Your Weekly Catholic Scandal Update

It hasn't been a good few weeks for the Catholic church. Every time you turn around, it seems, new repercussions of its conspiracy to protect child molesters are piling up somewhere in the world. Even I've had trouble keeping up with it all, so here's a post to collect the latest news.

First, there's the Netherlands, where the media has reported that one of the country's archbishops personally arranged to shield a pedophile priest by moving him to a different parish. This is nothing new, given the widespread complicity of the hierarchy in the cover-up. But what's especially damning is that this same archbishop, as recently as last March, was explicitly denying that he knew anything about child abusers in the church:

Cardinal Simonis caused some distress in the Netherlands last March, when he was asked on television about the hundreds of complaints surfacing against the church and replied in German rather than Dutch, saying "Wir haben es nicht gewusst" — or, "We knew nothing."

The phrase, which is associated with Nazi excuses after World War II, drew uncomfortable parallels for the church, which has been accused of covering up the issue of sexual abuse.

I don't want to Godwin's Law this thread, but really, how can you avoid it when the people responsible for protecting sex predators are using the exact same excuses that were given by Nazi collaborators?

Meanwhile, in the U.S., a grand jury has accused the Archdiocese of Philadelphia of continuing to let known sex predators have access to potential victims. At least 37 priests for which there's "substantial evidence" of abuse are still serving in roles that put them in contact with children, and at least 10 of these have been in these jobs since 2005, when a previous grand jury issued a 124-page report that accused the church of a widespread cover-up.

But it cheered my sense of justice to see that this grand jury isn't stopping at harsh words. On the contrary, the article says that they've returned an indictment against William Lynn, former secretary of clergy in the archdiocese, charging him with endangering the welfare of children by refusing to take action:

"The rapist priests we accuse were well known to the Secretary of Clergy, but he cloaked their conduct and put them in place to do it again," the grand jury said.

The grand jury reluctantly concluded not to press charges against Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, Lynn's direct superior, due to a lack of evidence, even though the two of them worked closely together on this. But even so, it's long overdue that the Catholic higher-ups, not just the rank-and-file priests, be held to account. The ones who participated in covering up child abuse are every bit as guilty as actual sex predators, and they absolutely deserve to be punished accordingly.

Next, in a story that really sums up how widespread this problem is, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles has been embarrassed again. It turns out that the diocese's vicar of clergy appointed a priest, Martin O'Loghlen, to a church-run sexual abuse advisory board - even though O'Loghlen himself was a known abuser who molested a teenage girl in the 1960s and admitted to having a "sexual addiction". A lawyer for victims of sexual abuse put it perfectly:

John C. Manly, a lawyer for victims in dozens of sexual abuse cases, said Father O'Loghlen's case was egregious because of his time on the sexual review board. "He was personally selected for a board that is meant to protect people from priests like him," Mr. Manly said.

And finally, there's this in-depth report on the continuing fallout of the Catholic sex scandal in Ireland. Like Poland, Ireland was one of the Vatican's last European strongholds; Catholicism was given a privileged place in the constitution, controls almost all of the schools and hospitals, and was deeply intertwined with the national identity. The church's influence ran so deep that contraception was illegal there as recently as 1980, "and until 1985 condoms were available only with a prescription."

The privileged place of Catholicism in Irish society was a disaster for the children in its care. The church used that privilege to cloak itself in a veil of unchallengeable authority, behind which horrible atrocities flourished in a culture of total depravity and impunity. This is no doubt why the child-rape scandal was far worse in Ireland than anywhere else. As the article notes, Ireland has had by far the highest number of reported cases of sex abuse per capita. In the absolute number of cases, it's second only to the U.S., even though the U.S. has almost a hundred times as many people.

But despite its suffering, and despite all the legal protections the church still enjoys, Ireland has been a model in uncovering the truth. All three of its government commissions on Catholic sex abuse - the Murphy Report, the Ryan Report, and the Ferns Report - were comprehensive and devastating to the church, and have been a model for similar investigative efforts in other countries. The church, for its part, has shown nothing but intransigence: Cardinal Sean Brady, the highest-ranking Irishman in the hierarchy, refused to resign despite helping to cover up the activities of one of the country's most notorious pedophile priests. And Pope Benedict's response to the crisis has simply been to blame it all on secularization and order the Irish to pray more and engage in "eucharistic adoration".

The repercussions of the church's arrogance may not be fully felt for a generation or more. But we're already seeing rumblings: Mass attendance has dropped by 50% in last 30 years, and even elderly members of the church are demanding reform in a way that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. Of course, as far as the Vatican is concerned, they did nothing wrong and none of their policies need to change. The inevitable collision of these two attitudes will be another sign of how the Catholic church, despite its pomp, is steadily ushering itself into extinction.

February 22, 2011, 6:41 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink17 comments

Morality Has No Place in the Law

By Sarah Braasch

"Surely if we have learned anything from the history of morals it is that the thing to do with a moral quandary is not to hide it." —H.L.A. Hart

"This lesson is that the distinguishing characteristics of true law must be sought for somewhere else than in the nature of the authority from whence it proceeds, and in the certainty of the punishment by which its infraction is attended." —Sheldon Amos

In loving memory of my baby brother, Jacob Michael Braasch (01/28/86 – 02/02/10)

"Morality has no place in the law." I remember the first time I asserted this claim. In the fall of 2004, I was a reluctant guest at a book club meeting in LA, at which the assembled motley crew discussed a recent book on the gay marriage debate. I hadn't read the book in question, and my unsolicited commentary came as something of a surprise, to myself included. I was met with a bevy of incredulous stares and, subsequently, protestations. How could I assert something so obviously preposterous, so patently ridiculous, and so demonstrably asinine? Almost immediately thereafter, I decided to change the direction of my life, to attend law school, and to become an international human rights lawyer.

At law school, I was met with more disdainful scoffing and eye rolling. Of course, law and morality are inseparable. Of course, morality serves as the basis for any legal/political system. Of course, a law is nothing if not a moral claim, a moral imperative, a moral prescription. In all of human history, had there ever existed a legal system, which hadn't purported to further justice, as grounded in morality? And, if so, from whence would the legitimacy of the government derive? Why would the vast majority of the society feel any sense of moral obligation to conform to the law's dictates? What is a legal norm if not a moral command, constraining the behavior of the citizens/residents, of whichever state/society, upon whom the law (moral code) is imposed? How could I claim otherwise?

I will begin by laying out my definitions of both law and morality, since in my opinion most debate is the result of misunderstandings over definitions and premises. I will not defend these definitions (well, maybe a little), because this essay purports not so much to define law and morality, as to show why and how to create a legal/political system devoid of conceptions of morality and communitarianism.

