Category Archives: Society

The European Court guts free-speech protections

Just as Ireland votes to repeal its blasphemy laws, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled in favour of Austrian blasphemy laws. They’ve upheld the conviction of a woman who was fined for calling Muhammed a “paedophile”, a reference to his marriage to Aisha, which according to mainstream Islamic tradition occured when she was six, and was consummated when she was nine.

I presume that the underlying logic goes like this. In keeping with trendy modern thought, they analyse everything in terms of power structures. Muslims in Austria are mostly a relatively recent immigrant community and are non-White, therefore they are “oppressed”. The convicted woman is a member of the Austrian “Freedom Party”, who are opposed to immigration, are regarded as “far right”, and are mostly White. Therefore they are the “oppressors”. And it’s the job of a Human Rights court to support the oppressed against the oppressors, so that’s how they ruled.

The convoluted excuse they came up with is that Muhammed continued to be married to Aisha when she was an adult, and indeed had sexual relations with other women, and therefore was not “primarily” attracted to under-age girls, and therefore the term “paedophile” is an unjustified insult. (Never mind that the vast majority of people who rightly get called “paedophiles” also have sex with adults.)

But it’s worth reading the Court’s analysis of Article 9 (freedom of religion) and Article 10 (freedom of expression) of the European Convention, because their interpretation totally guts Article 10 and means that Europeans now have little free-speech protection, at least when the topic is religion.

Article 9 declares:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.

In the ruling, the ECHR starts well:

Those who choose to exercise the freedom to manifest their religion under Article 9 of the Convention, irrespective of whether they do so as members of a religious majority or a minority, therefore cannot expect to be exempt from criticism. They must tolerate and accept the denial by others of their religious beliefs and even the propagation by others of doctrines hostile to their faith.

But then proceeds:

As paragraph 2 of Article 10 recognises, however, the exercise of the freedom of expression carries with it duties and responsibilities. Amongst them, in the context of religious beliefs, is the general requirement to ensure the peaceful enjoyment of the rights guaranteed under Article 9 to the holders of such beliefs including a duty to avoid as far as possible an expression that is, in regard to objects of veneration, gratuitously offensive to others and profane.

This is important. The ECHR has segued from respect for people’s right to hold and practise their religion, to respect for the religion itself. It is saying that people cannot be properly free to hold and practise their religion unless everyone else has a duty to “avoid as far as possible” saying anything “gratuitously offensive” about that religion.

That doctrine is not in Article 9 and it is not in Article 10. It appears to have been created by the ECHR through case law. To justify it they cite previous rulings, but do not point to where the “right” is enunciated in the European Convention itself.

Indeed, the main citation given is to Sekmadienis Ltd. v. Lithuania. But there the court rejected the limitation on free expression, saying that a clothing company was entitled to advertise clothing with slogans such as: “Jesus, what trousers!”, and “Dear Mary, what a dress!”. They declared that a prohibition on this was “not necessary in a democratic society”! That ruling does indeed refer to “the protection of public morals and the rights of religious people”, but it does not enunciate nor defend any right to have ones religion not be insulted.

And might one suspect that the real difference between the two rulings is that the Lithuanian one concerned the Christian religion?

The court continues:

Where such expressions go beyond the limits of a critical denial of other people’s religious beliefs and are likely to incite religious intolerance, for example in the event of an improper or even abusive attack on an object of religious veneration, a State may legitimately consider them to be incompatible with respect for the freedom of thought, conscience and religion …

But this is simply wrong. Respect for someone’s “freedom of thought, conscience and religion” is not the same as respect for that person’s opinions, it’s only respect for their right to hold and express them!

That difference is crucial, indeed it is the whole basis for modern democracy. Insulting someone’s views is not “intolerant”; trying to prevent them expressing those views would be intolerance, but publicly denigrating those opinions is not!

We can be as insulting as we like about government policies or about the policies of political parties that we are opposed to. That is not intolerance. And newspapers routinely run political cartoons that could be construed as insulting. Indeed, so long as we accept the right of a party to broadcast its views, campaign in an election, and the right of people to vote for that party, then we are not being intolerant. Tolerating something is not the same as respecting it!

Having — wrongly — interpreted Article 9 as including a right to have ones religion not be insulted, the ECHR then declares a tension between Article 9 and the free expression of Article 10.

The issue before the Court therefore involves weighing up the conflicting interests of the exercise of two fundamental freedoms, namely the right of the applicant to impart to the public her views on religious doctrine on the one hand, and the right of others to respect for their freedom of thought, conscience and religion on the other.

But, again, there is only tension here if ones right to “freedom of religion” includes the right to have ones religion respected, not just tolerated. It doesn’t.

