Religious Freedom Under International Islamic Attack

September 4, 2008

Some American innovations are so deeply embedded in our psyches that it’s hard to imagine how any other country could forgo them. But reject them they do, and now the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) seems to be moving, with objections from around the globe, to further formalize U.N. resolutions against “defamation,” primarily against Islam. Critics have pointed out that the language gives further cover for the persecution of minority voices in already undemocratic and illiberal Islamic regimes.

“This [language] destabilizes the whole human rights system,” said Angela Wu, international law director for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a public interest law firm in Washington. “It empowers the state rather than individual, and protects ideas rather than the person who holds them.”

We don’t really have a culture war in the U.S.: we have a impolite scuffle, mostly exaggerated for the benefit of political fundraising. The real culture war is between the liberal West and theocratic/ideological regimes who enforce conformity in their societies with the threat of violence and persecution.


Wafer Desecrated: PZ Myers Makes Good on His Threat & More Besides

July 24, 2008

Well, for better, and probably for worse, PZ Myers has done as he promised and treated a communion wafer in a manner unbecoming of the sacred, all to definitively demonstrate that, indeed, he doesn’t think these things are sacred. For good measure, he trashed not only the wafer, but also some torn pages of the Koran, and even torn pages of Dawkins’ writings.

This is one of those odd situations in which I know what other people will likely think far better than I know what to think.

Read the rest of this entry »


Anti-Evolution Doc Expelled Really Is Trying for a Theatrical Comeback!

July 19, 2008

Looks like those vague hints and rumors were indeed authentic: Ben Stein’s anti-science opus Expelled is going to be re-released later this summer.

The rationale, however, strikes be as pure hype:

“We had many individuals and groups who had planned to see the film, but decided not to because the cloud of doubt this lawsuit brought to the film,” noted one of the film’s producers, John Sullivan.

Riiiiight. Because an obscure lawsuit based on copyright claims that few people outside of nuts like myself that follow these things ever heard about had a chilling effect on ordinary moviegoers.

Now, it might have been reasonable for Sullivan to note that the Ono lawsuit hurt the distribution efforts of the film, which it almost certainly did, and that this hurt their momentum.

But this production has always favored incoherently overwrought rhetoric over honest appraisal. Does Sullivan really expect anyone to seriously believe that any moviegoers at all avoided the film because of the lawsuit? Were they afraid that Ono would have thugs stationed outside the theaters threatening anyone who dared to watch it? Conflicted fans of both the Beatles and Ben Stein that held off declaring their allegiances until the legal issues were resolved?

“We came out of the gate with strong momentum only to have our integrity questioned by this frivolous lawsuit. While we’re thrilled with the film’s having earned nearly $8 million during its first run; we’ve heard from enough people and groups who want to see it in their theaters that we’ve agreed to re-release it this time without an undeserved cloud over its head.”

Because, of course, the only “cloud” over the film’s head was an obscure copyright lawsuit and not, well, you know, most critics panning it, sciencebloggers raking it over the coals for its distortions and slander, the ADL condemning it, and so on.

And this paragraph makes the “cloud” reasoning even more ridiculous. People obsessive enough to demand the immediate re-screening of a film which will likely be out on DVD in a few months are not the sort of people who would have stayed away the first time… based on the mere existence of a copyright lawsuit against the film.

“We will not be silenced. In fact it will have the opposite effect: we will re-release it and allow millions of Americans to go to the box office and register their vote against Ms. Ono and her attempt to keep them from watching our film.”

As John Pieret has pointed out, something is funky with the math here. Given that Expelled made about 7.5 million during its run, and ticket prices were generally in the range of 8 dollars and up, then at best the film got about a million viewers (not counting the fact that some percentage of people would have been repeats). The odds are astronomically low that any hypothetical second run would match that, let alone exceed it.

And indeed, despite all the hype, it looks like the producers know that, and that the “re-release” is not quite akin to a remastered Star Wars. At the end of the article, they note that they have 1000 prints of the film ready to go. Which is a rather far cry from “1000 different theaters already booked to show the film”: the sort of thing you might expect from an announcement about an impending re-release. As far as I can tell, this is all just hyperbolic way of announcing that the producers, free from the injunction, are now willing to lease out old prints to anyone who wants them.

Which all strikes me as sort of pathetic coming from an outfit that once seemed to sincerely believe that they would be sparking off a vast nationwide movement. We still don’t know whether the filmmakers actually broke even after their production and marketing costs.


