COPE and the Civil Union Act

DHA offices where same-sex couples can be married

In addition to her Private Members Bill on Advance Directives, which I wrote about earlier this month, Deirdre Carter of COPE has also been pushing for changes to the Civil Union Act, and I’m pleased to report that the Parliamentary committee meeting (15/08) seems to have gone well, with all present agreeing that Section 6 of the Act needs to be reconsidered.

Section 6, for those not familiar with the Act, is the clause that allows for Department of Home Affairs (DHA) officials to opt-out of officiating same-sex marriages. It reads:

Continue reading “COPE and the Civil Union Act”

Gigaba should have allowed Anderson in

Our commitment to free speech is tested by speech that offends us, not by speech we agree with. This does not necessarily entail allowing all speech: it’s possible to take the pragmatic view that while we’d ideally want all speech to be permissible, it might be the case that in some contexts, the risks of violence (or other negative consequences) are too great.

I’m not going to repeat the standard arguments in favour of freedom of speech here (previous defences of the principle can be found in this column on Kuli Roberts, this one on Gareth Cliff, or this one on more general issues to do with “thoughtcrime” and hate speech).

On this pragmatic reasoning, one might ask how we most efficiently nudge ourselves into a world where all speech is allowed, even as those who utter hateful speech pay some other price (for example, widespread opprobrium) for doing so?

Continue reading “Gigaba should have allowed Anderson in”

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.

Bigotry, free speech and student politics at UCT

Zizipho Pae, current UCT Student Representative Council (SRC) Vice President, posted this Facebook status following the US Supreme Court decision to strike down same-sex marriage bans:

We are institutionalising and normalising sin. God have mercy on us.

pae4-592x400I wasn’t planning on saying anything about this, but the most recent rant from Error Errol Naidoo of the Family Policy Institute is mad enough to prompt a quick response, because he – like many others – are confusing the freedom to hold odious views with a (non-existent) obligation on others to not call them out on those views, and freedom from any consequences expressing those views might incur.

Ms. Pae is free to be a homophobe. She implies that she’s not a homophobe in the video embedded below, but the facts are clear: she labels gay people sinners, and suggests that we are “normalising” sin – in other words, that they are a threat to all of our moral welfares. She has a seriously negative disposition towards gay people, in that she doesn’t want them to have the same rights as straight people.

Dress that up in whatever religious sophistry you like, but any non-religious person would regard that as plainly homophobic. Also, any person, regardless of religious persuasion, should realise that Ms. Pae is instead endorsing an (unconstitutional) ban on gay marriage. So, wrong on the morals, wrong on the law.

She can have and express these views, regardless of the fact that we might prefer that she didn’t feel inclined to such prejudice. Her prejudices are also more common than I’d like, which is exactly why we don’t put basic rights to a referendum.

But holding those views does not protect her from criticism, whether or not she thinks she’s doing a bigoted god’s bidding. The university, and the SRC, have chosen to adopt a certain set of values, and homophobia is in contrast to those values.

She was relieved of her duties as Acting President by the SRC, as they are entitled to do. She has not been suspended or disciplined by the university administration, contrary to Mr. Naidoo’s claims.

Her rights to freedom of speech are not being violated – she chose a more demanding standard than “speech without consequences” when she ran for the SRC (before that, in fact, as simply registering as a student here involves committing to promoting certain values). So, free to speak, but then we don’t want you representing us.

So, there is no “anti-Christian discrimination” here, but rather a defending of what the country, and the university, have chosen as their moral foundation, namely non-discrimination on various grounds. She chose to be part of that community, so needs to follow its rules.

Where Naidoo and Pae do have a point is only with regard to the issue of her office being vandalised, and any threats being uttered against her. Those cases need to be investigated and the offenders sanctioned.

In the meanwhile, it would be absurd to think that the SRC should tolerate homophobia in its senior structures, and perfectly reasonable for them to suspend her, pending fuller discussion and investigation.

You don’t get to insult a large proportion of the students you’re meant to represent without consequence, whether you believe in a god or not.

