it perhaps a reform of an older law, which actually reduces the sanction on this offense from prison time to a fine? Either way, atheists and secularists of all stripes are up in arms, and a lot of them seem to be ignorant of the facts. When freethinkers start leaping to the defensive just from the very mention of words such as “blasphemy”, without examining the details, how can we claim the moral high ground? How are we better than fundamentalists? If we are to debate credibly, we need to be able to marshal the facts. This, in my mind, is one of the most important distinguishing aspects of the sceptical and secularist movements.
So, what are the facts in this case?
The Irish Constitution requires a law making blasphemy an offense. Such a law was not passed until 1961, but did not satisfactorily define blasphemy – this led to the 1999 Supreme Court ruling that the current law was unenforceable. Instead of amending the constitution to remove the necessity of the law, however (which would require a national referendum), it was decided that it would be easier to enact a law that was enforceable. This passed in early July.
So, in effect, blasphemy is now illegal in Ireland, and while this has apparently always been the case, it is now a cogent and enforeceable law with a specified definition and penalty (and a hefty penalty at that – up to €25,000). It will however likely not be operable until late October, due to necessary modifications in the rules of court to accommodate it. There is a significant campaign to repeal the new law, and indeed it seems that there are good reasons to consider it to be in conflict with the constitution – not to mention the European Convention on Human Rights.
All this information is available at the excellent website Blasphemy.ie, and what is presented here is intended as a summary, attempting to clarify a situation which seems to be widely misunderstood.
So what’s the bottom line here?
Blasphemy is now functionally illegal in Ireland. This is a result of recent legislation which did not introduce it as an offense but rather clarified the law to a point at which it was enforceable. This was ostensibly done to avoid the costs of a referendum – which, as mentioned, would be necessary were Ireland to alter the constitution and remove the need for a blasphemy law. But, as Padraig Reidy points out, a referendum is planned for October on the issue of the Lisbon Treaty (a generally unrelated matter) – so why not save a few Euros and combine the two? And why set the penalty for blasphemy so high? Surely if it were a token law for the sake of convention, it would warrant only a token penalty. Does this perhaps hint at an ulterior motive for enacting the new legislation?
I am clearly not in a position to comment on that possibility. Anybody who is would be gratefully welcomed if they cared to enlighten me. Suffice it to say that I have been a little disappointed by the sparse and superficial coverage this story has received – as usual, the reality is a bit more complicated.
To stay updated with this case, head to blasphemy.ie.
Many of you will have heard of Pascal’s Wager; it is one of the more well-known arguments against adopting an atheist world-view. Summarised, it states that it is better to believe in God because if one is wrong, one loses nothing, whereas if the atheist is wrong, (s)he goes to hell. Not only is this a truly cynical way to come to religious belief, but there are certain other flaws also – primarily, the issue of which God.
For instance, suppose you took it seriously, and began worshipping the God of the Bible, the Christian God – quite confident in your now-unassailable position. You can’t lose! If there’s no God, no harm done. If there is, you’re in his good books. However, when you finally meet your maker, it turns out to be Allah. He’s not too pleased about your outspoken worship of a rival God, and you end up in Hell anyway. So much for the wager.
Until recently, I thought this was the best argument to marshal against the infamous wager. Then I was introduced to this elegant quotation from Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of the Roman Empire from 161 to 180. Which means that this quote predates Pascal’s Wager by approximately 1500 years.
“Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”
It is always gratifying to find one’s own thoughts put so eloquently into text.
Before I begin, I ought to warn you that there is no real conclusion or argument to be found in this entry; it is rather intended as a collection of musings hoped to inform but primarily provoke further thought. Most of what is contained herein is part of an ongoing internal discussion I’m holding with myself, and this forms something of an update as to the point that that debate has reached. So open your mind, and read on.
I have made mention before of my status as a pagan atheist. It’s not just an incidental matter for me, either; while I don’t believe the Gods or spirits are actual entities capable of any kind of interaction with this world, I believe they are powerful and practically useful metaphors for a great deal of human life. The Gods we choose for ourselves – if choose them we do – represent those principles which are most important to us. For this reason I tend more toward the Northern European pantheon, in particular the Norse Gods. If I had a Sabbath like the Christian Sunday or Jewish Friday, it would be Wednesday, named for Odin, a.k.a. Woden (Woden’s Daeg -> Wednesday) – for he is the figure with whom I most identify.
He is the symbol for wisdom, courage, and honour – among many other things. He is also seen as the guardian of travellers, much as the Christian Saint Christopher. All of these themes are ones which ring true with me: I aspire to be wise, courageous and honourable above all else; I can think of no qualities I would rather possess. There is also an emphasis on respect and reverence for nature in the Northern European religions, which it won’t surprise you to find has particular resonance with me.
