AUSTIN, Texas — Texas Gov. Rick Perry on Thursday signed a law protecting Christmas and other holiday celebrations in Texas public schools from legal challenges — but also stressed that freedom of religion is not the same thing as freedom from religion…Dubbed the “Merry Christmas” bill, the bipartisan measure sailed through the state House and Senate to reach Perry’s desk.
It removes legal risks of saying “Merry Christmas” in schools while also protecting traditional holiday symbols, such as a menorah or nativity scene, as long as more than one religion and a secular symbol are also reflected.
It is, of course, sad and stupid that there can be “legal risks” associated with exchanging Christmas greetings in schools. If the new law fixes that, it’ll be all to the good, but quite what makes a “secular symbol” eludes me. I’m with the atheist shoemakers in Berlin who said this:
There are already hundreds of symbols for atheism and none of them tickle us in quite the right place… either they’re too sciency, or too literal, or just plain ugly… Well, our solution is inspired by a Christian friend (thanks Matt) who accused us of having god-shaped-holes. And we think a gaping, BLACK HOLE is absolutely perfect… And what says “I believe in nothing” better than nothing?
Quite. But it’s difficult to imagine a black hole nestling between the manger and the menorah. There is, however, another candidate, jovial, genially syncretic and refreshingly appreciative of the joys of consumerism.
Yup, Santa would do very well indeed.
Vladimir Putin’s attempt to blend social conservatism and Russian Orthodoxy into the mix that is (nominally: the reality is rather grubbier) the ideology of his regime continues. The Guardian has the details.
First, we have an unpleasant piece of anti-homosexual legislation (in wording, context and intent far broader—and far nastier than the “Section 28” that was, to say the least, one of the Thatcher era’s less glorious achievements):
The law in effect makes it illegal to equate straight and gay relationships, as well as the distribution of material on gay rights. It introduces fines for individuals and media groups found guilty of breaking the law, as well as special fines for foreigners.
And then we have this:
Minutes after passing the anti-gay legislation, the Duma also approved a new law allowing jail sentences of up to three years for “offending religious feelings”, an initiative launched in the wake of the trial against the anti-Kremlin punk band Pussy Riot.
There ought, of course, to be no ‘right’ not to be offended. What’s particularly interesting about the latter law, however, is the way that it borrows from western neo-blasphemy legislation. Back at the time of the Pussy Riot trial, I noted this:
An interesting angle to this whole case is that the women have been charged under Article 213 (2) of the Russian criminal code: “hooliganism” motivated by religious hatred or hostility. The language of western political correctness, not to speak of Islamic efforts to suppress free speech, have, it seems, found an echo in Moscow, the Third Rome.
The echo is even louder now.
And while I am on this topic, I ought to mention that there was a spot of bother over at the Corner over the unfortunate (let’s be kind) intervention of a GOP congressman into the Pussy Riot controversy. My contributions to the fracas are here and here.
There’s quite a bit of vitriol splashed around in this new post by Sam Harris, and, as so often with his work, there’s also much that’s worth discussing at length, but for now let’s just note that the point that he makes in the following two sentences is hugely important, well worth saying and largely true:
I have long struggled to understand how smart, well-educated liberals can fail to perceive the unique dangers of Islam. In The End of Faith, I argued that such people don’t know what it’s like to really believe in God or Paradise—and hence imagine that no one else actually does.
I use the word “largely”, because there is at least one major exception to what Mr. Harris is arguing. Like it or not, the religious impulse is a very common human characteristic and it is one that many of those “smart, well-educated liberals” themselves share except that it has—for them—to manifest itself in a nominally secular guise. This might once have taken the form, say, of a fierce commitment to ‘political religions’ such as the communism of nearly a century ago (a millennial cult if ever there was one) and today, might more commonly find expression in, perhaps, various types of environmentalist faith.
