Columnist unable to accurately quote head of own church

Christopher Pearson is one of Australia’s worst journalists.

A week ago the Pope said:

What would he say if he could see the state of the world today, through the abuse of energy and its selfish and reckless exploitation? Anselm of Canterbury, in an almost prophetic way, once described a vision of what we witness today in a polluted world whose future is at risk.
Pearson argues that Sydney Morning Herald journalist Ian Fisher “framed” these comments as the Pope voicing concern about global warming.

Pearson disagrees with this characterisation:

We already know what know we already know what Benedict thinks about global warming. He made a telling intervention during the Bali conference earlier this month… What matters is what the Pope himself says.
So what does Pearson think the pope said:
He warned that “any solution to global warming must be based on firm evidence and not dubious ideology ... Fears over man-made emissions melting the ice caps and causing a wave of unprecedented disaster are nothing more than scaremongering.”
Pretty conclusive wouldn’t you think. Except that the pope did say any of that. The first three sentences of Pearson’s pope quotation are actually the words of Daily Mail journalist Simon Caldwell.

Only the final two sentences of the quotation are from the pope. And those don’t really mention global warming:

Humanity today is rightly concerned about the ecological balance of tomorrow. It is important for assessments in this regard to be carried out prudently in dialogue with experts and people of wisdom, uninhibited by ideological pressure to draw hasty conclusions.
A fact Pearson could easily have discovered. The pope’s message is produced in full here.

Proof of god's existence, your stupidity

Peter Jensen, Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, preaching at St Andrew's Cathedral on Christmas day, acknowledges the critics:

People ask us where God is, why they can't see God, and if it is true, we should be able to know it is true.
But he has an answer:
The Christmas story tells us that it is true.

This man’s standard of evidence is not very high.

There was a point in history where God became flesh. Those who were with him saw him, talked to him, lived with him and in the end crucified him.
No. There as a point in history where an egomaniac’s claims that he was god were taken seriously. A few wrote about it, and now millions of people take these claims seriously.
The son of God, Jesus, showed us exactly what God is like.
A delusional hippie with a penchant for party tricks.
Our problem with God is not that he is invisible or that he does not exist. The real problem is that we wish that he did not exist.
The success of religion in modern times is a testament to the fact that people do wish that god exists.

Jensen’s real problem is because god is invisible, and doesn’t exist, his church is dying. And blaming people for being unable to believe in a sky fairy will do nothing to slow it.

The War on Christmas* comes to the Australian suburbs

On Christmas Eve I went to a Catholic mass. The priest began his homily by using Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer as a metaphor for how Catholics should treat the disadvantaged and disenfranchised. (Although obviously not homosexuals.)

Towards the end he stumbled in into controversial territory, bemoaning the fact that “some people in this country don’t want us to publicly celebrate Christmas”. No names were mentioned.

He went on to argue that such illiberalism was unacceptable as Australia was founded by Christians and that “this is our land”.

*Originating in the US, the ‘War on Christmas’ is a term used by some Christians to characterise what they see as secular attacks on the annual religious festival.

Canada’s stupidest columnist confronted by Canada’s stupidest university students

Mark Steyn is one of the worst journalists (and I use that term very loosely) in the English-speaking world today. As luck would have it he is also quite successful.

Steyn propagated the myth that Muslim American children had foreknowledge of the September 2001 World Trade Center attack. He has continually insisted, in the face of all the evidence, that Osama Bin Laden is certainly dead and he expected “no widespread resentment at or resistance of the western military presence” in Iraq. Steyn believes in creationism/intelligent design.

Despite all this, Steyn has found a numerous editors and publishers willing to print his work. One of his latest books is America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It.

Maclean's, a Canadian magazine, published an excerpt of the book in October 2006.

Late last month, four Muslim students, represented by a lawyer from the Canadian Islamic Congress, ‘filed complaints with the federal, Ontario and British Columbia human rights commissions’, arguing that ‘the article subjects Canadian Muslims to hatred and contempt.’