Law is the mechanism (usually a set of norms/rules with corresponding sanctions) by which we define interpersonal relations. Morality is the categorization of human behaviors as "good" and "bad", which, I would argue, is a wholly personal, subjective exercise without recourse to objective moral truth or authority.

How is this not necessarily the same thing? In the mid-20th century, H.L.A. Hart, the father of modern legal positivism, argued the separability of law and morality in his seminal writings. Hart argued for the distinction between the law as it is and the law as it ought to be. Law does not cease to be law based upon one or another moral criticism. It is possible to study and practice law in a descriptive sense (how people do behave), instead of a normative sense (how people should behave).

Also, it is possible to use deontological (moral) language without making moral claims. As Hart pointed out, use of the word ought "need have nothing to do with morals". One may use the moral language of ought and should (and rights and duties) to further a specific aim without the attendant implication of categorizing whichever human behaviors as "good" and "bad". (The error theorist/non-cognitivist debate about whether we should refrain from the use of such language will not be addressed here.)

But, the legal positivists leave much to be desired. They concede far too much to the natural law theorists for my taste. Even H.L.A. Hart conceded an appeal to the overlap of law and morality at the moment of creation of a legal/political system. He questioned whether a legal system, on the whole, which did not espouse some notion of "justice" as its central aim, had ever or could ever exist for long, despite the brutal imposition of severe sanctions, because the vast majority of persons living beneath its reach would feel no sense of moral obligation to abide by its dictates. He asked whether the nature of law itself demands recourse to a bare minimum of the most basic and general moral precepts, such as equal protection. However, he largely dismissed the question as holding little interest for him and as an "innocent pastime for philosophers".

Brian Leiter is anything but dismissive of this methodological debate about the nature of law itself. He describes the challenge posed to legal positivism by natural law theorist John Finnis as significant and outlines it as such: "If the very enterprise of understanding the concept of law requires positive moral appraisal of law, then it turns out that questions about the moral foundations of law can not be treated as conceptually severable from questions about the nature of law."

I find the legal positivists disappointing and hypocritical. They forego one fantasy, but dare not forsake another. Even Hart. And, especially Leiter. Hart is a bit like an evolutionary biologist who doesn't feel many qualms about not being able to explain the origin of the universe. Just because he cannot disprove the existence of God doesn't mean he has to accept Christianity. But, despite his admonitions to refuse to address moral quandaries at one's peril, I see him rather as a Christian who scoffs at the foundational myths of a Muslim while unable or unwilling to acknowledge the folly in his own foundational myths.

The legal positivists are the Stephen Jay Goulds of legal/moral philosophy. They espouse the NOMA position, i.e. they hold to the stance that descriptive/analytic legal theory (legal positivism) and normativity are Non-Overlapping MAgisteria, except for when they don't, but they fail to acknowledge the usurpations of morality perpetrated upon the law and how the law suffers as a consequence. They are accommodationist agnostics, uncomfortable with identifying as atheists or noticing the lack of evidence for any objective moral truth or authority. Maybe it's better to perpetuate the myth. Maybe we all really will take to raping and pillaging without the reassurance or threat of some objective moral authority looming large, to which we may seek recourse. Maybe our societies really will fall apart like a house of cards, if people realize that their foundations are nothing more than foundational myths.

I stake the case that burying one's head in the sand is never a good idea. Nor is pretending to know things that we, in fact, do not know. Denying the existence of or refusing to deal with a philosophical quandary neither negates the dilemma nor ameliorates the situation in question. So, imagine my relief when I discovered the moral anti-realist philosophers.

The moral anti-realist philosophers, like Joshua Greene, deny the existence of objective moral truth or authority. Morality (the categorization of human behaviors as "good" and "bad") is a wholly personal, subjective exercise. Any moral claims, which claim to be objectively true, are false. There is no objective moral truth or authority. Therefore, there is no objective legal truth or authority. I am not a legal positivist. I am a legal anti-realist, just as I am a moral anti-realist. Laws are not real, and neither is morality, and they certainly aren't natural. The determination of legal validity (deciding whether or not any law or legal/political system is valid, just, moral, and, thus, merits adherence) is a wholly personal, subjective exercise, just as any moral viewpoint is a wholly personal, subjective exercise.

The most common retorts to this position, which I have encountered, are that: 1) this position is itself a moral claim, and 2) I have left myself in an untenable position in which I will never be able to justify my approbation or disapprobation of any other entity or act ever, and I cannot justify advocating for any legal/political scheme in particular or any legal/political scheme at all. I have condemned myself to anarchy, or, at least, absolute and universal moral relativism. If someone wishes to keep me as a slave, I can have no objection worth considering. If someone wishes to keep someone else as a slave, I can have no objection worth considering.

First of all, denying the existence of objective moral truth is a meta-ethical claim, not an ethical claim. Second, I am free to advocate for whatever I wish. I am free to condemn whomever I wish. I am free to try and convince as many others as possible to adopt my personal, subjective moral viewpoint. It is possible to advocate on behalf of my subjective moral viewpoint, informed by evidence and science and reason, while maintaining a moral anti-realist stance. Moral anti-realism does not condemn one to moral relativism or anarchy. It is possible to advocate for the establishment of a legal/political system without recourse to the myth of objective moral/legal truth. Greene's dissertation, available on his website, lays out this position nicely.

But, these common retorts just seem like either fatuous delusions or disingenuous and specious sophistries. Because objective moral/legal truth or authority does not exist. And, there is no evidence that it does. And, in fact, there is a great deal of evidence otherwise. And, yet, we, or the vast majority of we, do, in fact, create and abide by and live under legal/political systems. We, or the vast majority of we, do, in fact, advocate for our personal, subjective moral viewpoints.

And, anyway, whatever happened to looking philosophical/moral quandaries in the face without flinching? When has burying our collective head in the sand ever made our problems better? Or, go away? When has pretending to know things that we do not know improved our lives?

Even secular humanists, rationalists, materialists, freethinkers and atheists can fall prey to that human, all too human thirst for order, structure, pattern, authority, and explanation. The noted "New Atheist" Sam Harris takes his turn at the fount of foundational myth in his latest book, The Moral Landscape, in which he advocates for a science of morality. He claims that, with the proper application of our reasoning faculties to enough factual evidence, we can access objective moral truth via the scientific method. His definition of "good" is that which promotes "well-being", which he admits he is unable to define, and his definition of "bad" is whatever detracts from "well-being". While he isn't so foolish as to suggest that evolutionary biologists should be the new moralists, he rejects Hume's contention that there exists an impermeable barrier between facts and values; that values are never objective; that we can never get an ought from an is.

