Archives for posts with tag: secularism

A few days ago, I asked this question on Twitter: when you take humanism from Christian teachings, is there anything left worth conveying to kids in school? This was in response to Joe Humphreys’ article in the Irish Times this week, where he wrote that elements of Christian teaching had a value in addressing the religious schooling problem in Ireland.

Joe has written some interesting thoughts on the issue over the past few months. This article wasn’t one of them, unfortunately. His was a ‘baby with the bathwater’ argument that did not address the problem of privilege within the Catholic Church. It sought to bolster the Church’s special place in education without giving solid arguments about why this should be. Appealing to tradition and creating straw men doesn’t cut it.

Many people in Ireland have a love-hate relationship with the Catholic Church. It has been an opponent of almost every progressive reform in the last half century, not to mention having presided over the greatest cover-up (and worst abuses) we have seen in our lifetimes. Many would argue, with ample justification, that the Church’s primary concern is its own survival. Still, we all know nice church people. We know clerics who have said the right things at the death bed of a loved one and taken principled stances on difficult issues when nobody else was addressing it. Even the Pope has his moments. 

Excellent though this is, the Church has no monopoly on such good works. Much of the same can be found within Protestant, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu and non religious communities, or in any situation where people are compelled to help others. When Christians behave admirably, they are acting from a strong sense of human compassion. Religious principles may inform good actions, but it is not something only seen among Christians. Every day in China, India, Nigeria, Iran and all around the world; you will find good, kind, thoughtful, principled people doing good, kind, thoughtful, principled things, mainly because that’s the kind of people they are.

There is great humanism in Christianity. But back to my question: if you take this basic humanism from Christianity, what’s left?

Honestly – and quite possibly I’m missing some things- but it doesn’t seem terribly impressive to me. There is a strong appeal to prayer, which quite overlooks the fact that praying has a particularly poor record in solving most of the basic problems of the world. There is the belief in a deity who consistently eludes detection in any reasonable sense. There are all the rituals that seek to make this deity happy or at least smooth the way to an afterlife, the outcome of which this deity already knows. Is this even remotely on the same level as maths, history and geography?

It’s the area of sexual morality where the differences with humanism are greatest. Instead of looking at the complexity and variety of sexual practices and sexual preferences, Christian thinking often seems to reduce it down to disgust, shame and a desire to control other people’s basic freedoms. Sex is rarely seen as healthy, positive or worthy of proper discussion. Some Christian views, such as the stance on contraception and homosexuality are positively anti-human in their effects. A side effect of their absolutist views on abortion are to silence the voices of millions of women and to reduce them to a second class within society. It’s difficult to see how such simplistic thinking is at all helpful for children who will soon experience the massive complexities of adulthood for themselves.

I don’t have a problem with dedicated, devoted Christians being part of a new educational dispensation, but I do not think that this should be some sort of compromise between equals. It’s not. Humanism has developed from Christian thinking, but it’s also been able to benefit from the views of many other great thinkers, using science to validate these views. If people insist on educating their kids within their faith, then that is still their right, but I doubt if such an education will be greatly superior. It may even be detrimental if there is a strong emphasis on the non-humanistic parts of the curriculum.

Here’s a heartwarming story from celebrity psychic Joe Power:

An atheist was seated next to a little girl on an airplane and he turned
to her and said, “Do you want to talk? Flights go quicker if you strike
up a conversation with your fellow passenger.”

The little girl, who had just started to read her book, replied to the total
stranger, “What would you want to talk about?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” said the atheist. “How about why there is no God,
or no Heaven or Hell, or no life after death?” as he smiled smugly.

“Okay,” she said. “Those could be interesting topics but let me ask
you a question first. A horse, a cow, and a deer all eat the same
stuff – grass. Yet a deer excretes little pellets, while a cow turns
out a flat patty, but a horse produces clumps. Why do you suppose that is?”

The atheist, visibly surprised by the little girl’s intelligence,
thinks about it and says, “Hmmm, I have no idea.” To which
the little girl replies, “Do you really feel qualified to discuss
God, Heaven and Hell, or life after death, when you don’t know shit?”

And then she went back to reading her book.

Heartwarming, wonderful, except it’s complete bollocks, and falls into the trap of what some people would like to believe atheists think, as opposed to what is actually the case. At the time of writing, it has 357,000 likes and 239,000 shares on Facebook.

