Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Did He Or Didn't He? The Pope and Condoms

The Pope's comments on condom use have been hailed by campaigning groups and the liberal media as a breakthrough, a long-overdue recognition of the gap between dogma and reality. But what did he actually say? And, more to the point, what did he actually mean?

Last year, Benedict said that condoms worsened the spread of AIDS and the Vatican did nothing to contradict Cardinal Trujillo who claimed that the virus could permeate condoms. They have consistently preached that abstinence is the only moral defense against HIV/AIDS while millions die around the world.

The Pope's latest message to the world was part of an interview with German Catholic journalist Peter Seewald for a new book, Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times.

It appears that the Pope said condom use can be acceptable in certain cases, where the protection of life was the primary aim, not the prevention of life (ie, contraception). He apparently said that male prostitutes could use condoms as a step towards 'acting responsibly' - because there is no chance of contraception between two men, presumably. Not that the Vatican has shifted its position on homosexuality one inch.

Benedict has caused a right old flap at HQ with spokesmen falling over themselves to explain what he 'really' meant. Rev Federico Lombardi said the remarks were unprecedented but that they were given 'colloquially', not as part of official church teaching. In case that wasn't clear, Sandro Magister, a Vatican reporter, explained that there is a 'graduated spectrum of authority' between official church teaching and conversational papal remarks.

The Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, broke an embargo to say that condom use was justified in some cases. But then the Rev Joseph Fession whose Ignatius Press published the English version weighed in and said that the Italian translation was wrong. The German and English versions talk about male prostitutes while the Italian version refers to female prostitutes. The Pope approved only the German version.

Confusion reigns. Asked by the website of the US-based National Catholic Register whether Benedict's statement indicated that in some cases condoms were permissible, Cardinal Raymond Burke said: "No, it's not." Again, get your act together, guys. Did some of you not get the memo?

But at a press conference in the Vatican to mark the launch of the book, Lombardi said: "I personally asked the pope if there was a serious, important problem in the choice of the masculine over the feminine," Lombardi said. "He told me: 'No.'"

However, a spokesman for the charity Caritas said that bishops conferences in Southern Africa in 2000 and in Chad in 2002 had already sent out pastoral letters to church workers advising them to follow their conscience when advising married couples where one partner was infected.

Other Catholic outlets jumped in to say that the Pope had not changed the church's teaching on condom use and that L'Osservatore - the Vatican's own newspaper, remember - had betrayed him. Blaming the media for getting the wrong end of the stick or going for sensational headlines is often entirely justified, but in this case, it's the Vatican's own mouthpiece that is getting the blame. The right hand really doesn't know what the left hand is doing. You'd really think that after nearly 2000 years at this game they would have got their act together.

What the Pope said was (probably, until the next refutation or 'clarification'):

'There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be the first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way towards recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection, that can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality'. The Pope added that the church can never regard condom use as a 'real or moral solution'.

What the 'humanization of sexuality' might be is anyone's guess. Presumably, he means sex only between a lady and a gentleman who are married and want to make babies.

Condoms still absolutely cannot be used for contraception. One of the pope's most senior officials, Cardinal Rino Fisichella, told the press conference it was "intrinsically an evil". Could we get some 'clarification' on that?

Maybe this has opened a debate. Maybe the Catholic Church will be forced to discuss condoms and HIV/AIDS. Maybe charity workers on the frontline will continue ignoring HQ and taking the more humane course of action. Whatever happens, the Vatican comes out of this looking like a bunch of amateurs who can't even give a consistent message.

The Pope explained earlier in the book why nothing a Pope says in an interview should be regarded as authoritative. Except for all the other parts of the book that the Vatican doesn't disagree with. So what it boils down to is that the Pope was just having a bit of a chat, what he said doesn't count because he wasn't wearing his big Popey hat at the time and didn't start the sentence with 'Simon says...'