Homophobia, private property and rights of admission – Oakfield Farm weddings

Screen Shot 2015-02-11 at 13.21.06Others have known about this for some time, I’m sure, but today was the first I’d heard of Oakfield Farm in Johannesburg, a wedding venue that would like to insist on only hosting heterosexual weddings due to the “religious convictions” of their shareholders.

They have been in trouble for this position since at least April 2014, when “the Commission for Gender Equality notified Oakfield Farm that it was investigating a complaint against it of unfair discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.”

In the same article linked directly above, you can read that the chief executive of the South African Human Rights Commission, Kayum Ahmed, “said that service providers were not allowed to discriminate against gay and lesbian people because this is a violation of the Constitution and the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act.”

Constitutional scholar Pierre de Vos agrees with this reading of the law, albeit with reference to a racial discrimination case, arguing that

section 9(4) must be read as placing an internal limitation on other rights such as the right to property and the right to freedom of association. This means the right to associate freely and the right to property is qualified by section 9(4) and these rights can only be exercised in conformity with the non-discrimination injunction contained in section 9(4) of the Bill of Rights.

Section 9.4 specifies that we can’t discriminate against others on various grounds, including race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, religion, belief or culture.

The key difference between the sort of discrimination you practice in refusing Scientologists access to your birthday party and the sort practiced by Oakfield farms is that they are offering a service to the public, whereas I am holding a private gathering. Once you offer a service to the public, you can’t discriminate on those specified grounds.

So it seems clear that what Oakfield do (or attempt to do) is (currently, and whether rightly or wrongly) illegal. A “right of admission reserved” sign has no legal standing when in competition with these non-discrimination laws.

But, and here’s where the trouble starts, that’s all a separate issue from whether the law, or the Constitution, should say other than what it does.

One thing one might want to argue is that it’s discriminatory against the religion in question to force them to host gay weddings (leaving aside the fact that it’s unlikely any gay folk would want to get married there, if that was the case).

These are tensions I’m not qualified to address in terms of the law – and it is a tension, because it might well be the case that there are more members of religion X (that doesn’t like gay marriage) than there are gay folk.

We don’t make laws via popularity contests, I know, but the point is that if the religious group is being discriminated against by being forced to host gay marriages, some argument is needed for why it’s them, rather than the prospective gay couple, who should be discriminated against.

One answer is that non-discrimination should be the default (and that’s certainly the position I’d take), but that begs my question, in that it seems plausible to describe the enforced-gay-weddings position as discriminatory against the religious. And this, in turn, means that gay folk are higher up the pecking order in some sense than religious folk.

There’s one way in which that ranking makes perfect sense, because you don’t (typically) choose your sexual orientation (or race), whereas you’re perfectly free to choose your religion. Is it as simple as that – in other words, that these forms of discrimination can be rank-ordered where necessary, but bundled together in law until that need arises?

A second sort of thing you might want to say in objection to the Constitution (as read here) is that – so long as everyone of whatever race, religion, sexual orientation etc. has equal access to facilities, any individual facility should be free to discriminate, and the market can discriminate in return, hopefully driving the bigots out of business.

To lay my cards very much on the table, I’d prefer the second option in theory. However, thanks to how easy it is to rig the game (or, perpetuate the rigging of the game) against people who have historically been subject to discrimination, this would in all likelihood end up perpetuating that discrimination – leaving us with the forced pragmatic (and morally sound) choice of enforcing non-discrimination.

(On a concluding note, in case any of my lawyer friends drop by, I don’t understand why S6 of the Civil Union Act passes muster on the reasoning of the de Vos piece linked above. Section 6 reads:

A marriage officer, other than a marriage officer referred to in section 5 [which refers to people who qualify as representatives of religions], may in writing inform the Minister that he or she objects on the ground of conscience, religion and belief to solemnising a civil union between persons of the same sex, whereupon that marriage officer shall not be compelled to solemnise such civil union.

I was happy to register under the Civil Union Act precisely because I wanted to be able to marry heathens, including gay ones, but how is it that I should be allowed to choose not to marry gay couples?)

