I have been going back over some of my earlier posts and making an achive of them. I came across an old post from 16 July 2011 that seems relevant to discussions that have been taking place here at choice in dying.com over the last few days. It was originally entitled “On the Side of the Angels?” I’m reposting it, as you can see, under a new title, with a few minor edits, a couple suggested by the comments. No doubt some will take this view as extreme and illiberal, but it seems to me that the danger that religion poses to liberal freedoms is much greater than many suppose. Religion is trying very hard to make a comeback in the West. It is supported in this by increasing numbers of Muslims and people of other faiths which have not gone through the Enlightenment. We should deny them the accommodations they need to make their resurgence more visible. Religion is not a matter that should be given public importance and standing. It should be, and should remain, private.
Michael Ruse has a new piece up at the Chronicle. It’s called “Prayer, Menstruation, and the Toronto District School Board,” and deals with the permission given by the Toronto District School Board to provide opportunities for Muslim children to pray at the right times during the day. Only this time, as Ruse says, people have gone a bit too far. Prayers that are attended by Muslims segregate girls who are menstruating to the back of the room. And Ruse is justly outraged. As he says:
It turns out that girls who are menstruating are not allowed to participate in the prayers. They must sit at the back and watch. This is not a social demand. This is a religious demand.
It is also absolutely outrageous. Let me spell it out. Girls with their periods are not sinful. They are not sick. They are not weak. That anyone would think otherwise in this day and age boggles the mind. It boggles the mind even more that respectable members of the Toronto District School Board should think this treatment of females is something that should be tolerated on school grounds, at any time.
Veronica, over at Canadian Atheist, has given us a peek at the latest religious idiocy that someone is trying to foist on the Canadian people. I’ll let you go over to Veronica’s post to read the details, but some gushing Catholic Member of Parliament has put forward a bill that would make April 2 Pope John Paul II day! This is the man, remember, who effectively turned the church into a criminal conspiracy to conceal the scope of the sexual abuse of children! And we are to set aside a day to honour his memory – quite aside from his having been a foreign head of state and the leader of one religion out of many that despoil the land. Will this idiocy never cease?!
I was alphabetising my library for the last two days, trying to forget, the while, that I had a sore side (having broken or at least cracked a rib in a fall) and groaning through a major rearrangement of my books. In the course of doing so I came across the copy of Darwin’s Origin which, I suspect, set me on the path away from religious belief. One of the reasons for this passage was the fact that Darwin’s scientific empirical modesty is made so plain. Indeed, while I was using the book (published by Gramercy, a cheap imprint of Random House) as a filler, in a spot where books could simply disappear from view, given the way the carpenter built the shelves, I would not have noticed that I had marked a passage in the Introduction, and that I had highlighted (and then later underlined), some very important words, illustrating Darwin’s epistemological modesty, and the epistemic constraints of science. First, he sets forth, in a thumbnail sketch, his theory of evolution, and then he … well, wait for it!
I shall devote the first chapter of this Abstract to Variation under Domestication. We shall thus see that a large amount of hereditary modification is at least possible; and, what is equally or more important, we shall see how great is the power of man in accumulating by his Selection successive slight variations. I will then pass on to the variability of species in a state of nature; but I shall, unfortunately, be compelled to treat this subject far too briefly, as it can be treated properly only by giving long catalogues of facts. … In the next chapter the Struggle for Existence amongst all organic beings throughout the world, which inevitably follows from their high geometrical powers of increase, will be treated of. This is the doctrine of Malthus, applied to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms. As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form.
That’s the theory in a nutshell. However, Darwin was very aware that there were many things he did not know. He acknowledges, for instance, that
The laws governing inheritance are quite unknown; no one can say why the same peculiarity in different individuals of the same species … is sometimes inherited and sometimes not so …
Of course, we know much more about this now than was known at the time, though more was known than Darwin realised, because he does not once, to my knowledge, mention Mendel, who had already done crucial experiments on genetics. The point of importance, though, is that Darwin acknowledges his ignorance on this issue right up front, before the reader has but barely begun.
Richard Dawkins is now seen by many, even many non-believers, as a joke figure, shaking his fist at sky fairies. He’s the Mary Whitehouse of our day.
