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Archive for December 2013

Dec/13

23

Happy Christmas!

Riga, Latvia (Nov 2013) (AS)This may well be my last post here for a day or so, so how to mark the imminent arrival of Christmas, grandest and jolliest and most syncretic of festivals, this year?

With this extract, I think, from Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales:

The silent one-clouded heavens drifted on to the sea. Now we were snow-blind travelers lost on the north hills, and vast dewlapped dogs, with flasks round their necks, ambled and shambled up to us, baying “Excelsior.” We returned home through the poor streets where only a few children fumbled with bare red fingers in the wheel-rutted snow and cat-called after us, their voices fading away, as we trudged uphill, into the cries of the dock birds and the hooting of ships out in the whirling bay. And then, at tea the recovered Uncles would be jolly; and the ice cake loomed in the center of the table like a marble grave. Auntie Hannah laced her tea with rum, because it was only once a year.

Bring out the tall tales now that we told by the fire as the gaslight bubbled like a diver. Ghosts whooed like owls in the long nights when I dared not look over my shoulder; animals lurked in the cubbyhole under the stairs and the gas meter ticked. And I remember that we went singing carols once, when there wasn’t the shaving of a moon to light the flying streets. At the end of a long road was a drive that led to a large house, and we stumbled up the darkness of the drive that night, each one of us afraid, each one holding a stone in his hand in case, and all of us too brave to say a word. The wind through the trees made noises as of old and unpleasant and maybe webfooted men wheezing in caves. We reached the black bulk of the house. “What shall we give them? Hark the Herald?” “No,” Jack said, “Good King Wencelas. I’ll count three.” One, two three, and we began to sing, our voices high and seemingly distant in the snow-felted darkness round the house that was occupied by nobody we knew. We stood close together, near the dark door. Good King Wencelas looked out On the Feast of Stephen … And then a small, dry voice, like the voice of someone who has not spoken for a long time, joined our singing: a small, dry, eggshell voice from the other side of the door: a small dry voice through the keyhole. And when we stopped running we were outside our house; the front room was lovely; balloons floated under the hot-water-bottle-gulping gas; everything was good again and shone over the town.

“Perhaps it was a ghost,” Jim said.

“Perhaps it was trolls,” Dan said, who was always reading.

“Let’s go in and see if there’s any jelly left,” Jack said. And we did that.

Happy Christmas…

Dec/13

23

Sparks at Marks

Butchers closes after161 yearsAdapted from a post at Ricochet:

Theotory blogger (and martyred Archbishop!) Cranmer’s response to the decision (discussed here earlier) by retailer M&S to accomodate members of staff who, for religious reasons, do not want to handle pork, alcohol is too good not to share here.

Here, by the way, is what M&S has to say for itself:

“We recognise that some of our employees practise religions that restrict the food or drink they can handle, or that mean they cannot work at certain times. M&S promotes an environment free from discrimination and so, where specific requests are made, we will always make reasonable adjustments to accommodate them, whilst ensuring high levels of customer service.”

Over to Cranmer:

An environment free from discrimination? Have they considered that their customers don’t wish to be discriminated against and made to feel morally deficient or ‘unclean’? How is inconveniencing customers by forcing them to queue at non-Muslim checkouts consistent with “high levels of customer service”?

The main problem with this is that it plays to a certain Muslim stereotype: it affirms an utterly myopic interpretation of sharia law and so perpetuates prejudice against all Muslims. The Qur’an exhorts Muslims not to eat pork products or drink alcohol: it does not say they may not handle glass bottles or pass a plastic packet of bacon over a scanner.

But, no matter. Some M&S equality aficionado has determined the orthodox tenets of each religion, and is prepared to bend over backwards to accommodate them: they have confirmed – in true anti-discrimination style – that Jewish employees are also permitted to decline to serve customers alcohol and pork, notwithstanding that no Jewish employee has ever refused to do this in the store’s 129-year history.

But why stop at alcohol and pork?

Are they also permitted to decline to scan a packet of prawns? May they refuse to sell garments made of wool and cotton? Or meat mixed with dairy? Is a Muslim employee permitted to decline to sell you a bikini or a lipstick? And what about M&S finance? Is a Muslim employee who objects to charging interest on debt going to be permitted to administer an interest-free credit card?