Prospective DNC/RNC Convention Protesters Already Extremely Annoying

July 19, 2008

Oy vey. Drudge and other media sources are starting to profile some of the groups planning on turning the upcoming party conventions into three-ring freak circuses, and I’m already sick of these people. Here’s a sampling of the bounty of bombastic banner-waving boneheads who think that strutting around in the street with posters is an effective way to accomplish anything but some decent exercise:

“We are completely peaceful,” said Rob Weiland, a 37-year-old courier from Denver and member of the group We Are Change Colorado. “We follow the ideals of Ghandi.”

Spectacular. Except that Gandhi was opposing the sometimes brutal colonialist exploitation of an entire country. “We Are Change,” on the other hand, are a bunch of 9/11 conspiracy nuts with a website so full of rambling YouTube nonsense that it crashes my browser (warning: website may crash browser).

Read the rest of this entry »


Double standard: Andrew Sullivan on Catholic Wafer Controversy

July 14, 2008

Blogger and liberal Catholic Andrew Sullivan was a hearty defender of the infamous Danish cartoons that depicted and poked fun at the Islamic prophet Mohammed. But now, the sacred cow is, er… on the other foot, or something. Sullivan Sullivan tells a very different story when it comes to the recent hubbub about PZ Myers merrily threatening to desecrate Catholic communion wafers:

It is one thing to engage in free, if disrespectful, debate. It is another to repeatedly assault and ridicule and abuse something that is deeply sacred to a great many people. Calling the Holy Eucharist a “goddamned cracker” isn’t about free speech; it’s really about some baseline civility. Myers’ rant is the rant of an anti-Catholic bigot. And atheists and agnostics can be bigots too.

“Atheists and agnostics” is just another word for “some people,” and yes, people can be bigots, especially towards groups of which they are not a part. Whether or not you think Myer’s jab is bigoted or not depends quite a bit on whether you think attacking and parodying beliefs can be a form of bigotry or not. I’m open to the argument that it can be in some cases.

But I’m not so open to the argument that it’s bigotry when done against Catholics, but not when basically the same thing is done against Muslims.

Sullivan, however, thinks he can dig his way out of this double-standard:

Thanks for the defenses. My objection to PZ Myers – even as I defended his right to say whatever he wants and wouldn’t want him punished in any way – is not, in my view, a double standard. Printing a cartoon for legitimate purposes is a different thing than deliberately backing the physical desecration of sacred objects. I’d happily publish a Mohammed cartoon if it advanced a genuine argument, but I would never knowingly desecrate a Koran purely to mock religion.

But Sullivan’s distinction here is nonsense. In Islam, creating images of their prophet is inherently very much a form of physical denigration, no different than physically denigrating a consecrated wafer (in this case, oddly, by NOT destroying it!), or improperly treating a written name of God is for some observant Jews. All of these are, of course symbolic acts done to unfeeling objects, and it is a matter of religious belief as to whether it causes any real harm to anything other than people’s feelings or not.

Sullivan’s definition of “legitimate purposes” is also a form of special pleading. Myers and the Danish cartoonists were both seeking to mock religion for precisely the same reasons: to puncture presumptions of special authority in matters metaphysical. Either you think that’s a legitimate purpose or not: but you can’t have it both ways depending on how much you like the target.

I certainly think it fair to object to these sorts of showy, trolling criticisms as unproductive, or rude, or aggressive. But as even Sullivan’s readers have pointed out, the same can be said about people, himself included, attacking or making fun of Scientology. If it were really “about baseline civility” as Sullivan claims, he’d treat this incident as a case of reconsidering his own bigotry when it comes to anything but Catholic doctrine, rather than trying to pin it exclusively on Myers.

Update: Commenter Terry points out that Sullivan’s concern for the desecration of the host is potentially problematic for him. For any number of reasons, if Sullivan himself has taken communion in what his church could consider a state of sin (i.e. unrepentantly defending and/or engaging in gay sex), then he himself would have desecrated the Host.

Dueling Hypocrisy Update: Andrew Sullivan still hasn’t addressed his own lame defense of his cartoon blasphemy apologia, but he has thought to check in on PZ Myers’ take, and implies that Myers wasn’t as enthusiastic about bashing Muslim beliefs as he was about Catholics. But Sullivan is pretty clearly quote-mining here. Myers says immediately after the supposedly damning quote:

So on the one hand I see a social problem being mocked, but on the other—and here comes the smug godless finger-wagging—I see a foolish superstition used as a prod to mock people, and a people so muddled by the phony blandishments of religion that they scream “Blasphemy!” and falsely pin the problem on a ridiculous insult to a non-existent god, rather than on the affront to their dignity as human beings and citizens. Religion in this case has accomplished two things, neither one productive: it’s distracted people away from the real problems, which have nothing at all to do with the camera-shy nature of their imaginary deity, and it’s also amplified the hatred.

