Monday, 12 March 2012

QEDcon: Ophelia Benson - Silencing for God

This talk was on the religiously motivated pressure on restricting free speech.
What is the focus of religiously motivated pressure on free speech?

Motivations appear to be to protect people's own beliefs. Also people appear to want to defend what they think are the vulnerabilities and concerns of others (in a religious context).

There is currently an energetic outburst for this protection in London Universities. Incidents in Januray started with University College London. The atheist secular humanist society listed a picture of the cover of book of cartoons Jesus and Mo. The student union rebuked the group for having the picture on the fbook page and told them to take it down. They did temporarily but then realised it was a bad idea and put it back.

The same group complained at the London school of economics. The student union called an emergency meeting (audio is apparently online but I couldn't find it). It was a disturbing event. The argument was that the the Jesus and Mo cartoons were racist. The wing of the student union that asserted it was racist argued that having cartoons of this type on a university events page made it unwelcoming for religious students. Their claim is that the Atheist group has to provide a safe space for all students. Does this then mean that religious groups have to provide a safe space for atheists? Why are specific groups required to provide a safe place for people from a completely different, and perhaps contradictory, direction than the group?

I looked this incident up online and you can read more about this here:

Before a talk could take place by Emily waters who represented the one law for all society, a man came in (who was chatting outside), stood in front of audience and photographed everyone. He threatened them all. The meeting was cancelled. Thankfully it has been rescheduled for March 14th 2012.

A Saudi Arabian journalist and political columnist tweeted meditative thoughts about Islam and the prophet Mohamed. There was outrage. An avalanche of tweets were sent to him along the lines of "how dare you", "you should be killed", "you should be executed", etc. he decided to flee to new Zealand but first went to Kuala Lumpur. Officials arrested him there and extradited him to Saudi Arabia. He is there now and could be sentenced to execution.

Salmon Rushdie. Scheduled to read from his book in Jaipur festival. He was told about threats and decided he couldn't do it because of his responsibility to his family. Some other Indian writers read from his book but the festival organisers told them to stop because the authorities told the organisers this will hurt the religious sentiments of the people.

Attacks on Richard Dawkins. A survey showed that there are more nominal Christians in the UK than was previously thought. Not that much passion in strictly following Christianity in the UK. The most startling attack was a supposedly shock discovery made by an independent researcher who passed it to journalist. Apparently Dawkins had an ancestor who owned slaves two and half centuries ago. Pathetic joke, 4000 ancestors and one singled out, and why is he being held responsible for his ancestors 250 years ago? But this was published by the Daily Telegraph.

Marian Seaward published an article about Richard Dawkins in the Independent. It was just a list of unfriendly adjectives. People resort to this type of argument when defending religion.

The brave Jessica Alquist. She had the prayer removed from her state school. But it took going through the American court system. Seriously harassed. Rhode Island State Representative Peter Palumbo called her an evil little thing on a radio show.

Ellen Beth sent a letter of protest when officials donated the Polk County jail’s basketball hoops and other equipment to local churches (violation of church state separation). Police burst into her office held employees at gunpoint and arrested her from using the title "esquire". She was held in solitary confinement and treated abominably.

Does any of this matter? Yes. Because it shifts the way the public discussion of belief from the substantive (reasons evidence argument) to new territory where it's all about respect and deference and religious privilege. The argument is that we're simply not allowed to question religion. Before we open our mouths we are supposed to feel guilty for making people feel bad. This is not what it's about with criticism of labour unions or eduction or healthcare or how to pay for things, but it is with religion. Attempting to bully people by talking about hurt feelings, equating criticism of religion with racism. Shifting into grounds where things cannot be questioned. This is eroding free speech.

A lot of traction has been gained for the argument of the protection of religion. It's a patronising position. People can't take criticism so we must protect them. Don't say anything that might upset a religious person. If we all follow this we all end up saying nothing.

What can we do? Keep pointing out that religion is one thing and race is another. Keep repeating. Criticism of religion is not racist, not hating people. It is about criticising religion and content and consequences. None of the groups of religions are monolithic. There are always disagreements and different views within the groups. The conversation must be kept alive.

Questions from the audience:

Q: The USA has separation of church and state. Can you ever envisage a time when religious organisations powerful enough to remove it from the constitution?
A: This isn't spelled out specifically in the constitution. Matter of precedent and case law. Can't get overturned constitutionally as not there. First amendment, don't see it being overturned. Whether precedent and case law can be turned in some sense? Chinks are being cut into the wall between church and stated all the time. The people who are resisting this are being persecuted. A group is working state by state to get rid of specific mentions of separation of church and state.

Q: What is the role of media in these issues?
A: Think the Media don't set agenda go along with popularity. Very good at taking a popular prejudice and repeating and reinforcing these ideas. Media money can do a lot to entrench and popularise ideas.

Q: Can you envisage a time ever when an Openly atheist president elected?
A: No.

Q: Seeking to be offended not avoid. Is there a desire for offence?
A: Applies to lots of people. Without bullshit what would sceptics do?

How do you convince people to give up the fun of indignation? Not sure.
Q: Pope visit, accuse the uk of aggressive secularism, thoughts?
A: I dont think there is agressive secularism. But suppose I honestly, yeah there can be aggressive secularism. If we started rounding up and imprisoning people. But that not what was meant by the pope.

Q: Attacks on abortion and equal marriage.
A: Disgusting, infuriating. No reason. Admit this by 'church teaching' excuse. Nothing can be said that makes that defensible. Even if god exists (no reason to think so) no reason to think that anyone knows what god wants or that we should endorse what god wants. God could be a shit - why worship him or do as he says?

Q: Atheism and agnosticism are mostly accepted by the public in the UK and Europe. Do you see a political gap between Europe and USA because of this?
A: Yes, see huge gap, embarrassing and depressing. Moving closer to open theocracy. Whole public discourse is stupid and this makes it more stupid. Not fun to live with.

Q: Rights of a person granted to corporations, roles corporations may play in this?
A: I don't know specifically, but the catholic and other churches are working very hard on campaign by which they chip away at secularism by claiming their rights and freedoms are being violated. Loads of lawyers. Branches in school boards, government and corporations and institutions, working hard to get more and more powers for Christianity. Jewish nor muslim groups are organised in this same way.

Q: Could the anger of religious outcry be a sign of it dying? The final death throws?
A: Could be. Pleasantly optimistic to think so. But somehow it doesn't instinctively seem right. Maybe too good to be true. Wonderful to think of a world without religion. Would be nice to think that, but because it would be nice to think it I'm not inclined to believe it.

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