Article 10 declares that freedom of expression:

… may be subject to such … restrictions or penalties as … are necessary in a democratic society … for the protection of the … rights of others …

And since, according to the ECHR, Article 9 entails a right to have ones religion not be insulted, it is then (they think) “necessary in a democratic society” to prevent people “gratuitously insulting” a religion. And such restrictions are then not a violation of Article 10.

The ECHR thus upholds the Austrian conviction because it:

… carefully balanced her right to freedom of expression with the rights of others to have their religious feelings protected …

This guts the free-speech provisions of Article 10. If people have a right to “have their religious feelings protected”, then all someone need do is declare that someone else’s speech hurts their religious feelings, and suddenly there is no right to say it. There is only the much weaker idea of a “careful balance” between “freedom of expression” and people’s “right to have their religious feelings protected”. In other words, we all have to be very careful what we say when we criticise religion.

And that’s not all, by the logic of the ruling, the “right to have ones religious feelings protected” has now been declared to be a part of Article 9 and restrictions on free expression in order to ensure that are now “necessary in a democratic society”. So this ruling extends out of Austria to the rest of Europe.


Theos Think Tank have been polling about religious violence

Theos Think Tank have been asking people whether they regard religions as violent. By their own admission, they didn’t entirely like the results.

Nearly half (47%) agreed that “the world would be a more peaceful place if no one was religious”. Fully 70% said that: “Most of the wars in world history have been caused by religions”.

Faced with that, Theos’s Nick Spencer took some comfort from the fact that “only 32% agreed that religions were inherently violent”. Only? So one-in-three British people thinks that religions are inherently violent and this merits an “only”?

Can one imagine people saying that Cancer Research UK or the Battersea Dogs Home are inherently violent? I mention two charities because “promotion of religion” still attracts charitable status in the UK along with tax exemptions. That should surely change given that half the nation now thinks the world would be more peaceful without religion.

I would concur with those saying that the Abrahamic religions, at least, have an inherent tendency to violence. That’s because they think that morality flows from the God and that moral conduct consists of believing in God and doing what God wants. From there, it’s a rather small step to thinking that anyone not of the right religious opinion is necessarily immoral for rejecting that religion’s beliefs and dictats. Hence one has a moral licence — or even a moral duty — to correct their errors, using force if sadly necessary.

The belief that obedience to God is morally paramount, even if it means killing someone, goes back of course to stories about Abraham himself. The Eid al-Adha festival is a public holiday celebrated throughout the Islamic world, honouring the willingness of Abraham to kill Isaac for no better reason than that God wanted him to.

Liberal Christians tend to squirm on this topic, changing the subject by saying that the important part of the story is that God rescinded the instruction. But do they go further and admit that Abraham’s intention to kill his own son was a moral failing on his part, and that a righteous man would have flat-out refused? No, they still laud Abraham’s obedience, and they even take that line in story books given to their kids (honest, they do!).

The story likely has no historical basis, but even so, if such stories are told as spiritual lessons, shouldn’t the supposedly peaceful Abrahamic religions now repudiate it? Until the mainstream religious opinion is moral condemnation of Abraham’s obedience, I submit that religions do indeed have an inherent tendency to violence.

Nick Spencer disagrees, saying that “You have to be pretty bone headed to believe — really and truly believe — that the great religions of the world preach violence and hatred. Go into any religious place of worship any day of the week and I would say the chances of hearing a kill the infidel sermon are vanishing small”.

So Imams in Pakistan do not preach in favour of their blasphemy laws, saying that blasphemers and apostates should be killed? No Imam has ever called for any punishment of Salman Rushdie? Friday prayers in Iran have never voiced hatred of the Great Satan, and mosques throughout the Islamic world never express any animosity towards Israel and the Jews?

Many Islamic countries prescribe the death penalty for apostasy or blasphemy. Several dozen people have been killed in Pakistan for mere accusations of blasphemy. In Bangladesh, multiple secularist bloggers have been killed by Islamists merely for criticising Islam. Other Islamic countries imprison, flog and outlaw secularists for speaking up.

This is not violence by lone rogues, but violence widely supported by mainstream Islamic opinion. Even voicing opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws is itself considered blasphemous and so can get you killed, with wide swathes of that nation’s people openly supporting the murderer.

Nick Spencer’s claim reflects the gentle and anodyne theology of today’s Church of England, but Western Christianity has long been neutered by the Enlightenment and by secular values of church–state separation, individual rights, and religious liberty. This is tamed religion. But religion in the raw prevailed through much of the history of Christendom, and still blights the Islamic world.

Spencer continues: “Referencing the Crusades or the Inquisition is pretty poor work. Atheist regimes were more efficient and rather more recent in their genocidal efforts.”.

