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Aug 31 2011

Religion and justice: the weird sisters

Religion, as a manifestation of the human impulse to attribute unexplained or unlikely occurrences to some kind of sentient external being, is arguably one of the most destructive forces plaguing our planet and our society. Personal or political differences between individuals or groups take on a whole new dimension of fucked-uppedness when religion gets thrown in the mix. It’s not always destructive though – I am willing to admit. Sometimes people do good things for explicitly religious reasons, although it’s far easier to find non-religious reasons to do good (pro-social) things than it is for evil things. Be that as it is, sometimes adding religion to things makes them better. Other times… it just makes them weird.

Fiji battles with Methodist church:

Fiji’s military government has ordered the cancellation of the Methodist Church’s annual conference, accusing the leadership of being too political. Senior members of the church were summoned by the military to hear the order, reports say. Soldiers attempted to detain 80-year-old former head of the church, Reverend Josateki Koroi, but he refused to go. “I told them, the only way to take me to camp now is bundle up my legs, tied up, and my hands, I will not go with you. That is the only way, you carry me to the camp or you bring your gun and shoot me and you carry my dead body to the camp to show to the commander,” he told New Zealand media.

In this case, it seems like the Methodists are on the side of the good guys, as the political leadership in Fiji has suspended democratic freedoms and clamped down on dissent. Not cool. There’s also legitimate religious persecution happening here, where religious practice is being curtailed due to political differences. This is quite distinct from, say, telling a church it may not publicly endorse a candidate during an election cycle or prohibiting open religious exercise by government-funded institutions. This is telling a group that it may not assemble because it is critical of the government – an obvious violation of the principle of free speech and freedom of conscience.

I suppose the weirdest part of this story is that I’m defending a religious institution. I’ve maintained all along that I don’t have a problem with religious people, but with the wacky ideas they believe. If the Fijian Methodist Church’s opposition to Commodore Bainimarama’s regime is based on the fact that Jesus totally hates his guts, then that’s a lousy criticism. The fact that valid ideas are sometimes present in churches doesn’t vindicate the weirdo things they believe in. That doesn’t appear to be the case here, and so I am giving their stance my support (you’re totally welcome, guys).

Shariah court forcibly separates Indonesian lesbian couple:

Islamic police in the Indonesian province of Aceh have forced two women to have their marriage annulled and sign an agreement to separate. The women had been legally married for a few months after one of them passed as a man in front of an Islamic cleric who presided over their wedding. But suspicious neighbours confronted the couple and reported them to police. The two women are now back with their families, forcibly separated and under surveillance by the Islamic police.

This is like a sideways version of the movie Mulan, or more historically (and fitting with the title of this post) As You Like It. In this case, however, instead of masquerading as a man to fool a would-be-suitor, the disguise was to fool everyone else into recognizing the validity of a relationship. And, instead of the star-cross’d lovers being united in the end, the religious authority is forcing them to annul their marriage and move apart from each other. Why? Because apparently everything is so peachy keen in Indonesia right now that the people don’t have anything better to spend their time worrying about. Like, for example, the brutalization of minorities. Or the lack of adequate health care. Or suppression of right to free speech.

No, apparently Allah can’t punish those lesbos all on his own (nothing escaped this disastrous economy – not even omnipotence), and needs the help of his busybody footsoldiers to make sure that one couple who wasn’t hurting anyone can’t continue their devious campaign of living together happily. I’m not a supporter of defrauding the legal authority, which is unquestionably what happened here, but the punishment is not proportionate to the ‘crime’. It could be far worse – in parts of Nigeria or South Africa these women would have probably been gang raped. Going to the trouble of separating them and annulling their marriage is just, well, weird.

Druid represents himself in court:

A druid who went to the High Court to try to stop researchers examining ancient human remains found at Stonehenge has failed in his legal bid. King Arthur Pendragon wanted the remains found in 2008 to be reburied immediately. He was fighting a Ministry of Justice decision allowing scientists at Sheffield University to analyse the samples for five more years. His bid was rejected at a High Court hearing in London.

