Monthly Archives: February 2008

Ayaan Hirsi Ali to get EU protection

It looks like Ayaan Hirsi Ali will get national police protection anywhere in the European Union (see Writer to get EU protection). According to this Guardian report “Franco Frattini, the European commissioner for justice and home affairs, told the Guardian that Hirsi Ali and any other persons facing threats to their lives because of their opinions or writings, would be guaranteed protection wherever they went in Europe and that the host country would bear the expense.”

Other sources are suggesting that agreement on this is not yet complete and (“British sources said a pan-European deal could not be “that simple” since there were cost and legal implications to authorising such special police measures”). However, it does look like a decision has been made in Hirsi Ali’s case. This is very welcome news for many of us who have been concerned for her safety ever since the Dutch government withdrew funding for her protection while she was in the US.

Hirsi Ali, whose life was threated after she made a film, Submission, attacking Islamic treatment of women. Her colleague, Theo Van Gogh, who directed the film was murdered on an Amsterdam street in 2004.

This decision has wider significance than Hirsi Ali. There are a number of other people in Europe in her position – under threat of death because of their criticisms of Islam

I agree with Ron Brown’s comment on this:

“Today is a big day for free speech and humanity. The EU’s promised protection of Ali sends a strong message: that we will stand together and protect each other and our right to speak freely.”

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is author of the books Infidel and The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam.

Related Articles:

Secular Islam
From faith to reason
Limits to respect and toleration
The Trouble with Islam

The future of religion

Two recent newspaper articles provide some hope for the future. They deal with the changing nature of religion throughout the world and in the USA.
Alan Wolfe in his Atlantic Monthly article The coming religious peace writes that although many people fear the possibility of rising religious fundamentalism and conflicts “many areas of the world are experiencing a decline in religious belief and practice.” Wolfe argues that although secularisation may not appear inevitable to many commentators the facts do indicate “that material progress is slowly eroding religious fervor.”

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Putting the Bible in its place

It seems to me that many of the bad examples of Christianity are based on the belief that the Bible is a divine document. That it should not be questioned and can be used to provide authoritative answers to questions of morality, the meaning of life and the origins of the universe and mankind.

So here’s an idea. Why not consider the Bible like any other book – the words of humans rather than the words of a divine being?

I thought Michael Adelson, a Staff Conductor for the New York Philharmonic argued the case for this very well in a recent interview on Skepticality. He had studied with the late Rabbi Sherwin Wine, the founder of Humanistic Judaism, a secular movement which provides atheistic and agnostic Jews around the world with a means for organization, mobilization, and a sense of community.

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Intelligent design and depression

I am currently reading Michael Behe’s book Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution,one of the main books advocating “intelligent design” (ID). It’s quite different to most other science books. Whereas I normally enjoy science books and find them very uplifting, even inspirational, I am finding this one depressing.

It’s not because I disagree with Behe’s conclusions – after all one doesn’t have to accept concepts or speculations to find their discussion stimulating. Consider some of the current scientific speculation around string theory, multiple universes, etc. No, it’s really that the whole style of this book is not normal for science. Rather than being inspirational or enthusiastic it comes across as defeatist and depressing. Rather than encouraging the search for knowledge and understanding it repeatedly encourages the reader to see nature as too complicated to understand. It discounts the idea that we could ever find out how living systems work, how they arose or how life itself could have originated. This book really doesn’t offer anything positive to be enthusiastic about.

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Beyond Tolerance – Toward Understanding and Respect

The Wellington Interfaith Council will host New Zealand’s 5th National Interfaith Forum on 8-10 March 2008 in Wellington. The forum’s slogan is “Beyond Tolerance – Toward Understanding and Respect: Challenges and Opportunities”

The Council has extended a warm “invitation to:
– all participants in interfaith activity throughout New Zealand
– anyone who has a keen interest in becoming involved in interfaith activity
– those who have a sincere interest in deepening their interfaith understanding.”

Now, it seems to me that this invitation is too narrow to achieve the declared aim of understanding and respect. Surely this requires dialogue and interaction with people outside, as well as those inside, the “interfaith” community. Considering that a third of New Zealanders do not adhere to a faith (see Trends in religious belief in New Zealand) how can such a limited forum deal with the “challenges and opportunities” encountered in the efforts to build “understanding and respect?”

This was the problem with the National Statement on Religious Diversity. Because of the restricted “interfaith” nature of the working group involved in the statement’s preparation and endorsement the statement fell well short of basic human rights guaranteed in New Zealand legislation and international agreements on human rights. For example, Article 3 provides the right to safety to only “faith communities and their members.”

The Forums slogan is great. But it’s wrong to see these as issues only for those of “faith.” All of us, religious and non-religious alike, need to face up to these issues. And, in particular, there is need to build understanding and respect between the religious and non-religious.

The news release from the forum organisers does claim that it will bring together “representatives of interfaith, faith and non faith groups from around New Zealand.” But how is this possible when the invitation is restricted to only those involved or interested in “interfaith” activity?

Related Articles:
Secular alternatives to religious communities
Religious diversity and human rights
Atheism and religious diversity I: Diversity in New Zealand
Atheism and religious diversity II: A personal perspective
Atheism and religious diversity III: Conflict between science and religion
Atheism and religious diversity IV: Values, morality and spirituality
Religious Diversity Statement
Religious diversity includes “non-believers”
Common values, common action?

