Homophobia and free speech at UCT, redux

-t2zWl54The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town has responded to the controversy provoked by Zizipho Pae’s Facebook remark that legalising gay marriage was “normalising sin”, in a statement that attempts to balance sensitivity to LGBTQIA+ concerns while also affirming Pae’s rights to hold unpopular views.

My previous comments on this issue stand, but I’d like to add a few clarificatory comments. I agree entirely with Dr. Price that a key issue here is the legality of the Student Representative Council (SRC) decision to terminate her membership of the SRC, and also that the abuse and intimidation Pae experienced is inexcusable.

As Nathan Geffen wrote earlier today,

Should the extent of the hatred, misinformation, prejudice or ignorance disentitle the speaker from holding office?

In some cases it may. In others, there’s an opportunity to educate — both the speaker and the general public — rather than respond with fashionable social media fuelled outrage. The same goes for homophobia.

My argument last time was that it was entirely appropriate for the SRC to suspend Pae, pending discussion regarding her fitness to hold office, based on what the SRC constitution says and does not say.

I do not believe that holding homophobic views should automatically disqualify one from office – my claim is the limited one that if this contravenes established and documented values, then you are accountable in accordance with those values.

So, you’re free to be negatively disposed to gay people – but just not when this is associated with your position. This is not a free speech violation, but is instead a restriction on who is eligible to represent a community. The latter (being a SRC member) is not a right, but an earned position, and if that comes with certain requirements, you could rightly lose the position if you don’t fulfil the requirements.

From what I can tell from the SRC constitution and the minutes of the meeting that expelled her, I strongly doubt that her expulsion was legitimate, and I’d expect it to be overturned in time (although, this will likely be a pointless exercise, seeing as the SRC elections for 2016 are about to take place, with the current SRC coming to the end of their term).

Where I don’t agree with Dr. Price’s statement is where he quotes a 1998 Constitutional Court ruling which held that “those persons who for reasons of religious belief disagree with or condemn homosexual conduct are free to hold and articulate such beliefs”, going on to say that

This is especially so when a religious belief is articulated in a way that is not intended to insult, harm or discriminate, and if there is no incitement to taking harmful action against others. On our reading, Ms Pae’s Facebook post was an expression of her sincerely held religious belief, rather than an intervention to insult or hurt those with whom she disagrees.

Yes, they are free to hold and articulate those beliefs, but firstly (and again), not necessarily without consequences. As I say above, one such consequence could be expulsion, if the relevant laws/policies dictate that.

Should that consequence be expulsion? I don’t think so, as long as the person in question was appointed or elected with the rest of us being fully cognisant of their views, at least with regard to our set of ideal values.

So, if Pae campaigned on a platform that included opposition to gay rights, and was elected on that basis, I couldn’t have any complaints. Geffen’s post says that she didn’t hide her Christianity, but that’s a different matter to being openly anti LGBTQIA+ rights.

My view is that if you don’t disclose this, you can reasonably be expected to share the values expressed in various UCT documents, including SRC documents, that support those rights. Once it’s discovered that you don’t, the electorate might justifiably feel deceived, in that these are assumed to be shared values in the community (even if they aren’t actually shared in practice).

And finally, the notion of an expressed prejudice being more excusable if it stems from a “sincerely held religious belief”, rather than being something intended to “insult or hurt” isn’t helpful in this case – it simply passes the buck, and avoids tackling the difficult issue of what to do when people are “sincerely” bigoted, and with good intentions.

As Pierre de Vos noted in a recent column, religious beliefs and practices often get a free pass when it comes to discrimination. If allowing for discrimination based on religious views is a reasonable interpretation of the law, then I’d call the law defective in that regard.

We know, in advance, that some sincerely-held views (such as held by Pae) are not intended to insult or hurt. But we also know that they do insult and hurt.

Secularists (like me) are emphatic on the point that religious precepts should not be permissible premises in debates on policy or law. But more to the point, some of us who lack any belief in god(s) struggle to see any principled difference between your long-standing and scripturally-located version of “proper” marriage and sexual conduct, versus someone who chooses to locate their racist tirades in some long-standing tradition.

Or even, their polite, “sincerely held” racist beliefs, that are not intended to “insult or hurt” anyone, but merely to make things more efficient by letting people know what their proper place in the pecking order is.

The “war on Christmas” and misrepresentations of atheists

war-on-christmas-460x307Fox News is mostly an American problem, but South African readers will probably have heard of Bill O’Reilly, the conservative political pundit who spends a lot of time being angry about Obama, people who don’t believe in God, and various other issues.

Chris Stedman (here’s my review of his book, Faitheist) has written an interesting post on how the “war on Christmas” is actually a war on atheist voices. The title of the post sets up a false dichotomy, in that it could be both, but the post makes various good points.