So, leaving out the smarminess of the putative girl in the story, the creepiness of any adult stranger trying to chat up a girl on a flight, and the fact that this conversation never took place and is a metaphor for the Atheism / Theism debate, this story still bugs me.

Atheists *don’t* claim to have special knowledge about God’s non-existence.

The implication in this piece is that most atheists somehow assume to know for certain that he doesn’t exist, enabling critics to accuse us of smugness, arrogance and a gross error of logic, in that we are trying to prove a negative. The child can then disabuse us of this arrogance by asking a simple question. Atheists can’t know for certain whether God exists, but if he does exist, we can legitimately ask what he actually does. Does he control the planets, the moon and the weather? Our current knowledge of astronomy implies something completely different, and altogether more compelling. Did he create the Universe? Then why did he make it so awesomely big, if our species has some role in his plan? Does he heal the sick? Then what about all the people he doesn’t heal, despite all their earnest pleas? Does he bring peace to the world? 2,000 years of brutal post-Jesus violence and genocide would suggest not. Does he comfort people in their suffering? Then why are Hindus comforted by their gods in the same way Christians find comfort in God? So what does God do, if he is said by so many people to exist? That’s really all atheists are asking. If he doesn’t do all that much (and there are often better explanations) then why invest so much effort and self-sacrifice in believing in him?

The girl’s question is a non-sequitor.

The response the girl gives is completely immaterial to the subject under discussion, and could be used for any situation, and even the other way around. Her intent is to imply that since you don’t know some things, then you can’t presume to know other things. Had the atheist decided to talk about paint, she could have used the same approach. Had her fellow passenger been a Christian, she could have asked the same question with precisely the same response. And, since atheists don’t presume to know in the first place, it’s a completely bogus argument.

Who is more likely to strike up a conversation about God with a total stranger?

Somehow, I don’t think many atheists are really that into foisting their views on others. The obligation to proselytise is more a Christian thing. We atheists don’t really care what you believe, so long as your intent is not to foist your views on others, or to re-organise society based solely on a presumed set of diktats from your god.

So who is the arrogant one?

By setting up this straw man argument, Power is implying that the God question should be out of bounds. To me, this is extraordinarily arrogant. How dare we ask questions. It appears that some things, no matter how illogical, unrealistic or wrong-headed, are supposedly immune from honest inquiry.

One thing I agree: atheists don’t know shit. In this respect we’re pretty much like everyone else, Christians included. We know some things well and other things not well at all. The difference seems to be, however, that we desire to know things, even if that means upsetting a few sacred cows on the way. How good it would be if this thirst for knowledge was appreciated by the very many people who liked Joe Power’s snide and dismissive Facebook post.

 

I’m currently going through the painful process of finding a place for my eldest son in secondary school next year. Competition for places is high, so it’s not unusual to find that many schools have an enrolment policy, which helps them decide who gets an offer and who doesn’t. One consideration is whether you live near the school. Another consideration is whether you have a sibling already in the school. Performance in entrance tests and interviews may be considered. In one school we visited, a key criterion appeared to be the extent to which parents wanted their child in the school, i.e., how much they were willing to pester the school management to get their kid a place.

All well and good, but many schools have another card up their sleeve. When you have ticked the suitability boxes on almost everything, your child might still be rejected. He might simply be part of the wrong religion.

Let’s cut to the chase. Children are getting accepted into schools, not on merit, not on ability, but on the overriding need to have the right formulation of strange ideas in their head. Hell, it’s not even their head – it’s expected to be in the heads of their parents. You couldn’t think of a worse reason for a kid to be rejected if you tried.

As far as I know, there is no such thing as Catholic maths, or Protestant geography, or Buddhist science. Schooling is schooling, and, apart from religion classes themselves, your religion should bear no relationship to what is taught in the classroom.

Religion offers people an opportunity to discriminate. Imagine you had to bring your family abroad, to Pakistan, say, and the only school for your daughter was an Islamic school. Part of each day involved learning parts of the Koran off by heart. If you were not Muslim, you would probably be unhappy having her learn it, no matter how well disposed to the school you were. Yet, we don’t see anything wrong with the children of non-affiliated parents being expected to conform to a similar system right here in our own country. Even if the child is exempted from these classes, a line is being drawn quite explicitly between her and other students.

I also wonder whether the “ethos” and “values” cards are overplayed. Religion does not play a part in most workplaces and yet most people seem to be able to show respect for each other. Common humanity: courtesy, manners and compassion, is not the preserve of any one religion or philosophy, as we soon find when we meet people with vastly different upbringings.

