Religion in South African (public) schools verdict: a victory for OGOD

The verdict in the OGOD vs. 6 public schools case was handed down on June 28, with Judge van der Linde ruling that schools were not permitted to promote “one or predominantly one religion to the exclusion of others”.

In theory, then, the days of a school promoting themselves as having a “Christian character” should be over, with countless schools across the country now having to edit brochures, websites, and even coats of arms.

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?)

Religion in education: when government officials violate the law

Earlier today, Barry Bateman sent me this:


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.

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:

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.
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.
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.

Chief Justice Mogoeng, religion and the law

In September of 2011, I was one of those to express concerns regarding Mogoeng Mogoeng’s suitability for the position of Chief Justice. At the time, I noted that “there is a distinct danger that he would be unable to separate his faith from his duties as a jurist”, and also remarked on how his appointment would occur in a context of apparent tolerance for homophobia on the part of the President himself, as well as in the appointment of someone like Jon Qwelane as ambassador to Uganda.

However, there has been no reason (that I’m aware of, at least) to fear that the worst has in fact come to pass. Morally conservative he may be, and also homophobic, but I’ve seen nothing to indicate that Mogoeng has been anything other than the loyal servant of the Constitution that he swore to be when appointed.

The sound and fury of sanctimony

Originally published in the Daily Maverick

imagesThe Easter holidays got me thinking – again – about what each of us could do to increase the odds of having a conversation on the Internet, thereby potentially changing our minds about something. In particular, changing our minds about how we perceive each other’s views on faith and religion. After all, changing our minds is what reading and writing should be about: discovering how we are wrong, rather than reinforcing to ourselves the ways in which we are right.

Easter brought these thoughts back because of the predictable squabbles that flared up between religious believers (well, Christians in this case) and those of us who don’t believe. Both of these groups can take themselves far too seriously: the non-religious through going out of their way to also be anti-religious, and the religious through taking offence at any slight, no matter how minor.

Some people did seem to go out of their way to be blasphemous, especially on Twitter, but jokes like the one that got me into brief trouble when I re-tweeted it (say Jesus backwards. Now say God backwards. Now say them together), or Barry Bateman’s quip about this being a day all about “caramel centered chocolate eggs” (which attracted a full day of judgement) are surely of the sort that can (and should) simply be laughed off as a difference of opinion.

Most of the time, a commitment to secular values would allow for both “sides” to leave each other alone, because their actions and beliefs, kept private, have no impact on others. But for both of these groups, the nuances of how (and why) people believe or disbelieve can get lost in convenient caricatures. In fact, sometimes even the truth is hostage to the will to (dis)believe. Two brief examples aren’t conclusive, but hopefully serve to make the point.

On the Christian side, the Church of England did themselves no favours through being caught out in what appears to be a blatant lie. In the run-up to Easter, they released the results of a poll indicating that 4 out of 5 people believe in the power of prayer – and gratifyingly for them, that belief in the power of prayer seemed to be on the rise in the youth.

The only problem is that the poll shows nothing of the sort. The 4 out of 5 figure is derived from the fact that when asked the question “Irrespective of whether you currently pray or not, if you were to pray for something at the moment, what would it be for?”, 80% of people gave a response instead of saying “I don’t know” or “I would never pray for anything”.

The desire to have a good-news story about the church, especially in the run-up to Easter, is understandable. And in light of 2011’s Dawkins’ foundation research indicating that fewer people seem to believe in the power of prayer than ever, this particular good-news story would no doubt be particularly welcome. But when your brand is built on virtue, and is in competition with others that claim you’re simply making stuff up, it does no good to make stuff up.

On the atheist side, I’m rather grateful to the majority of religious folk who are either disinterested enough or kind enough to not make more of an issue out of the continued civil wars around the role of social justice causes inside atheism, in particular the widespread allegations of misogyny. Instead, the focus continues to be on some of the more prominent voices for non-belief, and in particular, Dawkins himself.