Mr Justice Wyn Williams refused to give Mr Pendragon permission to launch a judicial review action, ruling that there was insufficient evidence to show that the Ministry of Justice might have acted unreasonably. Former soldier Mr Pendragon, 57, who changed his name by deed poll, was dressed in white druid robes and represented himself at the hearing.

Okay… I don’t have to explain why this one is weird, right?

This is why

Druids are weird. Being all precious and uptight about dead bodies is weird. Representing yourself at a High Court hearing is… well, it’s just a bad idea. I suppose Druidism is no more or less weird than First Nations animism here in North America, and certainly its more environmental and pacifistic tenets are worthy of some consideration. That doesn’t make it less weird.

Of course the take home message is that when religious beliefs collide with a secular justice system, there are some really strange outcomes. A system that is founded on principles of rationality and logic intersecting with a belief system that is based on the fundamental abdication of either of those is virtually guaranteed to produce some truly, spectacularly bizarre outcomes.

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4 comments

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  1. 1
    Andy

    I have a question or maybe it’s more of a curiosity. As an atheist, I am curious about the statement “it’s far easier to find non-religious reasons to do good (pro-social) things” as it compares to the idea of ‘survival of the fittest’; which as a science based atheist, I assume you hold firm to.

    I’ve noticed in many conversation with atheists and/or agnostists (not sure about the spelling) that this idea of ‘we need to make the world a better place for everyone’ is common. But they also agree that the world is a harsh place and nature continually shows that the fittest survive.

    None the less, it’s just a curiosity. I look forward to hearing your response.

  2. 2
    Crommunist

    I’m really not sure where the contradiction exists. “Survival of the fittest” is a description of a phenomenon that happens. Pro-social behaviour is something that we do that runs contrary to that natural phenomenon, sure. But that’s like saying “if you believe in the existence of gravity, why on Earth would you ride in an airplane?” Just because we observe something to exist doesn’t mean we are its slaves. Rain falls – I carry an umbrella. Is that contradictory?

    There’s also the issue of what “fittest” means when it comes to human beings. Physical fitness is certainly one type of evolutionary characteristic, but so is social fitness, and so is reproductive fitness. From a purely mechanistic perspective, it might be perfectly desirable to prioritize survival of our species over others, and thus prioritize social fitness over physical. Or, we might have more opportunities to produce healthy offspring if we’re not constantly having to defend ourselves, and thus prioritize reproductive over physical. There are any number of scenarios wherein caring for those weaker than ourselves actually encourages “survival of the fittest”.

    Of course none of that has anything to do with the ethical question of the kind of world we want to live in. I don’t particularly want to live in one where we’re all scrambling and killing each other to assert our evolutionary dominance, even if it was beneficial in the long run (which it probably isn’t). I have the ability to choose to model the kind of world I want to live in, which includes compassion and collective benefit.

    Thanks for your comment!

  3. 3
    Andy

    Thanks; that makes sense.

  4. 4
    Angela Squires

    Thanks for this article Ian. The Druid cracked me up. I had a run in with one of them in Canterbury cathedral’s 12th Century crypt where I was innocently drawing. This crypt is awesome, quiet and mysterious, the largest Norman crypt in the world.
    You got me wondering why we cannot peaceably exist without wanting to control, change, sanction or forbid harmless ideas, lifestyles, and so on that do not infringe the rights of others to exist. Of course there is the whole economic debate and how our current capitalist system by definition infringes the right to exist of millions, both human and other lifeforms on planet Earth.
    I was never a hippie but empathize with their live and let live philosophy. Why cannot so many societies allow the happily weird/different to coexist alongside more mainstream? I’ve always found the way people react to a person obviously dressed in costume very revealing. In Vancouver they studiously ignore you (another weird street person whose eye I must not catch); in Steveston, they smile (ok, just doing your thing); outside of the Lower Mainland, they take off home and load their guns or otherwise pull up the drawbridge!

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