The United Nations: perhaps irrelevant, but now also offensive

Foreign minister Kutesa

Foreign minister KutesaAlthough some of you might always have considered the United Nations an irrelevance, it would be an unfair critic who claimed that they do no good at all – their World Food Programme, for example, claims to provide food to 90 million people per year.

But they have their critics, ranging from those upset by the UN’s failure to endorse the 2003 invasion of Iraq, to claims that the arrival of UN peacekeeping troops tends to reliably correlate with an increase in child prostitution. As with any large political organisation, criticism can be partisan and ideologically-motivated, often forgetting that realpolitik comes with compromise. Continue reading “The United Nations: perhaps irrelevant, but now also offensive”

Liberal bullying can still be bullying

To quote a September 2013 version of me,

there’s an arms-race of hyperbole going on, especially on the Left, and therefore especially in matters pertaining to social justice. This is understandable, especially because the Right has bombarded the world with similar hyperbole for long enough. But the trend is not a good one, and we should resist it.

It’s not good, partly because we denude language through doing so. More importantly, though, it’s not good because it gives an intrinsic advantage in argument to those who shout the loudest, and who are willing to claim that they are most fundamentally or critically hurt. And in the long run, it’s not good because the only rational (or sadly, so it might seem) way to respond to a climate of hypersensitivity is to shut up, and not say anything at all, for fear of offending someone.

EichI’m not at all sure where the dividing line is between expressing justified grievances and bullying someone out of a debate – or out of a job, as happened to Brendan Eich, ex-CEO of Mozilla, yesterday. While it’s true that some viewpoints are not worth entertaining, that doesn’t necessarily mean that someone who holds those viewpoints shouldn’t be allowed to, and shouldn’t be allowed to campaign for them without fear of reprisals.

Homophobia is wrong, and harmful – you’ll find plenty of posts over the years highlighting the offence, hurt, injustice and sometimes even murders that can be attributed to homophobia, from the relatively trivial cases of Error Naidoo to the properly odious Scott Lively, who had a part in inspiring the criminalisation of homophobia in Uganda.

However, it’s not at all clear to what extent Brendan Eich is a homophobe at all, unless we define homophobia simply as the belief that certain legal entitlements should be reserved for heterosexual people. Again, I must stress that I personally reject that belief – discrimination based on sexuality is premised on an entirely arbitrary characteristic, and is thus unjust and should be unlawful.

Usually.

Because as usual, there’s a background issue that needs to influence our reading of a case like this, and that issue is that Eich is a Christian, who believes that marriage is something ordained by God, and reserved for a man and a woman. And for as long as we (or in this case, the USA) respects freedom of religion, that’s not only a legitimate belief to hold, but also a legitimate position to campaign for, and to donate money to defending.

Perhaps we should weaken our respect for freedom of religion, and insist that a church or a minister who wanted to marry anyone should also be willing to officiate marriages for gay couples. If you won’t marry a gay couple, you can’t marry anyone. Perhaps we should argue that if you get tax breaks from government, you should lose them if you discriminate on arbitrary grounds such as sexuality, or race, or gender.

But that’s not where we are, yet, and (some) churches are still operating in a grey zone where their archaic morality is grudgingly accommodated, even in progressive democracies. Maybe it shouldn’t be – but for as long as it is, Eich has a warrant for believing (on his, archaic, standards) that it’s not unjust to deny homosexual couples the right to marry, and that it should be unlawful for them to marry.

This is the cause that Eich was supporting, in that he gave a $1000 donation, in his personal capacity, to a campaign in support of Proposition 8 (that sought to outlaw gay marriage) in California. He wasn’t alone – Proposition 8 passed, meaning that over 50% of voters voted in favour of it, before it was later overturned by the courts.

All of those people who voted for Prop 8 were – and no doubt, still are – wrong. But of those thousands of people, Eich might be the only one who was hounded out of his job, after his donation came to be public knowledge. The dating website, OKCupid, displayed a banner to Mozilla Firefox users, telling them  to change their browsers because of Eich’s position. This and similar moves (e.g. Rarebit apps, who pulled their apps from Firefox), as well as sustained criticism on social media, led Eich to resign (or so we’re told – he might well have been pushed, judging by the Mozilla chairperson’s statement that “We failed to listen, to engage, and to be guided by our community”).