And he seldom fails to disappoint those looking for a soundbite purportedly demonstrating the tone-deafness and hostility of atheists. While I do think most of the examples chosen to make this case are cherry-picked or misinterpreted, it remains true that doing our own cherry-picking or misinterpretation in response is no evidence of virtue.

Furthermore, he really does put his foot in it sometimes, like last week when he told his 660 000 Twitter followers:

He’s right on the logic, sure – but it would have been easy to be right while simultaneously not being maximally offensive.

I’ve addressed questions of strategy before, for example in relation to someone who does actually try to be the lightning-rod that Dawkins is perceived as being – David Silverman of American Atheists. While I haven’t changed my mind that we need people like him to expand the polarities of the debate, and perhaps to stretch the middle-ground for more moderate strategies, they do sometimes make the PR job difficult for those of us who think of religious people as mostly harmless, most of the time.

Likewise, the overly sanctimonious believers who seem to have sacrificed their sense of humour do the majority of believers no favours. Nor, of course, do those who argue against equal rights for gay couples or availability of contraceptives; or those who condone (through inaction, at least) child abuse or the stoning of adulterers and rape victims.

In short, there are all sorts of obstacles to being understood and to having a dialogue. Eliminating some of these require getting our own houses in order, rather than looking outward. But when we do look outward, let’s try to look at what’s in front of us, rather than being distracted by the convenient fiction of the stereotype.

The tragedy of absurdity – on Holmes and the Batman shootings

As submitted to Daily Maverick

Last week’s shootings in Aurora, Colorado brought to mind the power of absurdity. Amid all the speculation regarding what motivated James Holmes to open fire on a crowd of moviegoers – killing 12 and injuring dozens – we can safely assume that there at least was a motivation or a reason. But it might not be something we can relate to, and in at least one sense, it will be absurd.

Much of the speculation as to Holmes’s potential motive is of course also absurd: from pastor Rick Warren’s claim (edit: he claims misinterpretation) that the teaching of evolution is somehow to blame, to the equally idiotic assertion that the killings are the result of the teachings of Christianity. Most if not all armchair psychologising about cases like this is little more than an opportunity for people on the sidelines to air their fears or prejudices.

Without speculating on his motives, then, we can still say that some set of deliberations led him to plan and execute this attack. And the narrative underpinning those deliberations would have been absurd, because whatever he thought the act would demonstrate, or whomever he thought it would punish, it would inevitably fall short of succeeding in its goals.

To wit: If he intended to kill people of a certain demographic or class, the quality of his targeting was clearly absurd, in that the victims were essentially chosen at random. If he meant to send a message, we’ve not yet been given to clue as to what it is, nor are we inclined to being persuaded by messages delivered in such a fashion.

The only long-term effect on the world from actions such as these is to inconvenience future cinemagoers, who will most likely soon have to pass through security checkpoints to get into the theatre. Minds won’t be changed, whether that of a lover or a god you intended to impress, or those of a set of politicians or bankers you wanted to chastise. In all these cases, the act and the motivation for it will be absurd.

And of course, a heavy price is paid for such a vanishingly small or nonexistent reward. This is the power of absurdity – we define the groups or ideologies we belong to abstractly, to the extent that our political or religious identities become unfalsifiable or irrefutable. Sometimes, we kill, fight and die for ideas, even those that we think will only manifest in an afterlife.

More broadly, communal commitment to the same set of beliefs, whether absurd or not, deepens trust and galvanises group solidarity. We demonstrate our commitment in our actions; and the more elaborate and apparently heartfelt those actions are the more convincing and persuasive they appear to an audience. This can in turn grow the audience or the community, in that they are attracted to the sincerity and solidarity they observe.

When the Pope washes the feet of worshippers, for example, the gesture is costly because it sacrifices power and ego. It’s intended to be a hard-to-fake symbol of commitment to higher powers, or to a shared set of beliefs – this is part of what makes those commitments or beliefs more likely to be adopted by an audience.

