Ed Balls is a prat.

March 5, 2008

More comment, this time from the Guardian, on the JSF race row, with – possibly – the dumbest comment from a Labour minister I have heard in a long time. And that’s saying something.

Education Secretary, Ed Balls, disagrees that the JFS admission policy is racist:

In a written submission Balls said most religions were “disproportionately represented” among certain racial, ethnic or national origins and underrepresented among others

Surely if your religious position is that one cannot belong to your religion unless your mother was also born into that religion, then that religion will not be, “under-represented” among other racial or ethnic groups; it will, by definition, be “unrepresented”. But it gets stupider:

He also warned against interference from secular courts in matters of doctrine and theology.

In the name of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, what is this man smoking. This man is a cabinet minister, and – more to the point – the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families; and he thinks that the court system should not hear a dispute about racial discrimination in school entries!

Should “secular” courts, then, not interfere in sexual discrimination cases? They’re often “matters of doctrine and theology”. What about covering up child abuse cases? They were clearly matters of doctrine, if not also of theology. Perhaps “secular” courts shouldn’t consider cases of honour killings, or killings of apostates. And so the list goes on. Ed Balls should be utterly ashamed of himself.


This should prove interesting

March 4, 2008

There’s not much detail over at the BBC, but this should prove interesting:

A parent who claims a Jewish school discriminated against her child on the grounds of race is taking her case to the High Court in London.

The parent in question is purported to be a convert to Judaism, as opposed to the orthodox principle of “halachically” Jewish; the principle that a person is not Jewish unless the mother is Jewish. It’s this principle that may well form the basis of the complaint:

The school follows the doctrine of the chief rabbi (of the United Hebrew Congregation of the Commonwealth) who says that to be Jewish, one’s mother needs to have been born Jewish.

Poking around on the JFS website, the school is interesting given that it’s a voluntary aided school (meaning that it’s a faith school partly funded by the local government). Principally it’s a faith school, which means that children of Jewish parents are given priority over the children of parents of other faiths or of no faith. But on the other hand, it is – in particular – an orthodox Jewish school. The OFSTED report, from 2006, states:

JFS is an orthodox school and the Foundation Body is the United Synagogue. Its students are all hallachially Jewish

So there appears to be no disagreement that there is certainly a form of racial segregation being a school’s policy alongside it’s religious segregation. The irony, of course, is that the matter being debated is the religious status of the mother, and not the child: the child should surely be seen as having jewish parents as her mother is a jewish convert. Which really highlights the stupidity of religious schools. As much as I loathe religious schools, I’m really interested to see the outcome of this. If nothing else I hope it serves to highlight the lie that is being put forward by all “religious leaders” with a vested interest in “faith schools” that these schools aid community cohesion.

Of course, end public funding for religious schools and it wouldn’t even be an issue.


Church welfare provision?

January 30, 2008

Via Terry Sanderson writing on-line at the Guardian, we learn that the government has apparently, for the last two years, been in consultation with the Church to provide faith-based welfare:

For two years or more, Government Ministers have been in conversation with church leaders about the possibility of the church providing extensive welfare services, rather in the way that the church plays a major part in education.[My emphasis]

Read that highlighted section again: rather in the way that the church plays a major part in education.

So how do the churches play a major part of eduction? It’s quite simple really: the churches take huge swathes of cash from the government to run 1 in 3 state-funded schools. The churches then refuse entrance to the people paying for the state-funded school unless they both attend church, and want their children indoctrinated into the church’s religion. Is this really what the government has in mind for the welfare system? Not CofE? Well, no disability benefit for you. Not Catholic? No dental service. If not, what the hell does the bishop mean?

Both Government and church are well aware that in the Scandinavian countries and Germany the church provides extensive welfare services. These countries have a church tax, which is paid by most citizens. The money received through taxation is returned to the church in support of its ministers, its buildings and in making possible the extensive welfare work done in its name. admit that I have sometimes wished that we had a church tax in the United Kingdom.

So clearly part of my guess is correct: in a nation which is increasingly secular, a nation that increasingly does not go to church, the bishop wants to introduce a church tax. But note that this is actually unconnected to his preceding comments on providing welfare: the church tax would not be to pay for this church welfare program, it’s to pay for buildings and ministers. Welfare would only be an after-thought.

The Church of England has very strong roots in local communities, making it well placed in many contexts to deliver quality services in a way that truly understands the local situation, which government departments may not. We very much want to be part of the discussion about the new opportunities that are opening up.

Oh, I bet he does! Especially since he also says:

The church is treated as a partner, and its work is trusted, rather than controlled.

Presumably, then, part of this “discussion” will involve telling the government how trustworthy it is, and that it’s welfare provisions don’t need state control. You know, trustworthy like catholic adoption agencies refusing to deal with gays…

And there’s more:

The church is signing 25-year contracts for the new academies.