I should add that I am assuming, perhaps wrongly (I note that he carefully refers to “really” believing in God, a qualification that may mean that his criticism may also be directed at certain only mildly religious people) that the clever folk to whom Mr. Harris is referring are atheists or agnostics. The question of why genuinely religious liberal intellectuals refuse to confront the spiritual reality of what drives some jihadists to atrocity is yet another topic for another time.
But back to Sam Harris:
I also have no problem with spiritual devotion, ecstasy, and awe—in fact, I think they are among the most important experiences a human being can have. I just object to the incredible ideas that surround such experiences in every church, synagogue, and mosque. I also worry that certain religious beliefs make devotion, ecstasy, and awe both divisive and dangerous. Again, my tolerance for difference is much higher than my critics understand. I’m not a scared white guy who is put off by the howls of the natives. In fact, I’ve done a fair amount of howling with the natives myself. I know what these people are experiencing, and I value many of the same experiences.
The post is illustrated with well-chosen videos of ecstatic spiritual devotion. They are fascinating, at times (briefly) beautiful, at times disturbing, at times dull, and, more often than not, depressing, glimpses of intellectual and psychological places where I would rather not go for too long, not out of fear, Mr. Harris, but because, at best, they do nothing for me, and at worst, well…
Devotion, ecstasy and awe: on the whole, no thanks.
Mr. Harris may well have different tastes. He writes:
Unlike many of my critics, I recognize that these practices profoundly affect people. In fact, I’ve spent thousands of hours doing practices of this kind.
And that’s fine (chacun à son goût, and all that), but to say this is not:
Unless you have tasted religious ecstasy, you cannot understand the danger of its being pointed in the wrong direction.
Not so: All it takes is some knowledge of history and a willingness to recognize—as Mr. Harris clearly does— some very uncomfortable truths about the nature of our species.
Here’s Melvyn Bragg writing in the Daily Telegraph on the topic of William Tyndale (and Thomas More):
After almost 500 years, Tyndale continues to command our language and when we reach for the clinching phrase, we still reach out for him.
Tyndale was burned alive in a small town in Belgium in 1536. His crime was to have translated the Bible into English. He was effectively martyred after fighting against cruel and eventually overwhelming forces, which tried for more than a dozen years to prevent him from putting the Word of God into his native language. He succeeded but he was murdered before he could complete his self-set task of translating the whole of the Old Testament as he had translated the whole of the New Testament.
More than any other man he laid the foundation of our modern language which became by degrees a world language. “He was very frugal and spare of body”, according to a messenger of Thomas Cromwell, but with an unbreakable will. Tyndale, one of the greatest scholars of his age, had a gift for mastering languages, ancient and modern, and a genius for translation. His legacy matches that other pillar of our language – Shakespeare, whose genius was in imagination….
[Tyndale’s] story embraces an alliance with Anne Boleyn, an argument covering three quarters of a million words with Thomas More, who was so vile and excrementally vivid that it is difficult to read him even today. Tyndale was widely regarded as a man of great piety and equal courage and above all dedicated to, even obsessed with, the idea that the Bible, which for more than 1,000 years had reigned in Latin, should be accessible to the eyes and ears of his fellow countrymen in their own tongue. English was his holy grail….
And, almost as an accidental by-product, he loaded our speech with more everyday phrases than any other writer before or since. We still use them, or varieties of them, every day, 500 years on. …
As a young man he was told by a cleric that it would be better “to be without God’s laws than the Pope’s”.
Tyndale, outraged, replied that he defied the Pope and all his laws and added “If God spares me… I will cause the boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Bible than thou doest”.
The image of the ploughboy was brilliant – because the ploughboy was illiterate. Tyndale deliberately set out to write a Bible which would be accessible to everyone. To make this completely clear, he used monosyllables, frequently, and in such a dynamic way that they became the drumbeat of English prose. “The Word was with God and the Word was God”….
And when his English-language New Testament came out….