Holmes’s gesture was more costly. Clearly so in the case of those who were injured or lost their lives, as well as their families and friends, but also for Holmes himself, who faces certain loss of freedom in one form or another and even potential loss of life (capital punishment is legal in Colorado, even though the last death sentence was handed down in 1987, and then finally executed in 1997). It’s tempting, therefore, to speculate as to some grand motive, because the motive needs to be grand enough to allow us to reconcile these costs.

But perhaps the speculation is always more for our own comfort than anything else, given that you can’t explain the absurd. That is partly the point of these gestures and narratives – they are designed to be un-interpretable and outlandish, because that’s how they perform the task of separating “us” from “them”. We distinguish between cultures not only on the grounds of things like language, but also through ritual, and if the rituals are too easy to fake they become less useful tools for doing so.

To some extent, we now have what one might call universal religions or cultures – things like democracy, human rights and so forth – and various commitment devices that indicate our membership of these religions or cultures. As with all religions, costly gestures indicate greater commitment. If it is inconvenient for you to cast your vote, yet you still do so, you’ll appear to care more for democracy than someone who can’t be bothered to vote. If you spend 27 years in prison, you’ll appear to care even more.

We can’t yet know what religion, culture, or identity Holmes was demonstrating commitment to, and perhaps we never will. Perhaps he was doing nothing of the sort, and we’ll later discover that this (ex) PhD student in neuroscience should himself be a case-study of a certain sort of brain abnormality which predicts this behaviour better than any speculations as to his hypothetical beliefs could do.

Or, more worryingly for those who’d like to take comfort in a narrative – any narrative – that might bring something resembling sense to this tragedy, events like this could simply be a reminder that those universal religions many of us take for granted aren’t yet as firmly rooted in modern cultures as we’d like to believe, and that there’s still plenty of work to be done.

The Cologne ruling on religious circumcision

Originally published in Daily Maverick

In June this year, a court in the German city of Cologne heard a case involving a four-year-old child from a Muslim family who was admitted to hospital with bleeding following a circumcision. The doctor who performed the circumcision did so at the request of the boy’s parents, and was acquitted of the charge of grievous bodily harm for this reason.

While this particular doctor was acquitted, the court made the general observation that circumcision violated a child’s “fundamental right to bodily integrity”, and that this right outweighed the rights of parents. While leaving room for circumcision to be permissible on medical grounds, the court, in other words, ruled that ritual circumcision amounts to impermissible bodily harm and also constituted a violation of the rights of children.

Contrary to the predictable cries of anti-Semitism that have resulted (and how convenient it is for critics that a German court made the ruling), this is a victory for freedom of religion. Yes, one element of one ritual is outlawed, namely that parents can no longer choose to cut flesh from the penis of their non-consenting child. But why should they ever have had that “right”?

The argument that religion, custom and culture – in and of themselves – are insufficient justification for a practice applies across the board, not simply to examples of such practices that are more anachronistic, bizarre or unfashionable than the ones that happen to still be mainstream in modern societies. We wouldn’t endorse foot-binding on grounds of culture, and we certainly don’t endorse female genital cutting.

Foot-binding would of course not be possible at a later age, or it would at least be far less effective. But you can be circumcised at any age, once you determine that you independently desire to identify with a certain culture or religion. That should be a choice, and not the choice of the parents – this is surely what freedom of religion means. An infant might have Muslim or Jewish parents, but we should wait to hear from the child itself before performing irreversible surgery on them.

Informed consent is a fundamental principle of modern medicine. Exceptions do of course exist, such as when consent cannot be given for whatever reason, and an intervention is held to have significant benefits for the patient. But it’s only contingently the case that we happen to accept male circumcision as exempt from this principle – it has a weight of history and privilege (the privilege that is accorded to religion generally) behind it.

If we were to instead engage in the thought experiment of enquiring whether – in the absence of that history and privilege – male circumcision would be considered permissible, the conversation would revolve around costs and benefits, and whether any benefits could be accrued at lower costs.

In the case of female genital mutilation, the answer is clear – the costs far outweigh very dubious benefits. In general, it’s therefore not very useful or justified to compare that practice with male circumcision (except as examples of cultural artefacts, as I do above. Or, if we were to follow the Jewish scholar Maimonides, we might think them comparable in that both are aimed at a “decrease in sexual intercourse and a weakening of the organ in question, so that this activity be diminished and the organ be in as quiet a state as possible”).

