Movie Friday: Act of God

One of the single dumbest things ever birthed by the insurance industry is the phrase “Act of God”. It basically describes any natural disaster, but does so in the most face-palming language ever. Ricky Gervais takes it on:

I watched a Billy Connolly movie not too long ago called “The Man Who Sued God”, in which a lawyer-turned-fisherman sues the Catholic, Anglican, Episcopalian and Jewish churches in Australia, as representatives of God on earth. It was a pretty funny jibe at how much those churches really believe in God – either they deny that He exists (and commit fraud) or they admit He does (making them legally liable as representatives of a pseduo-corporate entity). While the ending of the movie was complete garbage, the first 4/5 is pretty good.

It seems to me (and to Billy Connolly’s character) that since the whole point that we buy insurance is to protect ourselves against unforseeable circumstances, the “Act of God” clause is just a filthy cheat. Then again, if you were expecting fairness and justice from insurance companies, maybe someone needs to sit you down and explain a few things.

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The problem of morality

There’s a popular recurring question that often comes up in discussions with religious people who wish to challenge atheists: namely, why should be be moral if there is no god? If atheists don’t believe that there is a judge that overlooks the world, why bother doing good things? After all, there are no eternal consequences to our actions, what could possibly be the atheist’s motivation to either do good things or refrain from evil things?

My issue with this question is that on its own, it seems like an interesting line of discussion – what makes us be moral? If I abandon my beliefs, what would motivate me to continue to do good things? Is there another source of human morality? However, it is rarely asked in this spirit. Usually, it comes in a more snarky form – “if you don’t believe in God, why don’t you go rape and murder babies?”

The usual response is that if the only thing holding you back from raping and murdering babies is your belief in God, you should probably be under psychiatric evaluation. This response, while sufficiently dismissive of a stupid question, is not really an answer to what would be a reasonable criticism if not for the invocation of infant rape. If I, as an atheist, don’t believe that someone is keeping an omniscient record of all my misdeeds, what prevents me from engaging in minor (or major) transgressions when I am reasonably certain I can get away with it? Why, for example, would I turn in a wallet I find on the ground to the police instead of just stealing it? Why not lie to a woman at the bar in order to convince her to sleep with me? Why contribute to charity or volunteer in the community if there is no reward for my good deeds later?

Evolutionary biologists speak of genetic sources for altruism, pointing to analogues in the animal kingdom in which non-human animals show group cohesion and empathy. They lay out a reasonable pathway by which genes for altruism might prevail over genes for selfishness at the expense of others, through a process of natural selection. Philosophers point to Kant, Hume, Rawls, and other secular ethical writers as providing a basis upon which a general non-religious moral code can theoretically be built. Assuming that maximum human happiness is the point of any worthwhile moral code (and yes, this is an assumption, but what else would be better?), then a reasonable and increasingly evidence-based system can be derived from philosophy. Legal authorities point to the evolving code of law as a way of incentivizing good behaviour and punishing bad behaviour. Psychologists note that ethical instruction often leads to ethical behaviour below the level of conscious awareness –  we “naturally” act morally because we’ve been taught to do so.

Suffice it to say, there are a variety of ways to answer the question of why someone would be moral without belief in God. Any one of these on its own would be a sufficient rejoinder, and having them all operate in parallel is certainly reassuring to someone who is particularly interested in the question. However, the question embeds a certain assumption that often goes unquestioned – does belief in God make people behave better? After all, the implication of the poverty of morality in the godless is that there is in fact a moral code inherent in belief.

I’ve had religious instruction, which includes learning a list of things that are right and wrong. This should not be confused with legitimate ethical or moral instruction, which I didn’t receive until late high school. I was, for example, taught that extramarital sex is wrong, as are masturbation and homosexuality – pretty much anything that isn’t face-to-face sex with the lights off with my wife is morally wrong. I was taught that abortion is morally equivalent to murder. I was taught that faithfulness was a virtue. Now I was also taught a lot of things that I still agree with – murder is wrong; charity is good; forgiveness, justice and prudence are high ideals. However, with all of these things, I was told that the reason they were good is because they had been rubber-stamped by Yahweh. I should perhaps note that I was not taught that condoms or homosexuality were wrong in school – those things came from Rome but I felt perfectly justified in ignoring any Papal edicts that were bat-shit insane.