And why restrict this to the point of sale? Don’t these products require handling throughout the logistical chain? Are Muslim (and Jewish) employees going to be exempt from placing orders for certain products? Are they going to be exempt from handling certain boxes in the warehouse?

Are Christians going to be permitted to decline to handle halal meat, since it has been “offered to idols” (1Cor 8)? Or has the M&S equality aficionado decreed that this is not a fundamental requirement of the faith? If so, on what theological basis?

As far as His Grace is aware, M&S don’t sell condoms. But if they did, would a Roman Catholic employee be permitted to decline to serve the customer, thereby compounding their embarrassment?

This is not “reasonable accommodation”: it is not the same as permitting holy days off or the wearing of certain religious symbols over a uniform. It is manifestly unreasonable when customers are inconvenienced by i) having to queue at a non-sharia checkout, or ii) waiting for a member of staff to arrive who is prepared to serve you.

Oh yes, it seems that the Church of England thinks the whole thing is fine. #sigh, as they say over in Twitterland.

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WallsDeciding quite where and how a nation should draw the line between its citizens’ right to practice their religions and its own right to protect itself from spiraling down into balkanization has never been an easy thing to determine and in an age of multiculturalism it is becoming more difficult still.

Over then to the UK: writing in the Daily Telegraph, Matthew d’Ancona laments guidance given by Universities UK on the arrangements to be put in place when external speakers are visiting a campus and, specifically, this:

“[a wish to] accommodate the wishes or beliefs of those opposed to [gender] segregation should not result in a religious group being prevented from having a debate in accordance with its belief system. Ultimately, if imposing an unsegregated seating area in addition to the segregated areas contravenes the genuinely held religious beliefs of the group hosting the event, or those of the speaker, the institution should be mindful to ensure that the freedom of speech of the religious group or speaker is not curtailed unlawfully.”

D’Ancona’s response:

[T]his is a test case about much more than fringe events on provincial campuses. It is about the very basis of a pluralist society and what philosophers call “value incommensurability” – the clash between principles, and the dilemmas that such conflicts pose. As a ferocious opponent of theocratic creep, Hitchens argued that secular society was becoming far too emollient and unwilling to defend Enlightenment values against attack. Diplomatic immunity, equality before the law, the right of the novelist to free expression: all are now weighed against the risk of upsetting the theological apple cart.

The segregation row has forced us to confront the friction between religious sensitivities and core aspects of our common citizenship. The heart of the matter is the word “freedom” and its abuse. The original guidance claimed that forbidding segregation by gender on campus might infringe “the freedom of speech of the religious group or speaker”. This is babble, but it is dangerous babble. It implies that upsetting the religious sensibilities of an individual or congregation – and it is possible to take offence at anything – is a form of censorship.

I heard a similar argument made during the gay marriage debate: that same-sex weddings would somehow infringe “religious freedoms”, even though they were to be held exclusively in civil settings. In the segregation row, the hurt feelings of a believer or group of believers are weighed against the entire principle of gender equality – as if core principles are upheld only on the probationary basis that they do not upset the faithful. This amazing proposition reverses the polarities of the 20th century and replaces the totalitarian state with the totalitarian individual – the person who claims that absolutely anything that offends him is an assault on his “religious freedom” and has to be stopped. And let us be frank: because, collectively, we have grown fearful of religious extremism, we, too, often nod respectfully when we should be fighting back.

Well, yes.

And right on cue, there’s this, also from the Daily Telegraph:

At M&S [a British retailer], Muslim staff who do not wish to handle alcohol or pork have been told they can politely request that customers choose another till at which to pay.

At one of its stores in central London last week, customers waiting with goods that included pork or alcohol were told by a Muslim checkout worker to wait until another till became available. The assistant was extremely apologetic at having to ask customers to wait.

One customer, who declined to be named, said: “I had one bottle of champagne, and the lady, who was wearing a headscarf, was very apologetic but said she could not serve me. She told me to wait until another member of staff was available.

“I was taken aback. I was a bit surprised. I’ve never come across that before.