For male circumcision, the fact that it comes at a small physical cost (relative to most instances of female circumcision) is presented as part of the justification for why it should be permissible. But any cost is too great, if it doesn’t come with benefits that can’t be accrued more cheaply. What we should not do is make the mistake of asking adult circumcised men whether they think harm was done to them. They’re not in a position to entertain any counterfactuals – both in terms of their physical state, and also because the majority of them would have grown up in a culture where male genital cutting was acceptable. It would be unsurprising that they found it unproblematic, as it would be just as normal as being uncircumcised would be to other men.

The point is that by that time, the opportunity for choice has passed. A non-religious child has had non-essential surgery performed on it by a religious parent, on the assumption that the child will eventually choose to belong to that religion. And of course, they are more likely to make that choice after having (non-volitionally) embraced the commitment-device of circumcision.

How much stronger would their commitment be, one wonders, if they instead choose to get circumcised as a teen or adult? If circumcision involves a sacred covenant with God, that covenant seems strengthened through being voluntary – and parents should not be free to make that covenant on behalf of their infant in cases where doing so involves cutting the infant’s flesh.

Religious parents in the 21st century are surely aware of these concerns, and do appear to struggle to justify what is at least a prima facie rights violation. So, they sometimes turn to information that wouldn’t have been available to Maimonides – the purported health benefits of circumcision. While it’s repeated so frequently as to seem axiomatic, the evidence that circumcision reduces HIV infection is not as clear-cut (pdf) as many think it is.

Likewise, the claim that circumcision reduces cervical cancer is also more suspect than many realise, as the reported headline findings give little indication as to the dearth of quality data underlying those findings. The key trial held to justify that conclusion is a meta-analysis of 7 different studies in 5 countries, where none of the individual studies found any correlation between circumcision and cervical cancer.

That’s not necessarily a problem, as meta-analyses can sometimes reveal data that isn’t clear in individual trials. In this case, though, the meta-analysis only revealed a correlation with human papillomavirus (HPV), a factor in the development of around 90% of cases of cervical cancer. But while HPV is almost always a factor in cervical cancer, it doesn’t necessarily lead to cervical cancer.

You can of course show that it tends to do so, but note that we’re talking about two degrees of separation from circumcision here, so establishing a sufficiently strong correlation (to even suspect that there might be causation) between circumcision and cervical cancer would require a mountain of data. Instead, what we have in this meta-analysis  is a relatively small sample (for the control group), a suspect methodology, and virtually no controlling for other cervical cancer risk-factors, such as smoking or poverty.

In other words, the evidence of benefits from circumcision is not entirely clear. And against these possible benefits, we also need to weigh costs – for example, the cost of reduced penile sensitivity. Or, perhaps the cost of increased rather than decreased HIV infection, seeing as the South African National Communication Survey on HIV/AIDS in 2009 found that 15% of adults thought that circumcision eliminated the need to use condoms.

I don’t necessarily think that all ethical dilemmas can be resolved by empirical evidence, even if many of them can be. But even if circumcision does come with the benefits of reducing HIV infection or instances of cervical cancer, there’s no obstacle to men of a sexually-active age choosing to be circumcised. If the data were clear I’d happily endorse their doing so, because it’s sensible to reduce risk where possible, and where the reduction comes at an acceptable cost.

But it should be a choice. And while surgical interventions can sometimes be approved by someone other than the patient, this should never be the case for non-essential surgery. So to my mind, the Cologne court made what is unquestionably the correct decision on health grounds, and one which also happens to protect freedom of religion. That is, the freedom of the infant to later choose a religion, or to choose to not have one.

Also worth reading:
Religion is no excuse for mutilating your baby’s penis, by Brian D. Earp

And here’s a lunatic rant from Brendan O’Neill:
The rebranding of circumcision as ‘child abuse’ echoes the ugly anti-Semitism of medieval Europe