Friday, 27 February 2009

Discrimination or hysteria?

There have been more developments since my recent post about nurse Caroline Petrie. Cath and I have exchanged some discussion on our respective blogs, but I feel that there is enough new material to merit a separate post - largely to clear things up a little.

So here's where we stand:

There is the case of the nurse, Caroline Petrie, who offered to pray for a patient and, as a result, faced disciplinary action. And more recently, there is the case of a school receptionist, Jennie Cain, whose daughter was told off for discussing her religion with a classmate. (There are other incidents mentioned alongside these, but it is these two news items that seem central to the current discussion, so I'll limit myself to them.)

On the fact of it - with just those claims - Cath is right that these seem to be outrageous cases of religious discrimination.

But then you dig deeper.

According to the Telegraph, Caroline Petrie has a history of promoting her religion at work. Before a previous reprimand, she used to leave prayer cards with patients. Now, a clear case of overstepping the line would be pushing religious tracts on patients. Do prayer cards count as religious tracts? I'd say yes, but that may be a matter of taste. Also, as I mentioned in my previous post, she is not being asked to check her religion at the door. She is just being given guidelines - which seem reasonable to me - about when it's appropriate to bring religion into her role as a medical carer. For example, wait for the patient to ask for prayer, rather than pro-actively offering it.

I understand that prayer is important to Mrs. Petrie (and Cath and other Christians who identify with her). And I'm willing to concede that perhaps the employer's rule is more restrictive than it really needs to be to protect the patients. But calling it religious discrimination - particularly, saying that Christianity is being singled out - is unsupported by the available facts. The course of the case is nicely summed up in a sequence of clips from BBC here, where it is made clear that the trust has also acknowledged the need to respect the spiritual needs of patients. Mrs. Petrie has been fully reinstated with no further disciplinary action.

The Jennie Cain case also takes on a different tone when we look deeper. The Telegraph, the Daily Mail, and the Christian Institute all claim that the catalyst in the case was a young girl "talking about Jesus". Innocuous enough, but the Express and Echo paper points out that the girl was threatening her classmate with hell if she didn't believe in God. Now, there are a lot of ways that even that topic might have come across, but you have to acknowledge that eternal suffering is a pretty horrible idea to be sharing with a young child - particularly one who hasn't been exposed to all the Christian background that is said to soften and justify it. Furthermore, those crying discrimination are deciding to ignore head teacher Gary Read's take on things - both that he felt the girl's claim was hurtful to the other child, and that his response was gentle and proportionate. The Express and Echo also reports that parents are supporting Mr. Read on this issue. Check out this BBC video, presenting both sides:

Mr. Read says, "Whether it's considered to be private or not, the fact ... that a member of our staff was making quite serious allegations about the way the school was dealing with things which weren't true." Weren't true. Could it be that Mrs. Cain is actually in trouble because she was slandering the school? That certainly changes the tone of things. And here's what he says he told the girl: "What you said has upset another child and frightened her, so I don't want you to say that." Which seems reasonable, and in no way anti-Christian (or even generally anti-religious). Cath points out that belief in hell is pretty basic to most Christians' belief. Fair enough - but one's beliefs do not give one licence to threaten or upset other children. It's okay for a teacher to ask a child not to frighten other children. To say that religious statements should have a special exemption from this - that would be religious discrimination.

Of course, there is more to this case. Mrs. Cain sent a personal e-mail to friends at her church, not from a school computer, which was apparently obtained by the head teacher and is being used as justification for disciplinary action. The head teacher says that Mrs. Cain was making inappropriate allegations against the school in the e-mail, but the Christian commenters claim (or, in some cases, simply insinuate) that it was obtained inappropriately; if so, they are right in saying that its content is irrelevant.

So, in sum, we have what may be an innocent comment from a child that was mercilessly suppressed, or may be an insensitive comment from a child that was dealt with gently. We have a private e-mail that may have been obtained through shady means (though we aren't given enough details to know this), which may have been a simple plea for help and prayers, and may have been a slanderous diatribe. Out of this mess (which I have spent a reasonable amount of time sorting through), I do not think we can confidently assert persecution.

I am trying very hard to avoid the dismissive and completely unsympathetic tone set by another non-religious commentator. I take very seriously my "Friendly Humanist" name. But the balance of evidence in these two cases - Caroline Petrie and Jennie Cain - does not seem to justify the claims of systematic anti-Christian prejudice that are being made.

It may be that, as more facts emerge, the current uncertainties in these cases will be resolved in the direction of discrimination. It may be, but I doubt it.


Because the UK is a Christian country.

Demographically, more people identify as Christian than anything else. Politically, we have a parliament that privileges Christian beliefs and practices above others. Socially, we have a landscape dominated by Christian holidays, Christian landmarks, and Christian language.