O’Reilly exploits every possible opportunity for hyperbole, and Christmas is no exception. The “war on Christmas” is pretty much an O’Reilly invention, and refers to the (alleged) efforts of non-religious folk to keep the Christ out of Christmas.

But as I remarked to a journalist who recently interviewed me on how South African atheists feel about Christmas, Christmas is to all intents and purposes a secular holiday for most folk already. By this I don’t mean that Christians have forgotten about Jesus – just that the bulk of proceedings are a rare and (sometimes) pleasurable opportunity for friends and family to gather.

The Christ-related bits will involve a prayer of thanks, and maybe some reading from the Bible, but my point is that the day is not going to involve excessive religious ceremony, even for Christians. Christ will no doubt be in their thoughts at times, but I will celebrate Christmas just like they do, for the most part.

In this context, there’s nothing to go to war over. If I’m right, and Christmas is secular in any case, Christmas provides an opportunity for two things (not an exclusive list): one, celebrating Christmas and two, being obnoxious towards Christians, and conforming to a certain stereotype of how offensive atheists are.

I choose the first option. And as Stedman points out, most atheists do also, which is why his piece argues that it’s a war on atheism through mischaracterising us, rather than on Christmas (as I said at the top, it could be a war on both, so I think the title poorly chosen).

He links to interesting research that suggests only 15% of atheists in the USA are anti-theist, meaning that they “believe that the obvious fallacies in religion and belief should be aggressively addressed in some form or another”.

The remainder are characterised as academic atheists, agnostic atheists etc., but regardless of whether you disagree with how the authors carve the landscape up, it’s true to say that some atheists are more aggressive than others – and it’s fair to ask whether they should be taken as representative of the whole.

As with all contested topics – or even “all topics” – those who make the most noise, or who say the most outrageous things, will get the attention. In the USA, it’s American Atheists, who use Christmas as an annual opportunity for provoking the religious. American Atheists say that their approach works, and I’m pleased that Massimo Pigliucci has written this post arguing that it doesn’t, because that’s my sense of things too.

The rest of us need to perhaps make more noise. I don’t know – I certainly feel like I make enough of it, but perhaps not in some of the places I should – for example, I’ve left all the Facebook atheist communities I used to belong to, because they were filled with too many obnoxious people.

That’s a problem to resolve another day, though. For now, and until the end of the Newlands cricket test on (theoretically) January 6, I’ll probably be quite quiet here, though still active on Twitter. If you’re celebrating Christmas as a Christian, joy and peace and all that to you.

If you’re doing what I’m doing, which is eating and drinking too much with great friends, have a wonderful day also.

The @IHEU Freedom of Thought Report 2014

iheu-logo-2013-w300Published today [10 December] by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), the third annual Freedom of Thought Report offers a survey of persecution of and discrimination against non-religious people, with an entry for every country across the world.

In 2014, in addition to laws such as those targeting “apostasy” and “blasphemy”, the report shows a marked increase in specific targeting of “atheists” and “humanism” as such, using these terms in a broadly correct way (the users know what they are saying) but with intent clearly borne of ignorance or intolerance toward these groups.

To put it more plainly, nonreligious people are being targeted as a distinct minority group in various countries around the world. The report also indicates that hateful speech against atheists does not come exclusively from reactionary or radical religious leaders, but increasingly from political leaders, including heads of state.

Cases covered in the report include the Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak, who this year labelled “humanism and secularism as well as liberalism” as “deviant” and a threat to Islam and the state itself, in a speech where he also denied that Malaysians had any right to “apostasy” (leaving Islam).

Saudi Arabia is criticised for a new law equating “atheism” with “terrorism”. The very first article of the kingdom’s new terror regulations banned “Calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion”.

Even the supposedly secular regime of Egypt’s president Sisi was found to target atheists directly, through what the report calls “an organized backlash against young atheists”. Beginning in June, Nuamat Sati of the Ministry of Youth announced a campaign to spread awareness of “the dangers of atheism” and why it is “a threat to society”, so that young atheists in particular, who are increasingly vocal on social media would be given “a chance to reconsider their decisions and go back to their religion.”

In the past few months, Egyptian authorities have detained young atheists who appeared on TV media and Youtube videos talking about their right to express atheist views, and in a worrying an unusual development in November, Christian churches actually “joined forces” with Egypt’s AlAzhar in another anti-atheism campaign, saying that “Society should resist this phenomenon [of atheism]”.

Previous editions of the Freedom of Thought Report, which considers and rates every country in the world for anti-atheist persecution, found that almost all countries discriminate against the nonreligious, in some cases through religious privilege or legal exemption, with the worst countries refusing to issue identity cards to the nonreligious, taking children from atheist parents, or sentencing “apostates” to death.

The 2014 edition of the report notes: “This year will be marked by a surge in this phenomenon of state officials and political leaders agitating specifically against nonreligious people, just because they have no religious beliefs, in terms that would normally be associated with hate speech or social persecution against ethnic or religious minorities.”