This indulgence in myth is understandable, but regrettable. The objective moral/legal truth fairy is not going to save us, and no amount of data, experimental results, or observations will conjure her. This latest indulgence is a considerable threat to our secular, liberal, constitutional democracies. When religionists draw from the fount of myth, we are protected by the wall of separation between church and state. When scientists pretend to have in their possession objective evidence of moral truth, humanity takes a step backwards into the Dark Ages.

Facts reveal nothing about morality. Facts and evidence are always separated from moral viewpoints by subjective value judgments. To pretend otherwise is to play into the hands of the religionists, to open us up to the threat of tyranny, to call into question our concepts of individual civil, constitutional, and human rights, and to provoke a societal existential crisis. Instead of religious wars, we will have morality wars. Instead of prophets in possession of the one true revealed scripture/religion, we will have scientists who are able to divine morality from indifferent facts and extract policy from apathetic data.

Do we want judges engaged in gleaning nonexistent moral truth from the evidence presented in their courtrooms? The judiciary has been moving away from any incorporation of concepts of morality in judicial decision-making and as a valid basis for legislation. The line of recent cases, including Lawrence v. Texas and Perry v. Schwarzenegger, are explicit in their rejection of subjective moral viewpoints as a legitimate basis for legislation or the denial of constitutional rights, and also take the time to point out that the side advocating for the imposition of its subjective moral viewpoint upon others lacked any evidentiary basis for its morality. The District Court in Perry stated, "A private moral view... is not a proper basis for legislation," and "Moral disapproval alone is an improper basis on which to deny rights," as well as "...those individuals' moral views are an insufficient basis upon which to enact a legislative classification." The Supreme Court in Lawrence decided that the moral majority may not "use the power of the State to enforce these views on the whole society through operation of the criminal law". Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's concurrence in Lawrence was particularly scathing in its denunciation of the suggestion that moral disapproval, in and of itself, was a legitimate government interest. In Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey, the Supreme Court made plain the obligation of the Court, "Our obligation is to define the liberty of all, not to mandate our own moral code." Let us not take a step backward after we have made such strides to eradicate any notion of morality from our jurisprudence.

Sam Harris also fails to grasp the nature of our democracy when he suggests that we need not pay heed to those ill-equipped to interpret factual evidence and to derive objective moral truth therefrom. We are constantly engaged in conversation with mob rule. The moral majority gets a say in how you and I live our lives. As far as Justice Scalia is concerned, the moral majority may dictate to you and I as they please, as long we are not claiming an explicitly and specifically enumerated constitutional right or membership in a constitutionally protected class, and he includes gays and women in the category of persons whose rights may be curtailed at the whim of the moral majority. Do we really want to say that, given enough evidence and reason, anyone can access objective moral truth? If you read the data the right way? If you perform the correct exegesis? No amount of evidence and reason will ever result in a definitive determination of objective moral truth, and to pretend otherwise is not only folly but dangerous.

As an example, consider the recent slew of suicides by young gay men, often after having been bullied, much publicized in the media. Much of the commentary focused on the statistically significantly higher incidence of suicide among gay teenagers than their straight peers. The higher incidence is a fact (a fact which is called into question by the cited article). But what objective moral truth is to be derived from this fact? And, what policy decision should result? Is the higher suicide rate demonstrative of the inherently morally reprobate nature of homosexuals? Does the higher suicide rate indicate that homosexuality is good? Bad? Does it indicate that homosexuality or the homosexual lifestyle is conducive to well being? How should we respond? Should we outlaw homosexuality? Should we outlaw homosexual sex acts? Should we segregate gay teens from straight teens? Should we implement a Don't Ask Don't Tell policy in public high schools? On the campuses of public universities? Should we attempt to employ gene therapy to eradicate homosexuality? Should we enact hate speech legislation, which criminalizes gay slurs?

I don't know about you, but I don't want to have to care about my uneducated and ill-informed next door neighbor's personal, subjective moral opinion about my life choices, and I don't think I should have to care. No matter how much evidence he thinks he has in support of his personal, subjective moral viewpoint.

So, I have been thinking a lot about how to devise a legal/political system, which eradicates any conception of either morality or communitarianism. Don't get me wrong. The moral majority serves its function in our current (American) democracy. The moral majority fills the void of authority left vacant by the lack of objective moral/legal truth. The moral majority, as expressed by the electorate, is the majoritarian half, representing the interests of society, of the precariously balanced equation in the conversation between the majoritarian (the electorate, the moral majority, culture) and counter-majoritarian (the judiciary, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, case law) elements, which is our system of government.

But, wouldn't we be better off without having to constantly be in conversation with mob rule? Wouldn't we be better off without having to constantly wage a fight to hold back the tide of moral majoritarian tyranny? Wouldn't we be better off without the threat of theocracy constantly looming large over our heads? Wouldn't we be better off without religious/moral communitarianism in a pitched battle with secularism and individual rights, especially women's rights?

Sam Harris wants to defeat religion and the threat it poses to democracy and to humanity. And, so do I. But, in a paradoxical twist, which he seems unable to see, he, too, wishes to perpetuate a myth, which will only serve to strengthen the resolve and the position of the religionists and the cultural relativists.

But, how to create a legal/political system, which balances the needs of the individual and society, without resorting to false notions of morality and communitarianism? I think the answer is to create a legal/political system based upon game theory to maximize individual liberty.

The choice of maximizing individual liberty is not arbitrary. And, it isn't about creating a moral code, which holds liberty in higher esteem than the values of happiness or well being or goodness or utility. It also isn't about a classical libertarian's or an anarchist's liberty fetish. It is about trying to replicate our current form of government without resorting to a relationship with mob rule. Our current majoritarian / counter-majoritarian push-pull is a crude approximation of a legal/political system based upon game theory to maximize individual liberty.

The interests of society will fall out of the exercise. This is the case, because I am not free to live my life as I wish without a minimum threshold level of security and safety and order. I wouldn't be terribly free to live my life as I desire in the midst of chaos or anarchy. I am not terribly free to live my life as I see fit, if I can't afford to feed and clothe my children, if I'm dying for lack of decent healthcare, or if I can't get a decent education. And, I'm not going to be at liberty to pursue my individual goals, unless there are minimum guarantees in place for my societal peers as well.

Unlike happiness or well being or, even, utility, liberty may be assessed objectively, not subjectively. Is one or is one not constrained in one's physical behavior? This is not a subjective assessment. The vagaries of the mind are not in play.