I'm not trying to claim here that I'm being discriminated against. (Except for the political bit - but that's a topic for another time.) I'm just trying to let my Christian colleagues out there in the ether see why these cases are less than compelling as evidence that the world, or particular instances of British bureaucracy, are against them.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Godless Morality - first glance

A while ago, I read Richard Holloway's excellent book, Godless Morality. I hope in time to address it in more depth. It is, very boldly, an argument that even without setting aside their god-belief, people who believe in a god can benefit from developing a moral system that does not depend on that god's commands or instructions.

This is a valuable argument to make, not just as a personal philosophical exercise, but also as a window on how we can all - believers in all different religious ideas as well as non-believers - construct and build on common ground in our efforts to live harmoniously alongside one another.

Until I can get to a more thorough review, let me share with you what I think is basically the core of the book - a quote from the first chapter ("Ethical Jazz"): (p31 - emphasis added)
Today, authority has to earn respect by the intrinsic value of what it says, not by the force of its imposition. There is a loss in this situation, of course, because power transitions are always dangerously unstable periods in human history, but there is unlikely to be a wholesale return to the past and its values unless we are overtaken by a mass religious movement that obliterates the radically plural nature of contemporary society. Barring that unlikely eventuality, we must do what we can to construct moral agreements that will have the authority of our reason and the discipline of our consent.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

The high point

Yesterday was a real milestone for me - a culmination of five years of thinking and working and writing and rethinking and reworking and rewriting. To have it declared worthy of the honour of a PhD degree was probably the most satisfying moment of my academic career so far.

But I think the high point of the day was later. After the three hours of the viva, after an afternoon of congratulations from friends and colleagues, after an evening in the pub recounting the events of the day and sharing stories with fellow students and academics.

The high point came when I was home again, and I was putting Kaia to bed, and she fell asleep on my chest.

Ahh, perspective.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Except on my blog

That's odd.

The world doesn't seem to be in an state of breathless anticipation. People are not biting their nails on the street corners, waiting to see what happens. Strangers are not coming up and offering me their sympathy and encouragement.

No matter how much evidence I get, part of me is still thrown off by each new proof that I'm not the centre of the universe.

Silly mammal.

(Stay tuned - in a few hours, I'll let you know how my dissertation defense went.)

[Update: After a pleasant conversation talking about all the interesting stuff I've been doing over the past 5 years, and why it's a valuable and important contribution to the body of science, I have passed with corrections. Wahoo!]

Liberty and blasphemy

Over at Daylight Atheism, Ebonmuse has a piece on freedom of speech as it relates to blasphemy, a topic of some current import. Here are a couple of key excerpts:
It happened at the U.N., where a bloc of Islamic nations successfully pushed through a resolution demanding "respect" for shariah law, with the shocking result that things like child marriage or the stoning of women can no longer be discussed by the U.N. Human Rights Council.
If free speech is circumscribed by the "right" of religious groups to be protected from offense, then it is an empty and meaningless freedom. Any religious sect can stifle any speech, just by taking offense at what is said. We as a species can never make moral progress if those laws shelter evil superstitions from the light of scrutiny and let them fester in the shadows.
I agree. Restricting freedom of speech because it offends someone - for whatever reason - is unjustifiable.*

To demonstrate this in the most obvious way possible, let me list some of the things that offend my ethical sensibilities as a humanist**:
  1. Suggesting that eternal torture is a fair return for the honest expression of empirically-justified doubt.
  2. Denying the best answers that unbiased scientific inquiry can give us about our place in the universe, in order to promote the unevidenced guesses of misogynistic iron-age patriarchs.
  3. Suggesting that non-belief in supernatural (un-natural) entities is correlated with unethical behaviour.
  4. Implying (through discriminatory laws) that it is more important for my marriage that my spouse and I have certain bits between our legs than that we commit to each other in love.
  5. And of course, I am deeply offended by the suggestion that it is better to stifle free speech than to let religions be confronted with dissenting ideas.
So, by the logic of the people pushing the anti-blasphemy laws, if blasphemy against the religion of another is illegal, it should also be illegal to (1) promote the common religious idea of eternal damnation for nonbelievers, (2) promote ID as a valid scientific competitor to evolution as an explanation for the development of life, (3) cite scriptures (there are many) denouncing nonbelievers as corrupt, (4) exclude same-sex couples from marriage, and (5) promote, pass, or enforce anti-blasphemy laws.

Now, of course, I don't claim the right to not be offended. So if anyone out there thinks there is any validity to having laws specifically prohibiting blasphemous speech, you can come right on over here and ...

... engage in a reasoned and open discussion of the issue, trying to persuade one another of the validity of our positions in a mutual desire to find the best solution. That is how civilized people respond when they are offended.

* Before anyone calls me out for being inconsistent, let me say that my support for Caroline Petrie's suspension was not based on my being offended, but on her misuse of a position of power.

