Thursday, 13 October 2011

Faith Schools

I recently wrote about a rather peculiar aspect of British Politics, that certain Bishops are given a seat by right in the House of Lords where they can vote for and against legislation that has passed through the House of Commons. Today I talk about another aspect of the British system: Faith schools.

Faith Schools are schools of a 'religious character'. About 20% of all high schools have such a religious character and nearly 40% of primary schools have a religious character. Faith schools are not like Lords Spiritual - they make up a large amount of the educational system of Britain. The question is, is having these schools justified. Is it even sane?

Richard Dawkins has tried to raise our conscience regarding telling children what religious faith they are, and faith schools may serve to reinforce the notion that the children are of a particular faith. Dawkins has produced a documentary called "Faith School Menace?" in which he sets out his problems with Faith Schools. It contains an infamous scene where he speaks to pupils and teachers at a Muslim school and exposes their ignorance of the theory of evolution and the obvious indoctrination that takes place there.
Richard Dawkins Visits a Muslim School by blindwatcher

The schools are allowed to teach their own religion syllabus which is not subject to Ofsted inspection. While some schools may teach other faiths, and even about secular moral stances such as humanism, there is no obligation to do so and so there are plenty that don't and instead just teach the dogmas of the particular religion that sponsors the school. This seems to me to be a great way of shielding young children from challenging viewpoints - not giving them a fair opportunity to make up their own mind. Which religion, if any, that is correct is a genuine controversy to be taught, and many faith schools don't teach that controversy. Furthermore, in classes which are designed to discuss ethics and social issues, faith schools tend to teach these issues from the perspective of the faith behind the school.

As a way to further shield pupils from dissenting views, the schools can even hire people based on their religion. This means they can refuse to hire someone based on their religion, or lack thereof!

In short, there are potentially bad consequences of faith schools. They can serve as propaganda machines for a given faith, and instead of controls and balances put into practice to defend children from this propaganda, the faith schools are given legal passes to avoid scrutiny in this regard. I'd like to be able to trust them to adhere to the curriculum, but I know there will always be those that don't. And without any inspections, they are given free access to some of the most vulnerable minds in our society.

Not only that, but they are inherently discriminatory and biased. They discriminate on the religious views (or lack thereof) of both the pupils that can be taught there and the teachers that can work there. Their selectionism means they can pick the children who are more likely to do well in education (but saying it is on grounds of religious views, and even doing it unconsciously) to bias their results versus the average as a means to persuade us they produce better educated children.

All of this might possibly, maybe, be forgiven if they were private institutions. But they are mostly funded by taxpayers, and I don't think we should be paying to have children given less than the best information about each other and their religions. As it stands, a sound majority of the British public are against making new faith schools, 64% going as far as to agree with the statement, "the government should not be funding faith schools of any kind"

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Male circumcision

Ed Brayton brings up male circumcision. - reporting that California has banned banning circumcision! I am somewhat surprised that this is an active discussion in skeptical circles. Or should I say, an active discussion in American skeptical circles.

After all, there are no actual good reasons to do it, and some good reasons not to do it. So why is it even a serious question?

The Pros

Medical benefits
The medical benefits are minute, or non-existent. Furthermore, the benefits can still be obtained by not circumcising unless specifically medically advantageous. The scatter-gun approach of circumcising before any problems arise seems a little unjustifiable to me.

To make son's penis look the same as Daddy's
This argument would mean we should pierce or tattoo infants penises if the father has had that procedure done. Not only is the argument generally creepy, but it is fallacious.

Women find it more attractive
I don't think this is true. And even if it was true - it will only become relevant when the boy is a teenager.

The Cons

Because it is a non-consensual permanent body modification
And that's really all that matters, surely? The fact that it is of the penis strengthens this argument. The only argument against this is that doing it when the person is very young, means they don't remember the pain and bloodshed. But that argument can be applied to tattoos, piercings or even outright sexual abuse.

I get a very strong sense that people are uncomfortable accepting that a non-consensual body modification on a child's sexual organ is problematic because it paints their family, their friends in a negative fashion. If I suggest that in any other context, divorced from the cultural association, it would be considered sexual assault to cut pieces off a child's penis - it makes people very uncomfortable.