It would be, as I said, many years before I learned the processes by which I could evaluate why I believed in the things I did. I had of course by this time rejected the idea of Biblical truth – the story of Onan says it’s wrong to masturbate but it’s okay to fuck your niece as long as you think she’s a prostitute. It was abundantly clear to me that there may be some morality in the Bible, but it is definitely not the source of that morality. I would later learn that much of what we call “Christian Ethics” were actually written by Greek philosophers and later adopted by the church.

Of course all of this is somewhat inconsequential to the central question of whether belief in god is accompanied by better behaviour. Does the idea of an omniscient god really motivate people to refrain from evil actions? Does the promise of eternal reward really motivate people to do good deeds? The answer to the first question seems to be ‘no’, or at least ‘not necessarily’. Anecdotally, we know that religious people are responsible for some of the greatest atrocities throughout history (far from atheists, it is the priests who are the baby rapers). In fact, the more one adheres to religious doctrine, the crazier she/he becomes and the more likely she/he is to commit (what she/he thinks is justified) violent acts. Although there is a clear path from religious belief to violence, these are anecdotes only.

CLS reviewed a Pew Forum survey on religion and found that those United States that had the greatest level of religiosity had poorer performances in self-restraint and morality toward others than those state with lower levels of belief. There is most certainly a chicken/egg problem in this analysis, but it does sufficiently demonstrate that there is no reliable correlation between level of religious belief and morality, at least for the population at large. If people do in fact believe that there is a god watching them, it doesn’t seem to affect their behaviour in a meaningful way. I’m sure if this blog were more popular I’d have trolls inundating me with stories about how Jesus saved their crack-addict cousin’s life, or how Allah saved them from prison, or what-have-you. I am as uninterested in anecdotes that refute my point as I am in those that support my point.

How about the second question? Does religious belief make people more charitable in anticipation of a future reward? A study of European countries and their willingness to donate to poorer countries seems to suggest that those with more closely held religious beliefs do in fact donate more money than those who are less religious. The findings are incredibly nebulous and hard to interpret, but it seems from the general findings that while it varies from country to country, religious people are more charitable than the non-religious.

This is in no way disconcerting to me – as I suggested above there is a relationship between instruction and behaviour. If you are constantly entrained to give money to the poor, and your social environment is structured such that there is strong normative pressure to do so, it is unsurprising that you will comply. A study I’d like to see is to take people with similar levels of religiosity, show them identical videos of starving children, have one video narrated in a secular fashion and the other in a religious fashion and see if there is a difference in pledged funds.

At any rate, there are a variety of reasons why an atheist would choose to be moral, not the least of which is the fact that moral actions often benefit the giver as well as the receiver, whether that is in the form of feeling good about yourself, or in the form of making a contribution to society. There is no reason why an atheist would be less moral than a religious person, and despite all their vitriolic assertions to the contrary, it is easier to justify abhorrent cruelty from a religious standpoint than it is from an atheist one. The so-called “problem” of morality is only a problem if you assume that YahwAlladdha is the author of all goodness in the universe, completely contrary to any evidence that can be found either in scripture (aside from all of the passages just asserting it – look at His actions) or in observations of the world. Human beings have to struggle every day to be good, and leaning on the broken crutch of religion doesn’t seem to help any.

TL/DR: Believers accuse atheists of having no basis for morality. This accusation is unfounded – biology, philosophy, law and psychology all provide explanations why people would be good without belief. There does not seem to be a strong relationship between religiosity and morality, except insofar that being instructed to do something that your peers are all doing might motivate you to perform some specific behaviours.

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More good news for free speech in Asia

…which is a title I find myself shocked to be writing.