So why, you might ask, don’t I just identify with those qualities directly instead of expressing them through the language of mythology and religious faith? It is a good question, and one which I have asked myself on many an occasion. I think the answer, as far as I can fathom it, lies in what I refer to as the “power of metaphor”; that is, the linguistic and emotional force that can be expressed only in terms of phenomena that transcend the physical, evidential world. Humanity is known for being a fickle race, and a claimed devotion to an abstract concept such as justice seems to hold less force, somehow, than a claimed devotion to a deity personifying that concept. It is an appeal to the eternal nature of these ideals as opposed to the sometimes-fleeting nature of humanity’s adherence to them.
Another example of this that I recently found out about (thanks to my friend the Nietzschean feminist) is Laveyan satanism, which again is essentially an atheist religion. The ideals it favours are individualism, a realistic approach to humanity’s darker impulses and an acceptance of these drives as an inevitable an essential component of understanding what it is to be human. There is also a strong element of anarchism, a rebelliousness and hostility toward authority that is reflected in few other mythologies. But it is atheist – and specifically non-Christian, a claim which cannot be made by theistic Satanism – because it entails a commitment to these ideals only, not a belief in a literal Satan or lesser demons. There is much in LaVeyan Satanism which rings true with me and values which are shared by the pagan faith.
On a tangentally-related topic, I also want to address the topic of Santa Claus – not as a metaphor, but as a belief tantamount to religion but treated as a socially-acceptable falsehood. This line of thought comes from listening to my backlog of Point of Inquiry podcasts, specifically the interview with Todd C. Riniolo. He noted an objection to the widely-used argument in sceptical circles that it is little wonder that people are credulous in adulthood when they are raised to believe in Santa Claus as children. It is rarely used as a forceful argument, usually instead forming a arbitrary comment; but nonetheless is worth addressing. Riniolo’s objection is that there is simply no proof that belief in Santa during childhood leads to credulity in adulthood. Indeed, he argues, the “debunking” of Santa constitutes many a child’s first truly sceptical activity.
I thought this was a very interesting point, and it contributed to an ongoing internal debate I’ve been conducting with regards to how best to raise a child in the sceptical mindset. It hasn’t helped me make up my mind on the subject, but has made a significant contribution to the complexity of the issue. Is it wrong to lie to one’s children in this regard, or is it a valuable experience that teaches them that deception (harmless or otherwise) is everywhere and that nobody is to be trusted implicitly? On a personal note, I think I “grew out of” notions like God and spiritualism around the same time as I did the notion of Santa. I don’t recall being annoyed at the deception, either; at some point it just became a childish absurdity and I scoffed at my parents for persisting in the charade.
So would it be better or worse to deny one’s child this experience? Should we rather explain as best we can the lessons that would be learned through it, rather than perpetuate the white lies? At the very least, it seems that the lies do less harm than one might think.
I was among the many millions of people who tuned in yesterday to witness the historic inauguration of the 44th president of the U.S.A.. It was as superb a speech as I had come to expect from Obama, and it was nice to see and hear true oratory art return to what is arguably the highest public office in the world.
But of course it is the content of the speech that truly matters, and here again he did not disappoint. Again he made history (to the best of my knowledge) by becoming the first president to acknowledge the existence and importance of atheists and agnostics in their inaugural speech. Even better than this, however, was the promise that science would be restored to its rightful place; the scientific community had been given promises along those lines throughout the campaign – and it was truly gratifying to see it given such prominence.
The overwhelming theme of the speech, however, had a distinct secular humanist feel, one of shared responsibility and a positive belief in society’s ability to effect change.
The future looks, despite the present dark, a lot brighter than it has for some time. Thank you to every American who chose hope over fear.
The biggest news in the athiest/sceptical sphere at the moment is probably the “atheist bus campaign” – by which I mean that it is the story that has garnered the most attention among the news/opinion sources I read on a regular basis.
When I first got wind of the idea a little while ago, I greeted it with mirth and interest; I thought it was about time we had some secular, atheist or agnostic messages out in the “real world”. It would help stimulate debate, and perhaps make people realise that they’re not alone in feeling detached from religion (a feeling I’m sure is more prevalent than generally believed).
Now that the campaign has well and truly taken off (last I heard they had exceeded their target by a staggering £75,000 or so), it’s even turning up in the “Politics” section of my RSS feeds – at Liberal Conspiracy and even a spoof by the great Beau Bo D’Or.
Of course, being sceptics, there has been little agreement on whether the slogan that had been settled upon was the right one to use. The first objections centered around the use of the word “probably”, and this choice may or may not have been down to advertising regulations not allowing more assertive statements. Others have claimed it’s too patronising and will not achieve what it aims to.