But sexual assault can be done in ignorance and even in love. It isn't that the people that do it are BAD BAD people, but we should really look at the procedure from an objective point of view. Given what the procedure is, the reason for doing it has got to be damned good. And the arguments really aren't even slightly good.

I have no problem with people that choose to circumcise their child, but maybe I should. Nevertheless, since it is an operation that can be deferred until the person reaches an age when they can give their informed consent. I'd wager that most people given that opportunity would turn down circumcision, so what right do we have denying this choice to people just because we have the power to do so?

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Religious Representatives in the House of Lords

The House of Lords is a controversial thing. It is an unelected second house that is part of the legislative process in the UK. Seats are appointed, or in 26 cases given to senior Bishops in the Church of England. The senior Bishops are: The Archbishops of Canterbury and York and the Bishops of Durham, London and Winchester are the first five, the remaining seats are occupied by the longest serving bishops.

Most people outside of the UK who live in a secular society will probably think this is absolutely crazy, and they'd be right. Lords Reform has been on the agenda for some time, with promises of making it a democratic house being bandied around, as well as the notion of just getting rid of the thing entirely.

The most recent reform ideas contain controversy of their own. Although it proposes to basically half the number of bishops, it also reduces the number of Lords resulting in a net increase in the proportion of bishops to Lords (or rather Lords Spiritual to Lords Temporal). Other suugested ideas include getting rid of the privileged status of the CofE and having Lords Spiritual from other religious denominations (for instance, there are no representatives from the Church of Scotland, let alone any Imams at this time).

Most people who have thought seriously and read widely about the intersection of religion and politics will be able to anticipate the reasons for having Bishops given temporal power over legislation. Place your bets now...

The winner is: Bishops offer unique insight into ethical matters. Of course this reason is bollocks. I would suggest that dogma serves to blind Bishops of a range of ethical and moral considerations that makes them less insightful, not more. Take for example: assisted suicide for the terminally ill. Although most people (including the religious) in Britain are generally supportive of the idea given suitable protections etc, but bishops voted against it (the Lords as a whole did, in fairness).

The part that I find most shocking is that in the most recent Reform proposals the Bishops would find themselves exempt from the serious offence provisions. I cannot find details of what the serious offence provision is exactly, but it is proposed that instead of the procedure that applies to all other Lords, the Bishops will be expected to discipline their own. And we know how poor religious institutions are at doing that.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

lying about the European Humans Rights Act

I wrote yesterday of Theresa May's dodgy reasoning for pulling us out of the European Human Rights Act. That reasoning was simply that politicians felt there were some problems with the way it has been applied, and the lengths people have gone to to avoid falling foul of it. Now, she has been caught in what very strongly appears to be a lie.

"We all know the stories about the Human Rights Act... about the illegal immigrant who cannot be deported because, and I am not making this up, he had a pet cat."

When someone says "I am not making this up", it is meant to imply that the person has done at least due diligence in assuring that what is being said is factually correct. Unfortunately for May, it appears that something has been made up. The case it appears she is referring to does not seem to have been decided on the basis of ownership of a cat. The Judicial Communications Office has released a statement that said:

"This was a case in which the Home Office conceded that they had mistakenly failed to apply their own policy - applying at that time to that appellant - for dealing with unmarried partners of people settled in the UK,...That was the basis for the decision to uphold the original tribunal decision - the cat had nothing to do with the decision."

Politicians lying about easily checkable facts as a means to argue citizens out of hard fought for rights? Seems like business as usual. Maybe she was referring to some other case, but she has not clarified her comments but has simply reiterated that she stands by them. The funny part of the story is that another Conservative politician, Ken Clarke, has put a small wager down that she will be unable to provide a single documented case where the ownership of a cat was the reason given for refusing deportation. She is confident that Ken Clarke will owe her a meal at the end of all this.

The BBC has kindly provided a link so that we can see the judgement that appears to be in question. The cat is mentioned, but I see nowhere where it is pivotal in the decision to not deport.

So either she was misleading us about having done due dilligence in checking her facts, or she was misleading us about the case, or both. My vote is both, and there can be no excuse for the xenophobic fear she is peddling in any rational discourse.