Khurrum Awan, one of the students, said:

To say that we share the same basic goals as terrorists … if you look at the theme of the article in the context, it is putting that label on all of us and I felt personally victimized.
If you want to censor political speech, you do share one of the basic goals of Islamic fundementalists.

Don’t get me wrong, Steyn is remarkably thick. But his ignorance is rivalled by this attempt at censorship.

Firstly, free speech on political matters is absolute. It is not the responsibility of governments to decide what thoughts are and are not acceptable.

But secondly, by trying to punish Steyn for his article, it gives the appearance that his opinions have some basis in fact. They don’t. His thesis is littered with errors, poor reasoning and racism.

Johann Hari, in an excellent critique, outlines some of Steyn's stupidity:

To fulfil his headline predictions, Steyn needs to turn 20 million European Muslims into more than 200 million European Muslims - in just 13 years. Only Fallacci's rats could reproduce so rapidly.

…So after saying it is "grotesque" to count out "white" babies, he does just that. "White" is not a culture; it is a skin colour, and there Steyn is, relieved that more babies have his pigmentation than the brown and black varieties.

…he seems to actively agree with the Islamist critique of women's sexual freedom, claiming in passing that Islam provides women with "a refuge from the slatternly image of post-feminist Western womanhood.”

…Steyn's wider response to Islamism is to make democratic societies more like the one the Islamists want to build.

In order to oppose Steyn it is not necessary to censor him. He doesn’t have truth on his side so all you have to do is present the facts.

Stifling political freedom of speech is never warranted.

Sohail Raza, a representative of the Muslim Canadian Congress, agrees:
This is Canada, not Sudan, Egypt or Pakistan, where the press is stifled. There is absolute freedom of expression and people have an opportunity to voice their opinion.

But it requires four adult witnesses

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, arguing that Islam supports of the corporal punishment of a Saudi rape victim, quotes the Koran:

The woman and the man guilty of adultery or fornication, flog each of them with 100 stripes: Let no compassion move you in their case, in a matter prescribed by Allah, if you believe in Allah and the Last Day. (Koran 24:2)

Jill at Feministe disputes Ali use of the verse to attack Islamic ‘moderates’, pointing out that most Muslims do not take this verse literally:

Selecting one section from a centuries-old religious text and then drawing the conclusion that most followers of that religion follow that text to the word is ridiculous.

But she is summarily contradicted by commenter Nora:

Most Muslims agree that the punishment for pre-marital sex is flogging; the punishment for marital infidelity is death by stoning. Pretty atrocious when you hear it put that way, right?

Yes. You’re a psychic.

But I do look forward to your rationalisation of this barbaric practice:

How different would you feel if I bring in the part a lot of fundamentalists love to ignore: in order for any individual to be flogged/killed, FOUR adults must have witnessed the actual act of sexual intercourse.

Not very. You’ll make everyone feel better though, if you stop defending corporal punishment for pre-marital sex and capital punishment for infidelity. It doesn’t matter how many witnesses the Koran requires or whether you put the number in CAPS.

But ultimately, such reasoning exposes again, the futility of arguing from your opponent’s religious principles. It doesn’t matter whether the Koran punishes pre-marital sex with floggings or not. It doesn’t matter whether the passage is read literally or contextually.

We can safely skip the theological argument just as we do in cases of genital mutilation and blasphemy. Whether your religion supports it or not, corporal punishment or the death penalty for consensual sex is always wrong.

Committee Sikhs steel dagger, GSOH, religious rationale a must

As reported in the Australian, the Education and Training Committee of the Victorian Parliament has recommended that:

schools should work with the Sikh community to allow male students to carry a kirpan
What exactly the Kirpan, a ‘small, curved ornamental steel dagger’ according to the Committee, is has been the subject, among other things, of fierce debate at Larvatus Prodeo.

Some argue it is little more than a trinket, others that is it a sharp dangerous knife.