Fortunately, the situation in South Africa is nowhere near as serious as the examples given above. However, this does not give South Africans cause for complacency. Our schools routinely violate the National Policy on Religion and Education, to the extent that the organisation OGOD has recently instituted court proceedings against six public schools who assert their “Christian character”, despite our public schools having an obligation to be secular.

It is not only school principals and governing boards who privilege one religion over others, rather than supporting religious freedom through remaining neutral and encouraging a secular approach to religion, whereby religious education is welcome but religious indoctrination precluded.

The MEC for Education in Gauteng, Panyaza Lefusi, boasts of having distributed 50 000 Bibles to schools in his first 100 days in office – with no mention of also having distributed Korans, or books on Humanist ethics and thought. This constitutes not only a violation of the Policy, but if the Bibles were paid for with public funds, also a clear abuse of those funds in that revenue from the taxpayer cannot be used to support what amounts to State-sanctioned religion.

The Freedom of Thought Report is published by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) with contributions from independent researchers and IHEU Member Organisations around the world. The South African Member Organisation is the Free Society Institute.

Websites:
freethoughtreport.com and iheu.org; fsi.org.za (South Africa)

For further information, interview or comment please email:
[email protected]; (Free Society Institute, for South Africa-specific issues) or the IHEU ([email protected]; +44 207 490 8468.

Religion in education: when government officials violate the law

Earlier today, Barry Bateman sent me this:

barrybateman_2014-Dec-04

For those of you whose Afrikaans is as poor as mine, a rough translation would look something like this:

Instead of a moment of silence, schools under his leadership can have a moment of prayer. Preachers were previously not welcome at schools, “but I’m opening schools up to preachers”, said Panyaza Lesufi, MEC for Education in Gauteng.

“Schools can decide for themselves which prayers they would like to offer at their school. Each school has the right to practice religious activity, so long as it’s not harmful, like Satanism. If Satanism is followed, I’ll bring the police into it. Why do we find Bibles in hotels, but not in schools? In my first 100 days in office, I distributed 50 000 Bibles to schools.”

Lesufi also said that if we want to understand problems in schools, we need to understand the souls of schoolchildren. In answer to a question regarding the pending court case, brought by OGOD against six schools in light of those schools’ Christian characters, Lesufi said that 85% of South Africans are Christian.

“As I last understood the Constitution, it was the majority that won.”

The same Department of Education recently held a prayer meeting for prospective matriculants, at which Lesufi remarked that “We support all the pastors and reverends in our school”.

2012_5$thumbimg131_May_2012_092556310-llLesufi is not the first Gauteng Education MEC that seems to have difficulty keeping their personal religious views out of the frame when doing their jobs – last year, Barbara Creecy singled out Satanism and “the occult” as dangerous, despite the fact that we have a community of pagans, Wiccans, Satanists and the like who pose no threat to anyone, and whose religious freedom is Constitutionally protected.

As I’ve noted on numerous occasions now, we have a policy on religion in education, and it’s pretty good. Unfortunately, our politicians (and schools) are pretty good at ignoring it. It calls for secularism in schools, in the sense that schools cannot proselytising for one faith to the exclusion of others. Secularism isn’t anti-religion – it’s anti schools being used as proxy churches.

Given this policy, you’d hope that MECs and MPs – as public representatives of the government, who adopted the policy in question – would themselves respect it, and not abuse their positions of authority to push the agenda of one religion.

If Lesufi were to do the same thing with regard to a building contract, or somesuch – i.e. use his authority to get a mate some lucrative deals for building schools in Gauteng – he’d be investigated, and hopefully fired. It’s an abuse of power and authority to introduce Christian prayer, and Christian texts, into public (and thus by definition, secular) schools.

Furthermore, who is paying for these 50 000 Bibles? Presumably, the Department of Education or the Gauteng government. Either way, that would be an abuse of public money. It’s not on the scale of Nkandla, of course, but simply because you might like the product he’s stealing your money to distribute to schools, doesn’t make it less of a theft.

Two final points: Lesufi violates the religious freedom and dignity of non-Christians, specifically Satanists, in the quote above. You cannot threaten someone with the police for holding religious views you don’t like. And, Satanism is not a synonym for certain (or, any) criminal activity.

As I’ve written before, Satanism does not encourage human sacrifices – it’s Christian propaganda versions of Satanism that these confused kids who commit murders and sacrifices are falling prey to. And this is again why the National Policy on Religion and Education gets things right, in the sense that it calls for instruction on all religions. If we do that, fewer kids will have the false beliefs that might encourage criminal activity like that.

Finally, this MEC needs a refresher course in democracy and the value of our Constitution for protecting rights and freedoms. We signed up for a system in which the majority don’t necessarily get their way, because we recognise that the majority can abuse their power.