Well, get used to it. Best guess is that there will be more of this nonsense to come.

Writing in the same newspaper, Damian Thompson hits back:

I’m sorry, but if you cannot “handle” bacon and champagne and dozens of other products – even though your co-religionists have been doing so for decades – then don’t work in a secular supermarket. And I’d say the same to a Christian from a teetotal sect who refused to process the sale of alcohol.

When Islam and political correctness join forces, as they do so often, questioning their demands is portrayed as racist. Actually, if you really want to damage relations between communities, then ordering harassed shoppers to change queues (which are long enough already in M&S, God knows) is a good way to go about it.

Another chain, Sainsbury’s, has said that it has no plans to follow M&S’s lemming lead.

Thompson applauds:

Good for Sainsbury’s. Accommodating employees’ religious beliefs and customers’ requirements can be tricky; but there are times when common sense tells you that a particular demand is over the top and counterproductive. Give in to it, and not only will unfounded accusations of racism fly around, but genuine racists will jump in to sour relations between shoppers and (typically) young female Muslim checkout staff, some of whom may already be under pressure from the religious police in their own community.

Note that in our report the Muslim lady says apologetically that she “could not” serve the customer buying champagne. Is that because it offends her conscience – or because she’s been told that, as a Muslim, she is no longer allowed to do this part of her job?

That last point is important. By doing what it has done, M&S has lent a helping hand to the fundamentalist enforcers.

I won’t be shopping there next time I’m in Blighty.

Update

The Jewish Chronicle reports:

Marks & Spencer has confirmed that Jewish employees do not have to serve pork products at tills to its customers, if it goes against their religious beliefs. The chain confirmed that, in the same way a Muslim member of staff could refuse to handle pork and alcohol, a Jewish employee could decline to sell pork sausages, bacon rashers and sea-food.

A M&S spokesperson said: “We recognise that some if our employees practise religions that restrict food or drink they can handle, or mean they cannot work at certain times.

“M&S promotes an environment free from discrimination and so, where specific requests are made, we always make reasonable adjustments to accommodate them, whilst ensuring high levels of customer service.”

As I said, balkanization.

And what about,, say, secular vegetarians compelled to sell the remnants of slaughtered livestock? Do their feelings count for nothing? Or does M&S only respect deeply-held religious belief.

Discrimination!

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Dec/13

21

Science Update

Sedona (July 97) (AS)The Daily Telegraph reports:

Angels exist but do not have wings and are more like shards of light, at least according to a top Catholic Church “angelologist” who says the heavenly beings are now back in vogue thanks to New Age religions.

“I think there is a rediscovery of angels in Christianity,” Father Renzo Lavatori said on the sidelines of a conference on angels in a lavishly-frescoed Renaissance palace in Rome.

“You do not see angels so much as feel their presence,” said Father Lavatori, adding: “They are a bit like sunlight that refracts on you through a crystal vase.”

…He said the popularised image of angels is a necessary result of their being “back in fashion” but is dismissive of all the angel art around Christmas.

“There is space for that, but you have to understand that these are not real representations. Angels do not have wings or look like cherubs,” he said. The widely-published Catholic clergyman is also a “demonologist” and says angels are more needed than ever because increasing secularisation and materialism in society have left an “open door” for the devil.

“There is a lot more interference from diabolical forces. That is why you see queues of people outside the exorcists’ offices in churches…Pope Francis talks more about the devil than about angels and I think rightly so. But it’s still early, he will get round to the angels too.”

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Dec/13

14

Should Atheist Politicians ‘Come Out’?

Henry_IV_en_Herculeus_terrassant_l_Hydre_de_Lerne_cad_La_ligue_Catholique_Atelier_Toussaint_Dubreuil_circa_1600Writing in Politico, Jennifer Hecht laments the absence of any ‘out’ atheists in senior elective office.

On Real Time with Bill Maher last August, Maher asked his guest, newly retired Rep. Barney Frank, if he felt liberated now that he was a private citizen. Frank said he did, since he no longer gets phone calls saying someone screwed something up and he has to “unscrew it.” Maher pressed on, saying, “You were in a fairly safe district. You were not one of those congresspeople who have to worry about every little thing. You could come on this show and sit next to a pot-smoking atheist, and it wouldn’t bother you.” Frank shot back: “Which pot-smoking atheist were you talking about?” Then he pointed back and forth to Maher and himself.

