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Posts Tagged ‘religion’

I think that Scientology is a creepy, over-commercialized enterprise that feeds on people’s irrationality and does not do any good to anyone. In fact, I think the same about all religions and most quasi-religions.

But what was it that a great Frenchman said once? I do not agree with what you say but I will defend to death

To the point.  A French court has sentenced two Scientology centers of “fraud in an organised gang” and slapped a fine of almost a million dollars.

Here’s a link. They are a bunch of other links on the same story, easily accessible through Google, and the stunning thing is that they all use words like “pressured”, “harassed” and so on. Apparently some former members didn’t like all the money that the Church convinced them to spend on vitamins and such like, and so they sued.  No, they were not coerced in any way, nor were they shown a forged copy of  Nature containing a made-up paper on the virtues of Scientologistic vitamins. Merely “pressured”, and we are not talking about vulnerable body parts either.

I think this is a ridiculous case. But I subscribe to rather quaint notions of free speech and individual responsibility. I happen to believe that individuals and organizations should be allowed to say whatever they wish about heaven, hell or the spiritual succor obtained by eating  round bananas. I also happen to think that a conviction for fraud should meet an extremely high threshold of material misrepresentation of facts; for example by selling a handkerchief belonging to Nancy Pelosi to the customer who had asked for one used by Madonna. Short of such objective misrepresentations, irrational nonsense — whether spouted by religious organizations, new age spiritualists, ideologues, vegans or extreme environmentalists — should never be censored or prosecuted. One ought to take responsibility for one’s choices, and following a belief-system is a choice.

That’s my worldview, and I like to call it freedom. France, as I never tire of pointing out, lost sight of the concept a long time ago. I am glad I don’t live there today, and I do not ever plan to either.

(Here’s a related short piece on soothsayers and fraud I wrote a while back.)

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Nicolas Sarkozy wants to outlaw the wearing of the burqa in public places in France:

The problem of the burka is not a religious problem. This is an issue of a woman’s freedom and dignity. This is not a religious symbol. It is a sign of subservience; it is a sign of lowering. I want to say solemnly, the burka is not welcome in France.

I suppose the logic goes something like this: The burqa is demeaning; it offends my values. So the woman who chooses to wear it, whether out of social pressure or personal choice (*), is not truly free. Thus, I must make them free by taking away this choice from them.

Come to think of it, this kind of argument is a remarkable tool. Sarkozy did not invent it — precisely the same justification is used all the time to critique everything that the vanguards of public morality consider degrading: from prostitution to pornography, taking drugs to working for low wages. But he — like other petty dictators of this world — sees the real power of this infantilizing logic, because it allows him to restrict individual freedom by invoking supposedly liberal values. That’s masterful. Of course, most people do not understand or care about the fundamental difference between the moral and the legal, the personal and the political, social disapproval and actual coercion; thus this charade continues.

*I am discounting from this discussion any women who are actually coerced (by threats of violence or similar means) to wear the burqa; obviously we need to prevent this from happening, but there are already laws to deal with such situations.

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They say rightly that truth is stranger than fiction.

So Muthalik and his gang of goons beat up women at pubs because they deem the activity is against Indian culture. This sets off similar acts of violence and vandalism by other Hindu right-wing groups. One of their victims, a fifteen year old girl, is so traumatized by the incident that she commits suicide.

What next? At the very least, you’d expect legal action against the perpetrators, right? But this is India, where miracles happen everyday, only in a bad way. Instead of directing its ire at the bad guys, a Mangalore local court directs the police to file a FIR against the Union minister Renuka Chowdhury for her statement comparing these incidents to the acts of the Taliban.

The whole thing beggars belief. The first news report I read on the matter didn’t mention the law that Ms. Chowdhury had allegedly violated (and for the life of me I couldn’t figure it out); so I scoured around some more. Finally I found it:

…directed the police to register the FIR under section 153 A (Promoting enmity between different groups) and B (Imputations, assertions prejudicial to national integration) and 505 (Statements conducive to public mischief) IPC and also to submit the investigation report before March 20,

The only thing more WTF than the act of the local court is this terrible set of sections under which the FIR was filed. There are ridiculous laws and  then there are ridiculous laws. In the theater of the absurd, anything is possible — and if the results are mostly tragic, hey that’s life!

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The diplomat, 47-year-old Rowan Laxton, allegedly shouted “f***ing Israelis, f***ing Jews” while watching television reports of the Israeli attack on Gaza last month.

He is also alleged to have said that Israeli soldiers should be “wiped off the face of the Earth” during the rant at the London Business School gym near Regents Park on January 27. […]

After a complaint from a member of the public, Mr Laxton was arrested for inciting religious hatred – which can carry a seven-year prison term – and bailed to reappear at a central London police station at the end of March.

Here’s the full report.

The wisdom of having a law directed against incitement of racial hatred is questionable; the particular application here borders on the absurd. Or perhaps I am merely arguing from a strictly American viewpoint — courts here have repeatedly ruled that “incitement” must always carry an element of imminence — which might not apply in the land of the Queen.

