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Freedom of superstition July 3, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Freedom, Law, Religion, Superstition.
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You keep using that term, “freedom of religion” — I do not think it means what you think it means. The problem is that everyone thinks their own religion is eminently reasonable and wise, while all other religions are mistaken at best. And there’s no way to ever work out which is right, since they’re all equally unsupported by evidence. So, while people shouldn’t be persecuted because of their religious beliefs, the flip side is that those beliefs don’t (or shouldn’t) confer any magical “get out of jail free” cards, either: the law must be strictly secular, with no religious exceptions. People often conveniently forget this when their own religion is the beneficiary (at the expense of those who don’t share it).

So here’s my proposition: “freedom of religion” will be renamed “freedom of superstition.” That should help clear up any confusion about what is and isn’t included. You’re free to be as superstitious as you want in your private life; it’s just that you can’t force anyone else to respect your superstitions, or expect to be exempted from any laws because of them.

Let’s give it a try: Your superstition tells you that your neighbor is a witch? You’re free to shun her, but not to burn her. Your superstition forbids contraception? You’re free to eschew it, but not to make it less accessible to others. Your superstition demonizes gays? You’re free to not have sex with people of your own gender, but not to discriminate against those who do.

What’s that? You don’t like your sacred, heartfelt convictions referred to as superstitions? Well, then, all you have to do is bring forth good evidence to support them — at which point we can all get on board, no special pleading necessary. Until then, I wouldn’t talk so loud. You’re entitled to your own opinions, but you’re not entitled to your own facts and you’re not entitled to your own laws.

In return for our chains March 8, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Equality, Freedom.
1 comment so far

In 1890, when American women had no right to vote (the Nineteenth Amendment wasn’t passed till 1920), and marital rape wasn’t considered a crime (which remained the case in some states until 1993), Voltairine de Cleyre gave a lecture entitled “Sex Slavery”.

Let Woman ask herself, “Why am I the slave of Man? Why is my brain said not to be the equal of his brain? Why is my work not paid equally with his? Why must my body be controlled by my husband? Why may he take my labor in the household, giving me in exchange what he deems fit? Why may he take my children from me? Will them away while yet unborn?” Let every woman ask…

From the birth of the Church, out of the womb of Fear and the fatherhood of Ignorance, it has taught the inferiority of woman. In one form or another through the various mythical legends of the various mythical creeds, runs the undercurrent of the belief in the fall of man through the persuasion of woman, her subjective condition as punishment, her natural vileness, total depravity, etc.; and from the days of Adam until now the Christian Church, with which we have specially to deal, has made Woman the excuse, the scapegoat for the evil deeds of man…

At Macon, in the sixth century, says August Bebel, the fathers of the Church met and proposed the decision of the question, “has Woman a soul?” Having ascertained that the permission to own a nonentity wasn’t going to injure any of their parsnips, a small majority vote decided the momentous question in our favor. Now, holy fathers, it was a tolerably good scheme on your part to offer the reward of your pitiable “salvation or damnation” (odds in favor of the latter) as a bait for the hook of earthly submission; it wasn’t a bad sop in those days of faith and ignorance. But fortunately fourteen hundred years have made it stale. You, tyrant radicals, have no heaven to offer, — you have no delightful chimeras in the form of “merit cards;” you have (save the mark) the respect, the good offices, the smiles — of a slave-holder! This in return for our chains! Thanks!

Voltairine

Ulysses and Mo February 4, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Freedom.
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In 1921, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice issued obscenity allegations against Margaret Caroline Anderson and Jane Heap, editors of a literary magazine that had been serializing James Joyce’s Ulysses.

During the trial, the assistant district attorney announced that he would read the offending passage aloud to the court, a proposition to which one judge objected. The judge believed such indecent material “should not be read in the presence of a young woman such as Anderson”… When it was pointed out to the judge that Anderson was the publisher, he declared that he was sure “she didn’t know the significance of what she was publishing”.

NewYorkSocietyForTheSuppressionOfViceThe passage was eventually read in court; but the editors were ultimately found guilty, and the publication of Ulysses was banned in the United States for the next twelve years.

The law may have changed, but there are still those who seek to force their narrow-minded sensibilities on everyone else — and those who would preemptively censor any potential source of “offense”.

[British] Muslim politician Maajid Nawaz tweeted a picture of a t-shirt with a crudely-drawn cartoon entitled ‘Jesus and Mo’ which he describes as an “innocuous” and inoffensive.