The audience loved it. Maher doubled over in laughter and delight. But while few seemed to care about Frank’s pot-smoking admission, atheists across the country—myself included—were disappointed that he hadn’t acknowledged his lack of religious belief sooner, when it could have made a real difference. We were left wondering why a man who served 16 terms in Congress and who bravely came out as gay all the way back in 1987 felt the need to hide his atheism until he was out of office. Was it really harder to come out as an atheist politician in 2013 than as a gay one 25 years ago?

Incredibly, the answer might be yes. For starters, consider that there is not a single self-described atheist in Congress today. Not one. It wasn’t until 2007 that Rep. Pete Stark, a Democrat from Northern California, became the first member of Congress and the highest-ranking public official ever to admit to being an atheist. (And even he framed it in terms of religious affiliation, calling himself “a Unitarian who does not believe in a supreme being.”) Stark was elected twice after this, but when the 20-term congressman lost his seat last year, it was to a 31-year-old primary challenger who attacked him as irreligious, citing, among other things, Stark’s vote against our national motto: “In God We Trust.”

Indeed, the same year that Stark came out, the Secular Coalition of America was able to identify only five atheist public officials in the entire United States. After Stark and a Nebraska state senator, the third-highest ranking atheist was a school-board president from Berkeley, Calif.—this despite the fact that, according to a 2012 Pew report, 6 percent of Americans say they don’t believe in a higher power. That leaves at least 15 million Americans without any elected officials to represent their point of view….

Hmmm, “representing their point of view”? There are many things that I might hope for from legislators. Agreeing with their thoughts about God is a very long way down the list.

When it comes to this sort of thing, I’ve always thought that the late Henry IV of France (1553-1610) was onto something when he explained (apocryphally at least) why he had converted to Roman Catholicism on ascending the French throne. “Paris,” he supposedly said, “is worth a mass”. Going through a (to him) presumably meaningless ritual was no big deal if it paved the way to power.

What mattered was what he did with that power. And what he did was to be a good king, with achievements that included crushing the fanatics of the Catholic League, and promulgating the Edict of Nantes, which granted a good degree of religious tolerance to France’s Protestant minority.

And so it should be here. If it takes a little hypocrisy for a good sound godless politician to get elected, so be it. Bring on the prayer breakfasts!

But one real cost to this silence it is the role that it has played in the rise of the assumption that those on the Right (except Randians and some of those wacky libertarians) are by definition religious, something that is by no means the case, as visitors to this site must surely know.

Dec/13

14

Annals of the Arab Spring (Ctd.)

snow-in-cairoCross-posted on the Corner:

Writing in the Spectator last month (behind the paywall) Aidan Hartley took a look at what is happening to Egypt’s archeological heritage:

[W]ithin a kilometre of the Sphinx, I found the desert honeycombed with deep, freshly dug shafts. The criminals are not archaeologists, so they may be digging in vain, but if Egypt’s authorities can’t prevent treasure–hunters from doing this in the shadow of the last of the Seven Wonders of the World, then it’s a safe bet they’re not doing much to stop it elsewhere.

Some of the desecration is spurred on by religious zeal. Before he was deposed, President Morsi appointed as governor of Luxor a former member of Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, the terrorist group that murdered 64 people in the Temple of Hatsheput in 1997. Under his watch, monuments were neglected, while extreme Islamists began demanding the destruction of pre-Islamic monuments such as the Sphinx and pyramids.

One cleric, Sheikh Murgan Salem al-Gohary, said in a television broadcast aired in Egypt: ‘All Muslims are charged with applying the teachings of Islam to remove such idols, as we did in Afghanistan when we destroyed the Buddha statues…’. Before they had a chance to blow up the Sphinx, the military seized power from the Muslim Brotherhood in June — but the looting escalated even further in the bloodshed that followed.