** And let me be clear: in this context, humanist sensibilities must be given equal weight to religious sensibilities, or we are left with intolerable religious discrimination.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Thoughts for the World

It's that time of the year again. Darwin Day is coming up on Thursday - the bicentennial of the great scientist's birthday. This year is also the 150th year since the publication of his world-shaking (yet surprisingly readable) book, On the Origin of Species.

One emerging tradition (this is the third year it's been going) is for the Humanist Society of Scotland to run a series of secular Thoughts for the World. It is a constructive alternative to the previous strategy of trying to get the BBC to include non-religious thinkers in their daily Thought for the Day slot. (I could do a whole rant on that policy, but why not just read what I wrote last year.)

The series has already started: visit for the thoughts so far, as well as those from past years. (Recognize anyone?)

An encouraging development this year is that the Guardian is including the humanist Thoughts on its Comment is free site. Juliet Wilson, former publicity officer for the HSS, has an article on the Guardian website. Here's part of what she says:
I'm delighted that the Guardian is running the podcasts this year here on Comment is free, over the next two weeks. I'm also pleased to have the support of the British Humanist Association (BHA) and I'm thrilled we have so many female contributors.
It's not everybody's cup of tea, I know. Listening to thoughtful people reflecting on issues of the day from a personal, even spiritual perspective. But I enjoy it, and I think it's a great way of sharing the human side of humanism.

What do you think? Should humanist thoughts be included in the Radio 4 Thought for the Day program? Should the program just be dropped altogether? Is it enough that we have our own, separate venue for sharing our thoughts? Or is there a good reason why one community should be systematically excluded from the program on the basis of their beliefs?

Friday, 6 February 2009

Sacked for being Christian?

Nurse Caroline Petrie has been suspended from her job as a part-time community nurse in a primary care trust in Somerset for offering to pray for an elderly patient, according to the Telegraph. This has been picked up by religious commenters, including Cath (whose blog first alerted me to the news item) and Cranmer.

Naturally, they (and many of their commenters) are appalled at this apparent overreaction by the trust. They are inclined to blame anti-Christian sentiment, or excessive political-correctness.

But they should be careful not to overstate the oppression that the actual incident implies. We are all prone to falling into a persecution mentality. For some further, highly relevant context, consider the following details. (I'm getting these from the Telegraph article, with corroboration from the Daily Mail.)

This was not an isolated incident. Mrs. Petrie regularly offers unsolicited prayers (formerly including handing out prayer cards). She has been reprimanded for this before, and has been told "you must not use your professional status to promote causes that are not related to health." That is a fair and relevant guideline. (It seems she stopped handing out the cards after that.)

She remembers, "I was told not to force my faith on anyone but I could respond if patients themselves brought up the subject [of religion]." So she is not to proactively offer prayer, but may offer prayer if asked by the patient. Again, a fair guideline that balances her professional responsibilities with her religious freedom.

Mrs. Petrie says "I only offered to pray for her because I was concerned about her welfare and wanted her to get better."

Well, prayer has been tested and has failed the scientific tests that we require of all medical interventions. She has every right to her religious beliefs, but she has an obligation to respect the boundary between the standard of evidence required by her profession and that she needs for her faith. If I were her patient, I'd be nettled at an offer of prayer for this reason. I want my health care professionals to be focusing on proven and effective techniques, not disproven supernatural techniques.

(Deena points out to me that Mrs. Petrie could easily just pray for patients anyway, and not mention it to them. Surely that satisfies both her beliefs and her professional guidelines.)

She says "[husband] Stuart and I have decided to put God first in our lives." That's their choice. But extends it into a choice to disregard reasonable guidelines of professional conduct. It is hardly persecution to be suspended for failing to follow those guidelines, after fair warning.

So she was given reasonable guidelines about the appropriate way to include her personal, non-medical beliefs in her professional, medical life. She was warned by her employer. And she decided to disregard the guidelines and the warnings. The trust's reaction is appropriate; Mrs. Petrie is not being discriminated against.

It looks like the Christians in this case are upset, not because their beliefs are being marginalized, but because they are not being given preferential treatment. (This is particularly apparent in some of Cranmer's statements.)

I have to remind them that this country still has an established church that holds seats in parliament (among other appalling privileges). How would you feel to live in a country where, say, Hindus had such a legislative advantage, if they began complaining because they were not being given special dispensation to promote their religion as they went about their publicly-funded roles?

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Golden heresy

From a poem by George Russell that I encountered as a hymn at the local Unitarian church, I offer this delicious and profound verse:
No blazoned banner we unfold—
One charge alone we give to youth,
Against the sceptred myth to hold
The golden heresy of truth.
What better legacy could we carry forward, from ancient skeptics and enlightenment humanists, through us, and on to our children: the golden heresy of truth.