While I recognize that I can advocate for the creation of an amoral legal/political system, which employs deontological language, based upon my subjective moral viewpoint (which is informed by science and reason and evidence) that I wish to live in a society structured as such, without pretending to be acting under the authority of some objective moral/legal truth, how will I ever convince anyone else to adopt my approach?

This is like asking how the very first human society came into being. Or, like asking how life or the universe began. We exist. We live in societies. We live under human-devised governments. Societies evolve. The law evolves. Culture evolves.

The old mind games and tricks don't work any longer. We've seen the man pulling the levers behind the green curtain. We know that our foundational myths are just that – myths. We will adapt and evolve or we won't survive.

Maybe we should be asking how we are going to continue to convince everyone to keep pretending to believe in our foundational myths.

January 14, 2011, 7:33 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink130 comments

Free Speech on Trial, Continued

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Russia's increasingly hostile and repressive attitude toward speech which criticizes the state-sponsored church. Now another Russian artist is facing persecution:

Mavromatti, 45, fled to Bulgaria in 2000 after the Russian Orthodox Church complained about a movie he was shooting in which he is crucified. He was accused of violating a criminal code that includes inciting religious hatred and denigrating the church, an offense punishable by as much as five years in prison.

What shocks me the most is that the Russian authorities and their clerical henchmen weren't satisfied with chasing Mavromatti from the country. They're still actively in pursuit, trying to revoke his passport, trying to get Interpol to issue warrants for him. I'm proud to say that my senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, has been pushing to secure refugee status for this martyr of free speech. I've sent her a letter to let her know that her efforts are appreciated and to urge her to continue - if you live in the U.S., or if you don't, please consider doing the same.

It's obvious that Russia's rulers see themselves as the new tsars, absolute monarchs reigning over both the state and the church. They're using the Russian Orthodox church as their instrument, a tool to wield in the service of promoting nationalism and unquestioning allegiance among the people, and the church itself is only too glad to join in this game. Like all churches everywhere that gain state favor, their first step was to call for the silencing and imprisonment of everyone who presumes to criticize their beliefs, as well as people who merely fail to treat them with the level of deference they demand.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia had a brief season of democracy, but that noble experiment is fading. It's rapidly regressing to a dictatorship, a theocratic state where any criticism of the glorious leader is forbidden (as is also evidenced by its brutal, across-the-board crackdown on journalists and reformers). And as always, as people's freedom slips away, the churches are there working hand-in-hand with the powerful, ordering the masses to obey and gladly trading their alleged spiritual authority for temporal rewards.

On a related note, the trial of Geert Wilders is finally beginning. As I wrote back in January, a Dutch court ordered the firebrand politician tried for "inciting discrimination and hatred" after a series of interviews where he voiced harsh criticism of Islam.

Regardless of what you think about Wilders himself - I tend to think he's a hypocrite, since he's called for a ban on the Qur'an despite his rhetoric about free speech - it shouldn't be hard to see the dangerous precedent set by banning the public expression of an idea. As far as I know, no one is claiming that Wilders has ever encouraged violence. As long as that's true, what harm can there be in letting him speak? The court's decision to charge him for expressing his opinions, however harsh, implies that Muslims are too immature to have their beliefs challenged and need to be sheltered from criticism for their own good - a far more condescending and belittling view than anything Wilders himself has ever uttered.

What makes this trial especially bizarre is that Wilders' political party, the PVV, holds the balance of power in a fragile three-party coalition government with a mere one-vote majority. It's unclear what the effect on the government would be if he were imprisoned. (The PVV's coalition partners have promised to consider Wilders' platform, including a burqa ban, in exchange for their support on other issues.) Ironically, all the media attention over the trial has caused Wilders to skyrocket in popularity, and is likely responsible for the PVV's tiebreaking power in the current government - an excellent demonstration of the principle that trying to suppress an idea by force only makes it more popular and its advocates more sympathetic. If Wilders is convicted, that injustice would probably provoke the backlash against Muslims that the Dutch authorities fear.

Punishing Geert Wilders would be doing nothing but shooting the messenger. The reason his party has come to power is because the Dutch are concerned, and rightly so, about the growth of an Islamic minority that's an incubator for violence and terrorism - as evidenced by the brutal 2004 murder of Theo van Gogh and the ongoing death threats against his collaborator Ayaan Hirsi Ali. It does no good to say that not all Muslims are guilty of these crimes, not when the radical strains of thought that inspired van Gogh's killer still circulate so freely among them.

Wilders has risen to prominence only because he's expressing views that many others hold, and imprisoning him would do precisely nothing to stop the spread of those views. If this problem is going to be solved, that solution must begin with a free and open debate, and putting people on trial won't ensure a peaceful solution. If anything, it may make the day of reckoning far worse when it finally arrives.

October 6, 2010, 8:00 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink33 comments

Thoughts on a California Strategy

As you've surely heard by now, Judge Vaughn Walker issued a ruling last week striking down California's Proposition 8 on equal-protection grounds. You might also have heard that Argentina has legalized same-sex marriage and that a Mexican court upheld a marriage-equality law in Mexico City, rejecting a challenge by the conservative Calderon government.

Of course, all three of these victories are cause for jubilation. The wins in Mexico and Argentina are particularly welcome, insofar as they show that marriage equality isn't just a cause of the wealthiest nations but is taking root throughout the developing world. They also show the weakening power and fading influence of Christianity in general and the Catholic church in particular - which, to no one's surprise, continues its resolute march in the wrong direction by tenaciously opposing these decisions. Meanwhile, in California, conservatives who scream and gnash their teeth over "judicial activism", by which they mean any court ruling they disagree with, now have a new villain: the notorious hippie liberal who first nominated Judge Walker, Ronald Reagan.

There's little question that the relatively liberal Ninth Circuit will uphold Judge Walker's decision, but the real question is how this ruling will fare at the Supreme Court. It's safe to assume that there are four votes in favor of overturning the ruling no matter what happens - the anti-marriage-equality side could come into the court dressed in clown costumes, conduct their cross-examinations in mime, and deliver a closing argument consisting solely of honking a bicycle horn, and Scalia, Roberts, Thomas and Alito would vote in their favor.

But Justice Kennedy, the swing vote, is almost impossible to predict. Although he's a conservative Catholic and refused to enforce the separation of church and state in some truly horrendous decisions, he also joined the majority in Lawrence v. Texas, the decision striking down sodomy laws as an infringement of the right to privacy. It's just barely conceivable that he might actually rule the right way on this.

However, it's hardly desirable to stake the fundamental freedoms of millions of Americans on the whim of a single justice; we might as well trust a coin flip to deliver equality. I think there's a better way of defending this decision.