In short, there doesn’t seem to be any less willingness to attack sacred beliefs here. Myers’ reservations were, if you read his post, mainly about his feeling that the cartoons traded in racial stereotypes of what he saw as a powerless minority.


Defending Obama’s “Faith-Based” Funding Changes: Special Rules for the Religious?

July 7, 2008

I’m by and large indifferent to Obama’s promised expansion of “faith-based” funding, which like most government programs that target certain groups, is likely to boil down to patronage, just as it did in the Bush administration. Maybe he’ll do better, enforce some actual standards of quality and non-partisanship. In fact, given the outright disdainful incompetent way many of these programs have been run, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could do as badly. But politics has a certain gravity, not unlike economic markets, that quickly washes away one’s original intentions when it comes time to make policy. I can’t really celebrate or decry Obama on this stuff.

There are, however, some broader important church/state principles here, and a lot of people making arguments that I just don’t think hold water.

Most prominently, there’s the religious folks who are horrified that Obama is suggesting that they might have to play by the same rules as everyone else who receives government grants. The NYTimes calls it the “six little words” that threaten to throw a wrench into his overture to religious groups

Read the rest of this entry »


Obama’s Faith Based Mistake

July 1, 2008

An Obama presidency, apparently, will mean more “faith-based” programs funded by the government. Starting life as Bill Clinton’s “Charitable Choice” and then becoming yet another a clumsy partisan bludgeon in the Bush administration under the name of his “faith-based initiatives,” the drive to drive more government money into the hands of religious groups has always had a questionable track record. Religious groups themselves have been wary of government strings attached, and a whole lot of questionable programs with dubious efficacy have ended up with oodles of handouts (and the payouts have often been suspiciously partisan).

So color me somewhat skeptical that an Obama-run version is going to be any better. I’m mostly with Barry Lynn: shut the program down entirely. Go back to simply funding non-profits to provide services, and let churches figure out how to organize as non-profit charities, including all the same regulations and responsibilities, if they want any moola. Let the rules be the same for everyone, instead of trying to give religious groups special treatment.

On the other hand, Obama does get the above issue mostly right where Bush got it wrong:

And while Bush supports allowing all religious groups to make any employment decisions based on faith, Obama proposes allowing religious institutions to hire and fire based on religion only in the non-taxpayer-funded portions of their activities — consistent with current federal, state and local laws. “That makes perfect sense,” he said.

It does. The issue is simple: when the government contracts out some service to a private organization, what they’re paying for is the service, not the promotion of someone else’s ideology. For many religious organizations, this is potentially a problem: they don’t want the taking of some government money to force them to change all of their programs and services and ideals. The solution is simply to keep a separate set of books: to separate out the charitable service from the religious part.

Catholic charities have, in fact, functioned like this for decades, mostly without any problems at all. The modern Catholic attitude here has always been the most laudable: help people first. Not as a means promote their religion, but because their religion calls us to do it. And if people are inspired by that, want to understand what would motivate such charity, well great.

Unfortunately, too many evangelical organizations basically see the promotion of their ideology itself as the primary act of charity in many of these endeavors. Sure, we’d like to get you off drugs. But it’s getting you hooked on Jesus that will really help you. And that’s where we run into problems… and get lame whining like this:

That’s because telling a small organization to keep employees hired with federal funds separate from others “is unmanageable — and besides those folks want to hire people who share their vision and mission,” Towey said.

Sorry, but that’s just pathetic. If you care more about your own vision and ideology than providing the charity or service you’re supposed to be providing, that’s fine. But in that case, you don’t have the right to expect other taxpayers’ money to pay for your proselytizing, or to get a gay taxpayer’s money for your program only to turn around and discriminate against the person who’s unwillingly paying for it.


Texas Legalizes Abusive Exorcisms… Or Does It?

June 28, 2008

There’s been much dismay in the rational-o-sphere about a recent ruling by the Texas Supreme Court. The ruling concerns a case in which two “exorcisms” were performed on a minor, leading her to be injured and psychologically traumatized. The original jury held the church accountable, awarding the girl a few hundred thousand dollars. The Texas Supreme Court, on the other hand, found that the actions of the church were protected under the 1st amendment.

On the surface, this sounds like a pretty scary ruling: basically saying that a group can claim religious warrant for forcibly restraining someone against their will, injuring them, traumatizing them, and then get off scott free. But as I read through the full text of the opinion, the case looks decidedly more complicated.

