On Chief Justice Mogoeng calling for prayer in Parliament

When the Judicial Service Commission hearings on Judge Mogoeng Mogoeng were being held, I expressed significant doubts regarding his suitability for the role of Chief Justice. Among my concerns were his views on homosexuality, his reasoning in certain judgments related to sexual assault, and of course, his religious views and whether they would impact on his rulings.

Religious Public Holidays in a “secular” state

Originally published in the Daily Maverick

The commission with the improbably long name (more formally known as the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities, or CRL) is currently holding public hearings on South Africa’s calendar. Following the receipt of four complaints from members of the public, the CRL has set out to determine the extent to which religious bias informs which Public Holidays we get to enjoy, and which we don’t.

On the one hand, the debate seems easy to resolve. We’re not officially a Christian country, so on the face of it, having Good Friday and Christmas Day as 2 of the 12 Public Holidays is surely discriminatory, in that it privileges one religion over others. If you include Family Day – surely Easter Monday in all but name – a full quarter of the holidays are Christian, and none represent other faiths.

If this discrimination is thought unmerited or wrongful, we’d have two options. We could try to represent all faiths, or we could resolve to represent none. Then, it is of course also possible to argue that the discrimination is warranted, seeing as roughly three-quarters of South Africans claim to be Christian.

You might not expect to hear this from an atheist, but I’m rather sympathetic to the claim that it’s not unfairly discriminatory to allocate 2 of the 12 public holidays to the Christian faith. Religion, per se, does not justify public holidays, even if your religion regards certain days as holy. But sometimes tradition, history or heritage does seem to do so, when it can plausibly be argued to represent a significant majority of a population.

In the case of South Africa, three-quarters of the country appear to self-identify as Christian, and therefore three quarters of the country happen to regard the same days as holy. Seeing as many of them won’t be showing up for work on those days in any event, it seems to make perfect economic and moral sense to recognise that day as special. For most of the country, in other words, it is indeed special.

Not recognising those days as special could simply mean that additional (non-official) public holidays would result. If these two (perhaps 3) days are indeed the most holy days in the year for Christians, a possible alternative is of course to let people choose to take these days as part of 12 holiday days everyone is entitled to, on days of their choosing. But why create the logistical nightmare of forcing this large community to co-ordinate their holidays in this way?

Second, if all holidays are a matter of choice, it’s not only the co-ordination of them between family, friends and communities that’s an issue – we might also suspect that some people would end up getting no public holidays at all. It’s one thing for an employer to pressure someone to work on an official Public Holiday – easier still would be for an employer to keep refusing to allow someone to take any self-designated day off. Having 12 pre-identified days makes everyone’s planning easier, and makes it more difficult for employers to exploit their staff.

So however we resolve the public holiday debate, giving everyone 12 days off – on days of their own choosing – seems the worst possible choice we could make. Our alternatives, as mentioned above, are to include all religions or to include none. Including all of them is clearly out of the question, unless by “all” we mean some limited set, rather than all. Deciding on who gets to be included in that limited set would require some discrimination, though, and seems to get us back to square one – who gets to decide which religions are privileged, and why?

If, as suggested above, making these decisions is premised on popularity, then we should bear in mind that we might sometimes need to revise which public holidays are celebrated and which not. If South Africa eventually becomes a majority Muslim or Jewish country, for example, the holidays should change accordingly. This is perhaps the main issue: such a revision will be unpopular and divisive, and therefore unlikely to occur.

So we might want to consider the discrimination to be unjustified, and resolve that public holidays need to be entirely detached from religious holy days. Then, the days would never need changing and would be selected on a more principled basis. They could be arranged in such a way that the impact on the work week – and the economy – is minimised. Public holidays in the middle of the week invariably result in absenteeism on adjacent days, and this problem could be resolved by stipulating holidays on “the third Monday of June”, for example, rather than on a fixed date.

As indicated earlier, though, arguments that the current arrangements are discriminatory (coming from both other faiths and nonbelievers) seem to my mind overstated. Discrimination is not always wrong, though it’s easy to understand a non-Christian religious person feeling more aggrieved in this case, seeing as to all intents and purposes, having two Christian days recognised where no other faith has a day does appear to present Christianity as the de facto national religion.

Debating this issue on the grounds of discrimination seems to result in more heat than light. We’re becoming a nation of complainers, always on the lookout for who is abusing our dignity or denying some putative right. If there is a slight to other faiths and no faith here, it’s a minor one. But if we are to consider whether the current public holidays are the right ones, there are serious issues to debate – most importantly how we can derive maximum public benefit at lowest cost to the economy. Let’s hope the Commission takes the opportunity to consider those issues, rather than being exclusively concerned with religious (and non-religious) sensitivities.

Elevatorgate and the power of words

As published in The Daily Maverick

Comment facilities on blog posts and online newspapers can be enormously valuable to both readers and writers, in that they allow for prompt corrections and clarifications of points of view. As all readers will know, they can also conduce to venting of spleen or expressions of odious viewpoints, as I’ve discussed in a previous column. But what they also allow for is a detachment from the arguments of the piece in question, where the comment thread rapidly takes on a life of its own, completely divorced from the ideas the author intended to explore.