I’m not so young that I don’t remember the Sri Lankan “civil war” under President Suharto. The entire region was destabilized by sectarian violence that was a combination of ethnic and religious conflicts crystallizing in violence. I am, however, far too young to remember (or to have been alive for) Suharto’s decision to ban books that were considered a “threat to public order.” This decision has recently been struck down by the courts, 50 years later:

Rights groups in Indonesia are hailing a decision by Indonesia’s constitutional court to strike down a controversial book banning law. During the regime of former president Suharto, it was regularly used to clamp down on books and publications that were deemed dangerous by the government.

This is an interesting development, not just because it’s good news for free speech, but because there is currently a fomenting dictatorship in Sri Lanka, one that will not take well the idea that it no longer can enforce a stranglehold on what ideas its people are allowed access to. Well, at least not as overtly:

Activists say the constitutional court’s decision is a step in the right direction, but warn the government still has the means to ban books if it wants to. They say that officials could use Indonesia’s anti-pornography law and a 1966 regulation banning communist material as a way to outlaw sensitive material.

It is stories like this that make me more comfortable with the stance I took yesterday on Bolivia’s racism law. Restrictions on free speech are too tempting and convenient for those in power to use whenever they wish to stifle legitimate criticism. Nobody likes being criticized, myself included. As much as I might proselytize about evaluating people separately from their ideas, or claim to like being proved wrong, those are ideal-case arguments.

The fact is that nobody likes to be told they’re wrong. It’s how we react to those statements that are important. Do we debate, allowing those who disagree to voice their criticisms? Do we react and adapt to those criticisms? Obviously it’s hard to do that right away, but can we at least accept that the other side has a point (if they actually do)? Or do we shut down those who disagree, and cripple anyone’s ability to even bring up ideas?

Governments are no different from people – petty, protectionist, irrational, emotional – the difference is that we can create societies that ensure that governments don’t have to be different from people. We don’t have to pretend as though power is wielded by starry-eyed altruists who always have our best interests in mind. We can pass good laws that put limits on power, or strike down bad laws that give too much. This is one of those cases, and it’s a surprising piece of good news from a country that I was sure was about to spiral into oblivion.

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Free speech vs… itself?

I hope y’all aren’t getting bored with these “Free speech vs.” stories, because I plan to keep writing them.

In the other installments in this “series” (which really isn’t a series so much as an ad-hoc grouping under a recurring theme), I identified a number of potential threats to free speech: religious authority, state authority (both abroad and here at home), and the Wild West of the internet. Each of these represents an external threat by some authority or group to stifle the legitimate free expression of people (well, except terrorists I suppose). But sometimes the threat to freedom of speech is the content of the speech itself:

Dutch MP on trial for hate speech:

Dutch anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders appealed for freedom of expression Monday as he went on trial for alleged hate speech at a time when his popularity and influence in the Netherlands are near all-time highs. Prosecutors say Wilders has incited hate against Muslims, pointing to a litany of quotes and remarks he has made in recent years. In one opinion piece, he wrote “I’ve had enough of Islam in the Netherlands; let not one more Muslim immigrate,” adding “I’ve had enough of the Qur’an in the Netherlands: Forbid that fascist book.”

Geert Wilders is the head of a far-right political party that is based largely on anti-immigrant themes. Anyone who had a picture of the Netherlands (or any of the Scandinavian socialist utopias) as happy places full of peaceful hippies has not been paying attention. Tension with non-native groups is escalating, particularly in the face of the economic crisis. Mr. Wilders has put a voice and a face to this simmering resentment, and has managed to parlay it into real political power. Ordinarily I would be in support of anyone who openly criticizes the advance of any religion in public life, but not when it’s like this:

“I am a suspect here because I have expressed my opinion as a representative of the people,” Wilders told judges at the start of the trial. The trial was adjourned until Tuesday shortly after Wilders’s opening remarks, when he declined to answer any questions from the three judges, invoking his right to remain silent.

This disgusts me. You don’t get to have it both ways – you can’t hide behind free speech protections and then refuse to answer questions. If you have an opinion and you demand the right to express it, then you ought to express it. Hiding behind the principle of free speech to defend your bigotry – and Mr. Wilders is nothing but a bigot, to be clear – is a perversion of the idea of free speech. The whole point of a free speech law is to defend people’s right to engage in legitimate discussion and criticism, not as a skirt to hide behind like a frightened bully whose victim stands up for itself.

