Monday, December 31, 2012

Blasphemy Laws, Atheism and Offending Religion

Australia's leading human rights organisation HREOC at the behest of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) decided along with a whole bunch of others that we needed more laws, and internationally binding ones, to protect religion from criticism by enshrining such law into the charter and covenants of the UN. It was yet another attempt by the OIC to implement blasphemy laws internationally through a UN resolution so as to make it an offence to offend religion specifically to combat, what they term as being, "Islamaphobia". The first time was in 1999 and the latest push beginning in 2007 was fortunately again unsuccessful in 2011 but another attempt is being made.

The primary aim for the proposed resolution was to specifically enact through jointly agreed international law the prohibition of defamation of religion, limiting comment on religion to that being of a positive nature only. To negatively critique or offend religion, primarily Islam, was to be deemed an offence, internationally. It was correctly defeated but they'd gotten closer on this second occasion. It is troubling that organisations such as HREOC cannot perceive the actual threat to human rights the implementing of such laws would be. Some of the major problems are that it would equate attributes held by an individual, such as race,  physicality or gender with organisations or concepts and ideas such as that of a religion. Ideas and therefore religions cannot be defamed through debate, criticism, through not "believing" them, through not accepting them and/or choosing to follow another religion. Neither is it the case that race can be assigned to a religion. Many followers of a particular religion may be of one particular dominant race (many are not) but religions are inherently multiracial. So how is that so many consider it or entertain the idea that it is racist to critique religion, in particular Islam? Race and physicality, including gender are protected attributes in sections of law designed to protect an individual from attack and persecution on this level. It is not permitted to discriminate based upon a protected attribute. Essentially the OIC and human rights bodies like HREOC are saying religion should be a protected attribute. In modelling the law along the lines of Defamation we have a way to cease any criticism of religion through an individual's right to access that law and claim the offence as being an attack on their person and religion as a protected attribute.
Baleful Worship - Submission (detail)

Taking this further to its logical conclusion if we allow for a world where there exists the prohibition of defamation of religion one can outlaw any and all unendorsed religion, commentary of any kind on religion other than by experts in scripture, other beliefs, and of course this makes atheism completely illegal. Atheism and atheists can by their existence be viewed offensive to the religious.

As what is considered non-defamatory commentary by one person, country, religion can subjectively be determined to be offensively defamatory by another person, country, religion how such laws might operate on an international or local scale other than in dictatorial or tyrannical terms makes one wonder about its proponent's ultimate aims and thinking. Clearly the State (international community?) would need to dictate the definition of what might be deemed permitted or offensive in law and by extension what religion/s were permitted or offensive in law. The result would be that the State (international community) would need to enact as law the legally recognised religion/s of the land (or planet) otherwise people might accidentally offend by not belonging to the endorsed religion/s. Further to this by not belonging to an endorsed religion or by being atheist one will have offended not only religion at this point but will have also offended the State and will need to answer not only for having blasphemed religion but having committed sedition for being anti-the-state by being irreligious. Not such an inconceivable result.

In Defamation Law an aggrieved party only needs to state they are aggrieved to have been defamed. Religious vilification laws have worked similarly. The religious perceived a threat and felt aggrieved and so are defamed by an act, a comment or reference made about their religion or religious convictions. Framed to mirror Defamation law the UN proposition to enact defamation of religion laws stinks not only of the most sinister form of censorship but by extension in addition the proposed abolishing of an individual's right to freedom of thought, ideas and expression. In the Australian State of Victoria, we already have an introduction of such limitations in the form of the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act, introduced by the Bracks Labor government in 2001

The Victorian Act was used in the now notorious Catch the Fire Ministry case (this link to Saltshakers blog has an excellent brief synopsis of the case and the ultimate outcome for the parties). The outcome, following a successful appeal by the defendants and instruction to have the case reheard, was arrived at during a fresh Mediation Hearing, with both parties agreeing that robust debate on religion was permissible.  This is just a mediated agreement between two parties though. It means nothing in terms of the potential for the further use of this deeply flawed law. This law has gouged a deep trench through freedoms of all Victorians and attempts are being made to deepen and make this trench wider and permanent by using it as a model to pursue changes in the UN.