The Bishop of London bought up an entire edition of 6,000 copies and burned them on the steps of the old St Paul’s Cathedral. More went after Tyndale’s old friends and tortured them. Richard Byfield, a monk accused of reading Tyndale, was one who died a graphically horrible death as described in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. More stamped on his ashes and cursed him. And among others there was John Firth, a friend of Tyndale, who was burned so slowly that he was more roasted.
Fast forward half a millennium to a report in the New York Times lat year:
Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan on Friday helped kick off a national campaign opposing President Obama’s health care mandates and other government policies that Roman Catholic leaders say threaten their religious freedom…. The bishops timed the two-week campaign of prayer, fasting and letter-writing to begin on a feast day commemorating two 16th-century Catholic saints executed for their religious beliefs — SS. John Fisher and Thomas More. The campaign will conclude on the Fourth of July.
The problem, however (as I discussed here last August) is that More died not in the name of “religious freedom”, but in defense of the supremacy of his religious faith over those of others.
We should be careful before we judge a man of the sixteenth century by the standards of the twenty-first (or even the twentieth). More was no Dzerzhinsky, but he was a clear step down the road that led to men like that.
That ought to be food for more thought than is currently the case.
The polio disease was on the verge of eradication when Ibrahim Datti Ahmed, president of the Supreme Council for Sharia in Nigeria and a physician, suggested at about this time in 2003 that the vaccination program in his country was part of a Western conspiracy to render Muslim children infertile. His call for an end to the polio immunization campaign touched a nerve and spread to other Muslim religious leaders in Nigeria, causing the vaccination process to slow down and incidences of the disease to pick up.
From Nigeria, this dual phenomenon of conspiracy theory and re-appearance of the disease then expanded to Muslims internationally. (For an outline of its progress over the past ten years, see my long weblog entry.) So closely connected have Islam and polio become that the Muslim-only pilgrimage to Mecca became a major mechanism of transmitting the disease to faraway places like Indonesia.
By now, Ahmed’s paranoia has sent the new wave of polio from Nigeria to Muslim populations in at least 17 other African countries and 6 Asian countries…
The Welsh poet R.S. Thomas was an Anglophobic Anglican vicar with a hatred of modernity, but he can be forgiven a lot for the first four lines of his poem, The Empty Church, singled out in this recent article in the Spectator by Peter Conradi:
They laid this stone trap
for him, enticing him with candles,
as though he would come like some huge moth
out of the darkness to beat there.
The Commentator reports:
The Australian National University (ANU) has apparently banned the satirisation of Islam for fear of inciting violence and creating a backlash.
The Australian newspaper reported this week that the ANU cited international violence in the wake of the Danish cartoons and Innocence of Muslims film to justify its decision to force student newspaper Woroni to pulp a satirical infographic which described a passage from the Qu’ran as a “rape fantasy”.
The university also reportedly threatened student authors and editors of the infographic with disciplinary action, including academic exclusion and the withdrawal of the publication’s funding. Critics have argued that the university is effectively introducing a “blasphemy law” seeking to protect Islam from criticism.
The piece was the fifth in a satirical series entitled “Advice from Religion” which had previously discussed Catholicism, Scientology, Mormonism and Judaism – none of which drew complaint or university action.
To make a truly fair comparison, it would be necessary to see what “advice” the other religions were purportedly giving, but the statement issued by the university delivers a clear enough message nevertheless:
“In a world of social media, (there is) potential for material such as the article in question to gain attention and traction in the broader world and potentially harm the interests of the university and the university community. This was most clearly demonstrated by the Jyllands-Posten cartoon controversy … and violent protests in Sydney on September 15 last year.”
The question is not the quality of what was published or whether the university was entitled to do what it did (legally, yes, it seems) or even whether it was right, or at least prudent to do so, at least as seen from ANU’s own perspective. What really is at issue here is whether fear of a violent response is having a chilling effect on the ability of those in the west who would do so to mock or otherwise criticize Islam.
The answer, of course, is yes. And this is just another reminder.
More background here.