For those of you who were not around when Mary Whitehouse was a household name in practically the whole of the English-speaking world, Mary Whitehouse was a social activist prude, railing against what she saw as an increasingly permissive society. And of course it was an increasingly permissive society. The 1960s was undoubtedly a watershed decade in Western cultural history, when it seemed, especially to those who had been brought up in the 1950s, the world was being overthrown by sex, violence and rock and roll. She was, though, a stereotypical, comic figure, trying to command the tide of change, which washed over Western societies during the sixties, to cease, and people took considerable joy in poking fun at her. Search ‘Mary Whitehouse’ on YouTube, and you will find it hard to find anything besides parody.
It is simply ridiculous to suppose that Richard Dawkins is regarded in this way. What evidence does Theo Hobson provide for his opening claim that Richard Dawkins has turned into a parody of the Mary Whitehouse variety? None at all, really. He says, with considerable aplomb, about the new atheist “movement”:
So what was that about then?
– as though the new atheism were past and finished with, and we can now see it in historical perspective – when, of course, it is as lively as ever, and producing such phenomenal results as A.C. Grayling’s soundly philosophical The God Argument. Hobson wants us to think that the new atheism was just a flash in the pan, instead of a real shot, prompted mainly by the 9/11 attack on New York and the Pentagon, and the 7/7 attacks on London, which, now that we see them as fairly limited and not all that frightening, can be dismissed with a casual wave of the hand and a reference to vicarage tea parties, as though all religion were quite anodyne and harmless.
But, quite aside from the horrific impact of those religious atrocities on the Western consciousness, let’s not forget Christopher Hitchens’ classic remark:
Many religions now come before us with ingratiating smirks and outspread hands, like an unctuous merchant in a bazaar. They offer consolation and solidarity and uplift, competing as they do in a marketplace. But we have a right to remember how barbarically they behaved when they were strong and were making an offer that people could not refuse. [god is not Great, 67]
Of course, he might have said:
But we have a right to remember how barbarically religions behave where they are strong and making an offer that people cannot refuse.
For there are, after all, many places in the world where people have no choice at all about religion. Muslims will still quote the Qur’an to the effect that there should be no compulsion in religion. But we have a right to remember where people are still imprisoned (and often murdered) for blasphemy and executed for apostasy, where any perceived insult to the “prophet” Muhammad touches off social paroxysms of frenzied crowds baying for blood. How blind, really, is Theo Hobson? Can he not see?
I believe, contrary to what seems to be the customary liberal consensus, that such things as the veiling of women should be forbidden, not only because it expunges women from public space, but because it is inevitably coercive for some (if not most) women – and it is, I think, meant to be coercive. Even those women who don the burqa as an expression of religious piety, I suspect, mean it to be coercive to other women in the same community. We have been having a rather long – yet, for all that, civil – discussion about this on the last post – entitled “The New Atheism and the Problem of Islam” – and while we are, perhaps, no further ahead than when we began, I think the different territories have been mapped out with some clarity.
I won’t repeat that discussion here, because in this post I want to use as an example something that happened recently at the University of Leicester. A sold-out talk by Hamza Tzortzis* on the existence of god was strictly segregated: brothers (male) and sisters (female) directed to one side or the other:
A lot of people are simply not paying attention. It is, of course, true that the so-called “new atheists” are opposed to religion, and what makes their opposition in some sense “new” is the frank openness of their opposition. Some opponents call it strident and shrill. Academic criticism of religion is one thing, and the new atheism is something completely different, even though, to a large extent, it is anchored in proponents who are either academics or are at least not strangers to academic discussion and the intellectual rigours of academic debate. Yet lately they are accused of leaving that rigour behind, and, in the words of one of the latest commentators:
The New Atheists became the new Islamophobes, their invectives against Muslims resembling the rowdy, uneducated ramblings of backwoods racists rather than appraisals based on intellect, rationality and reason.
The words are those of Nathan Lean, one of the latest to join the ranks of those criticising what they perceive as the extremism of the new atheism. I take the words from another new critic of the new atheism, Jerome Taylor, whose article, “Atheists Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris face Islamophobia backlash,” appeared yesterday in the Independent. And Taylor seems to be fully in accord with other critics, ending his article with another quote from Lean, who claims that the new atheism “sprinkles intellectual atheism on top of the standard neocon, right-wing worldview of Muslims.”
One of the problems with the “new criticism” is that their criticism seems to be as incendiary and ill-founded as, according to them, the new atheist critique of Islam. Indeed, none of them seem to be above misrepresenting the objects of their criticism. For instance, in this latest sally forth from their fastnesses in Britain’s premier newspapers and magazines, Jerome Taylor says, without any qualification, that Sam Harris,
Wearing a palpable disdain for Islam on his sleeve he has also written in favour of torture, pre-emptive nuclear strikes and the profiling not just of Muslims but “anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be a Muslim.”