In August, mobs attacked a museum at Mallawi, in Middle Egypt, and looted 1,000 artefacts. They murdered a curator and vandalised what items they could not steal. Monica Hanna, a young Egyptologist who is struggling to rescue her country’s heritage, rushed to the museum and led efforts to save the few exhibits remaining. She was shot at and menaced and when she asked the vandals what they were doing, the youths replied: ‘This is the property of the state. The state is killing Muslims — so we are destroying what the state owns.’

In September, I accompanied Monica to Ansana, an early Christian complex of rock-hewn churches and ruined monasteries along the Nile. Ansana has never been properly studied, and now Islamists are destroying the sites altogether. In one church, we found 4th-century frescos of biblical scenes freshly scratched to pieces. Looters had tried to blow up one church with dynamite, acting on rumours that hoards of gold were hidden beneath the rock. A cemetery Monica said was for Christians martyred under Roman Emperor Diocletian at the end of the 3rd century had been recently desecrated, and we found piles of skulls and skeletons ripped out of tombs and kicked about the desert.

On one mountainside, Monica found a carved monument marking the boundary of the city of Amana, built by the iconoclastic Pharoah Akhenaten over 3,300 years ago. The vandals who defaced this exquisite work had helpfully recorded the date they did it — in February of this year…

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Dec/13

13

The Return of the Clown Posse?

elmer gantryGod must be a Democrat. First Rick Santorum says that he might be open to a 2016 run, now Mike Huckabee appears to be mulling a shot.

The New York Times has the details:

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas has not been among the Republicans frequently named as a potential 2016 presidential candidate, but he would like that to change.

“I’m keeping the door open,” Mr. Huckabee said in an interview here Thursday night about the possibility of seeking his party’s nomination again. “I think right now the focus needs to be on 2014, but I’m mindful of the fact that there’s a real opportunity for me.”

…Mr. Huckabee dismissed the notion that pride was a factor in his decision to float a possible campaign.

If Huckabee does decide to run again, I will as usual be waiting to see if he is willing to release the text of his sermons from back in the day. He has always been rather reluctant to do so. Can’t think why.

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Dec/13

10

Religious Freedom!

OmenI’ll admit it. This made me laugh.

The Guardian reports:

In their zeal to tout their faith in the public square, conservatives in Oklahoma may have unwittingly opened the door to a wide range of religious groups, including Satanists who are seeking to put their own statue next to a Ten Commandments monument outside the statehouse. The Republican-controlled legislature in the state known as the buckle of the Bible Belt authorised the privately funded Ten Commandments monument in 2009. It was placed on the Capitol grounds last year despite criticism from legal experts, who questioned its constitutionality. The Oklahoma chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit seeking its removal.

But the New York-based Satanic Temple saw an opportunity. It notified the state’s Capitol Preservation Commission that it wants to donate a monument and plans to submit one of several possible designs this month, said Lucien Greaves, a spokesman for the temple.

“We believe that all monuments should be in good taste and consistent with community standards,” Greaves wrote in letter to state officials. “Our proposed monument, as an homage to the historic/literary Satan, will certainly abide by these guidelines.”

And the little ones are not left out:

Greaves said one potential design involves a pentagram, a satanic symbol, while another is meant to be an interactive display for children.

For the children!

Meanwhile…

The Republican state representative Mike Ritze, who spearheaded the push for the Ten Commandments monument and whose family helped pay the $10,000 for its construction, declined to comment on the Satanic Temple’s effort, but Greaves credited Ritze for opening the door to his group’s proposal.

“He’s helping a satanic agenda grow more than any of us possibly could,” Greaves said. “You don’t walk around and see too many satanic temples around, but when you open the door to public spaces for us, that’s when you’re going to see us.”

The Oklahoma legislature has taken other steps that many believe blur the line that divides church and state. The House speaker said he wants to build a chapel inside the Capitol to celebrate Oklahoma’s “Judeo-Christian heritage”. Several lawmakers have said they want to allow nativity scenes and other religious-themed symbols in public schools. The Republican representative Bobby Cleveland, who plans to introduce one such bill next year, said many Christians feel they are under attack as a result of political correctness. He dismissed the notion of Satanists erecting a monument at the Capitol.

“I think these Satanists are a different group,” Cleveland said. “You put them under the nut category.”