The Department of Education and Early Childhood Development seems to suggest (p.58) it is the later:

In a recent media interview, a spokesperson from the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development suggested that the kirpan could be replaced with a small replica or pendant.
This was rejected by Sikh Interfaith Council of Victoria:

To suggest the using of a replica or any form of material is to belittle the religion. A replica or pendant is not acceptable. The kirpan cannot be of any material other than steel.
Experience in Canada indicates the kirpan is dangerous. Justice Campbell in Ontario Human Rights Commission and Harbhajan Singh Pandori v. Peel Board of Education:

There have been, in the Metropolitan Toronto area, three reported incidents of violent kirpan use. One involved a plea of guilty to attempted murder after a stabbing with a kirpan. In one street fight, a man was stabbed in the back with a kirpan. In one case, a kirpan was drawn for defensive purposes.
While the evidence seems to indicate the kirpan is dangerous, it is useful to consider both scenarios: 1. the kirpan is a dangerous dagger or 2. the kirpan is a harmless ornament, similar to a Christian cross neckless.

1. The Kirpan is a dangerous weapon

Schools have ‘no weapons’ policies for a reason: to reduce the risk of students harming other students and teachers. There is no reason to increase the risk by allowing religiously significant weapons into schools.

2. The Kirpan is harmless

If the Kirpan a harmless ornament there is no reason to prevent children attending public school with one. We don’t prevent children from wearing Christian crosses or Jewish yarmulkes.

The second scenario seems unlikely. If the Kirpan is harmless then why is an exemption from public schools’ “no weapons” policy needed?

Country fights blasphemy law overseas, reaffirms blasphemy law at home

Blasphemy laws are not just confined to countries ruled by genocidal, Islamic dictators.

In the United Kingdom, blasphemy has been outlawed for centuries.

In the same way that criticising Judaism in Sudan is unlikely to be met with a change of blasphemy, the UK law only applies to ‘offensive’ speech about the Church of England.

Under the blasphemy law, the BBC was taken to court by Christian Voice for screening 'Jerry Springer - The Opera', in which Christ is depicted wearing a nappy and swearing.

Yesterday the BBC was cleared of any wrong doing as the 1968 Theatres Act and 1990 Broadcasting Act prevent any prosecution for blasphemy in relation to public performances of plays or broadcasts.

[The court] added that it was reasonable to conclude that Jerry Springer - The Opera could not be considered as blasphemous as it was not aimed at Christianity but was a parody of the chat show genre.

So while the ruling may appear a victory for freedom of speech, the court reaffirmed the validity of the blasphemy law. Parody aimed at the Church of England is still illegal.

Now, to oppose the British law must one appeal to the Bible in keeping with the 'cultural milieu' of the United Kingdom, or will arguing from universal human rights suffice?

Racism in the LDS, sexism in the Catholic Church

Christopher Hitchens, being interviewed on MSNBC, calls on US Presidential candidate Mitt Romney to discuss his Mormonism.

Most importantly, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ position until 1978 that black men could not become priests or participate in certain ceremonies.

Hitchens is right. Romney, who was 31 in 1978, should explain why he was a member of an explictly racist organisation for 13 years of his adult life.

But shouldn’t this principle be extended to politicians or candidates who are part of explicitly sexist religious institutions? The Catholic Church’s refusal to ordain female priests is surely just as illogical, unjust, bigoted and discriminatory as the LDS Church’s pre-1978 position regarding black men.

Just as Romney should explicitly distance himself from the LDS Church’s previous racism, we should expect all Catholic politicians to denounce the sexism of their Church.


How best to oppose blasphemy laws and female genital mutilation?

There is actually a third way to oppose the jailing of Gillian Gibbons for insulting Islam.

