Secular World Podcast

One of the people I had the pleasure of meeting at the Global Atheist Convention earlier this year was Jake Farr-Wharton, one of the hosts of the Secular World podcast, produced by Atheist Alliance International. Jake kindly invited me to be on the podcast, and 6 or so months later we finally made it happen. In episode 113, Jake and Han Hills talk about how “no religious affiliation” rises to over 1/5th of people in the USA; How free birth control cuts abortion rates by 62%; Why liberals and atheists are more intelligent; Proof of heaven; Catholic church to have tax exemptions removed in Italy; and the interview with me, starting at  at 1h12m.

Topics we chatted about include atheism vs. humanism as social activist causes, atheism plus, religious circumcision, and the role of religion in shaping South African society.

Two “strange world” observations

First, as Beth Erickson has already noted elsewhere on the network, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has removed Mormonism from its list of cult organisations and offered a sort-of endorsement for Romney. From what I can recall of Mormon doctrine, this is quite plainly absurd, in that the Jesus that Christians think so significant is not at all the same Jesus that Mormons also think very significant. The Mormon Jesus is a man – the brother of Lucifer – who becomes a god through good works, instead of a child born of immaculate conception,  and divine from the get-go. For evangelicals, believing in Jesus is quite an important feature of salvation, but in order for this inclusion of Mormonism into the fold to work, the “Jesus” that you’re supposed to believe in would have to be quite a loosely-defined character.

So yes, as The Guardian puts it, this move by Billy Graham does “risk his legacy”. Of course, since the anti-Semitic diatribes on Nixon’s recordings were released, it’s a wonder that anyone can speak of his legacy at all without using scare-quotes. Leaving that aside, though, he risks his legacy not only for the faith-internal reasons that The Guardian’s columnist points out (that Graham risks alienating black liberal Christians, among other things), but also because whatever you think of the man (perhaps, that he’s overly materialistic), he’s at least been firm on representing a reasonably orthodox evangelical Christian line.

What I mean is that, while religion is increasingly being spoken of as being about values rather than literal beliefs in this or that aspect of the divine (as we saw, for example, in the recent RDFS survey on the beliefs of Christians in the UK), Graham has always appeared to be more of a traditionalist when it comes to beliefs. He’s resolutely anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage, which makes him a Republican favourite but also easy to square with conservative readings of the Bible. So in endorsing Romney, and being willing to recognise Mormons as roughly Christian, he’s actually sacrificing quite a firm political stance (in terms of the politics of religion, I mean), and siding with the more modern trends in religion (at least in the UK and US), where what you believe matters far less than some sort of nebulous concept of “being a nice person”.

Second, there’s something far stranger – a South African Labour Court has just ruled that being “badly tormented by [your] ancestors” is a legitimate reason to book time off work. When Johannah Mmelodi wanted to go to a course on traditional healing for a month instead of going to work, she was refused permission to do so by her employers. She attended anyway, and dropped off a note from a sangoma (witch-doctor/traditional healer) attesting to the torment-by-ancestors. The ancestors are, of course, dead. And yes, our Labour Court ruled that she couldn’t be fired, because “South Africa [is] a land of many cultures and that traditional Western culture could not be allowed to dominate the African culture of many of the country’s inhabitants”.

When your courts embrace cultural relativism to this degree, it’s cause for serious concern. The one glimmer of hope I’m holding on to is that the full judgement (which I haven’t yet had access to) makes some sense out of what seems a bizarre ruling. I’ll let you know once I do, but I can’t say I’m optimistic – we do take cultural sensitivity quite seriously here. And much of the time, we should – at least in civic life. The courts? I’m not so sure.