Replacing public prayers

For many of us the imposition of Christian prayers in public situations is a problem. I personally feel offended whenever this is imposed on me. In this day and age, and in this multicultural, ideologically diverse society, such offensive actions should not be tolerated. If we can refuse to tolerate smoking in public places (while still accepting it in the privacy of one’s own personal environment) why can’t we refuse to tolerate the imposition of public prayers.

This is an issue in our Parliament and for some local body councils. Therefore I was interested to see this report in Te Korowai Whakapono. This is the newsletter of the Interfaith Network which is facilitated by the New Zealand Human Rights Commission.

Affirmation to open council meetings

The Hurunui District Council has voted to do away with its prayer at the start of meetings. Council meetings always began with the CEO reading out the following prayer:

Eternal God,

We ask you to bless those present and grant through our discussions and decisions we may solve our problems effectively, and act with integrity

and courage to enhance the well being of our district.

Councillors voted 5-4 to do away with the prayer and replace it with a non-religious affirmation, followed by a period of silence for prayer or reflection by councillors. The decision followed a complaint by Cr Russell Black in October to the Human Rights Commission. He said he would withdraw his complaint to the Human Rights Commission if a “tolerant and respectful” solution could be found. Black said he had tolerated the prayer for several years out of respect but had felt uncomfortable. “We swear an oath at the start of our term and abide by it. We do not need to reinforce it monthly,” he said.

Cr Judy Meikle said she could “live with a pledge”, but it would be with regret. Cr Andrew Smart said he was saddened at the time taken to resolve the issue when there were pressing needs for district residents such as the drought. He sought a change of wording in the prayer but said he would support an affirmation. Cr Michael Malthus said he was a religious man but could live with an affirmation, provided there was a period of silence for him to give thanks to “whoever”. Cr Wendy Doody sought to retain the prayer.

It is all about toleration and respect.

And it is about time.

Related Articles:
Secular alternatives to religious communities
Religious diversity and human rights
Atheism and religious diversity I: Diversity in New Zealand
Atheism and religious diversity II: A personal perspective
Atheism and religious diversity III: Conflict between science and religion
Atheism and religious diversity IV: Values, morality and spirituality
Thank God or Thank Goodness?
“Let us pray . . . “
Christian prayer problems

Taxation offense

I don’t wish to offend anyone. However, Robert M. Pirsing, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, commented “When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called religion.” Recently I heard a conference presenter quote this and add: “And you can then claim tax exemption!”

The problem of tax exemption for religious organisations was recently raised in an article in the New Zealand Listener (see The God Dividend). The article was based on an interview with Max Wallace, author of The Purple Economy. The problem arises from the fact that our legislation, in common with many other countries, defines the advancement of religion as a charitable purpose

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Obama on religion

The US election is not the first issue on New Zealand’s TV News programmes but many of us have been concerned at the role that right-wing Christian fundamentalists have played with the current and previous administrations. We hope that this group will have less influence in the upcoming election. For this reason I was interested in the article (Barack Obama’s speech on religion in America) on US Democratic Presidential Nominee Barack Obama by Ron Brown over at The Frame Problem.

Considering the promising run that Obama is having in the primaries Ron’s description of Obama as “a Champion for a secular America” gives us some hope:

Obama is a true champion for church-state separation. He put it most beautifully when he said that while a person can subscribe to a belief and personal code of conduct on religious grounds, but for that belief to be institutionalized the person must be able to defend it based on secular principles that are accessible to people of all faiths and to nonreligious people. It was such an elegant synthesis of everything that secularism stands for, and everything that America was rooted in. In an effort to encourage a greater respect for secularism among evangelicals, Obama reminded us that the institution of American secularism was pushed for most adamently not by nonbelievers and civil liberties activists, but by the early forebears of modern evangelical Christianity who were the minority at the time and did not want to have the dominant congregations interfering with their abilities to engage their faith as they saw fit. He also spoke of the plurality of Biblical interpretation. He asks what parts of the Bible we look to when considering particular moral issues. Do we look at the more punitive sections of the Old Testament (e.g., Leviticus and Deuteronomy), or to the more forgiving, loving, and less judgmental passages of the New Testament. Discussion on this topic linked to his synopsis of an event in which his Republican adversary for Illinois Senate asserted that Jesus would not vote for Barack Obama. The reason being primarily that Obama is pro-choice and favours gay rights. Obama took exception to his adversary’s claim to know the will of Christ.

See Also:
Why I Am Supporting Barack Obama for President from a Christian supporter of Obama.

Scientific dissent from . . . science?

Opponents of scientific evolutionary theory will often refer to the Scientific Dissent From Darwinism list to justify that the theory is controversial and should be discarded, or at least equal time be given to creationist “theories” in school biology classes. There is no doubt that the list is being used to attack scientific theory but its worth looking at the statement professionals on the list have signed up to. It reads:

“We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.”

Few of the signatories have signed the statement for scientific reasons – rather their motives have been religious (see Who are the “dissenters from Darwinism”?). However, scientists by their nature are skeptics and should always critically examine evidence. In principle few scientists would disagree with the statement. So why has the Scientific Dissent from Darwin list attracted so little scientific support (see Dissenters from Darwinism in context)?

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A respectable man with a dangerous theory

Darwin DayThis Tuesday, February 12, marks the 199th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth. The 149th anniversary of the publication of his book The Origin of Species also occurs this year. In this book Darwin laid out his theory of natural selection which is still accepted today as an integral part of modern revolutionary theory.

The anniversary is being marked throughout the world as Darwin day – commemorating the major contribution Darwin made to science, particularly biology. The occasion is of course being celebrated by scientific organisations and activities also include discussion by the New York State Legislative Assembly of a resolution marking the day.

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