We signed up for religious freedom, because even you, Mr. Lesufi, should recognise that this protects you too – as it’s a purely contingent fact that you happen to share the majority view. If you happen to convert to something else, or lose your faith, you’d perhaps better understand why it’s rather important that the state stay out of religion entirely.

(Incidentally, Lesufi’s 85% figure seems entirely made-up – the last reliable data we have is from the 2001 Census, which had Christians as 79.77% of the population, and I’d be surprised if that figure hadn’t decreased since then.)

As ever, nothing will come of this, because all the lovely policy in the world is powerless against untouchable power, led by a man – Jacob Zuma – who has offered various masterclasses in how not to give a shit about the law.

Yes, this particular case is very trivial in comparison. But it’s still wrong, and Lesufi should know better.

Man is free to reign as god!

downloadEven though Ivo Vegter might be slightly less than gruntled to be spoken of alongside Error Naidoo, the homophobic and very paranoid man of God, the title of this post (from Naidoo’s latest rant) happens to fit them both.

It fits Naidoo simply because it’s his line, verbatim, and follows his taking note of the “athiest groups [that] are growing bolder and more aggressive in their diabolical quest to eradicate Christianity from public life in South Africa”, in this case by trying to ensure that publicly-funded schools are secular.

It fits Vegter more loosely, mostly a) because it sounds like something Ayn Rand might have said; b) Vegter is an unapologetic libertarian; and c), because his most recent Daily Maverick column, on regulating complementary and alternative medicines (CAMs), rejects State oversight of CAMs in favour of people deciding for themselves which risks they would like to take and which not when it comes to their healthcare.

The above summary (in its brevity, rather than due to misrepresentation) doesn’t do his argument justice, so please do read his column. The one note that is essential for accuracy, though, is that he is open to other regulatory bodies stepping in, perhaps a “private, voluntary and competitive” scheme.

As is typical for Vegter, his argument is consistent and well laid-out, so even if you disagree with him, you’ll find much to ponder when reading the column.

As I noted in a comment to that column, my concern is that his perspective is either insufficiently agent-neutral, in that it privileges those of us who are more able to make informed healthcare choices, or that it indicates a moral stance I don’t support – namely that those who make poor healthcare choices will eventually learn to make better choices, but via their mistakes (which might well involve suffering, and death).

A private, voluntary and competitive regulator doesn’t reassure my concerns on the agent-neutrality point, in that if it’s voluntary, you need to know about it and sign up to it, which immediately leaves some folk out of the safety net, and allows for producers to opt-out also.

It also opens the door for competing regulatory bodies – and yes, while the market might eventually result in one being trusted above all others, the interregnum before that happens exposes people to risk. And at the end of the day, nobody is going to do this for free, so it’s not obvious that it will make medicines more affordable than a State-subsidised regulatory process does.

Private regulators cropping up to ensure that your food is Halal or Kosher are not good analogies, to my mind – nobody dies if they accidentally eat some pork. There’s more at stake with medicine, so our standards need to be higher. For me that means a central regulatory body, where the interesting questions become whether it’s good at its job, and if not, how to make it better.

Except, of course, if you think that people don’t need that sort of nannying, and that we will learn who to trust (in terms of medical providers) through taking bad or ineffective medicine, and suffering the consequences of our mistakes. Some of us will avoid misfortune through hearing through word of mouth, radio, newspaper and the like of what to avoid, but others- especially rural poor, with educational disadvantages – would be particularly vulnerable to snake-oil salespeople who care only for profit, not others’ health.

In cases like these, some easily-identifiable and consistent stamp of authority, that a central regulator provides, seems a useful thing to have. Rejecting such a body seems to involve an idealism about the market, and about human capacity for avoiding tragic errors, that aren’t borne out in history. Hence Vegter’s argument, while logical, involves a moral commitment that I shy away from.

But it’s still a far better column than Leon Louw’s, who seems to want the pseudoscientific stuff to stand on equal footing with medicine, and I do commend it to you.

Briefly, on to Error Naidoo, who is most agitated about OGODs lawsuit against 6 schools that speak of having a “Christian character”, hold regular Christian prayers and so forth. As I’ve written in the past, this might contravene existing policy, and more to the point, paying lip-service to secularism in schools can still leave many children ostracised (and indoctrinated).

Naidoo is in “good” company here, as Afriforum have offered to help cover court costs for the schools that are the subject of this lawsuit. I feel for all my sensible Christian friends, who must be cringing at the thought of white racists rushing to defend the Christian values of the schools in question. Anyway, here’s Naidoo, unplugged, unedited, and perhaps a little unhinged.

The obvious objective of the athiest group, “Organisasie vir Godsdienste-Onderrig en Demokrasie” is to eradicate all Christian activity at state run schools. Humanists want education all for themselves.

Although a small minority, athiest groups are growing bolder and more aggressive in their diabolical quest to eradicate Christianity from public life in South Africa. Man is then free to reign as god.