Read the rest of this entry »


Teacher Who Burned Crosses into Student’s Arms Gave Extra Credit for Expelled Film

June 20, 2008

The science-blogosphere has been following the story of John Freshwater, a Mount Vernon public school teacher, for some time. The man is clearly off his rocker. He burned a cross into the arms of one his students. In class. And in addition to a host of definitive religious assertions to students during class time, Bibles and other religious materials featured prominently in the classroom, Ed Brayton also notes that:

He kept creationist books and videos in his classroom, including at least one video and one book by Kent Hovind. He also kept the book Refuting Evolution there. Parents showed the investigators handouts from religious groups slamming evolution and claiming that dinosaurs and humans lived together, among other things.

He even used, as a class example of how “science can be wrong” (a perfectly legitimate and even important thing to teach) the idea that science may have found a genetic basis for homosexuality, which of course meant that ‘In that case science is wrong because the Bible states that homosexuality is a sin’ (which is not even close to a legitimate thing to teach in public school).

But from Panda’s Thumb comes word of an even more intriguing tidbit in the recently released report on his conduct:

Mr. Freshwater gave an extra credit assignment for students to view the movie “Expelled” which does involve intelligent design.

Mmmm hmmm…

Interestingly, this is one of the few cases in which I’ve heard about Expelled successfully penetrating into a school classroom, which was supposedly one of its primary goals. And, surprise surprise, it comes from a young earth creationist using a public school classroom as his bully pulpit.

One who feels at liberty to brand his religious beliefs directly into the skin of his students. Teach Burn the controversy!

Update: Freshwater fired. Countdown watch until the DI claims him as another martyr for intellectual freedom…


Is Gay Marriage Posed to “Obliterate” Religious Freedom? Uh, No.

June 17, 2008

As wedding bells ring out in California, opponents of gay marriage are left facing a government and culture that are increasingly failing to take their warnings of impending social disaster seriously.

According to Dale Carpenter over at Volokh, the reason is plain and simple: critics of gay marriage have failed demonstrate that it will cause any tangible harm:

They have tried many harm-based arguments but so far nothing has stuck. Not “evidence” of social decline from Scandinavia or the Netherlands. Not polygamy. Not population implosion.

With that failure in mind, the search is on for some suitably scary gaypocalyptic scenario with which to shock Americans. And the current favorite is the claim, recently advanced by Maggie Gallagher and Marc D. Stern, that gay marriage threatens to destroy religious rights.

Argues Gallagher (who spend the first half of her article aptly demonstrating that she’s either ignorant of or oblivious to swingers):

Gay-marriage advocates are willing to use a variety of arguments to allay fears and reduce opposition to getting this new “equality” principle inserted in the law; these voices may even believe what they are saying. But once the principle is in the law, the next step will be to use the law to stigmatize, marginalize, and repress those who disagree with the government’s new views on marriage and sexual orientation.

Claims Stern:

If past rulings are any guide, it is religious rights that are likely to be “obliterated” by an emerging popular majority supporting same-sex relationships — and it seems unlikely that the California courts will intervene. That’s a shame.

But as Carpenter points out, these fears are dishonest on at least two counts.

First of all, what’s at stake in many of the “horror stories” these and other critics cite are the right of religious groups to discriminate against gay people in situations where the groups are either using government money, or some public assistance, for the relevant function. That’s a rather different matter than religious expression and core worship services themselves being targeted for obliteration or discrimination lawsuits. It’s an issue of a much smaller scope. It’s lame enough when religious organizations generally claim that they should not be taxed, since “taxation is the power to destroy.” But what these critics are essentially arguing that religion is in danger of obliteration unless it receives special, no-strings attached, taxpayer support and legal treatment for their charitable programs.

Secondly, the actual issue in all of these cases isn’t even gay marriage in the first place. Again, nearly every “horror story” that’s cited involves anti-discrimination laws proper. Gay marriage is irrelevant. Carpenter again:

Neither the viability of the discrimination claim nor the viability of the religious objectors’ desired exemption turns on whether the gay couple is officially recognized. In most of the cited cases, in fact, the couples’ relationship was not recognized by the state, but adding such a status to the cases would change nothing about their legal significance. The most egregious abuse of these examples to undermine gay marriage is the Catholic Charities case, which involved the application of a 1989 antidiscrimination law. That dispute arose because the Catholic Church objected to complying with the law for the first time only after gay marriage was permitted in the state. It was a fortuitously timed conflict for gay-marriage opponents given that the state legislature was at that very moment considering a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

In short, what Gallagher and Stern are really objecting to in these passages are anti-discrimination laws that have been around, in some cases, for decades. If they really oppose those laws, they are welcome to argue their case. In fact, they’re 100% right about some of them, in my opinion: I’m generally against all anti-discrimination laws that affect purely private businesses in any case (yes, even racial ones). But presenting these situations as if they are unique challenges that only now exist thanks to gay marriage is deeply misleading.