Well yes, but…

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Dec/13

9

21 Years

Witchcraft_at_Salem_VillageWitch trials. Still with us.

The Guardian reports:

Dan Keller has left an Austin jail, a week after his wife was released – and 21 years after the pair were given a 48-year sentence for sexual assault during America’s “Satanic panic” era. Fran Keller, 63, was released on bond last week after the Travis County district attorney agreed that the trial jury was probably swayed by the faulty testimony of an expert witness.

To supporters of Dan, 72, and Fran Keller, 63, their 1992 trial was a modern-day Texas witch-hunt that recalled the hysterical delusions of seventeenth-century Salem. The fuse was lit in August 1991, when a three-year-old girl on the way to a behavioural therapy session told her mother that Dan Keller had spanked her at the preschool he ran with his wife in Austin.

The girl told the therapist that Keller had sexually assaulted her using a pen and “pooped and peed on my head”.
In subsequent months, two other children made similar claims about the Kellers. By the time the couple went on trial in November 1992, the allegations were significantly more lurid and involved allegations of ritual abuse, murder, dismemberment and animal sacrifice.

The Kellers were found guilty of aggravated sexual assault of a child, even though the three-year-old girl at the centre of the case recanted her claims in court.

The only physical evidence against the Kellers was the testimony of Dr Michael Mouw, who examined the girl in the emergency room of a local hospital after the therapy session and said he found tears in her hymen that potentially indicated that she was molested.

Mouw signed an affidavit last January in which he affirms that he now realises his inexperience led him to a conclusion that “is not scientifically or medically valid, and that I was mistaken.”

In an appeal filed on behalf of Fran Keller earlier this year, her lawyer, Keith Hampton, also argued that the state presented misleading evidence about the cemetery, relied on a false witness confession and the testimony of a “quack” satanic abuse “expert”, and that suggestive interview techniques had encouraged the children to make “fantastical false statements”.

According to police reports and trial records, the children said that Dan Keller killed his dog and made children cut it up and eat it, “baptised” kids with blood and disembowelled pets, forcing children to drink the blood.The Kellers were also said to have decapitated and chopped up a baby, put the remains in a swimming pool and made the children jump in. In one account, the Kellers were said to have stolen a baby gorilla from a park and Frances cut off one of its fingers.

The pair, who apparently liked to wear robes, were said to have dug graves in a cemetery to hide dead animals and a passer-by who was shot and carved up with a chain saw…

21 years.

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Dec/13

9

Something Rotten…

surrenderNick Cohen, writing in The Spectator:

Firoozeh Bazrafkan is frightened of nothing. Five foot tall, 31 years old, and so thin you think a puff of wind could blow her away, she still has the courage to be a truly radical artist and challenge those who might hurt her. She fights for women’s rights and intellectual freedom, and her background means her fight has to be directed against radical Islam. As a Danish citizen, she saw journalists go into hiding and mobs attack her country’s embassies just because Jyllands-Posten published cartoons of Muhammad that were so tame you could hardly call them ‘satirical’. Bazrafkan is also the daughter of an Iranian family, and the Islamic Republic’s subjugation of women revolts her.

When I met her, she was enduring a crash course in politically correct Europe’s many hypocrisies. White Danes reported her to the police for writing that Muslim men abuse and murder their daughters, and adding for good measure that the ‘Koran is more immoral, deplorable and crazy than manuals of the two other global religions combined’.

You could say that her remarks were offensive. You could say that the inattentive reader might just take them to mean that all Muslim men abuse and murder their daughters. But if every remark that someone might find offensive or misinterpret were banned, the human race would fall silent.

Liberal principles once held that the Danish state should only punish Bazrafkan if her words provoked violence. As it was, the court asked for no proof of actual incitement. (There was none to be had.) Instead, it acted as if criticism of religion — a system of beliefs which individuals should be free to choose and others should be free to criticise — was identical to racial prejudice, which all thinking people condemn because no one can choose his or her ethnicity.

The white ‘liberal’ judges therefore ruled that the Iranian-born artist was a ‘racist’ and gave her a criminal record for condemning honour killings and clerical misogyny…

And the story gets worse. Read the whole thing.

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