The most interesting objections come from an authoritative source, Tracy King at Skepchick.org, who expands on her initial misgivings in this comment. As someone who not only works in marketing, but was also a one-time Christian, her opinion is a very well-informed one on this matter. For her, the slogan not only doesn’t cut it, but is actually counter-productive. Sadly, I’m inclined to agree.
The question that needs to be asked when designing this sort of thing has to be about what the effect of the advert is intended to be. As far as I can tell, the motivation behind this one is to get people thinking, talking, and questioning religion, and also to put a friendly face on the alternatives – in this case, humanism. So will the chosen slogan have the intended effect? The general consensus among those discussing it seems to be “no”. The thread on the UK-Skeptics Forum has now turned mostly toward what the slogan should be.
I have no experience as a slogan-writer so can do little to offer alternatives; but as far as concepts go, I’d prefer one that didn’t evoke “God” at all. I feel that a campaign simply promoting rational, free, and intelligent debate would be more beneficial. The biggest problem faced in this regard is how best to word it so that average people will actually look at it and think.
I don’t know how far along the process is as far as the advertising is concerned, but if it’s at all possible, those organising the campaign should rethink the slogan in consultation with marketing advisers. The amount of money they have raised is a mandate to take it seriously and do the best job they possibly can.
One of the more commented posts here recently was Home Turf, in which I inveighed at some length regarding the logically necessary divide between science and religion. Religion is fine, I concluded, as long as it remains in the private sphere.
My good friend Von made a comment which brought to attention something which was left unsaid (though perhaps implied) in my original rant – why religion is actually OK at all.
There is no doubt in my mind whatsoever that religion has played a positive role in a great many lives. The advantages it brings are almost too numerous to list, but here’s a cursory top-of-the-head job: removes/reduces fear of death; provides consolation after a loss; creates a sense of wonder; absolves from guilt; “explains” everything; provides cast-iron moral code; binds communities together… I could go on, but I won’t.
These are the things which should be celebrated about religion; but they should not be considered – as they so often are – the sole domain thereof. As an atheist, I am truly and profoundly insulted when people argue that atheism means amorality; I don’t fear death because all evidence suggests that it is the absence of experience, and it is thus senseless to fear it; and a sense of wonder is certainly no stranger to me – nature in all its complex splendour is quite amazing enough without having to resort to supernature.
But isn’t it more interesting (and fruitful) to discuss these issues, like the true value of religion and the role it might, should, does – or not – play in society? Rather than obsessing over complete and eternal non-starters like the verifiability of deities? Religious-types: stop offering proof. Scientific-types: stop demanding it.
The first step in looking for meaningful answers is to ask meaningful questions.
Please stop censoring freedom of expression.
Either: reinstate fsmdude’s account and his videos which offend only those who have some wacky beliefs in regard to a biscuit…
Or: define yourselves officially as a Catholic website for only Catholic-friendly videos, and I can begin looking for alternative video-hosting websites to frequent.
UPDATE: fsmdude is now back online. Thank you, YouTube. Now don’t do it again.
On a personal note, the dissertation is handed in and the Masters degree is officially over and done with. Posting to this blog should slowly start getting back to normal now. Thanks for your patience.
This morning I was catching up on my podcasts when I heard something familiar said about the divide between religion and scepticism in society. The point wasn’t laboured, but I felt the need to explore it myself – so here I am.
It regards the public campaign for critical thinking, and the criticism of this from the religious camp. Their argument is that atheist pots are simply calling the theist kettles black when they criticise them for preaching their dogma. Isn’t scepticism just another dogma spread by its adherents in the same way as religion?
Well, no. While the public presentation and the processes of dissemination can seem similar, the point which is being missed by the theist side of this argument is that what sceptics and critical thinking proponents are advancing is basically the opposite of dogma. What we are advocating is not faith – it is the absence of faith, the end of reliance upon faith. It is simply a questioning mindset, a process of reasonable doubt rather than a set of unquestioning and unquestionable beliefs.
Science is not being held up as the source of all knowledge and wisdom in the same way that sacred texts are by their adherents. The most important difference, overlooked by the aforementioned critics, is that self-doubt is built in to the scientific outlook; this is forbidden – or at least frowned upon – in religion. At its most basic, to promote the sceptical cause is to promote the freedom of inquiry; to call this “just another faith” is to completely misunderstand and misrepresent that view.