Whatever happens at each stage, it will take years for this case to work its way up to the Supreme Court. If Judge Walker refuses to stay his ruling, and if the Ninth Circuit upholds that, there could be tens of thousands of same-sex marriages in the meantime throughout the Ninth Circuit's jurisdiction. By the time the case reached the Supreme Court, it would be a fait accompli. It would be so firmly established that I can picture even a conservative Supreme Court being loath to overturn it. In that case, I could imagine the court simply refusing to hear the issue, letting Judge Walker's decision stand but not applying it to the rest of the nation.

The other possibility is that we could fight for a new ballot initiative. After all, Prop 8 passed by only a small margin, and the percentage of the electorate supporting same-sex marriage is growing every year. If California passes a new constitutional amendment repealing Prop 8 and affirming Judge Walker's ruling, the issue would be moot. Again, this would most likely result in a split where same-sex marriage was legal in California but not elsewhere. This isn't ideal, obviously, but it might be important strategically. Every victory we win, every legal beachhead we establish, builds momentum for the cause of equality and proves to wider society that the doomsday shrieking of the religious right is a heap of contemptible lies.

And the same holds true in Mexico City and Argentina: the more places that same-sex marriage moves into the mainstream, the more it will become familiar and accepted. More and more, people are getting the chance to see for themselves that gay and lesbian couples are normal human beings, deserving of the same rights as everyone else, and religious prejudice is weakening. Every fight we win sets the stage for further victories, and brings us ever closer to the time when true equality is the rule everywhere, not the exception.

August 11, 2010, 5:52 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink26 comments

Weekly Link Roundup

• Despite the good sense shown by the British Medical Association in lambasting homeopathy at their annual conference last month, the UK National Health Service has announced that it will still pay for water and sugar pills passed off as medicine.

• A court in Utah has thrown out the rape conviction of Mormon cult leader Warren Jeffs, due to a legal technicality, and ordered that the case be retried. Texas is still seeking to have him extradited to face similar charges, so it seems likely that he'll ultimately face justice.

• I was shocked to read of some ultra-Orthodox Israeli communities that are so extreme, they demand that their women wear burqas so as not to arouse the passions of men.

A Liberty University graduate defends the separation of church and state.

• In more welcome news, the U.K. education secretary has said he's interested in proposals for atheist schools, after Richard Dawkins made such a proposal in response to a law allowing faith-based and community groups to open their own publicly funded schools. And why not? If every church in England has its own schools - the article mentions Anglican, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and Hindu - why shouldn't there be atheist schools that teach students rationality and critical thinking?

July 31, 2010, 5:13 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink15 comments

Weekly Link Roundup: Net Drama Edition

The intertubes are exploding with drama this week! I'm still catching up on a backlog of reading material myself, but I thought I'd post about the more notable news items.

• First off, I just have to mention this because it's such delicious schadenfreude: Chris Mooney, atheist-basher extraordinaire, had a commenter earlier this year named Tom Johnson who claimed to be a scientist and wrote about how rudely and viciously he'd seen atheist professors treat their Christian colleagues. Mooney was much taken with these claims and devoted at least one entire post to promoting them. One little problem: Turns out "Tom Johnson" was an impostor who made this story up.

Mooney, allegedly a journalist, accepted this story uncritically because it fit his prejudices. And lest you accuse me of Monday-morning quarterbacking, quite a few of his commenters pointed out that "Tom Johnson"'s story seemed implausible when it was first posted. But Mooney waved those concerns aside, claiming he had personally verified the author's identity. Clearly, either this was a lie or his fact-checking was other than rigorous.

This episode is emblematic of what drives the accommodationists in general: sloppy handling of the facts, a lack of interest in understanding people's real motivations, and a refusal to engage with valid criticism. Note that, so far, Mooney has not apologized for slandering the reputation of the New Atheists based on lies.

• On a more depressing note: ScienceBlogs, a site that aggregates some of my favorite science bloggers, has blatantly violated one of the most basic rules of journalism: keep a strict separation between editorial content and advertising. The breach comes in the form of their appalling decision to publish a blog on food nutrition... by PepsiCo. Judging by its initial post, this blog will be straight-up corporate propaganda from Pepsi's PR department:

As part of this partnership, we'll hear from a wide range of experts on how the company is developing products rooted in rigorous, science-based nutrition standards to offer consumers more wholesome and enjoyable foods and beverages. The focus will be on innovations in science, nutrition and health policy. In addition to learning more about the transformation of PepsiCo's product portfolio, we'll be seeing some of the innovative ways it is planning to reduce its use of energy, water and packaging.

I'm guessing what we won't be seeing is any reason why artificially colored and flavored corn-syrup water needs to be part of anyone's diet.

By selling this space to corporate flacks, ScienceBlogs' management has sullied the reputation of all the legitimate, non-bought-and-paid-for science bloggers whom they recruited to write for them. I have no idea what they were thinking. Actually, scratch that, I do know what they were thinking - they were thinking of the money Pepsi was offering them to do this. What I don't understand is why they let ethical considerations take a back seat. Shame on you, ScienceBlogs.

• On a similar note, although the Huffington Post has always been a haven for pseudoscience and quackery (especially the loathsome anti-vaccine campaigners), they've really outdone themselves now: they've given column space to David Klinghoffer, a creationist affiliated with the Discovery Institute, to publish a screed about how evolution was responsible for Nazism. Worse, they're censoring criticism of this decision from their own writers.

What's to be done with the Huffington Post? Is their credibility and scientific integrity so utterly ruined, at this point, that rational, progressive readers ought to boycott them? Or is it still worth our time to write articles for them promoting science and reason, on the theory that the best use of light is to bring it into dark places? What do you think?

• And lastly, on the topic of cranks - we all know of the crackpots and pseudoscientists who try to silence skeptics by filing nuisance lawsuits, sending frivolous legal threat letters, or otherwise using the legal system for harassment. Now another such outfit has sued Dr. Stephen Barrett, proprietor of the excellent Quackwatch site. Since truth is a defense, I expect this lawsuit to be dismissed in short order. But in the meantime, Dr. Barrett could use some help with his legal bills. The reality-based community ought to defend its own, and if you're as outraged by this news as I am, I hope you'll consider sending a few dollars his way.

July 8, 2010, 12:17 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink13 comments

Christianist Professor Calls for Religious McCarthyism

Although I've learned not to expect much from the right-leaning Supreme Court, I've been pleasantly surprised by some of their recent decisions. First was Holy See v. John Doe, in which the court upheld a ruling that the Vatican isn't immune from lawsuits over its protection of pedophiles. The second was Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, in which a Christian student group sued a California law school to demand - what else? - the legal right to discriminate against gays.