However the image has caused fury among some members of the Islamic community who believe images of the prophet Muhammed are forbidden.

More than 7,000 people have now signed a petition calling for the Liberal Democrats to suspend Mr Nawaz. Some have even suggested a fatwa should be placed on him while others have threatened they would be “glad to cut your neck off”.

This is what Nawaz posted:

maajidtweetViewers learning about the story from Channel 4 News, however, would not have seen that image; they were shown this instead:

channel4censorship

In response to complaints, Channel 4 News defended its decision:

As we are sure you can appreciate, this is a very sensitive subject for many viewers. Channel 4 News editorial staff gave great consideration to the issues involved and believe that they reached a fair and balanced judgement, weighing up the potential for offence to some viewers by showing the depiction of the Prophet Mohammed and the necessity of showing the cartoon in full.

The senior editorial team decided that the showing of the entire illustration, whilst likely to cause offence, was not integral to the story, and therefore took the decision to pixelate. Whilst we acknowledge your views, we believe that on balance this was the correct decision and as a rule, where we consider the likelihood of significant offence to our audience, we will attempt to mitigate against that. As to not pixelating the image of Jesus, it was not felt that the same level of offence was likely to be provoked as the image is commonly depicted in cartoon form.

You know what else some people are offended by? The sight of a woman’s uncovered hair. Or uncovered face. Will Channel 4 News also be blacking out all female faces on its programs?

And can you believe they claimed that showing the relevant cartoon in a segment entitled ‘Cartoon controversy’ was “not integral to the story”!?

Journalists should be the first to defend freedom of expression against its enemies. When we censor ourselves so as not to offend the bullies, the bullies win; and we are all less free. In their cowardly attempt to not choose a side, Channel 4 News placed themselves squarely on the wrong one. Respecting unreasonable demands doesn’t make you “fair and balanced” — it makes you part of the problem.

(via Butterflies & Wheels)

Saving your queen January 20, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Freedom, Law, Politics, Reason.
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Photo by Andreas KontokanisIn chess, it’s generally a good idea to sacrifice a knight in order to capture an opposing rook, or to sacrifice a rook in order to capture the opponent’s queen. The pieces’ standard valuations (a queen is worth more than a rook, a rook is worth more than a knight, etc.) are useful for guiding basic strategic decisions — but there are exceptions. Sometimes, sacrificing your queen for a lesser piece is actually your best option, and will save you from defeat or even lead you to victory. In such a case, it wouldn’t make any sense for a player to insist on adhering to the principle that the queen shouldn’t be exchanged for lesser pieces, as if that were an end in itself. The relative valuation of the pieces is just a heuristic — a “rule of thumb” — providing a useful simplification that often leads to good results. But in the end, all that matters is winning the game. A smart player knows to disregard a heuristic in situations where it would not actually further the ultimate goal.

In our ongoing attempts to build and maintain a civil society, we have discovered and refined many wise principles. It’s important to remember, however, that these rules are means to an end, not ends in themselves. Principles like freedom of speech, for example, or the right to a fair trial, lead so reliably to increased individual well-being and societal health, that we’ve determined they should be protected by law, not to be abridged without a very compelling reason. They can be abridged, though — in situations where doing otherwise would, on balance, cause greater harm. For instance, we would deny freedom of speech from someone inciting murder; and we would deny the right to a trial from a terrorist if killing him is the only way to save an innocent life.

Other cases seem more prone to confusion. For instance, some people think the principle of “religious freedom” means they have the right to do anything their religion tells them, including denying lifesaving medical treatment from children and blocking other people’s access to contraception. But religious freedom is valuable only insomuch as it promotes a free and equal society, where people may live their lives as they see fit without interference — provided they do not interfere with the freedoms of others. Religious freedom is no more absolute than freedom of speech or the right to a fair trial, and it must give way the moment it causes more harm than good. (The fact that religious people in the instances above believe they aren’t causing harm is irrelevant, since there’s no rational basis for that belief.)

Another example is the idea that private-sector, free-market solutions are preferable to government regulation. As a general rule, this principle has been shown to promote societal flourishing (on balance). However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t certain domains, like health care, where free-market solutions don’t work, and government regulation is necessary to prevent a greater harm. Yet some people seem to have an almost mystical faith that laissez-faire capitalism can do no wrong.