So, in essence, Eich lost his job for being a Christian (of a certain sort). One of my closest friends would (I think – I haven’t checked this detail) hold the same view regarding gay marriage, and is certainly no homophobe in any other sense. I think he’s wrong about marriage and who it should be reserved for – but I would think it even more wrong if he were not able to hold the view he does, for fear of losing his job.

Yet, of course we should be able to express our dissatisfaction, even sometimes outrage, at the things people do and support. As I said at the top, I don’t know where we draw the line. But Eich operating in his personal capacity is a separate thing to his role at Mozilla, and his personal democratic choices are legitimate ones until the law says they are not. He was acting in accordance with his religious beliefs, which are constitutionally protected.

If you think that’s wrong, you need to campaign against freedom of religion, not against Eich.

(Related – an earlier piece on the Chick-fil-A homophobia.)

Ugandan homophobia and those “mercenary” gays

Three years ago, Uganda’s Ethics and Integrity Minister Nsaba Buturo observed that “killing them [gay people] might not be helpful“. The death sentence was indeed dropped from the bill that now awaits President Yoweri Museveni’s signature, after having been passed by their lawmakers in December.

hangthemprotectedBut that’s cold comfort to those persecuted for their sexuality – a sentence of life imprisonment can be imposed not only for gay sex, but also for “all behaviour, including touching, that might lead to or show an intention to have homosexual sex”. It gets worse, though – at least in terms of how much prejudice the Ugandan Members of Parliament are willing to flaunt: the ministerial task team advising the President on the bill “falsified the information contained in the report given by medical and psychological experts, twisting it to show that homosexuality should indeed be further criminalised“.

A concern for truth has never been a hallmark of this sort of bigotry, as you no doubt know. From claiming that homosexuality isn’t “African” (even though there’s plenty of evidence for pre-colonial same-sex sex) to Museveni’s own recent statements that people might become gay for “‘mercenary reasons’ or, in the case of lesbians, a lack of sex with men.”

In part, the blame for these fabrications and the attendant persecution can be laid at the door of American evangelical Christians, in particular Scott Lively, president of “Defend The Family International”, who thinks that homosexuality caused the Holocaust. But he’s also tapping into a rich wellspring of hatred and confusion – from David Bahati’s contempt for homosexuality (he’s the first-term MP who drafted the death-penalty version of the bill), to the current “Ethics and Integrity” Minister, who talks about “the right kind of child rape” (the heterosexual kind, of course – watch the interview starting at 35m40s in the video embedded below).

It’s laws and lawmakers like these that remind one of how far we still have to go as a species, before being remotely respectable.

Homophobia and the politics of outrage

The morning has brought one of those Twitter Groundhog days, where everyone is making the same points about Heritage Day/Braai Day as they did last year – mostly complaining about how offensive it is that someone else is telling us that it should be about X, and how offensive it is that someone else has co-opted it to make it about Y. Because liberty on these particular terms is the only liberty that matters, or something.

Another Twitter war that’s raging today is around homophobia, and can be traced back to the advertisement below (subsequently pulled, and also the subject of an apology from the agency concerned).

Flora ad

The ad was part of a sequence. The (only?) two other ads in the sequence involved the idea of Malema becoming president; and a Kama Sutra reference – in all cases, the idea was presumably that you need to protect your heart from excessive strain or shock, and that Flora margarine could give you added protection.

I’ll link to the opinion pieces that are being fought over at the end of this post, because the squabble between their respective authors is not the point of this blog post.

I want to go back to the ad, and the question of whether it is homophobic at all.

A literal understanding of homophobia would involve fear, but more colloquially judgement, prejudice and so forth against gay persons or communities. This definition is difficult to sustain here, because the judgement being expressed is against the holder of the “fragile” heart depicted in the ad – that person is weak, unable to deal with reality, and so forth. They need external assistance from the margarine to strengthen their (naturally weak) defences against some information (or exertion, in the Kama Sutra case).