If there are any further 'clarifications', I'll post them here.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Why I Am Not A Humanist

The talk at Skeptics in the Pub last night was Objections to Humanism. Here are some of mine:

Andrew Copson of the BHA spoke at length about evolution, science, morality without religion and the value of optimism. While there was nothing much to disagree with, nor was there anything specific or unique to humanism. I asked in the Q&A what is added by claiming as humanist the acceptance of evolution, the value of scientific enquiry and so on. The reply (eventually) was that 'It's just a word thing' and that humanism is a useful label. But labels are useful only if they make it clear what something is.

There are plenty of people who accept evolution and subscribe to a non-religious moral code but who do not call themselves humanist. It is however a useful bit of soft soap if you're a politician who can't bring themselves to admit publicly that you're an atheist.

According to the BHA website: 'Humanism is the view that we can make sense of the world using reason, experience and shared human values and that we can live good lives without religious or superstitious beliefs'.

Although they make no claim to be the sole purveyors of this view, they also make no claim to say anything original or to add anything to these views. In other words, humanism has no USP.

The website continues: 'Humanists seek to make the best of the one life we have by creating meaning and purpose for ourselves. We choose to take responsibility for our actions and work with others for the common good'.

Again, nothing unique there, no added value.

One argument against humanism by some believers is that it denies the 'specialness' of humanity. This is an argument levelled against evolutionists and atheists too - even its accusers can't find anything original about it to attack.

Copson countered this by quoting (and agreeing with) another humanist (whose name I didn't catch) who said: 'It is love that makes sex human'.

Does this mean that sex without love is not human or is less than fully human? Billions of people throughout history might disagree with him. Condemning or at least dismissing sex without love is sailing close to certain religious points of view. Moreover, it is rather prudish and twee. Or maybe whoever said it just wasn't having the right kind of sex.

It was said that it is the bond between us that makes us special. There was no real explanation of what 'special' means. He did allow that we are possibly special only to each other but this still supports an anthropocentric view. Why do we need to see ourselves as special? Certainly we are different from other animals but they are also very different from each other.

There was also a retrospective look at various philosophers and others throughout history whose ideas were described as humanist in some form. This is like firing shots at a wall and then drawing a target round them. The people mentioned were not humanists, most of them existed before the term was coined. Democritus and Epicurus, for example, were cited as forefathers of humanism but they are just as much the precursors of scientific rationalism. Nothing is gained by tagging them as proto-humanists except to try and give humanism some sort of historical weight and worth.

The BHA have claimed that there are 17 million humanists in the UK after a poll found that 36% of people have a naturalistic world view. This will be news to 16.999 million of them. Nothing is gained for the cause if people are humanist without knowing it and trying to claim 17 million kind of looks a bit needy.

Humanism as a world view is sometimes accused of being 'just' an alternative to religion. Although Copson denied this, many humanists say that humanism gives them an identity, a worldview and set of moral values/rules similar to those provided by religion but without any supernatural element. In this case, humanism appears to be the methadone to the opiate of religion.

The BHA provide non-religious celebrants for funerals and other ceremonies. This is a much-needed service but could quite easily exist independently of humanism. They just happen to be the organisation behind this service, but they need not be.

There were possibly stronger reasons for joining a humanist group in the past when religious people and values dominated and non-believers of any kind were often isolated. But with current technology, wherever you live and whatever you believe, you can find like-minded people. There is of course still a value for some people in meeting up with others who share their worldview - we are social animals after all - but humanism is no more significant a definition than being a member of any other special interest club that contributes to or informs your identity and relationship with others.

The non-religious are still under-represented in some areas of public life while religious groups are accorded privileges so it can be useful to have a term to set yourself apart and distance yourself from claims made by religious leaders to represent the whole of society. But humanist does this no better than atheist, agnostic, non-believer, rationalist, freethinker, secularist and others.