Admittedly, in complex situations, it’s not always obvious which among conflicting principles should take precedence, or which alternative will cause the least harm. It’s legitimate and healthy to debate the pros and cons of different options, falling back to first principles if necessary. But we must be wary of turning useful heuristics into infallible dogmas to be followed blindly, as if they were valuable for their own sake, regardless of the actual consequences for human well-being. We must not let the pursuit of proxies overshadow what really matters. For what will it profit a man if he saves his queen, but loses the game?

Majority opinion June 30, 2013

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Equality, Freedom, Law.
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In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld (Bowers v. Hardwick) a Georgia sodomy law that criminalized private sexual acts between consenting same-sex adults. The case was decided by a margin of 5 to 4.

In his dissenting opinion, Justice Harry Blackmun wrote:

I believe we must analyze respondent Hardwick’s claim in the light of the values that underlie the constitutional right to privacy. If that right means anything, it means that, before Georgia can prosecute its citizens for making choices about the most intimate aspects of their lives, it must do more than assert that the choice they have made is an “abominable crime not fit to be named among Christians”…

I cannot agree that either the length of time a majority has held its convictions or the passions with which it defends them can withdraw legislation from this Court’s scrutiny…

That certain, but by no means all, religious groups condemn the behavior at issue gives the State no license to impose their judgments on the entire citizenry. The legitimacy of secular legislation depends, instead, on whether the State can advance some justification for its law beyond its conformity to religious doctrine… A State can no more punish private behavior because of religious intolerance than it can punish such behavior because of racial animus…

I can only hope that… the Court soon will reconsider its analysis and conclude that depriving individuals of the right to choose for themselves how to conduct their intimate relationships poses a far greater threat to the values most deeply rooted in our Nation’s history than tolerance of nonconformity could ever do. Because I think the Court today betrays those values, I dissent.

Equal justice under lawThe Court reversed its ruling in 2003 (Lawrence v. Texas), invalidating all remaining sodomy laws — making same-sex sexual activity legal in all U.S. states. The case was decided by a margin of 6 to 3.

On June 26, 2013, the Court ruled (United States v. Windsor) that Section 3 of the “Defense of Marriage Act” is unconstitutional, and that the federal government may not discriminate against same-sex married couples.

The case was decided by a margin of 5 to 4.

Crimes and insults September 22, 2012

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Freedom, Law, Religion.
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As U.S. embassies were being attacked and innocents murdered throughout the Muslim world, the Prime Minister of Pakistan had this to say:

The Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf has called upon the world community to declare blasphemy despicable and a criminal act.

Addressing Ishq-e-Mustafa Conference held at the Prime Minister House, he said denial of holocaust is met with punishment but Muslims’ sentiments are absolutely disregarded, adding it is incumbent upon all as a Muslim to protest against any insult to the Holy Prophet (PBUH).

“The anti-Islam movie has harmed the sentiments of all Muslims including me,” he asserted, adding the issue does not pertain to the freedom of expression as it was intended to provoke the feelings of Muslims…

He said if denying Holocaust is a crime then demonizing holiest personalities is not less a crime. Prime Minister Pervez Ashraf said an attack on the Prophet Hazrat Mohammad [Peace Be upon Him] is an attack on the core belief of 1.5 billion Muslims.

The Prime Minister of Turkey agrees:

Erdogan said he will continue to give messages at the next UN General Assembly meeting about adopting international legislation against insulting religion. “I am the prime minister of a nation, of which most are Muslims and that has declared anti-semitism a crime against humanity. But the West hasn’t recognized Islamophobia as a crime against humanity — it has encouraged it. [The film director] is saying he did this to provoke the fundamentalists among Muslims. When it is in the form of a provocation, there should be international legal regulations against attacks on what people deem sacred, on religion. As much as it is possible to adopt international regulations, it should be possible to do something in terms of domestic law.”

He further noted, “Freedom of thought and belief ends where the freedom of thought and belief of others start. You can say anything about your thoughts and beliefs, but you will have to stop when you are at the border of others’ freedoms. I was able to include Islamophobia as a hate crime in the final statement of an international meeting in Warsaw.”

Erdogan said the government will immediately start working on legislation against blasphemous and offensive remarks. “Turkey could be a leading example for the rest of the world on this.”

The only thing more depressing than the depths of moral confusion and ignorance displayed by heads of state in the 21st century, is that the international community’s response so often consists of apology rather than derision.