The law school has a policy that all official student groups must accept all comers and may not turn anyone away on grounds of race, gender, or sexual orientation. The Christian group claimed that they should be able to exclude gays and still receive all the benefits granted to officially recognized student groups: university funding, the use of university facilities for meetings, and the right to use the university's newsletter for their communications. Fortunately, the Supreme Court disagreed:

The court held that the all-comers condition on access to a limited public forum was both reasonable and viewpoint neutral, and therefore did not violate CLS's right to free speech. Nor, in the court's view, did Hastings impermissibly impair CLS's right to expressive association: Hastings did not order CLS to admit any student, nor did the school proscribe any speech; Hastings merely placed conditions on the use of school facilities and funds.

This decision was both simple and reasonable, and is the obvious consequence of state and federal laws forbidding the government to cooperate in discrimination. Since the activity fee that funds student groups is mandatory, Hastings' policy ensures that no student is "forced to fund a group that would reject her as a member". As the court points out, other groups such as fraternities and sororities don't have official school recognition, yet they continue to thrive, and CLS is also still in existence and still holding its own events.

Departing Justice John Paul Stevens summed up the issue at hand in his concurrence, in a praiseworthy reminder that religiously inspired bigotry is no different than any other kind of bigotry:

Other groups may exclude or mistreat Jews, blacks, and women — or those who do not share their contempt for Jews, blacks, and women. A free society must tolerate such groups. It need not subsidize them, give them its official imprimatur, or grant them equal access to law school facilities.

All well and good, and I look forward to this decision being applied across the country. (Yes, I'm perfectly happy to see it apply to atheist groups as well.) But then I got a news alert directing me to this column, by Mike Adams on the ultra-right-wing site Townhall. As you'd expect, he's furious that the government won't cooperate in spreading his prejudice, and he's threatening to do something about it:

...when I get back to the secular university in August, I plan to round up the students I know who are most hostile to atheism. Then I'm going to get them to help me find atheist-haters willing to join atheist student groups across the South. I plan to use my young fundamentalist Christian warriors to undermine the mission of every group that disagrees with me on the existence of God.

That means an invading group can turn a smaller, weaker group into second class citizens on campus. That's what I intend to do to those groups who do not believe in God.

I do not seek robust debate. I seek power over the godless heathen dissident.

Now obviously, this is just a petulant tantrum. I don't expect Adams to actually attempt this idiotic plan, but even if he tried, it would be easy to thwart him. The court's decision pointed out that student groups could still, for example, expel members who didn't pay dues, or restrict officer positions to those who had been members for a year or more. If his "young Christian warriors" wanted to disrupt an atheist club, they'd have to sit and wait for a year, paying to promote atheism the whole time, before they'd get their chance. I doubt many Christians would be willing to do that. Or an atheist law students' club could just forgo official recognition, exactly as the court emphasized that they could, and restrict their membership to professing nonbelievers.

What concerns me more is that Mike Adams isn't just some random wingnut. According to his biography, he's a criminology professor at UNC-Wilmington.

It's one thing for professors to express political opinions. Liberal or conservative, they have the same free-speech rights as anyone else. It's something else altogether for Adams, a college professor, to proclaim that he seeks "power" over students on his own campus who disagree with him, that he "can't stand" them, that he wants to "undermine" and "destroy" their associations, and that his goal is to reduce them to "second-class citizens". It's chilling and inappropriate in the extreme for any person to make such statements about people over whom he has legitimate authority. If I were an atheist student, after reading this, I wouldn't be confident of fair treatment in Adams' class. (Just imagine the response from the right wing if an atheist professor wrote a column saying that he can't stand Christian students, wants to treat them as second-class citizens, and plans to disrupt and destroy their church meetings.)

I plan to write to UNC-Wilmington to bring this column to their attention and to ask if they sanction these kinds of statements from their professors about their own students. Here's contact info for the dean of Adams' school. Anyone else want to join me in writing a polite letter?

July 8, 2010, 5:51 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink48 comments

Breaking News: Catholic Church Not Above the Law

In the past two months, the Catholic pedophilia scandal has largely dropped out of the headlines. But it was still simmering, and it looks poised to erupt into public consciousness again after this raid by police in Belgium:

The declaration to the police set off four raids in which the authorities seized hundreds of case files from the commission's current leader, detained a group of bishops for more than nine hours and disturbed the tomb of a cardinal where construction work had recently been done.

Well, how about that! I'm surprised - but very pleasantly surprised - that, for once, the police are treating the Catholic church as they'd treat any other organization under the same accusations. Let's not forget that Roger Vangheluwe, a Belgian bishop, resigned after confessing that he had molested a boy. And unless Belgium follows a completely different pattern than every other country where news like that has surfaced, where there's one abuser and one victim, there are certain to be more of both. (See this article, also, for an excellent and detailed account of the raid and its repercussions.)

The Catholic church has consistently acted as if the law is only a technicality and these crimes are minor matters of no public concern - that if they recite some rosaries and say they're sorry, then they've done enough. I'm very glad to see that there's at least one country where law-enforcement officials don't share that view. These aren't minor embarrassments that the church should be allowed to handle internally. They're crimes, despicable violations of innocent children, aided and abetted by a conspiracy of silence among higher-ups. And the people guilty of these crimes should be treated the same way as we'd treat any other gang of criminals, not given a free pass because they claim to talk to God in their spare time. This quote, from the New York Times article, is especially welcome:

Prosecutors are considering whether to expand beyond gathering evidence against abusers to encompass those who knew children were in peril but failed to protect them. "You have a part of a case that could be against the ones who committed the crimes and you also could have another part of the case against those who didn't help someone who was in danger," Mr. Meilleur said.

Naturally, the gilded hypocrites in Rome were furious that they're being treated as if they were subject to the law like the rest of us mortals. According to reports, the Pope summoned the Belgian ambassador to the Vatican to denounce the raids. Even more shocking, the church also announced that it's disbanding its own internal panel investigating sex abuse in Belgium, in a clear act of retribution for the raid. (Not that that's a great loss - according to that article, "The Catholic panel had been in existence for over a decade, but for most of that time it dealt with only 30 complaints [out of hundreds] and took no discernible action on them.")

Meanwhile, in America, there's even more surprising and welcome news. As reported by AU, the Supreme Court has declined to intervene in the case of Holy See v. John Doe, an Oregon man who sued the Vatican after alleging that he was molested by a priest in the 1960s. The church, with the backing of the Obama administration, argued that as a sovereign nation, it was immune from the lawsuit. But a federal appeals court rejected that argument, allowing the case to proceed; and the Supreme Court's refusal to grant certiorari means that that decision will stand.