Monday, 3 October 2011

European Humans Rights Act in question

"I’d personally like to see the Human Rights Act go because I think we have had some problems with it,"

says Theresa May. (the Home Secretary) On its own this seems absolutely crazy. It sounds even crazier when the justification is given:

I’d personally like to see the Human Rights Act go because I think we have had some problems with it

So because the government has had some problems with the Human Rights Act, this is a reason to to 'let it go'! This is the worst justification for abolishing guarantees of human rights I've ever heard. Of course, it isn't quite as crazy as it sounds because David Cameron does at least propose to "replace the Human Rights Act with a Bill of Rights". The primary problem they seem to have with it is that it protects some foreign criminals from being deported. This usually comes under section 8 of the Act:

1. Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.

2. There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

They are concerned because some criminals have used this act to avoid being deported because it interferes with their right to have a family life. Of course, the second section says "except such as is in accordance with the law...for the prevention of disorder etc.". This is like the Americans who have a right to 'life, liberty and happiness' which can be undermined by the due process of law (imprisonment, for example, denies a person's right to liberty). Therefore the problem isn't with the European Human Rights Act, but in the way it has been interpreted/put into practice. The solution to the problem is in clearer guidelines for the Justice system acting within the Act.

Even more shocking is that some of the arguments for doing away with the Act are because it means people behave in fear of being in breach of it. As David Cameron says:

The Human Rights Act doesn't say that's what you have to do. It's the sort of chilling effect of people thinking 'I will be found guilty under it'

The example given of this fear is of a prisoner being driven 100miles on a roundtrip rather than walking a short distance to court. This seems to have been done because the company doing the prisoner transport was contractually obliged not to walk prisoners down the road in handcuffs. This is presumably to avoid getting mobbed by the press, or other members of the public. I'm not sure if this was out of concern of falling foul of the Act or if it was just common decency to not frogmarch people up the road in cuffs. Either a person has the right to avoid this or they don't, and once this has been established the relevant parties (the contractors in this case) can act appropriately.

In the US, teachers are not allowed to hold prayers but pupils are free to pray. Sometimes a principal might be overzealous or acting out of fear of the establishement clause and forbid a pupil from praying or expressing their religious views. The solution is not to abandon the Constitution, but to educate the relevant parties in the proper way to act.

Furthermore - if you are planning to replace it with a Bill of Rights, there will be the same fear of being in breach of that which will lead to the same strange circumstances that Cameron is complaining about now...his position seems entirely self-defeating.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Hearing voices

A mother, suffering from psychosis has murdered her child to exercise the djinn from them at the request of Allah.

Shayma Ali, 36, who was suffering from psychosis, stabbed the four-year-old up to 40 times and took out her liver...."...a voice told me 'if you love Allah you should sacrifice your daughter."'

I'm not going to jump on this as an example of the religious causing harm, as I'm sure many critics of atheists might think we'd do.

Instead, this is the primarily danger of psychosis. I don't think I'd do this, but I can understand. perhaps better than others, the motivation for doing it.. One possible issue, in my opinion, is that this woman didn't adequately defend herself against erroneous thought patterns ahead of time. She believed in Allah based on no evidence, she believed in Djinn on no evidence (probably, like other Muslims I have spoken to, she relied on stories about a neighbour of an Uncle who met a Djinn or some such. I've not met a Muslim who did not believe in Djinn).

Believing in things without evidence doesn't necessarily lead to harm, but dropping critical thinking in areas where the stakes are as high as they often are in religion, you open yourself up to doing terrible things under the influence of sudden onset mental health issues. 5% of people will suffer a psychotic episode in their lives. That sounds small, but when we realize that this means 1 in 20 of us, it may well drive it home as quite a common thing.

So much of the evidence in favour of Allah, Yahweh and Jesus etc is based around 'personal relationships', 'personal religious experiences' and so on. Is it any wonder that people that hear voices sometimes attribute them to these characters. After all, what else are people that say they have experienced the loving presence of God doing?

And this is why I have adopted a skeptical position. I know I occasionally believe weird things, but if any belief that I hold that is life-and-death important, I run through the skeptical mill before acting. Any belief, I insist to myself, is subject to change based on further information.

Does this render me immune from committing a terrible act? To be honest, I don't know. How could I know? I suspect that a powerful psychotic break could occur and my critical reasoning will be irrelevant for that time. That said, I've heard voices and they have told me to do terrible things. Fortunately I know the human mind can play tricks on you and this is always the evidentially supported hypothesis and thus the preferred one over unverifiable theories about commands from supreme beings.