The fact that religion can be used as grounds for selection, in such a crucial area of life as education, is a monstrous failure by the Irish State. Religion has no role in the definition of who can be an Irish citizen. Article 44 of the Irish Constitution specifically states that the State shall not discriminate on religious lines. Surely this extends to schools, paid as they are out of taxpayer money?

Here’s my suggestion. It should be made illegal for schools in receipt of public money, to discriminate against children and parents on religious grounds. Ireland urgently needs a level playing field.

"La Rogativa" (Trevor Huxham)

Two church leaders, Archbishop Michael Neary and Bishop Patrick Rooke, strongly attacked secularism in Tuesday’s Mayo News. They called secularism a cult, and defined it as a philosophy defined by selfishness and greed. It was seen as the “common enemy” – the implication being that secularism was responsible, among other things, for the Celtic Tiger debacle.

These comments completely miss what secularism is about. The basis behind secularism is an acknowledgement that in a free society, people believe all kinds of things and are entitled to believe all kinds of things. It notes, therefore, that it is not the job of government to dictate beliefs to anyone, or to promote a particular set of beliefs above others. Public society should operate on a neutral setting with regard to belief systems, in order to provide a flat playing pitch to everyone. We expect that our schools, our hospitals, our local and national governments, and all offices underwritten by the tax payer, do not discriminate or unduly benefit people, simply on the basis of a particular belief system.

What is self-serving, greedy or cultish about that?

Core to secularism is freedom of speech, and however the churches might object, this includes the freedom to criticise religious beliefs – to expose them to public scrutiny and debate. Despite what it may seem to clerics unused to such questioning, this is the complete opposite of how a cult works – there is no control, no censure, no subjects that are out of bounds. There is no central authority figure. Secularism is called a cult by the clerical establishment because their beliefs are challenged, criticised and occasionally ridiculed.

What happened to Ireland’s economy during the 2000’s was lamentable, but I cannot see how it can be linked to secularism. It’s a safe bet that many of the property developers, regulators, speculators and bankers involved in the boom were practicing Catholics, coming, by and large, from a generation that had much a stronger Catholic influence than we do today. Implying that “they were really closet secularists” is simply a feeble attempt to redefine, for the sake of convenience, what “secularism” and “Catholicism” actually mean.

So I say to these men, grow up. You are living in a society where many different beliefs, and none, coexist. You live in a society where the entitlement and power given to you and your followers is eroding; where people are free to challenge you and to criticise your views, no matter how sacred you think they are; and where greed crosses all mindsets, all cultural boundaries, including your own, yet you see fit to conveniently blame it all on secularism, with no basis whatsoever.

Photo: “La Rogativa”, Trevor Huxham, 2007, (CC Licenced).

The latest report on child abuse in the Dublin Archdiocese does not fail to shock. The abuse itself is chilling, depressing and appalling, but compounding it is the behaviour of senior bishops and cardinals as they conspired – over a 40 year period – to cover up the scale of the scandal throughout the Dublin area. A new word has been added to the common lexicon – “mental reservation“: where bishops could freely excuse themselves from telling the truth when under pressure to do so. The welfare of children was of little importance to these men, and the resultant suffering is incalculable.

Mary Raftery neatly sums up the gravity of this report and it’s implications for the Catholic Church in Ireland. One passage in particular stands out:

What emerges most clearly from the report is that priests, bishops, archbishops and cardinals had the greatest difficulty in telling right from wrong, and crucially that their determination of what constituted wrongdoing was vastly different from that of the population at large.

Let’s think about that, for a second. The Catholic Church, like most religions, believes that the greatest value it confers to society is its ability to guide people in distinguishing right from wrong. And yet, it’s most eminent leaders and scholars behaved – and still behave – in a way that would lead you to the firm conclusion that, despite their years of learning, refinement and experience, they have no clue as to what is commonly accepted as morally acceptable or morally abhorrent behaviour. If the very leaders of this church can’t distinguish between right and wrong, what use is Catholicism at all? Why should any sane society uncritically accept the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church in our schools? What real benefit does it offer our children?

The implications of the report are clear: The Church badly needs to be removed from the affairs of the Irish State. Let the parents and teachers teach our children right from wrong – they will do a better job. The churchmen had their chance for long time and they blew it. Enough is enough.

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