I'm especially surprised by this because it only takes four justices to concur for the court to review a case, and six current justices are Catholic, including all the conservatives. Could it be that they recognized the conflict of interest and were anxious not to give the impression that they planned to do the Pope's bidding from their seats on the Court? Or is it possible that even the conservative Catholic justices are as outraged by Rome's arrogance and stonewalling as the rest of us?

June 30, 2010, 5:45 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink24 comments

Simo Says

By Sarah Braasch

In loving memory of my baby brother, Jacob Michael Braasch (01/28/86 – 02/02/10)

The other night I fled for my life. I fled a brawl in Paris. No, I didn't get entangled in a drunken bar fight. Again. Actually, I was in an elementary school.

Ni Putes Ni Soumises (NPNS – Neither Whores Nor Submissives), the women's rights organization in Paris where I have been working as a human rights fellow, organized a public debate on the issue of the anticipated public burqa ban in France. The French Parliament is in the process of enacting a public ban on identity obscuring face coverings in France, which would include both the burqa (the all encompassing body covering) and the niqab (the face covering that leaves a slit for the eyes). The debate over the ban has embroiled all of France, and all of Europe, for that matter, in a battle over the role of religion in both government and public life in a democratic republic that espouses a strict secularism as the only foundation for equality amongst its citizens, including gender equality.

We chose a location, Montreuil, which is an inner ring suburb of Paris with a diverse population. We showered the local community with flyers and volunteers, engaging the inhabitants and inviting them to participate in the debate, both those in favor and those opposed to the ban. The goal was to have a real and meaningful exchange of ideas and opinions. Local community leaders and politicians were on the docket, as well as women's rights activists, such as Lubna Al Hussein, the Sudanese journalist who faced 40 lashings of the whip for wearing pants in Khartoum, and Sihem Habchi, the current President of Ni Putes Ni Soumises. Ni Putes Ni Soumises has, since its inception, made a point of holding open, public debates and panel discussions in the heart of the cités and quartiers of France (the ghettoized suburban housing projects surrounding France's major cities, which are primarily composed of marginalized Muslim immigrant communities).

I was absolutely heartbroken by the way in which the evening unfolded. It confirmed many of my worst fears about the fate of humanity and the utter incompatibility of religion and the survival of our species.

One of the women's rights activists would get up to speak. He or she would speak about secularism and gender equality and gender desegregation as the foundational pillars of a safe and egalitarian public space in which all citizens enjoy equal rights and equal protection under the law in a democratic republic.

Then, one of the Islamists would respond by telling us what Mohammed said or did as was recorded in the Quran or the Hadith and how wonderful Islam is for women, because it gives them rights according to their differentness. And, sum up with a lovely comment about how Jews are pigs or something or other and the speaker is an anti-immigrant racist who hates Muslims and is in league with the Zionists.

Then, a veiled woman would tell us that she is afraid of being attacked by Christian and Atheist Frenchmen, and that she thinks French society is disgusting because women wear thongs and Christie's auctioned off a portrait of Carla Bruni.

Then one of the secularists would state that any discussion of Islam is completely irrelevant and that anti-Semitic slurs will not be tolerated.

And, then someone would lunge at someone else.

One of the elected officials would get up to speak. He or she would speak about secularism and gender equality and gender desegregation as the foundational pillars of a safe and egalitarian public space in which all citizens enjoy equal rights and equal protection under the law in a democratic republic.

Then, one of the Islamists would respond by telling us what Mohammed said or did as was recorded in the Quran or the Hadith and how wonderful Islam is for women, because it gives them rights according to their differentness. And, sum up with a lovely comment about how Jews are pigs or something or other and the speaker is an anti-immigrant racist who hates Muslims and is in league with the Zionists.

Then, a veiled woman would tell us that she really likes being the property of her husband, because that's what Allah commands, and no one can tell her that she shouldn't be a slave.

Then one of the secularists would state that any discussion of Islam is completely irrelevant and that anti-Semitic slurs will not be tolerated.

And, then someone would lunge at someone else.

And, so on and so forth.

Eventually the situation became scary enough that the police were called and the debate halted. At one point, my mammalian survival instinct usurped control of my bodily functions, and without a second thought, I fled the premises. I made a beeline for the nearest exit, and I wasn't the only one. Once outside, I turned back to peer in through a window to see what was transpiring. I was standing alongside a woman in hijab, and we both turned to look at each other. Without speaking a word, our faces communicated what we both were thinking, "These mofos are crazy."

It was truly an exasperating, disheartening experience. I literally walked out of that truncated debate thinking, "We're doomed. It's all over. Don't bother. Instead of just metaphorically drinking the Koolaid, we should all just go ahead and literally drink the Koolaid."

Did the Islamists really expect the secularists to acquiesce after a little Quranic exegesis? Oh, ok, well if Mohammed said it or did it, I guess that settles that.

Refusal to consider the religious viewpoint in the context of secular, democratic governance is not bigotry; it is not racism; it is not intolerance. It is common sense. This is why freedom from religion IS freedom of religion. How would you even begin to prioritize the litany of religious opinions on even a single subject? The only results would be either tyranny or anarchy. Do you think the participants in that room would tolerate being lectured on the tenets of Judaism? Of Christianity? Do you think they would say, "Oh, ok, well if Moses or Jesus said it or did it, then I guess that's the way it has to be"?

Islamists are called Islamists for a reason. They really do want to impose Sharia upon the societies in which they reside, and not only upon the Muslim populations within those societies. For them, there is no compromise. There is no other viewpoint worth considering, other than the Islamic viewpoint.

This is the result of brainwashing and indoctrinating and inculcating in religious cults. These people were incapable, quite literally incapable of allowing for a society structured on any other principles than those enumerated in the Quran and the Hadith. It was simply inconceivable to them that someone would not accept and conform to the example of the Prophet. Their brains were hardwired for Islam. All neural networks were devoted to Islam. All synapses were firing for Islam. The notion of the irrelevancy of Islam to the conversation about good democratic governance left them without an argument. They didn't know how to respond. In their desperation to respond to such a blasphemous suggestion, they short-circuited and the unspent energy exerted itself in eruptions of violence. It was scary. Quite simply – it was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. Not because of the violence, but, because of the futility of the exercise. For that debate to have actually taken place, in any sort of realistic, credible, viable manner, years of religious deprogramming of all participants would have had to occur first.

I know some, even many, will say that religion is not the problem; fundamentalism is the problem, or fanaticism is the problem. I think this argument is asinine.