Allow me to offer some remedial civics instruction for those who are stuck in the Iron Age: One person’s freedom of speech ends only when another person would be materially harmed.  The classic example is incitement to violence — which, incidentally, is widespread in the Muslim world. Antisemitism, like racism and sexism, should only be illegal when it is codified into discriminatory policy (also widespread in the Muslim world).

What must never be curtailed, however, is the right to freely criticize people and ideas — no matter how offensive or blasphemous such criticism may seem to some. Surely, anyone who cares about the truth has nothing to fear from allowing dissenting voices to be heard. If the opinions being expressed are clearly stupid and wrong, that should make them all the more easy to refute. And if the critics are simply too repugnant for words, if they’re being deliberately provocative and insulting, then everyone is free to ignore them. But not to harm or threaten or imprison them.

Holocaust denial, by the way, should not be illegal, even though it currently is illegal in some countries (not in the United States). The way to deal with liars and bigots is by exposing their lies and shaming them with evidence.

Are we all clear, now? Illegal: violence and discrimination. Stupid but legal: voicing nonviolent antisemitic opinions; denying the Holocaust; respecting Islam and its barbaric Prophet.

(via Butterflies & Wheels)

Forced ignorance is legal in Virginia September 15, 2012

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Education, Freedom, Religion.
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Denying children a basic education severely harms them for life: it restricts their opportunities and limits their ability to think for themselves and make informed choices. Obvious, right? That’s why we have compulsory education laws, right?

Nearly 7,000 Virginia children whose families have opted to keep them out of public school for religious reasons are not required to get an education, the only children in the country who do not have to prove they are being home-schooled or otherwise educated, according to a study.

Virginia is the only state that allows families to avoid government intrusion once they are given permission to opt out of public school, according to a report from the University of Virginia’s School of Law. It’s a law that is defended for promoting religious freedom and criticized for leaving open the possibility that some children will not be educated.

I’ll bet you saw that coming: “promoting religious freedom.” I wish I didn’t have to keep repeating the obvious: The religious freedom of a parent does not include the freedom to harm his children. Not by abusing them physically, and not by keeping them ignorant (which is also a form of abuse). Parents are free to teach their religion to their children as persuasively as they can, but they have no right to keep them cut off from the world, denying them the freedom to decide for themselves how they want to live their lives.

Home-school advocates say the law is essential to preserving the rights of families who believe that any state control of their children’s education would violate the tenets of their faith. It takes on particular importance in the state where Thomas Jefferson helped define religious freedom as a bedrock principle for the country.

“They feel that their deity has given them that responsibility,” said Amy Wilson of the Organization of Virginia Homeschoolers. For such families, she said, to have to file paperwork and evidence of progress would put them in a crisis of conscience.

What about parents who believe that any state control over their ability to beat their children would violate the tenets of their faith and put them in a crisis of conscience? Must the law preserve those parents’ rights, too?

The statute does not allow exemptions for political or philosophical beliefs “or a merely personal moral code,” but the beliefs do not have to be part of a mainstream religion.

In other words, you don’t need any rational justification for your position; you just need to say the magic word — “religion” — and you’re exempt from the law that applies to everyone else.

In Fairfax County, which reported nearly 500 children who had been granted the religious exemption as of the 2011-12 school year, parents and children older than 14 must submit a letter explaining their religious beliefs, and letters of support vouching for the authenticity of their beliefs.

Steven Staples, executive director of the Virginia Association of School Superintendents, said that once families have written to the district to request the exemption, superintendents tend to honor the families’ wishes. “Most folks who choose religious exemption have some very strongly held beliefs that we want to respect,” Staples said.

I’m asking you now, Mr. Staples: Would you honor and respect folks who very strongly believed in beating their children? Regardless of how many letters they submitted vouching for the “authenticity” of their beliefs?

Parents who seek the exemption, [Yvonne Bunn of the Home Educators Association of Virginia] said, “would probably rather go to jail rather than put their children in school, because they have very strong convictions that they’re following what God has directed them to do.”

Actually, jail sounds like an appropriate place for them — together with all the other abusive parents. Better to imprison the parents than to let them imprison their children’s minds.