Taj Hargey, Chairman of the Muslim Educational Centre of Oxford, writing on the letters page of the Guardian defends the free speech of Holocaust deniers:

The Qur'an makes it incontrovertible that all people have the right to choose their own path and perspectives in life (2:256; 10:99; 18:29; 109:6;etc). It is therefore a fallacy that Islam denies the vital principle of freedom of speech.
So, to recap, we can argue that:

1.Gibbons did nothing insult Islam but if she did she deserves prison time,

2.Blasphemy laws are ridiculous and illogical and should not be supported in any circumstances, or

3.Islam’s holy book supports free speech which therefore means blasphemy should not be outlawed.

The first is obviously unpalatable but the third certainly holds some attraction. It brings to mind the blogosphere debate earlier this year over female genital mutilation (FGM).

There, a part of the discussion appeared to be over whether the most useful tactic was to fight FGM in its “cultural milieu” by emphasising that Islam doesn’t support the practice, or oppose it on the grounds of universal secular human rights.

Kim and Mark at Larvatus Prodeo took the former view. Ayaan Hirsi Ali takes that later as does Julie Szego. (Tim Blair, while being on the right side of an argument for once, used the opportunity to payout on “feminists”.)

In both cases, blasphemy and FGM, it would appear that arguing from a system of belief – in this case Islam – already accepted by those you are trying to convince would be beneficial. The Muslims of Sudan and Egypt can keep their faith while blasphemy laws and female genital mutilation can be consigned to the dustbin of history.

With this approach Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s atheism becomes a liability. Nick Cohen describes Garton Ash’s argument that:

there was no point in liberals treating her [Ali] as a heroine because her abandonment of Islam and embrace of atheism meant her arguments carried no weight with Muslims.
This also seemed to be Kim’s argument.

By couching anti-FGM and pro free speech arguments in the language of Islam traction may be gained on these issues. But should we really be relying on religious arguments to oppose FGM and blasphemy? And what if the Koran does advocate an abhorrent practice? Are we then forced to accept it because we have agreed to discuss morality on the terrain of Islam rather than liberal secularism?

After all, as Ophelia Benson notes, it:

still leaves you with the problem of having to argue over what's in a 1400-year-old book - it still leaves you with the problem of worrying about what “scripture” says instead of about what is best for human beings in the light of current knowledge and accumulated understanding and moral insight.
Cohen describes Ali’s two responses to this ceding of ground to religion:
If liberal secularists didn't have pride and confidence in their principles, why should they expect anyone else to take them seriously? And if… they turned away from democrats and insisted on treating European Muslims as children who can only be spoken to in the baby language of gobbledegook [religion], what right did they have to be surprised if European Muslims reacted with childish petulance rather than the broad-mindedness of full adult citizens?
Is there a risk that using religious arguments to combat FGM and blasphemy laws may actually be detrimental to the struggle for universal secular human rights?

Islam not cuddly

As has been well reported, Gillian Gibbons, a British teacher in Sudan, has been jailed for 15 days for insulting Islam.

There are two different ways to oppose such a ruling.

Inayat Bunglawala, assistant secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, ran with the first. Disagree with the facts of the case:

Bunglawala… said it appeared to have been a "quite horrible misunderstanding" and Ms Gibbons should never have been arrested. There was no apparent intention to offend Islamic sensibilities or defame the honour and name of the Prophet Muhammad, he said.

While supporting the general principle behind the blasphemy law:

Muslim majority countries have their own laws and customs. If you set out to deliberately insult the Prophet Muhammad in a country where such behaviour is regarded as unacceptable and against the law then I would have little sympathy for you.

The second approach is to oppose blasphemy laws.

Regardless of the country or culture in which they are instigated prohibitions against discussing, verbally attacking or mocking religion are detrimental to human society. There is no reason to protect religion, which is just another set of ideas like liberalism or Confucianism, from criticism. As Bertrand Russell, writing in 1930, commented on England’s blasphemy laws:

If you abuse Lenin to a Communist until he gets so angry that he hits you on the nose, the Communist is sent to prison. If the Communist abuses Christ to you until you get angry so that you hit him on the nose, it is again the Communist that is sent to prison. There is apparently no member of the present Government who is able to perceive that this is an injustice.


Update 3/12: Gibbons has been pardoned.