What you may not realise is that secular humanism is a religion! And what athiests are actually advocating is replacing Christianity with the godless and bankrupt ideology of secular humanism as the most dominant religion in SA. Incidentally, They already control politics, the media and academia.

A culture war is currently raging in SA society. Two conflicting worldviews are engaged in a life or death struggle for the hearts and minds of people. Victory is assured for the courageous and the committed.

On one side of the battlefield are advocates of the Biblical Christian Worldview with its message of service and submission to an all powerful God. On the other side are the secular humanists whose ultimate goal is to abolish all acknowledgement & recognition of God from the national psyche.

Significantly, apathy and disunity in the Christian Church has emboldened atheist groups, sexual rights activists and other anti-family radicals in South Africa. The Church’s silence amplifies their voice.

Somebody desperately needs to sound the alarm in the Christian Church in SA. The enemy is united, committed and well-resourced. And they have a cunning plan to control and dominate society.

Religion in schools, religion on your plate

This entry is part 13 of 29 in the series Noakes

A quick update from a broadband-compromised hotel room in Botswana, on two three four matters that will no doubt be of interest to regular readers.

downloadFirst, you might have noticed that a few of us on social media had renewed cause to be exasperated at the Dawkinsian Twitter presence of Prof. Tim Noakes (for those who don’t follow that link, I’m referring to his predilection for saying outrageous things on Twitter, and then blaming the audience for reacting to those utterances).

Fresh from hinting that Robin Williams’ mental turmoil might have been due to his vegetarianism, and from misrepresenting his own words about LCHF diets and their relationship to cancer, dementia and so forth, Noakes thought to make a point about bad science and potential cover-ups of inconvenient data by posting fodder for the anti-vaccination lot.

Nathan Geffen has said enough on the tweet in question, so I’ll not go into it in detail here, except to make two points: one, Noakes’ first defence, when people (rightly) called him out for tweeting “Dishonest science. Proven link between autism and early immunisation covered up?” (with a link to a video about an alleged CDC cover-up) was to say he was “just asking questions”.

Those are weasel-words of the highest order, in that they absolve the speaker of all responsibility for what they are saying, and place the entire interpretive burden and responsibility on the audience. When you are a prominent healthcare professional, operating in full awareness of a context where pseudoscience is rife – and sometimes manifests in anti-vaxxine conspiracy theories, that kill people – your words should be chosen more carefully.

Also, some of you might remember a certain President Mbeki using the “just asking questions” defence regarding HIV/AIDS. Mbeki actually believed in the “alternative” story regarding HIV, so his weasel-words were an attempt to deflect criticism, and gain support for challenging the mainstream hypothesis.

In the case of Noakes, he seems to believe in the consensus view regarding the safety of vaccines, which is comforting. He might have wanted to say “Dishonest science, as in this CDC coverup, is never acceptable – even if the CDC reached the correct conclusion”. He could perhaps even have chosen to clarify the point on noticing how it was being read, instead of doubling-down on blaming his audience for misinterpreting him.

It’s difficult not to misinterpret him when, at the time he tweeted that video, it was mostly to be found floating around on Natural News (home of David Icke – he who thinks Maggie Thatcher was an alien lizard in human form – and other nutters) and on anti-vaxx conspiracy websites. The only non-tinfoil-hat discussion of it that I could find at the time was that of neurologist oncological surgeon David Gorski, who comprehensively debunked it – before Noakes had tweeted it. (The Gorski links are in Geffen’s piece.)

Normally, it would be far too demanding to ask that someone had found and read potential debunkings such as Gorski’s, in advance of sharing a story. But I’d argue that a higher standard applies when tweeting something of this nature, from an account such as his.

There are examples of bad science and cover-ups that don’t run the risk of reinforcing pseudoscience, which could have served as his example of the same point. If this example was to be used, it was incumbent on Noakes to make sure that he wasn’t perpetrating a hoax. Sloppy, and irresponsible, in other words – and the kind of thing that merited a retraction and an apology.

Instead, he’s now asking Geffen to apologise and retract, yesterday commenting with a link to Dr. Thompson’s (the CDC scientist) statement, which Noakes reads as vindicating his tweet. But again, the statement in question had by that time already been extensively discussed and problematised, and more to the point, the paper that exposes the “conspiracy” had already been retracted 6 days earlier.

The Noakes comment is however oblivious to all this, opening with “Looks like the cover-up is indeed real so what I wrote is correct”, going on to quote extensively from Thompson’s statement, and then closing with “Can we now expect also a retraction of your article, Mr Geffen? And an apology?”.

This is the problem with relying on your Twitter following for breaking science news, which you then retweet: it’s often late, and it’s often uninformed.