While I am not in favour of legal proceedings against hate speech, I am far less in favour of cowardice being wrapped up in the principle in which I believe most strongly.

Westboro Baptist Church at Supreme Court:

The U.S. Supreme Court is to hear arguments Wednesday in a case that pits a dead marine’s grieving father against the Westboro Baptist Church, an obscure Kansas church that protests at soldiers’ funerals. The marine was not gay. However, the members of the church, who gained notoriety for using the same tactics at funerals for AIDS victims and who also oppose abortion, claimed his death was God’s “punishment” for the United States’ tolerance of homosexuality.

Ah yes, Freddie Phelps again. Once again, while ordinarily I would be in support of a group’s right to free speech (even when I absolutely 100% deplore the content of that speech, and would bitch-slap Fred Phelps to death if given the opportunity), this is another case where the right is being abused to serve a perverted end. Westboro Baptist isn’t protesting against a corrupt system, or leveling legitimate criticism, or contributing anything worthwhile to a discussion. Instead, they are hiding behind the Constitution to disrupt the lives of grieving parents for no reason other than to hurt people and gain publicity for their disgusting medieval pseudo-religion. Worst of all, Phelps is deputizing and corrupting children to further his own feeble-minded dictatorial agenda.

While I maintain my distaste for prosecuting hate speech, I bemoan the fact that this stance allows slime like Geert Wilders and Fred Phelps a platform to spread their brainless hateful nonsense. Free speech is supposed to defend unpopular ideas that have a legitimate purpose, a purpose that can be articulated and defended. The greatest threat to free speech therefore isn’t oppressive governments, religious authorities, or the New World Order on teh intarwebz; it’s those scumbags that abuse and debase the principle and undermine the public’s appetite to defend it from these more apparent threats.

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It’s a good day for Kenya

More good news!

Kenya has adopted a new constitution, more than three weeks after it was overwhelmingly approved in a national referendum… The document provides for greater checks on presidential powers and more regional devolution. It also recognises the UN human rights charter and creates a second parliamentary chamber – the senate.

It may seem a little unusual for me to provide commentary on a purely political story on this blog, which is purportedly about race, free speech, and religion (although somehow gay shit keeps creeping in… paging Dr. Freud). I’ve been following this story for a number of months now without commenting on it, but I can tell you that it’s highly appropriate.

First, there is a fundamental (and racist) misunderstanding we have in North America about Africa. The first thing to consider is the fact that Africa is not a country. You didn’t have to look much farther than the promotion of the World Cup to see that Europe and North America seem to consider Africa to be a homogeneous entity, but it is peopled by vastly different cultures and histories. There are modern democracies like Egypt, Algeria, South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria; there are corrupt dictatorships like Zimbabwe and the Congo; and there are dictatorial theocracies like Sudan and Somalia (the latter without a central government of any kind). Much of the strife plaguing the continent can be traced back to exploitation by colonial powers who used (and continue to use) the countries of Africa as a source of material wealth without building up the infrastructure needed to make the countries self-sufficient. Without the ability to harness their own natural wealth, the people of Africa are at the mercy of warlord-like governments who are largely controlled by foreign corporate regimes.

By ratifying a constitution, one that decentralizes the powers of the presidency and creates both a bill of rights and a second branch of government (ah, checks and balances), Kenya has taken a step towards true independence and freedom for its people. Such protections allow Kenya to (eventually) become a player on the international stage, much as Uganda and Ethiopia once were, and challenge the prevailing winds of prejudice against the continent.

Second, the ratification of this document was plagued by violent opposition, hate speech accusations, and (of course) religious conflict:

Church leaders who organised Sunday’s rally have also accused the government of being behind the grenade attack which led to a stampede. At least 20 people were injured in Sunday’s blast. Many Kenyans doubt the Church leaders’ claim that the government could be behind the blasts, especially as it seems most people are already backing the “Yes” campaign, says the BBC’s Will Ross in Nairobi… Sunday’s rally was organised by Christian groups opposed to a draft constitution because it retains recognition of existing Islamic courts and includes a clause on abortion.