Judith Potts writes in the Daily Telegraph:
One day in 2007 my late mother – then a sprightly 93 year old – said to me “I do wish these people would get off my sofa. They sit there all day and only go if I tap them on their heads or shoulders.” She and I were the only people in the room.
I was extremely alarmed when she described her “visions”. Not only were there the faceless people on her sofa but other apparitions which peppered her daily life and had been doing so for about 18 months. I suspect she decided to confide in me at that point because some of the “visions” were becoming difficult to tolerate. Up to that moment, she was terrified – not of the visions, but of losing her sanity.
Listening to her descriptions of gargoyle-like creatures evading capture, an Edwardian funeral procession – complete with plumed horses, carriages and clergy in red cassocks – and an urchin hopping from room to room, I was perplexed. I drove home pondering how to help, picking up a newspaper on the way. To my enormous surprise, the paper carried an article about exactly my mother’s experience and I learned that the condition had a name – Charles Bonnet Syndrome.
With this lucky discovery, I began to do some research and was able to reassure my mother that she was not alone – in fact it is reckoned that there might be two million people in the UK suffering from this condition….
The medical term for mum’s “visions” is Visual Hallucinations and they occur when there is partial or total loss of vision, caused by macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy or cataracts. The brain, which controls sight through the eye, fills in the blank spots with stored images. These can be from real life, from film or television, from books or radio. While these visual hallucinations tend to happen to people as they age, anyone who experiences loss of vision can be affected, even children.
Vermont may be a lefty sort of place, but occasionally it gets some things right. MSNBC reports:
After 10 years of emotionally-charged debate, Vermont became the first state in the country to pass a doctor-assisted suicide bill through the legislative process. Governor Peter Shumlin signed the “Patient Choice and Control at End of Life Act” into law Monday allowing physicians to prescribe a lethal dose of medication to dying, mentally competent patients who want to end their lives. This would apply only to residents of the state.
“Vermonters who face terminal illness and are in excruciating pain at the end of their lives now have control over their destinies. This is the right thing to do,” said Gov. Shumlin, a Democrat.
Three other states have similar “death with dignity” laws on the books. Oregon and Washington enacted these laws through ballot measures. In Montana, a court ruling made it legal in 2009. Similar to Oregon and Washington, the new Vermont law provides built-in safeguards to make sure these patients meet certain requirements and that they are of sound mind. For the next three years, sick patients must formally make the request at least three times. And the patient’s primary care doctor and a consulting physician must agree with the diagnosis that the person is, in fact, terminally ill and able to make an informed decision. The Health Department will get reports from doctors on how many patients they prescribed lethal drugs. After July 1, 2016, Vermont won’t require as much monitoring and reporting under the law.
According to the AP, Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Harry Chen estimated doctors will write between 10 and 20 lethal prescriptions a year, but not as many patients will go through with the process and actually take the lethal drugs…
Over at the Wall Street Journal Paul McHugh complains about this modest measure in an unconvincing article that is childish:
And then there is this talk about “death with dignity,” as the Oregon and Washington laws are titled. Surely what we want is “life with dignity.” Seeking life, we’re ready to endure much in order to keep it going. Think of the life-saving and life-preserving colonoscopy—all dignity drops with your trousers.
And comes complete with guilt-by-association:
For you see, the terminators ultimately are not merely interested in killing people who are suffering the throes of a final illness. They have even others in mind, as history tells us. The drive to allow doctors to “assist” in suicide is not recent. Its roots are in the Progressive era of the early 20th century, when many Americans placed utter confidence in reform and in technocratic elites. Then the enthusiasts for euthanasia lined up with those clamoring for government intervention in the name of eugenics and population control.
And, well, this:
Another argument for physician-assisted suicide is that many patients with cancer live too long in pain. The suffering could be reduced if their legitimate wish for death were fulfilled. These are the arguments pressed by Dr. Timothy Quill and many in the Oregon “death with dignity” group.