The second matter is the paper that was recently published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, and is purported to show that… wait, I’ll let Noakes introduce it:

By the way did you see this scientific paper that made the headlines in New York and Boston on Monday and has become something of a hit on the social media?

Incidentally this is the 24th such scientific study to show the superiority of the low carbohydrate over the low fat diet. The science is outlined in Real Meal Revolution in 20 000 words with 4 pages of references.

But it seems you have not read any of it?

The account of the paper that’s being most widely shared is the one you can read in the New York Times, which indeed shares Noakes’ enthusiastic reading. Others are not as convinced, arguing that it demonstrates nothing of the sort. Here’s Dr. Yoni Freedhoff with a more temperate analysis, and Dr David Katz makes similar points.

As always, my concern is not the diet – it’s the fact that it’s misleading to present things as certain when they are not, and to suggest to a trusting audience that things are “proven” or settled when they are nothing of the sort. It’s also disingenuous, in light of uncertainty, to sneer at your critics in the way that last quoted sentence does.

A scientist should want the lay public to understand that science is complex, and that it’s not a place for ad hominem dismissals or assuming some epistemic high ground without warrant for doing so. To quote a learned professor:

The third matter, in brief: Eusebius McKaiser and I are going to try something that might be good fun on the radio tomorrow – an argument workshop, where we discuss some critical thinking concepts you might find of interest (or at least, entertaining, in light of examples such as the above). Do tune in to PowerTalk (on PowerFM) at 11am if you’re keen to listen or call in.

Apologies, but I have to now mention a fourth thing, or else the post’s title will make no sense. My friend Hans Pietersen has recently brought a case to court, involving schools that violate the secularity provisions of South Africa’s National Policy on Religion in Education. I’ve written about the policy (and this issue) many times before, but myself and others have had little to no joy in getting schools to play ball, despite many letters and calls to principals, district offices and the like.

A lawsuit is a last resort, but unfortunately, one that seems necessary in this case. Hans’s press release regarding the case can be downloaded here, and if you want to keep up with his organisation on Facebook, their group is called OGOD. Marianne Thamm’s Daily Maverick column on this issue is also worth reading, for background as well as some early reaction.

#WHC2014 – the IHEU World Humanist Congress, 2014

iheu-logo-2013Attending the previous World Humanist Congress in Oslo, weeks after the Breivik killings, gave me the sense that of all the events organised in the loose (and contested) collection of areas captured by terms like humanism, atheism, skepticism and so forth, humanist gatherings might well be my preferred option.

This is not to say that I haven’t greatly enjoyed many atheist conferences, and many skeptic conferences. However, both of those suffer from a tendency on the part of some of the audience, and frequently also speakers, to focus on how right they are, and how wrong someone else is.

There’s no getting around the fact that it is a problem to be wrong, especially when your false beliefs can harm others. But I’ve grown weary of the smugness that can accompany pointing out those false beliefs, and the occasional blindness to our own false beliefs that this smugness can contribute to.

The humanist gatherings, by contrast – well, at least the two World Humanist Congresses I’ve been to – have by and large dealt with positive accounts of how people are changing the bits of the world that surround them, and helping others do the same, rather than with negative sentiment around people who are getting in our way.

It’s thus a pity – and perhaps a little unsurprising – that the lowlights of WHC2014 were two more “atheisty” contributions, namely those of Richard Dawkins and David Silverman. It’s not entirely Dawkins fault that his discussion with Samira Ahmed ended up devoting significant time to his Twitter trolling, seeing as it was a current issue (when is it not, with Dawkins), but it did result in another opportunity for him to sneer at his critics while casually dismissing their criticisms, which didn’t quite fit the sentiment of the rest of the congress.

Silverman was in discussion with PZ Myers, and it ended up being one of those very rare occasions where Myers ends up looking like a moderate, sensible fellow. Silverman was arguing that we all need to be “firebrand” atheists, and he pointed at things like mentions of the word “atheism” in popular media as evidence of the success of their (American Atheists, I mean) firebrand-y campaigns.

Well, a little sentiment analysis is perhaps necessary here. It’s no good if media outlets are saying “atheists keep getting more and more obnoxious” – you don’t get to count that as a success story. Second, I really don’t think “atheists” are the group we need to develop more of, because – in my experience, at least – they seem the most interested in being right, and least interested in helping others develop the resources for bettering their lives.

As I’ve said many a time, atheism is for me a by-product of rational, critical thinking. People will get to start doubting the existence of god(s), or treating the question of god(s) as irrelevant to policy/law, once you convince them of the values of concepts like secularism and liberalism.

And they are arguably more likely to listen to your attempts to persuade them of that if you aren’t telling them how stupid they are.

Which is why many of my favourite sessions involved people unpicking the nuances of topics and ideas that are so prone to hyperbole and prejudice, like Islam and Islamophobia. It was great to meet and spend good time in discussion with Kenan Malik, who is a wonderful example of someone who spends the necessary time to bring clarity to the surface of complex debates.