(via Butterflies & Wheels)

Dominion over the faith of others September 2, 2012

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Equality, Freedom, Politics, Religion.
6 comments

The Republican Party’s 2012 platform talks an awful lot about freedom and equality, but it seems to apply them rather inconsistently. For instance, it says this:

We are the party of the Constitution, the solemn compact which confirms our God-given individual rights and assures that all Americans stand equal before the law… We will strongly enforce anti-discrimination statutes and ask all to join us in rejecting the forces of hatred and bigotry and in denouncing all who practice or promote racism, anti-Semitism, ethnic prejudice, or religious intolerance.

But just a few paragraphs later, there’s this:

… Congressional Republicans took the lead in enacting the Defense of Marriage Act, affirming the right of States and the federal government not to recognize same-sex relationships licensed in other jurisdictions… We reaffirm our support for a Constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman. We applaud the citizens of the majority of States which have enshrined in their constitutions the traditional concept of marriage, and we support the campaigns underway in several other States to do so.

In other words, discrimination and bigotry towards homosexuals is to be applauded and supported.

On the subject of religious freedom, the platform invokes Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute,

which declared that no one should “suffer on account of his religious opinion or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion…” That assurance has never been more needed than it is today, as liberal elites try to drive religious beliefs — and religious believers — out of the public square… The most offensive instance of this war on religion has been the current Administration’s attempt to compel faith-related institutions, as well as believing individuals, to contravene their deeply held religious, moral, or ethical beliefs regarding health services, traditional marriage, or abortion.

But the current Administration has not been attempting to compel anyone to use a health service, marry, or get an abortion in contravention of his or her religious beliefs; the Administration has merely been attempting to ensure that these options are available to those who want them. Whereas Republicans are saying that if something goes against their religious beliefs, no one should be allowed to do it.

It’s a shame they didn’t read the rest of Jefferson’s Statute:

That the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavouring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time…

Not any more June 26, 2012

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Freedom, Religion.
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A step in the right direction by a German court:

Circumcising young boys on religious grounds causes grievous bodily harm, a German court ruled Tuesday in a landmark decision that the Jewish community said trampled on parents’ religious rights.

The regional court in Cologne, western Germany, ruled that the “fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighed the fundamental rights of the parents,” a judgement that is expected to set a legal precedent.

“The religious freedom of the parents and their right to educate their child would not be unacceptably compromised, if they were obliged to wait until the child could himself decide to be circumcised,” the court added…

“The body of the child is irreparably and permanently changed by a circumcision,” the court said. “This change contravenes the interests of the child to decide later on his religious beliefs.”

What arguments do outraged members of Germany’s Jewish community offer in defense of their tradition? It’s rather pathetic.

The head of the Central Committee of Jews, Dieter Graumann, said the ruling was “an unprecedented and dramatic intervention in the right of religious communities to self-determination.”

But “self-determination” needs to be determined by each individual for himself. A community doesn’t have the right to force an unnecessary medical procedure on anyone, least of all a child who hasn’t had the chance to determine whether he wants to be part of that community or not.

The judgement was an “outrageous and insensitive act. Circumcision of newborn boys is a fixed part of the Jewish religion and has been practiced worldwide for centuries,” added Graumann.

Just like slavery used to be.

“This religious right is respected in every country in the world.”

Not any more.

There is more than one way to burn a book June 6, 2012

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Freedom, Literature.
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Ray Bradbury died yesterday, at the age of 91. The following is from the coda (written in 1979) to Fahrenheit 451:

There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist / Unitarian, Irish / Italian / Octogenarian / Zen Buddhist, Zionist / Seventh-day Adventist, Women’s Lib / Republican, Mattachine / FourSquareGospel feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse. Every dimwit editor who sees himself as the source of all dreary blanc-mange plain porridge unleavened literature, licks his guillotine and eyes the neck of any author who dares to speak above a whisper or write above a nursery rhyme…

For it is a mad world and it will get madder if we allow the minorities, be they dwarf or giant, orangutan or dolphin, nuclear-head or water-conversationalist, pro-computerologist or Neo-Luddite, simpleton or sage, to interfere with aesthetics. The real world is the playing ground for each and every group, to make or unmake laws. But the tip of the nose of my book or stories or poems is where their rights end and my territorial imperatives begin, run and rule. If Mormons do not like my plays, let them write their own. If the Irish hate my Dublin stories, let them rent typewriters. If teachers and grammar school editors find my jawbreaker sentences shatter their mushmilk teeth, let them eat stale cake dunked in weak tea of their own ungodly manufacture.

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