This, apparently, is an example of “delivering social needs”. 25 schools handed over to the church, which church rules for entrance. “Delivering social needs” apparently is only important if your christian. Or, more precisely, a member of the CofE.  Of course the church is delighted, but that does not make it, “delivering social needs”, that makes it, “delivering the church’s needs”.

If the church is to be a partner, it must be trusted by government and not controlled. As I perceive it, recent governments have found that very difficult. Church projects of course would be audited, but not controlled.

Has no-one told the bishop that old phrase, “trust is earned”. The church hasn’t earned trust, so why would if “of course” not be controlled by the state? The state controls welfare. You don’t hand over vast sums of cash to a single organisation to manage welfare programs and not control it. Even if we ignore the churches appalling record on admissions to church schools, you just don’t do that.

The church very much wishes to be part of the discussion, but it also has serious concerns and misgivings, which need to be discussed frankly and addressed. It needs to be treated as a long-term partner which is trusted even when it wants to challenge the current effectiveness of delivery.

I have a better idea. Disestablish the church, and keep the damn thing out of politics. It has no business running schools as it is, it certainly has no business running the welfare system, and it most certainly has no business collecting taxes.

This is pretty scary stuff just on its own. But this is not the bishop of Carlisle just mouthing off, this is the bishop acting in his capacity on the bench in the house of Lords, putting forward the church’s position as part of British governance.


On Offense

January 28, 2008

This is an interesting read, “In defense of the right to offend”: interesting, but I think ultimately it misses the point.

The issue of religious offense was run through the press quite frequently last year, what with the Danish cartoon fiasco, questions over the deportation of some of the more unfavorable elements of Islam, the attempt by Christian Voice to bring a private prosecution for blasphemy against the BBC and – more recently – with the school teacher tried for blasphemy for naming a bear ‘Mohammed’. In each case, the issue has not been so much about the limits of freedom of expression, but the extreme reaction by the religious to otherwise innocuous actions. In each case, the defining characteristic has not been any intent to deliberately offend, but the willingness of the religious to be offended.

Richard Dawkins has frequently come under attack by the religious both in the UK and the USA over his (excellent) book, “The God Delusion”. He has been accused of being crude, shrill and offensive. But, as Dawkins has frequently pointed out, The God Delusion is less shrill and less crude than the average political pundit on morning television, or the average restaurant review or hostile stage review. However the religious – having only addressed the arguments they think Dawkins has put forward, whilst utterly failing to address those he actually has – can always rely on that old canard “offensive”.

There is something about the offense taken by the religious that appears – to me at least – to be somewhat disingenuous. Offense is a useful tool: no-one wants to be considered so guttural as to deliberately offend someone; it’s just not seemly. But this puts an enormous amount of power in the hands of the offended. If Muslims are “offended” by (largely fabricated, incidentally) the “Danish cartoon” then no-one in the UK will reprint them for fear of causing “offense” (or is it actually, “for fear of violent reprisal by the offended”). This has a chilling effect: no-one in the UK could read an honest assessment as to whether the extremist Muslim case was reasonable or not as no-one was allowed to see the cartoons! The only benchmark we had to go on was “Muslims consider pictures of the prophet to be sacrilegious”.

By doing this, the extremist element within the Islamic community gained a massive coup over the press in the UK and elsewhere in the world. By using both a posture of “offense”, and by using threats of violence, the islamists succeeded in both getting the Prime Minister to agree that there are limits to free expression and to get column inches dedicated to “how much offense is too much?”. Scant mention was made as to the legitimacy of the criticisms of Islam that were in the cartoons. Criticism of that aspect of Islam was suddenly off the menu.

The Christian Voice used a similar tactic recently with the production of the show, “Jerry Springer the Opera” (a superb masterpiece of satirical modern opera incidentally; I saw it three times!). When the show announced that it was to start a tour, moving out of the West-End of London, the Christian Voice wrote letters to innumerable candidate venues threatening to picket their theaters and to bring private blasphemy lawsuits against anyone who dared put on the show. With the blasphemy laws being so bizarre in the UK few theaters knew whether they defend a credible case, but could not run the risk. After a brief stint in Brighton, the show closed. Even though the private prosecution against the BBC and the show’s producers eventually failed, the Christian Voice had made their point: don’t offend the Christians. The religious dictated what could or could not be shown on theaters, because the religious and only the religious know what they will find offensive.

The most ridiculous case recently, of course, was the case of the British teacher in Sudan who “insulted Islam” by naming a teddy bear, “Muhammed”. The absurdities surrounding that case are multitude, but the core message by the extreme religious element was, “we define acceptable behavior”.