South African readers would know how obsessed our country is with race, and I’d encourage them to read his Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides are Wrong in the Race Debate for both a fascinating history of racial thinking, but also for some provocative ideas on how to move forward in the race debate. Those interested in morality will appreciate The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics, in which Malik provides an overview of the history of moral thought – it’s comprehensive, to put it lightly.

Anyway – he was in discussion with Alom Shaha (another whom it was great to finally meet, after years of “knowing” each other), Maryam Namazie, Maajid Nawaz, and Jim Al-Khalili, in a session that I’d strongly encourage you to keep an eye out for, once videos start appearing.

In summary, much of this conversation did a great job of illustrating the occasional myopia of secular liberalism, where our eagerness to undermine the worst sort of abuses of authority (for example, Isis) can lead us to false representations of entire (but heterogenous) categories of people, like “Muslims”.

There was much besides this to commend to you, but I’ll close with thanks to Andrew Copson, the British Humanist Association and the IHEU for arranging such a stimulating event. It was great to see so many old friends there, and to make many new ones, and I look forward to hopefully seeing you all again in Brazil for the 2017 World Humanist Congress.

Children, religion, and distinguishing fact from fiction

prayOne of the less attractive traits of the non- (and especially, the anti-) religious is that we can sometimes allow confirmation bias to lead us into believing rather uncharitable claims regarding the role of religion in society, or the effect that a religious upbringing can have on children.

Confirmation bias – the tendency to favour information that confirms what you already believe and disfavour contrary evidence – is of course not unique to us heathens. It’s just that as one of them, I’m concerned about the bad PR we (hello, Prof. Dawkins!) sometimes generate. So, I’m inclined to be wary when I read headlines like this, in the HuffPo:

Children Exposed To Religion Have Difficulty Distinguishing Fact From Fiction, Study Finds

The headline creates the impression that children brought up in a religious environment might well think that Harry Potter is real, perhaps lives just up the street, and that maybe there’s a chance that you might become a wizard too if luck shines her light upon you.

What a popular website reports that a “study finds” isn’t always a neat fit to what the study actually says. So if you have access, I’d recommend that you read the paper by Corriveau, Chen and Harris yourself, or alternately at least read the more sober take on it that was published by Vox.

To briefly summarise, the paper describes how 5 and 6 year-old children from religious, parochial and secular backgrounds were presented with Biblical stories in original and modified (one including “magic” but no God; the other a realistic version) forms, and then asked to express a view on whether the protagonists were real or fictional.

Here’s one of the stories (the story of Joseph) in its three forms, quoted from the paper:

Religious
This is Joseph. Joseph was sent to a mean king in a land far away. However, God sent Joseph many dreams warning about terrible storms, and Joseph used those dreams to tell the king how to protect his kingdom from the storms. The king was so amazed by Joseph and they became friends.
Fantastical
This is Joseph. Joseph was sent to a mean king in a land far away where there were terrible storms. Joseph used his magical powers to see into the future, and told the king how to protect his kingdom from the storms. The king was so amazed by Joseph and they became friends.
Realistic
This is Joseph. Joseph was sent to a mean king in a land far away where there were terrible storms. The king realized that Joseph was very good at looking at clouds and predicting when there would be rain. The king was so amazed by Joseph and they became friends.

Vox summarises the lead author’s response as follows:

What was most interesting to Corriveau, however, was how children classified the fantastical story: while secular children classified it as pretend 87 percent of the time, religious children only did so about 40 percent of the time. To Corriveau, this suggests that “religious children have a broader conception of what can actually happen.” In other words, she told me, “religious exposure may influence the way in which children mark the boundary between factual and fictional, allowing for a more likely suspension of disbelief.”

It’s not obviously true that having a broader conception of the range of possibilities is a bad thing – in fact, it seems rather banal to observe that one of the fun things about childhood is being able to engage in flights of fancy. I don’t have data on this, but I’d imagine that most of us did so to varying degrees.

Our imaginations might not have led us all to imagine the same sorts of things, but whatever it was that we imagined, those imaginings were not only enjoyable (well, leaving aside nightmares), but also conducive to creativity both then and in later life.

Fantasy, as with chemical substances, can be good or bad depending on the dose – it’s not yet a problem when we simply observe that 5 or 6 year-olds with exposure to religion are more credulous when hearing tales of people doing magical things. In fact, we can’t rule out the possibility that at that age, and depending on how it progresses, that it’s actually a good thing, and that it’s the secular children who are impoverished.

I’ve said this before, and while I know that many of my heathen friends and colleagues don’t agree, the majority of religiously-educated children who grow up to be religious adults don’t regard their religious texts as literally true. Even Dawkins’ (who has spoken of teaching kids they might go to hell as “child abuse“) own research suggests that to most Christians in the UK, the Bible hardly features in their lives at all, even as moral guidance never mind as a guide to reality.