And yet the Crusades and the Inquisition were not isolated aberrations, they were manifestations of how the Christian churches were for much of their history. And on the recent genocidal efforts, Third Reich Germany must take the prize, and yet was thoroughly religious and theistic. The fact that it was a nation that was 94% Christian that murdered millions of Jews with genocidal intent is something that Christians still don’t want to admit.

Spencer can rightly point to the large-scale atrocities of the communist regimes of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot (motivated, by the way, by totalitarian communist ideology, not by the irrelevant point that they were “atheistic”), but is that what today’s religious apologists are reduced to? “Yes, half the nation thinks the world would be more peaceful without us, but “only” a third think we’re inherently violent and … well, we’re not quite as bad as the totalitarian communist regimes”. As exculpation goes, that’s feeble!

Progress means accepting that we must not impose our ideology by violence even if doing so would be justified or even demanded by our God, our religion or our ideology. Because, judging by our religious history, we sure as hell cannot rely on Gods to be peaceful!

That Enlightenment principle is now widely accepted in the West, but can we hope that it will become accepted by those for whom the whole ethos of Islam, and indeed the very name itself, means “submission” to the will of God?

Human rights rest only on human advocacy

Are human rights anything more than legal conventions? asks John Tasioulas, Professor of Politics, Philosophy and Law at King’s College London.

Isn’t the answer “obviously not”? Human rights are collective agreements, statements about what sort of society we want to live in, and of how we want people to be treated. As such, their justification and standing derives from the advocacy of people. Anything more than that is mere rhetoric, “nonsense on stilts”, as Jeremy Bentham explained long ago.

But, as with morals, people get unhappy about the idea that their feelings on the matter are all there is. People would really like human rights to be laws of nature, objective obligations that we ought to follow regardless. Wouldn’t that put them on a sounder footing? Continue reading

Attorney General Jeff Sessions scores 8 out of 20 on Religious Freedom

The US attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has issued a memo directing government bodies on how to interpret religious freedom. Unfortunately Sessions misinterprets religious liberty as granting religious people greater rights than the non-religious have. This is a violation of the deeper principle of treating all citizens equally, regardless of their religious views.

Viewed from the stance of equality we can properly understand religious freedom as a form of free speech. That is, you may espouse your religious views, and if you have a general right to do something you may do that same thing with added religious content. Further, the state may not treat you any less favourably owing to that religious content, but nor may it treat you more favourably.

From that perspective, let’s score Sessions’s memo, in which he declares 20 “principles of religious liberty”. Continue reading

Should Nobel Prizes go to teams?

The 2017 Nobel Prize for Physics has gone to members of the LIGO consortium for the detection of gravitational waves, namely to Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne and Barry Barish. But the contributions of many hundreds of people were necessary for the success of LIGO and so it can be argued that the restriction to three people is wrong and that future Nobel Prizes should go to teams.

Professor Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, told BBC correspondent Pallab Gosh that: “LIGO’s success was owed to hundreds of researchers. The fact that the Nobel Prize committee refuses to make group awards is causing increasingly frequent problems and giving a misleading impression of how a lot of science is actually done”.

Rees is right, of course, but would changing it be a good thing? It would mean that nearly all future Nobels in physics would go to teams, either simply to a named team or to a list of team members that could amount to hundreds.

I’m not sure this would be a good change. Continue reading

On Title IX, sexual misconduct, logical fallacies, and due process versus ideology

Suppose I made the claim that: “Only 6% of reports of rape lead to a criminal conviction, therefore 94% of rape reports are made up”. I would, rightly, be howled down for having committed a gross fallacy. It would be explained to me that accusations of rape often revolve around one person’s word against another’s, which makes them very hard to prove to the criminal standard of proof. Thus many accusations that do not lead to criminal convictions are still most likely true.

Now suppose I instead made the claim that “only 2% of accusations of rape are proven to be false, therefore 98% of accusations of rape are true”. This claim is widely made (example), yet it is just as fallacious and for the same reason. Just as it is usually hard to prove rape claims true, it is also hard to prove them false; many claims cannot be proven either way.

Yet, under Title IX codes in American colleges, the claim that nearly all accusations are true is used to justify a process that more or less presumes an accused to be guilty from the outset, with little need for due process. Afterall, if there is only a 1-in-50 chance that the accused male is innocent, then the accusation is pretty much sufficient in itself. Given that, a mere “preponderance of evidence”, defined as a 51% versus 49% likelihood, is all that is needed to expel a student from college for sexual misconduct, something that would always be on their record and likely blight their career prospects.

Yet this “nearly all accusations are true” claim has no basis in proven fact, it is purely ideological. Continue reading