And if there really are any good reasons to see California’s latest newlyweds as portents of doom, they’ll have to be found elsewhere.


I’m NOT looking forward to Bill Maher’s Religulous Film

June 15, 2008

Bill MaherOv vey…

In case you haven’t heard, comedian and Politically Incorrect/Real Time host Bill Maher has a new film headed to theaters: a com-ockumentary of sorts called Religulous, in which he sets out to explore, and generally ridicule, the silliness of religious practice and belief.

Now, it’d be rather silly for me to complain about someone criticizing religious beliefs. Or even poking a bit of admittedly underhanded fun at all things theological. But I still can’t in good conscience look at this film with anything other than apprehension…

Read the rest of this entry »


Uh, The Ten Commandments on Church Property is Just Fine, You Silly Billies

June 10, 2008

Moses Smash!Ed Brayton has noticed a truly batty story over at the bat-central vanity publication, WorldNetDaily.

For years, the ACLU has been consistently and rather politely explaining that our government is not the proper venue in which to endorse particular religious ideas… let alone to post a list of religious commandments in government courthouses. Naturally, for zealots who believe that no government function is complete without the showy stamp of their particular religious ideology, this principled position is quite frustrating. Also frustrating is the fact that U.S. courts have often agreed with the ACLU.

Enter “Project Moses,” the brainchild of anti-ACLU crank Joe Worthing. The aim of Project Moses is simple: do something that the ACLU is perfectly fine with, that they’d even defend in court as a constitutional right, all in the hopes of pissing them off. Hundreds of Ten Commandment monuments installed on church and private properties later, and so far, no luck.

And lest you think this is all about an innocent love for the Ten Commandments, rather than merely treating holy scripture as an extension of Worthing’s middle-finger:

One Nebraska city’s situation is a perfect example of what the organization wants to do: A citizen brought a complaint against the city government for a Ten Commandments monument hidden in a remote corner of a public park.

It was removed, but one of the Project Moses monuments was placed instead on a street front property. It happens to be only a few blocks from where the complainant lives, and he now has to drive within 15 feet of God’s Laws whenever he passes that location, Worthing said. (emphasis added)

Yes, yes, I’m sure the man is scared stiff of that the voodoo powers of “God’s Laws” (which apparently have an effective radius of only 15 feet) will like… uh, or something. And stuff. Doing what he asked (i.e. just to move the monument off government property) sure showed him!

It doesn’t matter how many times ACLU and other supporters of the separation of church and state explain that they are not trying to ban religion but merely to ensure that the government stays neutral on religious matters. Zealots like Worthing have simply bought into the misrepresentations and scare-tactics of the religious right without any reservation or skepticism. So much so that they’ve actually convinced themselves that they’re striking a blow against us by doing what we suggested they do in the first place.

Sigh. And you know that thing where people are so crazy that they start to sound like they’re in an article from the Onion? Yeah, well, we’ve got that:

“Christians [sic] schools, too, should consider the impact, he said.

Instead of having a cardboard cutout [of the Ten Commandments], how about a 900-pound stone monument in an entryway,” he said. “It’s something like 3,500 times a child will have to walk by that over the course of their grade school years. They just may be able to remember them then.” (emphasis added)

Yes, yes, in schools that generally require children to read and study the bible daily, where public displays of bible verses, prayer, and Ten Commandments already abound, slapping down another huge granite slab is what’s really going to tip the balance. It’s so crazy it just might work. Maybe they can put his Ten Commandments monument right next to the Ten Commandment monument they already have.

Dude, it’d be like, the Twenty Commandments! Let’s launch over it!

Update: In doing a bit of research, the only reference to a monument in a Nebraska city park I could find was the one in Plattsmouth. Unless there is some other high profile case in Nebraska concerning the Ten Commandments in a park, Worthing is either lying, misinformed, or this quote is from several years ago. After several appeals, the court in this case ultimately ruled that the monument could stay on public property.

Also notable in this case was the fact that the courts, which had originally protected the name of the man filing the complaint out of fears for his safety, eventually allowed the Omaha World-Herald to publish it. When they did so, they rather disturbingly included not only his name but also what car he drives, his license plate, his personal and professional details, as well as, charitably, listing the death threats made against him and his family.