To identify as humanist is to identify as either atheist or agnostic along with some or all of a rather vague set of ethical and pro-science statements. But for me, it's such an inchoate, nebulous concept that I can't engage with it at all.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Freedom of Expression Under Seige

There's a scene near the end of the Rutles movie, All You Need is Cash, where Eric Manchester, the Rutle Corp Press Agent (played by Michael Palin), says: Suddenly, everyone became amazingly litigious. I remember I'd get up in the morning. Sue someone. Check in the papers that I hadn't been fired. Go to the office. Sue someone. Pick up the morning's writs. Sue the bank. Go out for lunch. Sue the restaurant. Get back in, collect the writs that had been received that afternoon. Read the papers. Phone the papers. Sue the papers. Then go home. Sue the wife.

Freedom of expression is currently under attack and it's no joke.

Firstly, there's Twittergate. Paul Chambers tweeted a not especially funny remark and has lost his job, got a criminal record and is facing a fine of thousands of pounds after an appeal at the Crown Court failed. Martin Robbins covers the story here. Chambers tweeted: Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week to get your shit together, otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!! He was found guilty under section 127 of the 2003 Communications Act:

Improper use of public electronic communications network
A person is guilty of an offence if he—
sends by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character; or
causes any such message or matter to be so sent.
A person is guilty of an offence if, for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another, he—
sends by means of a public electronic communications network, a message that he knows to be false,
causes such a message to be sent; or
persistently makes use of a public electronic communications network.
A person guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable, on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale, or to both.
Subsections (1) and (2) do not apply to anything done in the course of providing a programme service (within the meaning of the Broadcasting Act 1990 (c. 42)).

Then there's Dalia Nield who is under threat of being sued for saying that a cream which claims to increase bust size 'by up to 8.4%' is unlikely to work. Nield is a prominent plastic surgeon and has serious concerns about both the efficacy and the safety of Boob Job cream. According to the website, 'Boob Job works with your natural fat cells. As the fat cells move around the body after eating, boob job 'blocks' the fat into the area where the product has been applied, so the bust and décolleté areas. You will see a gradual increase in cup size within 56 days as well as gaining an instant lifting and firming effect.'.

Then there is the couple suing the RSPB which said that the couple's research may have harmed the black grouse that they were studying and that their methods were 'untried and untested'.

The Campaign for Libel Reform lists many others who either have been sued or who are threatened.

It's important to remember that it's not just the UK's shameful libel laws that are threatening freedom of expression. There is 'defamation of religion', a tactic used by some religious groups to shut down any criticism or even discussion of beliefs and practices. These religious groups claim the right not to be offended, questioned, challenged or called to account. The National Secular Society has written a document about the dangers here (in the interests of full disclosure, I wrote some of it).

As Resolution 1510 (2006)4 of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe points out: 'What is likely to cause substantial offence to persons of a particular religious persuasion will vary significantly from time to time and from place to place'. Offence is a good tactic because it's so subjective, personal and nebulous.

Another tactic is to claim so-called Christianophobia or Islamophobia or to conflate race with religion, stifling debate with accusations of persecution and racism.

Resolution 1510 (2006) by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe states that:
1. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe reaffirms that there cannot be a democratic society without the fundamental right to freedom of expression. The progress of society and the development of every individual depend on the possibility of receiving and imparting information and ideas. This freedom is not only applicable to expressions that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive but also to those that may shock, offend or disturb the state or any sector of the population, in accordance with Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ETS No. 5).

In the UK, the crime of religiously aggravated offence introduced in 2006 represents a new kind of blasphemy law and the crime of religiously aggravated insulting behaviour carries a sentence of up to 7 years in prison. The original blasphemy law was abolished in March 2008. Professional offence-takers in religious communities have already begun to exploit this new avenue of restricting criticism and comment.

A sample of attempts by religious groups to stifle freedom of expression:

Waterstones bookshop was threatened by Christian Voice and cancelled a reading at a Cardiff branch by Welsh poet Patrick Jones.

A statue by the artist Terrence Koh at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead provoked outrage and condemnation by Christians.

Behzti, a play depicting rape in a Sikh temple, provoked violent protests and thousands of pounds of damage at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in December 2004. The theatre was forced to cancel the play on safety grounds and playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti fled into hiding after receiving death threats.

The London exhibition of the work of Maqbool Fida Husain was closed after threats of violence from Hindu fundamentalists in 2006.