The Catch the Fire case took 5 years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend and presumably prosecute. The rational for which is overtly clear, protect religion from all forms of criticism and in particular the religion of Islam.

The right to pursue a religion must never entail that your religion or your conviction for it are exempted from examination, discussion and criticism by others. It is heartening the UN committee concluded

"48. Prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the Covenant, except in the specific circumstances envisaged in article 20, paragraph 2, of the Covenant. Such prohibitions must also comply with the strict requirements of article 19, paragraph 3, as well as such articles as 2, 5, 17, 18 and 26. Thus, for instance, it would be impermissible for any such laws to discriminate in favour of or against one or certain religions or belief systems, or their adherents over another, or religious believers over non-believers. Nor would it be permissible for such prohibitions to be used to prevent or punish criticism of religious leaders or commentary on religious doctrine and tenets of faith.115"
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights - General Comment No 34

The OIC will however continue to push their particular agenda to prevent criticism of Islam at the UN on an annual basis.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The "New" Atheists are BAD okay!

In an article in the Herald Sun Newspaper, in Melbourne, Australia on 17 December 2012 self proclaimed atheist Rita Panahi complains that atheism as a "movement" is being over run by zealots.
(The online version of the newspaper article doesn't allow non-subscribers access. However, you can read the full article published earlier on 16 December 2012 here.) [Though no author is attributed it is the same article]

Panahi makes so many nonsensical claims in this article that can I hardly accept she is an atheist let alone one capable of "critical thinking". She describes atheism as a "system of belief", because she does not quite grasp that atheism is not a belief system, but a rejection of any belief system. It is as if she is saying that science should allow belief and reject empiricism. I am in fact unsure why Panahi thinks she is an atheist at all and it is almost as if she is confusing her politics with her position as, what appears to me to be, that of a tentative or confused quasi agnostic-atheist.

She describes Atheism as being formerly "a quiet celebration of reason". How quaint. She describes several contemporary robust critics of religion, including Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens as, "aggressive"with the "aim to drive religion out of public life", for their consistent subjection of religious belief to logical argument and their rejection for the necessity of religion to form any part of our educational, political and public life. Yes? And, what is the problem you have with this? I'd ask Panahi. These aims are completely consistent with atheist theory, old or new. With a church, mosque, temple or place of worship of some sort on the street corners, hills and thoroughfares of our towns and cities religion obviously has a presence, if not an overbearing one, in our societies. Where it strictly does not belong is in our schools, government or official media; after-all, if religion belongs in any of these arenas, then which religion is it? and what becomes of those not of the chosen religion? And, yet our politicians declare their religious convictions as a means for gaining voter approval amongst other reasons and open our parliament with "The Lord's Prayer", some of our official and popular media place emphasis on religion holding a position of only good and exempt from examination or criticism, and religious groups press for a presence of their particular faith in the official curriculum. Its all harmless isn't it?

Atheists have the odd conference or two to allow for discussions of contemporary thinking and provide a forum for discourse and this is seen as controversial if not down right inflammatory towards religious groups. In the image below Muslim protestors turned up to the 2012 Atheist Convention in Melbourne. "Atheism is the cancer, Islam is the answer" reads one placard another declares "ISLAM The only monotheistic Religion" another references "Hell Fire". Amused atheist delegates began to chant in response "Where are the women? Where are the women?" Highlighting the distinct absence of females in this group and of course the poor position this religion holds on gender equality issues. To contrast if a bunch of atheists were to do a Pussy Riot protest in front of a mosque, synagogue, church or temple in Australia they'd risk being labelled racist, and inciters of hate against religion. Particularly if they did so in front of a mosque. I wonder if chanting might be all they'd receive in response to their protest should one occur.

Main Placard reads - "Atheism is the Cancer Islam is the Answer" 

Panahi by her argument would have us accept there need be no quiet reflection for the religions of the world whilst requiring a respectful silence in response from atheists. Panahi should realise is that she is complaining that atheists are no longer obscure but that they should remain respectfully uncritical of religions and avoid committing any offence to them by resisting testing the faithful with valid critical analysis and questioning. This is a call to censorship and the protective exemption of a particular section of society from critical analysis. It is a position which whether or not she realises favours current disturbing moves to implement blasphemy laws (via the UN). Under such laws simply declaring you are atheist can be considered offensive to a religious person or group because your atheism is a denial of their faith which holds the existence of a higher being sacred. A sacred being responsible for the presence of chosen peoples on planet earth. To allow criticism robust or not is apparently disrespectful of the "prophets of any religion".