This analysis of how the ad is supposed to work is consistent with all three versions of it. You can criticise such a campaign on various grounds, one of which would (and I think, should) be the choice of examples meant to serve as the “bullet”. If you want to highlight the things that some folk are hypersensitive, prejudiced or bigoted about, then the campaign should make that element clear – otherwise it runs the risk of being perceived as being particularly insensitive to those examples it does choose to use (with the ones left out being given a free pass). In fact, if you don’t make this element clear enough, the stereotypes you leave out are defined as normal by their exclusion.

So, the campaign I would have run (easy in retrospect, I know) would have involved “uh, Dad, I’m an atheist”. Or “uh, Dad, my boyfriend/girlfriend is black/white/Christian/Muslim/French”, or whatever.

Alternatively, you leave out the one ad that deals with a social prejudice at all, and replace it with “it’s about your child”, or “uh, Dad, I took your car keys”. The point is that in only including gay folk as an example of the sort of child that a parent might have a prejudice towards, you certainly take the risk of disproportionately offending gay people in this campaign.

One logically defensible stance here is that the ad uses the example of a homophobic person (the father) to make its point, rather than being homophobic itself. Critics will argue – not entirely without merit – that this is too narrow a definition of homophobia, in that we should also count as homophobic language and images that treat (technical, in the first sense above) homophobia as “normal”, or expected.

This broader understanding of homophobia certainly accords with what I perceive and see reported as being the experience of many homosexual people. Rebecca Davis (of the Daily Maverick) pointed out in a comment to one of the pieces that gay teens disproportionately commit suicide, partly (presumably) for fear of being othered, marginalised, cast out by parents and so forth – and that these fears are immediately prompted by an ad such as this. If, like me, you listen to the fabulous Dan Savage podcast, Savage Love, you’ll not go a week without hearing some heartbreaking story of parental or societal prejudice of this sort.

I’m sympathetic to the view that the ad is homophobic in this broader way, but only because of the failure of execution highlighted above. If the ad had consistently focused on prejudice of other sorts too, the campaign could easily have been read as affirming ways of living and being that some considered (and sadly, still consider) to be marginal, immoral or taboo. The ad might even be trying to do that now, and failing – so I can understand why it’s caused the outrage it has.

Here’s something else that I’d hope we can consider, though, even while saying it’s a bad ad, that an apology is merited, or even that the ad should be pulled. And that is that we do our language, argument and political battles a long-term disservice by calling an insensitive, poorly-executed ad concept homophobic instead of calling it “offensive”, “insensitive” or somesuch, including whatever qualifiers necessary (mildly, extremely, and so forth).

Our reactions to offence need to be proportional, because language and the words we choose to use signal the degree to which things are regarded as wrong. If anything that offends on the grounds of sexual orientation is homophobic, and anything that offends on the grounds of race, racist, then we are leaving no room for mistakes, or for implicit cultural biases to be recognised as unfortunate (and needing remedy) while not being wilful (and thus, more wrong). There are degrees of moral failing, and our language needs to take those degrees into account.

Lowe and Partners (the agency who made the ad in question) are not homophobic in the sense that Jon Qwelane or President Zuma are. Using the same language to describe them all is not only lazy, but also counts against a long-term project of getting people to think about the nuances of their language and behaviour. I’d wager that shouting at someone for their homophobia will not encourage as much reflection as explaining to them why gay folk might find the ad offensive would.

The point is that there’s an arms-race of hyperbole going on, especially on the Left, and therefore especially in matters pertaining to social justice. This is understandable, especially because the Right has bombarded the world with similar hyperbole for long enough. But the trend is not a good one, and we should resist it.

It’s not good, partly because we denude language through doing so. More importantly, though, it’s not good because it gives an intrinsic advantage in argument to those who shout the loudest, and who are willing to claim that they are most fundamentally or critically hurt. And in the long run, it’s not good because the only rational (or sadly, so it might seem) way to respond to a climate of hypersensitivity is to shut up, and not say anything at all, for fear of offending someone.