In each case of religious offense the religious seek to narrow the boundaries of what is and is not “reasonable criticism” to the extent that the concept of “reasonable” criticism has itself appeared to become reasonable. But the idea of “reasonable” criticism is inherently not reasonable. To assume that any idea that offends a religious sensibility should not be stated is to give the whole area of “legitimate expression” over to the religious, or anyone with palpably unreasonable ideas. If a cartoon depicting Mohammed is offensive, then what’s to stop the claim that any “graven image” is offensive? If a bear called Mohammed is offensive, then why not any bear name? Who gets to define what is and is not reasonable criticism? If it’s the religious, then no criticism is safe from accusation of “offensive” or “unreasonable”.


How do you square that circle?

January 23, 2008

According to the Guardian yesterday, the government is going to tell Universities that they should:

consider rejecting demands for separate prayer and washing facilities to prevent their campuses segregating along religious lines

This is because segregation along religious lines risks creating:

a climate where illegal extremist views can flourish

But isn’t this the same government that recently affirmed that it wants to keep compulsory collective christian worship in UK state-funded schools? Isn’t this the same government that repeatedly affirms it’s commitment to faith schools, despite obvious opposition from the public and teachers (that last article, incidentally, goes back as far as 2002. Their view hasn’t changed).

If the government recognizes that segregation along religious lines in Universities is such a bad idea, why are they so intent on spending tax-payers money to segregate pupils at earlier stages? Secularists have long argued that separating kids into schools based around the religious beliefs of their parents leads to lower community cohesion, and that the government should not be sponsoring such segregation, and the government has effectively admitted that the secularists are right.

 The government is saying it’s not okay to segregate people when they’re in University, but it is okay before that. They’re saying it’s not okay to segregate and indoctrinate people when they’re starting to be capable of fully assessing the world, but it is okay before that. In fact, it’s not only okay: according to the government it is right and proper to segregate and indoctrinate children into their parent’s religious beliefs in order to promote community cohesion. Unless they’re in University; then it suddenly becomes a danger to national security and a breeding ground for terrorists.

How’s about this for an idea: if kids were not, from a young age, told “you’re muslim”, “you’re catholic”, “you’re CofE”, “you’re Hindu” maybe this wouldn’t be such a problem in the first place! If the state didn’t pay for secondary “faith” schools in the first place, then maybe fewer people would want to self-segregate along religious lines later in life. And, hey, without these institutions being funded by the tax-payer, without the ability of these institutions to select their kids to skew their results, maybe parents wouldn’t want to segregate their kids.

Crazy, I know.

Usual tip ‘o the hat to the National Secular Society


And again…

October 1, 2007

Now Sainsbury’s are it too. Mulsim? Fine, you don’t need to serve alcohol at the checkouts as someone else will come over and put the alcohol through the tills for you. Okay, this isn’t quite as bad as the pharmacist, but still; if a person takes a job at a place that sells alcohol (and quite a bit of it too!), surely it’s not too much to ask that that person put the alcohol through the till. Instead, because that person is religious, other people are delayed; it’s not the religious person who has to make any sacrifice for their ‘principles’: it’s everyone else around them.


Can’t do the job – don’t do the job

September 29, 2007

This story highlights the problem when religion mixes in society. When a woman is prescribed a drug by her doctor, it would be reasonable to presume that a dispensing chemist would supply that drug. One would imagine that the only reason that the chemist should have to refuse to supply would be that the prescription was invalid – perhaps forged or tampered with. Apparently that is not the case if the drug is the morning after pill, and the chemist is religious.

I cannot see how this is a defensible position; a person who choses to become a pharmacist must be aware that that job entails dispensing contraceptive drugs. If that person feels that they would be unable to perform this vital part of their job, they quite simply should choose another career. This is not a choice that affects just them. The woman in this story was both unnecessarily embarrassed and inconvenienced. Nobody is expecting the pharmacist to take the damn drug themselves; just to do their damn job

I’m also extremely disappointed by the position taken by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society. Their position appears to be that because the woman was referred to another chemist, everything is okay: but this is likely only to be true if the chemist is located in a large town. Imagine if this woman lived in a small rural village, and the chemist was the only one available locally. According to the ‘ethics’ laid down the the RPS, it is perfectly acceptable to require the woman to travel – at her expense and inconvenience – to the next nearest town or village just to find a chemist who is prepared to do their job. This is unacceptable; the woman – through no fault of her own – is now penalised for someone else’s dubious philosophical position.

This, to me, highlights the problem of religious privilege. There is no good reason for the RPS to support the position it does except to avoid the ire of religious organisations. They have put in place a policy that essentially says that one can be registered to do a job one is not prepared to do, and that is okay because – although it is potentially costly and highly inconvenient for the customer – the customer/patient can be ‘referred’. I wonder how they marry this position with this.