I’ve decided I need to blog more about political matters, if for no other reason than to keep my interest in that area alive. I mean, it was half of my undergraduate degree – I don’t want to have wasted all that time. There’s plenty of scope for it from a sceptical viewpoint, too: commentary on current legislation, criticism (or indeed praise) of particular politicians or parties for the quality of critical thinking they display; for this particular entry, I want to dispel a myth that has grown in the public consciousness. As you may have guessed from the title, my topic today is anarchism.
I don’t think I need to go into an awful lot of detail as to the nature of the myth I’m attempting to dispel – it’s a fairly familiar one after all. It is the view that anarchy is synonymous with chaos and disorder, and most usually associates it with civil disobedience and a refusal to recognise any form of authority whatsoever. There are many reasons for this portrayal, not least among them being the agenda of the ruling and elite classes. Obviously anarchism is a clear threat to their privileged position.
The other main reason behind the public misunderstanding of anarchism is its glamourisation in pop culture, such as the punk rock movement exemplified by the Sex Pistols. This really solidified the perception of anarchism as an extremist, disruptive and anti-progressive view; it also added touches of anti-intellectualism. All of this, ironically enough, has served only to marginalise and anathematise the idea, which was very much the purpose of the elitist agenda.
So how should it be perceived? Well if you know me at all by now, you’ll know where I’m going to start: the word itself. The Greek word “Arkhos” means chief or ruler, and of course the “an-” prefix denotes a negative. It is simply the view of a society with no leader, no chieftain – no head (hence the term “acephalous”). This is not to say that there is no organisation or law in such a society – nor indeed that it would be primitivist and anti-progressive. In academic circles, the term “anarchism” is usually taken to refer to an anti-statist position, and “anarchist” to one who wishes to see the apparatus of state-governed society dissolved.
All very well, you might say – but what do they seek to put in its place? This is where the most surprises lie for those whose grasp of anarchy is simply an acceptance of the popular, chaotic image: they don’t expect the anarchist to propose anything beyond the destruction of the state machinery. As a matter of fact, there are a great number of differing views within anarchism over exactly what form society should take.
Much of this disagreement stems from the level of authority of which the anarchist wishes to rid society – if it is simply centralised national government, then there are many options for organising people on a local level. If, however, they wish to enshrine the individual as the sole source of authority of every kind, then the result is inevitably the kind of chaos generally associated with the word. Clearly the more productive views are toward the former end of the spectrum, and there are many reasons why the latter would not work – or even be true anarchism.
There is much to be said in favour of an anarchist society; greater liberty being the most obvious and enticing. It is quite easy to conceive of a world in which people are able to function as a cohesive society governed not by elevated officials but by general consent. There is no reason why such a society would be amoral, as the popular depiction would have us believe – any more than would be true of an atheistic society. Indeed, there is an understandable trend toward atheism in anarchist thought.
The biggest problem for anarchism as a political ideal, however, is that it really is an ideal. It relies far too heavily upon goodwill and co-operation if it is to function at all well, and it is clear to anyone with even the most basic understanding of human nature that it simply would not work – the strong and unprincipled would rise to the top and exploit their natural position of power. I once wrote an essay on anarchism, and the quote I used to summarise at the end was this, from Andrew Vincent’s Modern Political Ideologies:
Apart from some of the more rigid and strange absurdities of individualist anarchists, the communist, collectivist and mutualist anarchists express a millennial vision of what we would really like to be in our better moments, but which we know is relatively hopeless.
Just bear this in mind when you next hear the term “anarchist”. In the true sense of the word, an anarchist is not a terrorist or someone bent on sowing chaos, but rather an idealist with a Utopian vision for society that will never be realised.
Oh those crazy Catholics and their inability to feel the slightest bit of cognitive dissonance. It takes a special kind of mind to continue spouting this kind of nonsense.
Yes, this is about the “news” that Britain’s top Catholic, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, has called on religious believers to be more tolerant of atheists and other non-believers. Here’s the BBC article. I agree with him on a couple of points – that “proper talk about God is always difficult”, and that “God is not a ‘fact in the world’”. It’s an issue of faith, not of reason.
This, to me, is the desperate act of someone who realises that reason is winning. The only way religion can survive is by retreating to its last stronghold where nobody can touch them – faith. It denies any kind of logic, proof, or sense – in fact, anything we routinely use to gather information about the world in which we live.
The real cognitive dissonance, however, comes when you come back from examining the implications of what he said to the words themselves. The first phrase of the BBC article:
The Archbishop of Westminster has urged Christians to treat atheists and agnostics with “deep esteem”.
Anyone else recalling the special places in their crazy Catholic afterlife reserved for unbelievers, particularly those who are outspoken as such? Lakes of fire wasn’t it? Something like that anyway. Not exactly places in which one might comfortably feel accepted and treated with anything remotely resembling “deep esteem”.
The Daily Mash says it better than I.