But despite the obstacles, and despite Kenya’s entrenched religiousness (see? more gay shit!), the measure passed with a healthy 2/3 majority. This is the right step for Kenya, the right step for Africa, and the right step for the rest of the world.

German church gets it!

Finally! Faint glimmers of brains at work in the Catholic Church:

Germany’s Roman Catholic bishops are requiring that suspected cases of sexual abuse of minors by clergy or others working for the church be reported to prosecutors.

Of course it’s not the Pope, and it’s only policy within the German archdiocese, but it’s a start. Is it too much to hope that this may signal an eventual shift in policy across the board? Maybe, but it’s certainly iron-clad evidence that German Catholics read my blog.

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Is there a worse name than ‘honour killings’?

When you think of the word ‘honour’, it conjures an image of someone who is honest, plain-dealing, and trustworthy. What it doesn’t invoke is the image of a man who murders his children for wearing revealing clothing or dating outside his/her nationality, or for refusing an arranged marriage.

There’s no honour in murder. It is the weak-willed act of a coward who lacks any human decency. One might be able to persuade me that there is honour in the suicide tradition of Bushido, in which failure to act honourably moves the samurai to take his/her own life. I’m generally against the idea of suicide, but a person’s life is their own to do with what they want. What he is not entitled to do, however, is murder someone else to restore his own sense of ‘honour’. Any society in which one person’s mental state or social status trumps another’s right to the security of their person cannot stand.

India seems to be realizing this:

India’s home minister proposed Thursday a bill to provide specific, severe penalties to curb honour killings, saying they brought “dishonour” to India as a secular, modern democracy. “We are living in the 21st century and there is a need to amend the current law and the law must reflect what the 21st century requires,” he said. “We have to look ahead and build a society that is based on secular values and enlightened views.”

I’ve talked previously about the social climate changing for women in India. The linked article mentions that there has been an upswing of violence against women in India, and that it is necessary to make changes in the status quo if India wishes to achieve its goal of being seen as a major world power. Let it never be said that international peer pressure and secularism can’t make the world a better place to live. There are around 500 million women in India who would likely agree.

The problem with passing these kinds of laws, however, is that murder is a crime. I am still uneasy about punishing people extra for the reasons behind why they commit crimes. Punishing specific groups of people for committing certain types of crimes against other specific groups is ethically dicey ground. Is it still an ‘honour killing’ if a non-religious man kills his son for being gay, or his daughter for dating a black man? Maybe it is, and if there’s a way to state that unambiguously, I’ll be interested to hear it.

Canada seems to be realizing this:

Justice Minister Rob Nicholson says prosecuting honour crimes is a priority for the government but that there isn’t any real need to change the Criminal Code.

Murder is wrong, and that must always be the focus. If passing specific statutes against honour killing will make it happen less, then that’s a discussion we can have. I doubt very much, however, that adding on a few extra years to a life sentence is going to meaningfully demotivate a person who is willing to murder his/her children from committing the act. The way to approach these things is that we have to model and encourage secular values of respect for the integrity of a human’s autonomy and security of person, and discourage the equation of “faithfulness” with righteousness.

Every time I hear of an honour killing, there is an almost-overwhelming temptation to immediately blame religion. The stories that get the most press are those in which the murderers are Muslim or immigrants from Muslim countries. I’m skeptical of this explanation for being overly simplistic, not to mention the fact that this type of killing is not founded in Qu’ranic verse. It’s sort of like when an abortion doctor is murdered by a Christian fundamentalist – it’s a flawed interpretation of scripture (which is, in itself, flawed, but we won’t go into that here) and isn’t an accurate reflection of doctrine. The problem is the belief that underlies both Christianity and Islam (and all religions) – that there exists an unobservable external standard which is accountable only to itself, but to which all of humanity is subject; and further, that this standard is not based on something reasonable like observable consequences to humankind, but based only on how fervently you believe in it. Sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and the like existed in the societies that spawned these religions, and they persist today. Blaming a book for a human failing neglects the larger and more accurate story that’s going on.