Imagine a society in which we brainwash all children to believe that they can fly. From the moment they are born, all children are taught that, if they jump off any sufficiently high precipice, and they are worthy and morally sound, they will be able to flap their arms and take flight, saving themselves from a deathly plunge. With the modernization of society, many parents have ceased to inculcate their children in this belief, having realized its fallacy. And, of those who persist in perpetuating the custom, most reveal the hoax to their children before they are old enough to test its claims. Others have reformed the tradition, advising their children that they best not attempt to test the belief, given that few are so worthy. But, regardless of the claims of modernity, the custom persists, and, as young adults, a certain percentage of our youth attempt just such an act, resulting in many needless deaths.

Now, imagine that the purveyors of this custom defend the practice by claiming that the problem is not that they brainwash their children into believing that they can fly; the problem is that a certain percentage of these children believe it. The problem is that a certain percentage of these children grow into adults who persist on believing it. The problem is the fundamentalists and the fanatics who refuse to reveal the hoax or admonish their children against attempting flight. The belief simply needs to undergo a reformation, an enlightenment, if you will. A moderate version of the belief is acceptable in a modern society, and even compatible with science.

I acknowledge that I work with many wonderful Muslim women who claim their religion and the right to interpret their religion for themselves, who strive on behalf of secularism and gender equality and gender desegregation. We are able to work together in harmony, regardless of our disparate views on religion, because we are both striving for the same goals: secularism, gender equality and gender desegregation.

Obviously, I think it is a waste of time to try to reform Islam into a gender-friendly, or, even, a gender-neutral doctrine. I think women would be better off rejecting religion all together. Trying to find a place for gender equality in the context of religion is like trying to find a place for racial equality in the context of Nazism. But, despite my abhorrence for religion, in a legal context, this is not my fight.

In a legal context, my fight is secularism. My fight is women's rights. The fight for secularism is NOT an act of aggression against religion. The fight for women's rights is NOT an act of aggression against religion. It might appear this way to religionists, because religion is the institutionalization of misogyny. But, the way in which secular, democratic governance appears to religionists could not be more beside the point. I hate religion. I fight against religion, but NOT in a legal context. But, in the open, public marketplace of ideas, as it should be. I would never support the criminalization of religion. Never. I just wish religionists would extend me the same favor.

After the debate, I found myself standing on the street guarding Lubna Al Hussein's luggage and the amp and chatting with Sihem Habchi. Someone who was obviously having trouble cooling off took a last lunge at Sihem. I was impressed by how quickly the police and security guards acted. They swooped in, scooping up Sihem and whisking her away behind a line of stern-faced police officers. Then I realized that no one had swooped in and scooped me up and whisked me away behind a line of stern-faced police officers. And, I was on the wrong side of that line of stern-faced police officers. I was on the side with all of the bearded and veiled Islamists who were having trouble cooling off. "What should I do?" I wondered. I tried to get rid of my scared face and affect an angry face instead.

It was an impossible situation, and a perfect metaphor – law and order standing between the secularists and the violent Islamists.

And, while I hate to be fatalistic, more and more I fear that, eventually, reason will lose out to faith to the downfall of humanity.

But, I'm not going down without a fight.

June 18, 2010, 5:47 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink28 comments

Why Atheists Should Do Jury Duty

I've never served on a jury, although I've had at least two jury duty notices sent to former addresses after I no longer lived in the area. But I'm certain the courts will catch up with me sooner or later, and truth be told, I'm actually looking forward to it. I know that being on a jury is likely to be exceedingly boring, and most of the cases that go to trial probably aren't all that consequential or all that difficult to decide. Still, I think it would be worthwhile to serve, both to play my role as a citizen and maybe also to bring some rationality to a courtroom where lawyers for both sides try to get away with fallacious arguments.

Precisely because we're so familiar with the many kinds of logical fallacies and less likely to be swayed by appeals to emotion, I think atheists would make excellent jurors. In this area, as in others, we embody many of the traits that society needs more of. Having more atheists serve on juries would be a much-needed corrective in light of the many criminal suspects who conveniently find Jesus at the courthouse doors, or horrifying practices like jurors who consult the Bible to determine their verdict.

I've been thinking about all this because of a link I was sent to a site called The Jury Expert, discussing the pros and cons, from a lawyer's viewpoint, of having an atheist as your client or going to trial when atheists are on the jury. The article reiterates some stats we're familiar with, showing how a majority of Americans are still prejudiced against atheists. It also has some remarks about the New Atheist movement that show, at one stroke, how the authors understand far better than all the accommodationist journalists and theologians what motivates criticism of us:

A new group of writers/spokespersons for atheists has emerged who are described as "angry, abrasive and critical of believers"; arrogant; and "fundamentalists" who are as "wrong-headed and dangerous as the bible thumping Christians" (a conclusion consistent with the negative impressions that Americans had of atheists all along).

There's also this interesting passage:

Atheists are not 'joiners' and many of them do not publicly identify themselves due to stigma. Most jury questionnaires only ask about religious affiliation, and since atheism is not a religion, per se, offering atheism as a response to a religion query is gratuitous. You can fairly assume that anyone who publicly identifies him- or herself as atheist is unusually opinionated and might be too unpredictable to have on your jury.

I would assume the point here is that lawyers don't want jurors who come to a case with strong convictions about the subject being debated; they want jurors whose minds aren't made up and who will be easy to influence. And I agree that anyone bold enough to self-identify as an atheist without being prompted probably doesn't fit that mold. Thus, if you want to serve on a jury, I imagine "none" would be the better response to a question about religious affiliation. Of course, if you don't want to serve, this also works as a way out - that is, unless the lawyer wants someone with strong opinions:

We have seen occasions where juries--and even focus groups--have begun their deliberations with a group prayer. Many atheists (and others) would be very uncomfortable about this, of course, and resistance might have a strong impact on the deliberative process. Of course, if you want a contentious deliberation or a hung jury you may choose to inject a militant atheist...

Naturally, I'm not too pleased by the idea of atheists being thought of as curmudgeons or radicals who'd be brought in deliberately in order to to disrupt the proceedings. (If there is such an effect, it would probably be more likely to occur because of militant religious people on the jury who couldn't stomach the idea of having a good-faith discussion with an atheist.) And I'm perfectly aware that atheists can be just as irrational and fallible as theists. Nevertheless, the kinds of jury manipulation lawyers are most likely to use are less likely to work on us. For that reason alone, atheists are an asset to the court system, and we should gladly play our part in the machinery of justice.

June 1, 2010, 5:39 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink32 comments

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