Jerry Springer – the Opera provoked street protests, threats to theatres and the publicizing of private addresses of BBC executives after it was shown on television - even though most of the complainants hadn't even seen it.

And of course, there was the Danish cartoons incident. More recently, religious groups tried to get a TV advert for Marie Stopes clinics banned and an ice cream ad was banned by the ASA after just six complaints because it showed two priests about to kiss.

Freedom of expression, scientific debate and even the ability to make flippant remarks on Twitter can no longer be taken for granted. Do not criticise me, do not question me, do not challenge me and, above all, do not offend me. Dark days.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Mass Blog for Libel Reform

Today marks the first anniversary of the Free Speech Is Not For Sale report. I'm joining hundreds of other bloggers all over the world in solidarity against England’s draconian libel laws.

Like most bloggers, I don’t get paid for my writing, so if someone decided to sue me for libel, I would be in deep trouble and would have to sell some of my internal organs (assuming anyone would want them after the heavy use they've had).

Wikipedia has a good page on the history of English libel laws here. In particular, note “McLibel” and Simon Singh vs the BCA cases, both of which really brought this issue into the public sphere. These were occasions when big institutions (McDonalds and the British Chiropractic Association) decided to sue for vast sums of money when someone dared to speak out against them. The publicity from these cases was enough that eventually the claimants backed down, but for many lower profile cases, this isn’t necessarily going to happen, and the defendants involved could be financially ruined, the costs really are astronomical.

The Libel Reform Campaign website has a list of people who have been sued for libel in England a) over the most trivial things and b) involving people with no direct links to England in the first place. If you post something online on your Blogger or WordPress site, or on Twitter, or even allow comments to be published on your blog, then there is a high chance that you are also at risk of being sued.

If you haven’t already done so, please sign the petition to reform these heinous laws. It doesn’t matter where you live or what nationality you are, anyone can sign it, and if you’d like to make a donation when you’re done, even better.

We’ve got to put an end to things like this.

As a footnote, I didn't have time to write my own blog on this today as I was busy writing about SEX so I pretty much cut and pasted Carmen's and changed a few words, so if she gets sued, so do I...

Monday, 8 November 2010

What is Love?

In July last year I wrote about a guide for parents by the Family Education Trust(aka Family & Youth Concern) about Sex and Relationships Education (SRE). Not content with trying to cause fear and loathing in parents, now they have written a leaflet for teenagers called What is Love?

The leaflet would be easily dismissed as the work of yet another small but vocal Christian group trying to impose their moralistic values on young people were it not being sent to all secondary schools.

For anyone unfamiliar with the FET, run by Norman Wells, it's a Christian organisation with a certain not entirely unexpected agenda. There is no mention of faith in the leaflet, however. Is that because the FET has realised young people don't like being preached at and is trying to be covert?

So what is love? In a nutshell, love is just saying no to the ugly sex until you are safely up the aisle. Or terrible, terrible things will fall upon you.

The leaflet is full of super advice. Here's a selection of it:

'First of all, we need to recognise that not all love is true. There is such a thing as false love and many people confuse it for the real thing'.

Because young people respond so well to being patronised... With any luck, most of them will stop reading at this point.

What is this false love? It's 'physical attraction, infatuation or lust'.

Just in case you've never heard of lust, there's a helpful definition: 'Lust is the longing to use another person for the fulfilment of your own selfish desires... You will never find love through sexual encounters based on lust. Lust will leave you empty, frustrated and unfulfilled every time'.

Just in case we can't understand that, there's a case study about Tom and Jen who spend a lot of time chatting online and texting and 'who find in each other the fulfilment of their sexual desires'. Call me cynical but I strongly suspect they are Made Up. It sounds to me like they're having a pretty good time. But no, their relationship is doomed to fail because they are being Selfish.

Poor Tom and Jen don't know that true love 'will last a lifetime', it is 'more powerful than the strongest feelings and emotions'. Huh? Love is not a feeling or emotion?