In other words, we don’t have good reason (from this study) to say that because religiously-educated children are more credulous, we end up with defective adults. I’m not suggesting that it’s impossible that this is the case – just that we don’t yet know that it is.

Using studies like this to make claims like that is perhaps just as fantastical as the thing you’re objecting to – and more to the point, it’s an obnoxious thing to do.

Faith healers and medical deceivers

This entry is part 4 of 29 in the series Noakes

On the last night of January, I participated in a rather interesting hour of radio, during which Hlomla Dandala hosted a interview with me and someone claiming to be a faith healer. The faith healer’s name is Pastor Louisa, and you can find some information on her ministry – which includes curing people of AIDS – on her website.

I do have a recording of the show, but haven’t yet found a way to convert it into something that plays outside of the TuneIn Radio app on my phone (informed advice on this is welcome) – if I do get it converted, I’ll be sure to post it here.

What became clear fairly on in the show is that Louisa is not a charlatan, in the sense that she’s knowingly exploiting others. She was desperately sincere, and also, unfortunately, sincerely confused. When invited to facilitate a miracle over the phone to someone who called in, she engaged in a few minutes of shouty, enthusiastic prayer and exhortations to be confident and inspired, after which she asked the caller  whether she “felt better”.

Yes, said the caller. I then asked – “so, does that get added to your list of miracles performed?”. Yes, said Pastor Louisa. On those weak standards, all of us perform dozens of miracles every day – just figure out what language people like to hear, or what buttons they like pushed, make them happy, and then claim to have performed a miracle!

Also, she made it clear that she never tells people to stop taking their medicine. Dandala asked her how she knows whether it’s the prayer or the medicine that heals… and the predictable answer that she gave was that she “just knows”. As far as I can determine, then, she gives her god the credit for the job performed by modern medicine.

You’ve heard how this (faith healing) works before, I imagine, or rather, how it doesn’t work. On the recommendation of Dan Dennett, I watched the documentary Marjoe a few years back, and it’s a wonderful expose of charismatic preachers and healers, involving Marjoe Gortner taking a documentary crew behind the scenes of his final revival tour, held after he had already lost his faith. Watch it if you can, but basically, if people want to believe something strongly enough, it’s difficult to stop them doing so.

The difficulty in talking to Louisa was in resisting the impulse to mock, but instead to feel sympathy for her confusion, and the desperation of those who take her seriously. I failed in this effort at least once, when she spoke about how she had to stop talking to us because she was out in the open, under a tree, and it was cold (this was late at night). I suggested that a miracle might sort this out – after all, if she could cure Aids, what’s the problem with a little heating?

Failures of good grace aside, these people can be dangerous, especially in communities we don’t often hear about, where faith healers and other quacks can do their thing without being exposed to scrutiny. Communities like the Amish are a similar problem. And the overarching problem we all have in a constitutional democracy is in striking the balance between objective application of the law and respecting the various freedoms we believe people are entitled to, like subscribing to and practicing a religion.

For adults, there’s less of a concern regarding people being free to harm themselves than there is for children, who can’t be expected to know any better. But desperation, and poor educations, mean that adults are also sometimes more gullible than one would like, which is why it’s incumbent on all of us to speak out against quackery where we find it, while still trying to avoid being gratuitously cruel to those we criticise.

And those of us in positions of authority should perhaps be most careful, because their trust is vested in us, and they spend money, time and attention on us.

Someone getting a lot of attention right now is Professor Tim Noakes, as he goes around the country giving talks and radio interviews to promote the book he’s recently co-authored, The Real Meal Revolution. During a recent interview with Redi Tlhabi, he informs listeners (at 38m40s) that there is “absolutely no risk” involved in cancer victims trying the ketogenic diet, because it’s proven that starving cancer of carbohydrates is an effective treatment.

Well, yes, it can be. But as he so often does, he’s cherry-picking, or simply believing in the version of “science” that suits his agenda. Because according to the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, and other sources,

Many scientists have tried killing tumors by taking away their favorite food, a sugar called glucose. Unfortunately, this treatment approach not only fails to work, it backfires–glucose-starved tumors get more aggressive.

This is only true for some glucose-starved tumours, to be sure, but it still means that saying “absolutely no risk” is absolutely untrue, and that Noakes is giving advice – to an audience of thousands – that stands a good chance of harming a listener who happens to have the sort of cancer that responds aggressively to a low carbohydrate diet.

As I’ve said many a time, this isn’t the approach of someone who is a responsible scientist. But, just like the faith-healer, I think he’s utterly sincere, and utterly committed to fostering our good health. More the pity, then, that he’s unable to see how his religious fervour might end up achieving the opposite goal, at least for some. And how – consistently – he’s wreaking havoc on basic principles of critical reasoning, and setting a terrible example for budding scientists everywhere.