While I think that Harris would have been better off had he left his remarks on torture or pre-emptive nuclear strikes unsaid, it is only fair to point out that those who make this kind of blanket statement are seriously misrepresenting what he does say under these headings. Indeed, while the criticism of Islam in fairly general terms seems to me to be justified, given the written evidence of the Qur’an and the Sunnah, there is no excuse for someone like Jerome Taylor to ignore the contexts and the qualifications in terms of which Harris has spoken of torture or pre-emptive nuclear attack. Nor is it obvious that Harris is “using [his] particularly anti-Islamic brand of rational non-belief to justify American foreign policies over the last decade,” as Nathan Lean suggests in his Salon article, “Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens: New Atheists flirt with Islamophobia,” which Taylor quotes with approbation.
One of the problems here, I believe, is that the new atheists have devoted themselves largely to the criticism of Christianity, and their remarks on Islam have tended to be prompted mainly by events, rather than by systematic study and critique of Islam itself. They have done so, for the most part, because they do not feel qualified to criticise Islam in depth. Indeed, as Richard Dawkins recently revealed, some of them have not even read the Qur’an. Of course, that would not settle matters, for the Qur’an itself is not given an historical context. As an apparently timeless revelation, understanding of the Qur’an is impossible without the interpretive gloss provided by extra-Qur’anic sources, such as the Sira (or biography of Muhammad) and the Sunnah, which comprises the whole complex of Qur’an, Sira and Hadith (the remembered sayings of the prophet of Islam). And even then, the Islamic doctrine of abrogation, in which earlier revelations are suppressed in favour of new revelations, is nowhere clearly explained. So, reading the Qur’an is not, in itself, sufficient to ground a comprehensive criticism of Islam. Yet Islam itself, since it makes such large and implacable claims, is in serious need of criticism. Indeed, since its eruption onto the Western stage and into the Western consciousness, on 11 September 2001, and the continued threat of violence from Muslims in response to any perceived insult to its prophet, or criticism of the finality of the revelation supposedly vouchsafed to him, such criticism is an immediate and urgent necessity.
The New England Journal of Medicine has just published, on its website, a debate on “physician assisted suicide.” There is a “case vignette”, and then two short articles pro and con physician assisted suicide. Included is a poll in which you can vote, and you may also post a comment in response to the articles. I commend this to your attention. You can access it here. Following are my own comments on the arguments presented against assisted dying, though I commend the article that favours assisted dying to your careful consideration. Also included is an audio file with interviews with the primary authors of the articles. I will include a link to the debate and poll at the end as well.
I will only pick out a few points for consideration. The brief pro and con articles are, of course, inadequate to do justice to the arguments, but it is noticeable that the arguments provided against the practice of physician assisted suicide are particularly “thin.” For example, Boudreau and Somerville begin by saying that they “recognize that a patient in Mr. Wallace’s position [in the case study of the man with metastasizing pancreatic cancer] is in a state of grief.” There is certainly no evidence in the case study as presented that this is the case. This is consistent with the view, often expressed by opponents of assisted dying, that one must be, in some sense of the word, “depressed,” in order to request aid in dying. Not only is the evidence for such a claim lacking, there is ample reason for someone in Mr. Wallace’s position not to think of the future in terms of hope. In other words, if he were depressed, there would be ample reason for his unhopeful state of mind. Opponents of assisted dying often speak about depression as though it were always pathological. It is not pathological, where there are sufficient reasons for a depressed state of mind. Nor does depression necessarily impair judgement, as Boudreau and Somerville imply.
The International Humanist and Ethical Union are calling for support for the atheist bloggers in Bangladesh who are under fire from Islamic fanatics. Sheik Hasina, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, said, in a BBC interview, that the law in Bangladesh is already strong enough to protect religious sentitment, and went so far as to say:
This country is a secular democracy. So each and every religion has the right to practice their religion freely and fair. But it is not fair to hurt anybody’s religious feeling. Always we try to protect every religious sentiment.