So what should they do? 'When you truly love someone, you will keep yourself exclusively for them. This is one of the reasons why sexual intimacy belongs in marriage'.

Here we go. The abstinence message. Once more, with feeling: all the evidence says abstinence teaching doesn't work.

The Government has been consulting on guidelines for SRE. The second reading of the Bill is on 11 February 2011. The consultation document clearly states that 'research evidence does not support the use of an approach to sex and relationships education that only teaches abstinence' and 'that schools should use a range of evidence-based teaching methods'. Has the FET squeaked in under the wire before the Government guidelines are finalised in case abstinence-only teaching is banned and no school would be allowed to use or distribute this leaflet?

SRE is not just about sex, it covers all kinds of relationships and how to negotiate them, how to cope with bullying, how to be a responsible adult and so on.

In the document for parents about sex education, the FET mixes propaganda with what I shall charitably call factual inaccuracies, such as: there is no good evidence against abstinence, that teenage pregnancies are rising therefore sex education doesn't work and should be abandoned, that there are moral absolutes, that homosexuality is not a 'normal and natural lifestyle'. The FET believes that 'young people do not need to learn about a wide range of 'sexualities' and sexual behaviours; they do not need detailed information about the full range of contraceptive methods and they do not need to be presented with a menu of sexual options from which they can make 'informed choices' when they feel they are 'ready' to become sexually active'. He adds that 'there are some sexual practices that it may be better not to know anything about at all, at any age'.

The FET policy is to treat young people like mushrooms - keep them in the dark and throw horseshit at them.

The parents' guide also states that: 'Modern sex education is characterised by a lack of honesty...'

That's an interesting definition of 'honesty' from an organisation that has a rather malleable relationship with the truth and evidence.

What's more, saying that sex belongs only in marriage and is only for reproduction isn't going to play too well with the very many children of single parents.

Research (as opposed to made-up stuff) shows that young people want honest, complete, fact-based sex education from people they trust, as Dr Petra Boynton has written about.

The message that postponing sex until you're ready is a good one but for most people, that won't be after they're married. Far better to teach young people how to negotiate sex so that it is pleasurable and safe rather than just telling them not to do it, which leaves them utterly unprepared when it does happen.

Not surprisingly, there is no mention of love between people of the same sex in the leaflet.

But what happens if we ignore you, oh wise ones?

'Where a sexual relationship is pursued to express passing feelings and emotions, it is ugly and destructive and will lead to misery and regret'. And of course you will get an STI.

This is starting to sound like a 70s teen slasher movie, the sort where a bunch of teenagers get together and anyone who dares to have sex gets killed by the possibly dead guy in the mask while the virgins survive. Maybe starring Jamie Lee Curtis.

Why do we need such sage words now?

'Young people today often expect to have a series of short-term relationships before they finally settle down with someone for life. Such casual relationships frequently prove to be a training ground for divorce rather than for happy and fulfilling marriages. But it hasn't always been like that, and it doesn't have to remain like that'.

Where is the evidence to back up these statements? It really isn't hard to look things up these days and get some statistics to back up your arguments. Except when they don't exist.

In what time and place were young people all chaste? In the Victorian era when the orphanages were bursting at the seams with illegitimate babies and an estimated 10% of the urban population had syphillis which, in one part of London, also killed 57% of infants? In Mediaeval times which needed legislation like the Special Bastardy Act of 1235? After the war when we were celebrating the survival of British Values? Compare the rates in 1945 with before and after here. Or maybe the FET is thinking about some other lost time and place, like Narnia.

Finally, there are some handy tips for finding true love. One of them is:

'It's a good test to ask yourself 'How does he treat his mum?' or 'How does she treat her dad?' It is quite likely that they will treat you the same way'.

This is deeply deeply creepy in many ways.

So hey kids - Don't do the ugly sex. Don't think about sex. Don't learn about sex. Sex is only ever to make babies after you get married. And don't enjoy it too much even then - which you probably won't if you've never learnt anything about it.

With any luck, the leaflets will get no further than the bins of schools around the country.