But scientific publications from oncologists such as Kathleen Foley, who studies patients with painful cancers, reveal that, quite to the contrary, most cancer patients want help with the pain so they can continue to live. Suicide is mentioned only by those patients with serious but treatable depressive illness, or by those who are overwhelmed by confusion about matters such as their burden on loved ones and their therapeutic options. These patients are relieved when their doctors attend to the sources of their psychological distress and correct them.
The simple (and encouraging) answer to that is that a huge majority of cancer patients do indeed choose to live on, and, yes, proper counseling and treatment for depression can encourage them to make that choice.
That said, there are doubtless some terminal patients who—quite rationally—decide that enough pain is enough, and that it’s time to move on. The Vermont law will help some such individuals reassert, one last time, control over the lives that are theirs, and theirs alone.
In a 2002 New York Times piece, Dr. McHugh (a Roman Catholic) was described as “religiously orthodox, politically liberal (he is a Democrat) and culturally conservative”. The latter is an infinitely debatable term. If we look, however, at the other two attributes listed– religious orthodoxy and political liberalism—it’s not hard to see why respect for individual liberty ranks so very low on his list of priorities.
There’s been so much said about l’affaire Richwine that I am not keen to get deeply involved. I would advise that you read Jason Richwine’s account, as well as Ph.D. thesis itself. There are now various movements to expurgate Richwine’s thesis on explicitly ideological grounds. This is very stupid.
As a non-liberal with some affiliation with academia I’m in a peculiar position. I get to observe people blithely confusing their normative presuppositions with the basic background assumptions of the average person. By analogy, in a conservative evangelical church “Christians” have specific opinions on issues such as abortion and taxes. And yet the reality is that there are many self-identified Christians who would take issue with these assumptions. But these other types of Christians may not be part of the social group of conservative evangelicals, so the implicit assumption is that those who would espouse abortion rights and higher taxes must be secular humanists (actually, most self-identified liberals are religious and believe in God).
What’s happening here is that many liberals hold that Richwine’s thesis is ipso facto racist due to the axioms and inferences he made. Obviously this is a red line for the cultural Left today, and it makes sense why they would be outraged. The issue is that this thesis has already been given the stamp of approval by Harvard via the regular channels. If the thesis was put under special scrutiny or even revoked on ideological grounds then that would be rather exceptional, and also a major crack in the facade of the idea of intellectual integrity within the academy.
The problem with this is that many questions and conclusions which liberals are not so offended by are quite offensive and objectionable to non-liberals, and especially social conservatives. People within the academy are generally not conscious of this because they rarely encounter people who are offended by the concept of Queer Studies, or the type of Ph.D. theses which come out of these departments. Currently exploration of topics objectionable and offensive to “Middle America” are protected by the idea that part of the academy’s role is to provoke and even offend, to explore taboo issues and reach shocking conclusions. But if the academy starts to make exceptions in such a blatant manner for areas which it finds the offense unacceptable, then its defense of heterodoxy becomes much weaker. Outrage for thee, but not for me.
This may not may not be a big issue in the short run. But, it will contribute to the continued alienation of the majority of the nation from elite higher education, especially the sort of research institutions which by their very nature are going to be culturally transgressive of mainstream values. If the cultural Left manages to get an asterisk placed on the Richwine Ph.D., or have it revoked, then the rational move by conservatives is simple. First, conservative think-tanks should go put the spotlight on the Ph.D.’s of prominent liberals and highlight aspects which are “objectionable” so as to smear their reputations (e.g., anything “anti-American” or sympathetic to cultural Marxism, or questioning bourgeois institutions like marriage). Second, an army of activists could comb through departments which are known award Ph.D.’s with “radical” political and social agendas, and use these as evidence to argue that the academy has become just an arm of cultural Leftism and should no longer receive public funds aside from explicitly practical disciplines (e.g., engineering).
I think a reasonable person can make the case that academic research questions and conclusions should not be adjudicated in by a “voice vote” of democratic acclaim or rejection. But once you open this sort of Pandora’s Box it’s hard to put the tool you unleashed back in. You can’t always control the ends once the means are available.