Which is, of course, effectively to say that Bangladesh is not, after all, a secular democracy, for secular democracy leaves room in the public square for free criticism of religion as well as its practice. Since freedom of speech is in danger in Bangladesh, we should be involved in voicing our opposition to religious oppression, which is what Sheik Hasina’s position threatens. There are a number of petitions you can sign, accessible on the International Humanist and Ethical Union’s website. You can also write to the Ambassador or High Commissioner of Bangladesh to your own country, voicing your opinion regarding freedom of speech. Following is the email which I sent to the High Commissioner of Bangladesh in Ottawa (for your information, representatives of Commonwealth countries to other Commonwealth countries are called High Commissioners):
Susan Griffiths is a woman with MSA, Multiple System Atrophy, a neurological disorder which, according to Wikipedia, is “associated with the degeneration of nerve cells in specific areas of the brain. This cell degeneration causes problems with movement, balance, and other autonomic functions of the body such as bladder control or blood-pressure regulation.” While she is not yet completely immobile or incapable of some enjoyment of life, she feared not being able to lift her hand in order to drink the barbiturates used by Dignitas for what they call an “accompanied death.” She was interviewed by Anna Maria Tremonti of CBC’s “The Current,” which was aired yesterday morning. Here is the interview:
You can also see a video of Susan Griffiths in The Winnipeg Free Press, explaining her reasons and reading a letter which she sent to every Member of Parliament asking them to change Canadian laws respecting assisted dying. She is a wonderfully eloquent person, and makes her points clearly and forcefully. As she says, for her.
[t]he future’s too grim. This is the right direction. It’s my life.
Dying, as I have said before, is the final act of our lives. We can either be passive towards it, or we can be active. We can simply die of the diseases which are destroying us, or we can take up arms, and make dying the final, decisive act of our lives.
Screen Capture of Susan Griffiths speaking about her letter to MPs about assisted dying
One thing that people do not seem to recognise is that forcing a person to die in the way prescribed by their disease, and refusing them the right to make the decision themselves, and receive help from competent professionals, not only denies us what is reasonably thought to be a liberty right, it is also, effectively to turn us into slaves, living under compulsion. No other decision in our lives is so hedged around with restrictions such as this. Indeed, if we are being kept alive on machines, we can ask to have treatment withdrawn, thus effectively taking our own lives. This is no different, ethically, than receiving the kind of help to die that Susan Griffiths sought – and could not find in Canada. Thus she is forced to die in exile, as Elizabeth did.
Yesterday evening I was contacted by a radio station in Halifax, and asked if I would comment on this, and I was happy to do so. And once again the old chestnuts were pulled out of the fire, still apparently steaming hot, but in truth the same old unreliable prejudices hawked as arguments. Every time the question of the legalisation of assisted dying is raised the question of risk to the vulnerable is raised along with it. But no one seems to think that the vulnerable are at risk when withdrawal or refusal of treatment is in question. Why not? Perhaps because that is already legal. Indeed, more than that, treating a person against their will is accepted in the common law as common assault! You have to ask yourself: If this is so, then why is the compulsion to live through misery not an offence in law? And when you consider that people can be in as great a risk with DNR orders, and the right to withdraw treatment, as they would be were assisted dying legalised, this question is even more pressing. The truth is that we need to make sure that those who are asking for the withdrawal of treatment are competent, well informed, capable of understanding the information provided, and are making the request of their own volition. These are exactly the same conditions that would govern assisted dying. Decision would have to be durable (that is, held steadily over time), based on full information of the options and consequences, competent and voluntary. In addition to this, we know that assisted dying is happening now; we just don’t know how often, by whom, and for what reasons. People make the claim that people would die who should not die were assisted dying to be legalised, but since making assisting someone to die is a criminal offence, and doctors are not heartless, assistance takes place, but is unreported. We don’t know where we are on the so-called “slippery slope.” The arguments against assisted dying, just like against abortion, drives such activities underground. Alternatively, they force people to take matters into their own hands, very inexpert hands, and besides making suicide more desperate, makes it a lonely journey that a person is forced to make in desperation. Accepting that we die, and that some people need assistance to die to escape intolerable suffering, is healthier for society than making it furtive and secretive.
Susan Griffith can afford to go to Switzerland. Many people cannot. It is time that the government took this matter seriously, instead of having discussions in Parliament which do not reflect, at any level, what is now known about end of life decision making, and the bioethical imperatives that are involved. Assisted dying is still looked upon in religious ways. Suicide at the end of life is inappropriately being thought of in the same terms as suicide in the midst of life, like the desperate suicides of broken-hearted teenagers, or those who despair of success. It is time that people put their religious convictions aside and spoke about this in terms that are not slanted by religious prejudices.