In fact the call is for no cartoons, no jokes, no movies, no logic, no disbelief. To criticise Islam is to be guilty of Islamophobia and a crime against humanity according to the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan.

Panahi has one point. The quiet atheist is invisible. In societies where to be openly atheist is to be labelled an "anti-Christ", a "blasphemer", a "heretic", or an "apostate" so it makes sense be "quiet" in your so claimed "celebration of reason"as it can mean self-preservation over persecution. In some Muslim jurisdictions we know apostasy is a crime punishable by death. Indeed Islam does not recognise atheism as the absence of belief but as another form of apostasy because for Islam one is born into their faith, as one is born with their skin or eye colour. Christianity believes atheism is a sin. Being atheist has not been and still may not be popular or safe. It has been challenging for people past and present to be openly atheist within their communities. As a young atheist from the late 1970s - 1990s I felt the flexibility to explore religion if I wished to do so but atheism was still shunned if not feared as something utterly sinister. Young friends asked me in horror "...aren't you afraid of the Devil?" As if I'd already been somehow possessed by the nastiest of fallen deities. If I'd been born elsewhere I may not have been so lucky in my youthful explorations and coming out an atheist.

Religions are and can be no more exempted from analysis and criticism than any other group or area of society. The argument that criticism of religion is harmful is a dangerous one because it is an unacceptable limitation on free speech, thought and expression.  

Why are we now seeing, hearing, reading more atheist views, ideas and literature? A number of possibilities come to mind. Not just through the horror of the attack on the USA. Islamic terror was alive and well before September the 11th 2001 though a defining point in history on a number of levels it arguably is. It became a last straw for well known critics such as the, in later life and post his death, much maligned Hitchens. He bluntly informed particularly the socialist left and those with leftist political bona fides of necessary home truths, you've been duped and you continue to declare your support for the intolerance you claim you fight against. He saw the hypocrisy and pointed it out without fear or favour to friend or foe. Tough love was required. The zealots, I'd argue in agreement with Hitchens, reside in the left, in denial and blinkered by their fantasy that religion is not to blame but the terrorist distorters of religion. That is similar to the argument of gun lobbyists who trot out the guns don't kill people kill argument following the latest mass murder spree. More guns it is argued is the answer. More religion is the same argument of the religious. Problem for both form of zealot is they've already demonstrated the redundancy of such a push because more religion or more guns has created the problem in the first place. Do the religious have the right to harm others in the name of their religion? Does the gun crazy US citizen have a right to hold onto his semi-automatic firearms in a country so awash with guns any person, good, evil or mad can obtain and use a weapon to kill to make their point.

As I see it these are the main conditions conducive to the existence of more atheists in our midst:
- The existence and gradual strengthening of the secular state - still way too infiltrated by religious symbolism and observance as discussed above.
- The rise of education and an educated middle class
- The rise of democracy contributing to prosperity allowing for better education, time for cultural pursuits and the exploration in and freedom of the arts.
- The rise of human rights advocacy and its application in democratic society's laws and legislation world wide. (of the type not hijacked by quazi-religious agenda)
- Recognition of the equality and human rights of women
- The WWW and the Internet where unimpeded by government control.

What can and will threaten this self-aware state of mind held by free thinking individuals is the push by human rights organisations, and their successful infiltration by religiously motivated political organisations such as the OIC (The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation) to pursue internationally binding blasphemy laws to enforce upon all, which would make atheism illegal. Making it a criminal offence to offend religion is an enormously backward step for all humanity. Panahi and friends do need to consider carefully what it is they are proposing when they ask atheists to quietly pursue a gentler(?) kinder(?) atheism in a manner that will not hurt the feelings of the religious. Or, what? Should be the next question by atheists from now on. "Or, what?" To be atheist may soon be enough to be deemed "offensive". What helps threaten our freedoms and rights and helps to instil and normalise the concept of a religious world at all cost are addled quasi-atheist commentators such as Panahi, and an anti-atheist media such as The Herald Sun. Both obviously find the person who constitutes more of a threat to be the one with an absence of belief rather than the one with a blind adherence to a faith.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Is integrity our most important trait?