Updated African science and skepticism blogroll

As curated by Michael Meadon over at Ionian Enchantment, here is the updated list of African blogs focusing on science and skepticism. Please get in touch with Michael if you know of any others that merit inclusion on the list.

‘Twas Easter and the slithey toves did gyre and gimble on the roads

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

The philosopher Simon Blackburn, describing Karen Armstrong’s attitude to religion, once remarked that it was “reminiscent of Alice after hearing the nonsense poem Jabberwocky: ‘Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are’.”

As Easter approaches, some of these elusive ideas dominate radio talk-shows and a disproportionate number of column-centimetres in newspapers, regardless of the fact that everyone is usually saying exactly what they said last year.

Of course, the ideas are most often accompanied by some unpleasant facts, such as the increase in deaths and injuries on our roads resulting from herds of families heading to reunions, celebrations or simply vacations. But as for the ideas themselves – rebirth, renewal, sacrifice, atonement and the like – we see them infecting both unbelievers and believers.

The majority of those living in a society forged in a Judeo-Christian tradition end up partaking in ritualistic eating, drinking and general merriment, regardless of whether they are committed to any theological underpinnings for those ideas.

On one level, this is not incoherent for unbelievers at all, seeing as festivals such as Easter and Christmas were established traditions long before the Roman Catholic Church appropriated all the pagan shrines and claimed the festivals for itself, premised on a version of history that is now regarded as true by many, if only through being repeated often enough.

Some of us, though, will find ourselves at dinner tables shared by relatives and friends who do take these festivals and that version of history seriously, and who sometimes appear to believe that we can know exactly which ideas our heads should be filled with, and why. And those of us on the outside of this belief system may play along, sitting politely while prayers are uttered, not protesting when these relatives and friends say what might seem to us to be crazy things.

The extent to which the secular community has an obligation to play along – or the opposite obligation to protest – is a running debate. A key element of this debate is the possible incoherence involved in your lack of belief not standing in the way of allowing others to continue believing absurd things. The politics of these situations are complex, though, and I don’t mean to argue that one has an obligation to always burst the belief-bubbles of others.

After all, some of these religious ideas, as exemplified by Easter and Christmas, are noble and good: friendship, family, and the simple pleasures of a good meal come to mind, as does the welcome notion of having a few days off work. But if one gets the sense that these ideas – along with others not mentioned – are somehow premised on these festivals, the fear grows that they may become reserved solely for that time of year.

In other words, perhaps some of us – having done our duty in being nice to Aunt Sally around the Easter dinner table – might feel no obligation to be nice to her again until Christmas rolls around. In case this sounds implausible, note that a similar effect is being noticed with regard to “green” consumers, where recent research indicates that they are less likely to be kind, and more likely to steal, as a result of their perceptions of themselves as “good people”. As Dieter Frey, a University of Munich psychologist, observes, “At the moment in which you have proven your credentials in a particular area, you tend to allow yourself to stray elsewhere”.

As with resolutions at the start of each new year, or that month following a trip to the dentist where one flosses obsessively before reverting to more typical patterns, our plans and intentions count for little if they affect our behaviour for a trivially short time. More to the point, they count for little as indications of our characters when they affect our behaviour only when we are reminded to behave differently, due to the promptings of events on a calendar.

All these holiday seasons are invariably filled with both the best and the worst of human character – as are all days and months. For every heart-warming tale of families reunited, this Easter will bring another tale relating to a Catholic priest and an altar-boy, or another about a parent so in the grip of pseudoscience or some paranoia that she is unwilling to vaccinate her one-year-old child, thereby endangering his life (and the lives of everyone else on the planet, in a small way).

But it’s always this way – people do stupid things and clever things, they harm and they help, and they sometimes have no clue which they are doing, or why they have chosen one thing rather than another. And yes, perhaps the balance shifts towards the positive over Easter. Though I’m not too sure about that given all the lives traditionally lost on the roads at this time of year – sadly, too many in pilgrimages to venues such as Moria.

It won’t, however, make much difference if people are especially nice to each other simply because they are reminded to do so by a date on a calendar, and by what that calendar tells them about their metaphysics. As the secular members of South African society often remark, a definition of “goodness” which is premised on being accountable to Big Daddy hardly makes one virtuous – and by extension, being charitable and generally “nice” to one’s fellow humans because it’s Easter or Christmas is not the motivation I’d hope for, seeing as I then have no guarantee you won’t be a complete tosspot for the rest of the year.

Free Society Institute launch

The inaugural conference of the Free Society Institute was held on August 29, 2009. I recently launched the FSI with the intention of providing an umbrella organisation for the various atheist/secular/etc. organisations in South Africa, much as the IHEU does internationally. What follows is the speech from which I no doubt deviated at the conference.