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US government stands up for free speech

Those of you who follow alt-med quackery and science-based-medicine skepticism will be familiar with the absolutely ridiculous jurisprudence that is England’s libel laws. In the US , it is up to the plaintiff in a libel suit to prove that the allegations made against them are false (i.e., if I accuse you of practicing quack medicine, you merely have to show that your standards of practice meet industry regulation to win your libel suit). In the UK, however, defendants must prove their allegations true (i.e., if I sue you for calling me a quack, you have to prove I am one). This may seem like a semantic distinction, or even a more fair system (e.g., you call me a pedophile, you’ve got to prove it or else it’s slander); however, it has repeatedly been used by medical charlatans to silence criticism by skeptics.

A famous example (at least among the health skeptic community) is the case of Simon Singh, a medical journalist who wrote a column critical of the wild claims being made by the British Chiropractic Association. For those of you who don’t know, chiropractic is, at its heart, the belief that all disease (yes, all disease) is caused by misalignments of the spine. Controlled scientific studies of chiropractic have shown that it can be effective for treatment of back pain (as can physiotherapy and massage), but that other claims of being able to cure infectious disease or chronic conditions like asthma are unsubstantiated and false. Simon Singh said as much in his column, and was sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association.

“So what?” you might be saying “Just go into court, show the judge the studies, no problem!” We are lulled by television into thinking that court cases are decided quickly and cheaply. Even open-and-shut cases can, if the legal teams are unscrupulous enough, drag on for months and cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. Simon Singh doesn’t have that kind of money. What the BCA (and those of their ilk) hope when they file these suits is that the defendants will settle out of court and drop the suit because they cannot afford to pay the exorbitant fees (in North America we call such suits ‘Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation’ or SLAPP suits). There are anti-SLAPP laws on the books to prevent large companies from silencing poorer critics.

The UK, however, is a haven for such suits, allowing defendants to be placed on trial in British courts, and making non-Brits subject to the rulings of those courts. If the defendants do even the smallest amount of business in the UK, they can be sued under UK libel statutes.

Luckily, the US government has stepped in and made that a thing of the past:

President Barack Obama has signed into law new legislation protecting US writers from foreign libel judgements. The Speech Act, recently passed by Congress, makes foreign libel rulings virtually unenforceable in US courts. The act targets “libel tourists” who launch cases in countries whose legal systems are considered far more claimant-friendly, such as the UK.

This is good news for skeptics in the States who want to speak out against quacks in the UK. Canada has similar libel statutes to the UK (our entire judicial system is cribbed from England’s, so this should come as no surprise), but luckily the Supreme Court of Canada recently passed anti-SLAPP legislation, and Ontario appears poised to follow Quebec’s lead and enact provincial laws to do the same. Free speech shouldn’t be held up by spurious lawsuits designed to silence criticism. Of course, as Orac pointed out to me in an e-mail, this doesn’t protect US writers from being sued, nor does it prevent those judgments from being enforced in the UK (essentially barring convicted defendants from traveling anywhere in the UK). All it does is protect American courts from having to enforce the results of foreign libel suits.

It’s at least a step in the right direction.

Online anonymity – a free speech issue?

Can you force free speech on people? That is, is speech still ‘free’ when you have to speak? Certainly denying the rights of people to speak when they want to is wrong, but is it equally wrong to force someone to speak up? It’s a bizarre question, to be sure, but one that seems to be cropping up over and over.

I’ve spoken before about China’s tempestuous relationship with free speech; or maybe I should call it an abusive relationship, since it regularly treads on the speech rights of its citizens. However, there’s something happening right now in China that is making me sit up and take notice:

A leading Chinese internet regulator has vowed to reduce anonymity online, calling for rules to require people to use their real names when buying a mobile phone or going online, according to a human rights group.