Anyway, the point is, a person would never be prosecuted for a racial tirade in the US. Reminds me that in many ways, the US still offers free-speech protection far superior to anywhere else. I should do some research on Switzerland law before I move there.

Also read: My short post comparing free-speech protections in some selected countries.

Update: I should add that the free speech protections in this country exist primarily because they are constitutionally granted. If the present public had its way, it would certainly get diluted, as it has in so many other places.

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The Mumbai terror attacks were remarkable, not just for their audacity and horrifying elements, but also for the spontaneous reaction it elicited from the public. Citizens across India demonstrated in massive numbers and expressed their outrage against terrorists and politicians. There were posters and sloguns and an atmosphere of common purpose. The numbers were massive, the intensity electrifying, the cause just.

However I wonder.

I wonder what those protesters, proud Indians all, who presumably are outraged at Pakistani terrorists killing our people and overjoyed about our economic growth and rapid urbanization, feel about Raj Thackeray’s dictats to out-staters, the culture of entitled offendedness that pervades our society and makes people force their beliefs on others, the recent incident where a Pakistani girl studying in Mumbai was assaulted  for having an Urdu tattoo on her body or this other incident where Ram Sena activists beat up pub goers for behaving ‘immorally’.

I wonder if they think twice when they read about Sania Mirza getting harrassed for keeping her feet too close to our flag, Taslima Nasreen being told what she cannot write, M F Hussain’s paintings being vandalized, Tamil movies being ‘banned’ in Karnataka, arrests made for writing derogatory stuff about politicians or Harbhajan Singh being dragged to court for dressing up as Ravana in a TV show. If they do, they certainly do not show it.

So, while I am happy that my country has been recording good economic growth and all that, I fail to muster up enough enthusiasm about the grassroot protests that took place after the Mumbai attacks. There is little to argue about a terrorist attack; we all agree it is horrifying and wrong and that the perpetrators should be punished. Protests and all are fine and good, but there is hardly much moral ambiguity at stake there. On the other hand, the incidents I mention are commonplace and related in that they all involve a complete disregard for individual liberty. There are principles at stake there, principles worth fighting for. So, when I see that my countrymen, who proved their amazing ability to gather together  and protest less than two months ago, display little or no outrage at all these incidents I have mentioned above, it tells me something — their values are not really pro-liberty, their conception of morality not necessarily mine.

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[Post edited] I discovered this video today. It is a recording of a speech Obama made more than an year ago. The familiar themes of collectivist altruism (this is Obama after all!) have their place but the speech is mainly about religion in a political context. Having heard many good and not so good Obama speeches, I think the one ranks among his best. It is extremely substantive and gives a lot of insight into Obama’s thinking on these matters. As an atheist, I find 26:50 to 31:30 particularly relevant.

Another very significant section is 21:50 to 22:39 where Obama talks of personal morality and its effect on political philosophy. This should be heard in conjunction with 28:25 to 29:44. Of course, Obama is talking in a religious context here but I think it is interesting to reinterpret these passages as applied to ideologies, particularly those with a moral  component. I hope to expand on this theme in one of my long planned essays.

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A fortune teller in Montgomery county went to court to try and overturn a local ban on fortune telling. The fortune teller claimed his free speech rights were being hindered. The county claimed they were justified in having a law to prevent fraud.  The county won, as you might have expected (unlike in movies, the little guy usually loses in real life).

This case might seem like an intellectual riddle to some. Should we stop fraud or uphold free-speech? However, it really is quite simple. There is a fundamental difference between fortune telling and actual fraud. A guy who purports to sell milk but gives you coloured water (I believe this used to be common in India) or a pharmacist who sells you a different drug from the one you asked for is giving you something that you did not want and did not pay for. More precisely, the customer in those cases has a expectation, built upon unambigously laid out terms and well-defined history, of what he or she is supposed to receive — and this expectation is violated in an objective manner.

In fortune-telling on the other hand, the customer gets what he or she should expect to get. The product in this case exactly matches the average consumer’s reasonable understanding of it.

Suppose that in a hypothetical world where it is really possible to predict the future and lots of people do so successfully, I (in my current state of ignorance) decide to set up shop and represent myself as equivalent to those other real fortune tellers. Then I will be committing fraud, because I will be giving the customer an objectively different product than from what he asked for and had reason to expect. But in our world, the average customer knows what fortune telling entails. In fact many people who go to these tellers are there just for the fun of it. As Matt Bandyk puts it, “To say that the local government needs to `protect’  its citizens from the `fraud’ perpetrated by these businesses is giving the fortune tellers too much credit, and its customers too little credit. These customers know what they are getting into when they sit in front of the tarot cards or a crystal ball–if it makes them feel a little bit better, and a local business benefits, who is really being hurt in that exchange?”

If you still think fortune-telling should be outlawed by the government on grounds of fraud, consider that by the same expanded logic, all religious institutions are committing fraud. Do we really want to live in a world where the government has the power to decide the correctness of speech to this degree and ban your speech whenever it doesn’t meet their test?

(Hat Tip: The Agitator)

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