Consequences - detail
"If I could teach only one value to live by, it would be this: Success will come and go, but integrity is forever. Integrity means doing the right thing at all times and in all circumstances, whether or not anyone is watching. It takes having the courage to do the right thing, no matter what the consequences will be." Amy Rees Anderson - article in Forbes 28 Nov 2012
Ms Anderson was writing in Forbes for a corporate audience though I could see such an astute observation fitting in to a short piece I'd been thinking on about how integrity is central to our being with empathy its emotional realisation. 
Anderson's quote so clearly defines integrity. My piece was going to take a more philosophical path when I first found and saved the above quote. Then the latest massacre of innocents in the United States emerged and the horrific details numbed the senses. Most victims were small children, most were  shot over and over receiving multiple wounds from the type of weaponry and ballistics intended to produce devastation in the flesh and subsequent certain death. Death for these victims, these harmless babies and defenceless adults, one hopes at least was mercifully fast. A psychopath, an aggrieved outsider, with access to a powerful arsenal and the desire to use it to exact revenge for imagined harm must be the last straw.   

How do we know it? What is it? Is integrity within us and could we recognise it? If there is anything in life we may remember with regret perhaps it is because we remember we failed to act with integrity when we might have, could have or should have. Perhaps we did not go to the aid of a fellow student being bullied. Or, worse participated in the shameful behaviour because it put the spot light onto another. Perhaps we simply remained a by stander. There are levels of integrity, from not cheating on a test to risking death in the attempt to protect the life of another. 

Shielding of small children in danger with your own body and giving your own life attempting to defend them is acting with integrity of such selfless heroism it escapes proper description other than we can only be in awe of it. These teachers attempted to disarm their assailant, attempted to shield the children from the worst of nightmares. They acted with courage and honour in unpredictable circumstances.

The thing with integrity, it costs nothing and can cost everything all at once whilst remaining the right course of action. The citizens of the United States need to act with courage and honour by facing up to the truth. The right to bare arms and the proliferation of arms in private possession in the US is anathema to the modern state. They and their legislature now must do what is right, no matter the consequences, because it is the right thing to do and because "...integrity is forever". 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Thoughts on Jury Service

"You have been randomly selected from the electoral role for jury service..."


Two years ago...
A lifetime ago...before being sued and being witness to the debacle that is our legal system I would have welcomed a chance to perform jury duty as my right as a citizen. It is a valid service and we have a right to participate.

I do not think this now. I have no faith the system actually works and now even more so given it can't determine whom it should alert for jury service and whom it should first filter out. The system is entirely without sense.
I'm being too harsh you may think? Perhaps. But surely first they might apply simple cross referencing analysis of the initial random list against their own database? Information from which is largely made available publicly. The legal system through its own mechanisms and available information should be able to perform this filter. That there is not the skill (unlikely), imagination or inclination (more likely) to do so is to be viewed with some scorn.

The system is already aware of whom it has on file as the parties to a matter and all legal documents are registered and made public. With such rich data at their disposal surely such a determination is possible in 2012 so that persons with matters "on foot", that is they are involved in ongoing cases civil or criminal, are filtered out following random selection? No, for some bizarre reason this is not the case and instead persons already in or forced to be plagued by the system, as am I, must respond to this nonsense.

A thick brochure must be negotiated putting all the responsibility for getting it right onto the citizen. There is not one section concerning being already involved in a current legal matter. Why? Who knows, the system does not see fit to explain itself. So you need to find the section where they begrudgingly offer you the opportunity to share Your "excuse" for not being able to do jury service...
If your excuse isn't good enough you must undertake jury service! It further lectures.

"...complete the questionnaire..." it advises
"Section E" says "Complete this Statutory be excused from jury service..."

So I did.

Statutory declaration for excuse to be exempted from jury service 1
Statutory declaration for excuse to be exempted from jury service 2

About Leeanneart

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Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
We are first and foremost human with a responsibility to the humanity within us and not to any faith, political, apolitical, social or societal group, union or faction. We are responsible for our own reputation, and for what deeds we do and what achievements or otherwise in life we enjoy. The rest is nonsense.