The move would have two major implications. The first is that the days of internet trolling and flaming would be pretty much done. You’re going to be a lot less likely to call someone a ‘fagtard fuckstick’ if they can find out who you really are. The second is a bit more chilling though, since the government would also have access to your personal information. Given China’s record for cracking down on dissent of any kind, and the stated policy that “indicate a growing uneasiness toward the multitude of opinions found online.” I’m not so sure this information should be available, even given the problems China is having with its own regulation.

But that’s China’s problem, right? Over here in North America we don’t have to worry about that kind of stuff! Well, that’s not exactly the case:

The maker of the hugely popular World of Warcraft video game has reversed a previous plan that would have required users of its game forums to post under their real names.

I don’t play WoW, but I do have friends who do, and I am familiar with the kinds of abuse that happen on internet sites. I’m also acutely aware that many of the users are young people, for whom that kind of abuse can be truly scarring. In an effort to civilize the forums, Activision/Blizzard announced it would bring in measures to remove anonymity from its forums. The backlash was immediate, with users raising concerns (some legitimate) that publishing that information would make people targets of abuse. Many female gamers use the anonymity to avoid being sexually harassed, and the removal of that layer of protection would likely dissuade them from participation. Ditto for members of minority groups (with them ‘ethnic-sounding’ furriner names). Activision/Blizzard pulled the plug, but something tells me the issue hasn’t gone away. And it’s not just me who thinks so:

Two-thirds of 895 technology experts and stakeholders surveyed about the future of the internet believe the millennial generation, born mainly in the 1980s and 1990s, will make online sharing a lifelong habit, suggests a Pew Research Center and Elon University study released Friday.

One needn’t look much further than Facebook and Twitter (or even FourSquare, which makes even my millennial eyebrows raise in concern) to realize that privacy as it was known previously is on the way out. One also needn’t look much further than those sites to realize that there is huge potential for abuse, with employers firing or refusing to hire people based on their Facebook exploits. Canada’s privacy commissioner has been going round after round with Facebook to get better privacy measures installed. How long before those are a memory, and our whole lives are online? Let’s hope that we have at least a little while longer:

The owner of XY Magazine and its associated website – which catered for young homosexual boys – filed for bankruptcy earlier this year. XY’s creditors have applied for the firm’s one remaining valuable asset: its database of one million users.

This is the privacy nightmare. Not the loss of a job because you posted a drunk picture of you riding a pig, but you getting assaulted by a pig over information that you were told would be kept anonymous. There are many people who are privately gay and who are not prepared to come out in public. Being forced out would be traumatic enough, but to have that information up for sale to whoever wanted it would be disastrous.

So it seems the balance is, at least for now, that privacy does more good than harm. We don’t yet live in a society with sufficient privacy protections that would allow people to be themselves online. Why is this a problem for me? Because the same protections that gay kids and Chinese dissidents and female gamers get are extended to race bigots, Holocaust deniers, and religious zealots. If we have a code of rights to protect privacy, then it also covers the privacy of people whose opinions we don’t like. The goal of free speech is to have ideas out in the open, not cowering behind a shield of anonymity. Activision/Blizzard recognized that, but had to reverse its decision. This seems to be another downside to living in a free society – even assholes are granted freedom.

When religion clashes with secular values

My views on religion are not well-liked by believers. Those of you who read the comments attached to my posts may have seen a back-and-forth I had with a Baltimore-based columnist named Rene over my invocation of Russel’s teapot. I like Rene – he’s a funny guy who shares my views on people who stubbornly refuse to accept reason or evidence when it comes to vaccinating their children. However, when I applied the same reason and evidence (or lack thereof) to belief in a deity, I found myself in a fight with him.

Rene, and many of my friends who are believers, are paradoxically the best and worst kind of religious people. Best, because their religious beliefs are personal, and generally serve the purpose of helping them deal with ultimate questions of reality, or as a moral guide. Worst, because while they might deplore the things done in the name of religion, they always seem to make excuses as to why it’s okay to believe some religious things but others are clearly wrong. Worst of all, these are generally the kinds of people who don’t speak up when members of their faith do something deplorable with religious justification on their lips. “Those people aren’t real Christians/Muslims/Hindus/Sikhs/Rastafari/etc.” they say “that’s not what I believe, so there’s no need for me to say anything.” Of course this is simply trivial goal-post shifting – they believe all the same things you do, plus a bunch of stuff you don’t. If you call yourself a Christian, then it’s up to you to speak out against people who use Christianity to commit atrocities.