The Daily Maverick columns, in order of appearance:

(Strange arguments for) An African Pope

Ratzinger on DrugsVia Jonathan Faull, I learn that if the next Pope were to be African, he’d in fact be the fourth African Pope, “following in the footsteps of Victor I (AD 189-199), Miltiades (311-314), and Gelasius (492-496)”. And it might make good marketing sense to elect an African Pope – religiosity is still very strong and rising, in many parts of the continent. Even in countries like South Africa, arguably more in tune with global trends than most other African countries, we’ve got 70% or more who claim religious faith (a recent poll showing a sharp decline is unfortunately, not at all convincing).

Of course, people who think the Pope an essential and useful figure are not only concerned about who their largest audience might be. They also care – perhaps even more than demographic representivity – about whether the next Pope can defend the traditions of this archaic system of belief. It takes a certain strong character to defend “traditional” marriage and oppose any other unions, or to oppose contraception, in the 21st century. But when you read some arguments for why the next Pope should be African, it becomes easier to see how Popes (and lesser religious authorities) get away with talking nonsense, decade after decade.

Here’s a prime example: Richard Dowden begins an article arguing for an African Pope with: “Over the decades that I have travelled in Africa I have met only four African atheists”. A claim like this is astonishing, for various reasons. First, because as a look at something like the IHEU member organisations will show, we have a growing number of secular humanist organisations on the continent. We have atheist conferences – in Malawi, Nigeria, South Africa and elsewhere, and some of us attend and speak at international conferences too. In other words, the myopia of Dowden’s claim is the first notable thing.

One suspects, though, that he’s not looking very hard. It’s implausible to imagine that he starts every conversation with “say, are you perchance an atheist?”. And because we are a religious continent, a lack of belief would not typically be the sort of thing you’d advertise. Then, Dowden – who appears to be religious himself – might well tend to congregate with other religious folk in any case, making his (tiny already, as why should “who I meet” be your criterion) sample one that has a strong self-selection bias.

Then there’s this “no true Scotsman” paragraph, in which he claims that:

African history is largely untroubled by religious wars. Wherever religious wars are reported in Africa the cause is usually a dispute over land rights involving two communities that happen to be of different faiths. Religion per se is rarely the cause. That traditional tolerance however is now under pressure – not from atheism – but from externally-funded, exclusive fundamentalist religions in the form of Wahabi Islam exported from Saudi Arabia and evangelical Christian fundamentalism funded from the United States.

I’m sympathetic to the idea that religion and religious practices aren’t equally dangerous. But the extreme forms – even if he identifies their influence accurately in that paragraph – feed off a base of people who are already sympathetic to strange metaphysical claims. The fundamentalist religions could not gain traction without people finding the idea of gods plausible in the first instance, and the evangelical churches would remain empty, despite the funding, if rescuing your soul from hellfire was never a plausible offer in the first place. Just like in any market, competition emerges and can become aggressive. This competition is certainly premised in religion more broadly, and Dowden needs to acknowledge the role of the “traditional tolerance” for religion as a factor.

Worst of all, for me, are these two sentences:

Would an African pope change the Church’s attitude to homosexuality? Highly unlikely but on social justice, both local and international, expect a far more forthright and vigorous voice.

“Highly unlikely, but on social justice…”? One must hope that the opposition set up here is entirely accidental, because in implying that homophobia is not a social justice issue, Dowden would be making it clear that he knows as little about religion in Africa as he apparently knows about atheism in Africa. It’s in Uganda, after all, that we’ve had years of debate around whether homosexuality should be subject to the death penalty (there’s no debate around whether it should be illegal – of cours it should, according to Ugandan lawmakers).

Speaking in 2009, Ethics and Integrity Minister Nsaba Buturo was by contrast a model of tolerance, saying that life imprisonment for homosexual men might be better, as “killing them would not be helpful“. In a context like this, with homophobia prevalent across the continent, one does not get to carve homosexuality out of any bundle of social justice issues. After patriarchy, and the consequent and frequent abuse of women, it might well be the largest social justice issue.

It’s thanks to columns and arguments like these that it becomes ever clearer that the debate should ideally not be around whether the next Pope should be African or other, but rather around how long the Papacy – and Catholicism in this form – can survive at all.