So today I thought I’d present a few conundrums, and ask those readers who are believers to try and explain them away.

Imagine you are an Israeli Jew, who believes that the Torah is the revealed word of God. You use scriptural guidance to make all of your decisions, particularly those that pertain to raising your children. However, a different group of Israeli Jews allow their children to watch TV and use the internet. They are full of sinful ideas, and you want to protect your children from their malevolent influence. The government says that you’re not allowed to segregate your children into their own schools. Which argument is the “correct” one – that you should be allowed to raise your children as you see fit, or that it’s in the best interest of your children not to be insulated from the outside world and remain walled off from any questioning of their parents’ religious beliefs?

Isn’t it nice to see different faiths coming together and agreeing on what’s really important in life – penises. Amazing the power that one organ can have to bring people together (but if it brings them together in the wrong way, that’s a sin). Both the Christian Bible and the Qu’ran are very clear that homosexuality is wrong (although the Bible is far more homophobic, explicitly counseling that homosexuals be killed). What are you to do as a believer when gay people are flocking to your country, fleeing persecution by your brethren? What is the reason why you can ignore some of what the Bible says (a woman should be killed if she fails to cry out while being raped), but not the other parts (homosexuals should be killed, just because)?

I seem to be picking on Kenya today… What do you do when you’re at church and your imam or priest says that a new government initiative to amend the constitution is expressly in contravention of your religious beliefs? What if the government wants to pass a law that says abortion is legal, or that doesn’t recognize the validity your religious courts, instead wanting to have one set of laws that apply to all people regardless of faith? What if they say that allying with the constitution will cause a religious war? Do you side with the creation of a secular standard of law and order, or do you follow your religious teachings?

I saved this one for you, Rene. What would you do if you were a good, God-fearing Christian who believed that God will heal the righteous, and will punish those who doubt his powers by attempting to intervene unnaturally (Matthew 9:22 – “But Jesus turned him about, and when he saw her, he said, Daughter, be of good comfort; thy faith hath made thee whole. And the woman was made whole from that hour.”)? Someone from the government comes and tells you that the sickness in your children, which is (like all sickness) caused by sin (John 5:14) can be prevented by the evil machinations of mankind? Do you have a responsibility to save your child’s life or their soul?

The answer from non-fundamentalist believers is that it’s okay to ignore some things in the Bible that are clearly wrong, or subject to misinterpretation. What separates misinterpretation from just regular interpretation? How do we know what’s the correct view of Biblical passages? Are we holding them to some standard of good and evil that are external to the Bible? What commandments should we follow, and which ones should we ignore? How do we know?

It’s all well and good to say “well everyone can make their own choice“, but that’s not what’s happening here. People are using their religious beliefs to justify making choices for other people. When your beliefs and my beliefs come into conflict, we have a way to resolve them that has nothing to do with faith in anything.

So I put the question to you, believers: what would you do if the government of the country you live in tried to pass a law that conflicted with your faith? What if, for whatever reason, you were forced to make a decision between your religious beliefs and a well-reasoned law that was for the good of society at large? Saying “it would never happen” is not a permissible answer to the question – it happens all the time. Laws are passed in my country and in yours that are in conflict with the Bible every day. If you were put in a corner and you had to make a decision, what would you do?

If the answer is that you would side with your faith, then you are no different (philosophically) than fundamentalists, it’s just a coincidence that your personal beliefs aren’t as strict as theirs.

If the answer is that you would side with a reasonable law, then your belief in logic and evidence is stronger than your belief in religious edicts, and I invite you to take the final step across the line and accept the fact that you don’t need religion to be a good person.

If you don’t know what you would do, or if you refuse to engage in a line of thought which causes your beliefs to come under scrutiny, then maybe you should re-examine how strong your faith is.