Sep 20

Protect People, not Beliefs

Ramon CashaThe recent announcement that the government planned to do away with a number of articles in the law to bring it in line with modern standards gave rise to some criticism, but perhaps the most vociferous complaints were aimed at the removal of articles 163 and 164 from the criminal code.

These articles, broadly, threaten anyone who “vilifies” the Catholic religion, or any person or object related to it, with up to six months in jail, while a shorter sentence protects other “cults”, as the law derisively calls every other religion and church on the planet.

Religion is held dear by many of course, but then so are other things. There are some who feel as strongly about a political party or ideology as someone else feels about religion, yet we don’t punish those who vilify socialism or capitalism, and we strongly denounce those countries that still punish those individuals who dare to speak up against the regime.

History shows us that there is much to criticise in both religion and political dictatorships. In fact, it is when they are protected from criticism that they commit some of their worst atrocities. Whether it is ISIS with their heinous acts, or the Catholic Church’s sinister teachings against the use of condoms in areas where one in four people is HIV-positive, these should be subject to the same criticism that we can legally level against anything else.The imposition of religion belongs either to the past or to some despotic regime.

Elsewhere, we have learned the value of rights, such as the right to freedom of belief and freedom of expression. These articles in our law are a clear restriction on freedom of expression.

Of course, freedom of expression is not without limits, but is it justified in this case? “What about people’s right not to be offended?”, some might ask.

Sometimes, when a privilege has been around for a long time, its removal can seem to be an attack on one’s rights. It may therefore come as a surprise to many that there is no right not to be offended.

English Philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote in On Liberty that the only reason that someone’s rights should be abridged is to prevent harm to others – the “harm principle”. “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind,” he says.

In an important case of the European Court of Human Rights in 1976 (Handyside vs the UK), the court declared that “Freedom of expression constitutes one of the essential foundations of [a democratic] society, one of the basic conditions for its progress and for the development of every man… it is applicable not only to information or ideas that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population.”

Here it is worth pointing out the difference between something that vilifies an idea or object, and something that vilifies people – individually or as a group. In Malta we have, and will still have, laws that protect people against various verbal offences.

These laws include those against slander, laws prohibiting incitement to violence, and the requirement to speak truthfully on the witness stand – but these are always about protecting people, not their beliefs. Not all ideas or beliefs are automatically deserving of respect.

If someone started insisting that the world is flat, or that God lives on Mount Olympus and casts lightning bolts as a weapon, I would not respect those beliefs. I’d probably ridicule them.

So why should I be prevented by law from ridiculing the idea that every human and animal in the world today came from a large boat while God was drowning all the other living beings a few thousand years ago? There are people who believe this story quite literally, and can get very agitated when other people dismiss it.

What if I consider this action, whether real or not, to be immoral, and therefore the god described in the Bible to be evil? Nothing else is thus protected. One of our laws prohibits the vilification of the flag and emblem of Malta, but an infringement of this would be considered an offence and liable only to a fine. There is no reason why the vilification of religion should be a crime punishable by prison.

The world was rightly shocked when atheist blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced to a thousand lashes and a long prison sentence by Saudi Arabia for “insulting Islam”, but we cannot easily condemn this repressive regime when our own laws have similar articles, although the penalty is not as harsh. We have to put our own house in order first. These articles must go.


This article first appeared on The Times of Malta.

Jul 29

MHA calls for mature discussion on abortion

The Malta Humanist Association backs the call for a mature and reasoned discussion on abortion. For too long, abortion has been the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about, but issues are not resolved by ignoring them or sweeping them under the carpet.

Between the existing blanket ban on abortion, and unrestricted, unregulated abortion there are many grey areas that one should explore through dialogue and without prejudice.

Jul 09

Blasphemy law reforms welcomed

The Malta Humanist Association congratulates Minister Owen Bonnici for the proposal of legal reforms to the Criminal Code which will amongst other things strike off sanctions against blasphemy, which date back to 1933. Read the rest of this entry »

Apr 22

Political lethargy, indifference and NIMBYism has led to an avoidable human tragedy

migrants-dead-italyOnce again, political lethargy, indifference and NIMBYism (not in my back yard) has led to an avoidable human tragedy, as hundreds of migrants fleeing from war and human rights abuses that many of us can’t even imagine end up in floating death-traps operated by criminals who have less regard for these human lives than for material cargo.

One hopes that the expressions of sadness from the political leaders of Europe does not stop at words but translates into action that addresses the problems that these people are facing, and not merely by pushing it out of sight. Making it more difficult for them to depart without addressing the reasons they are doing so does little to alleviate their suffering.

We make gestures by donating flowers for the funerals of those who did not make it, while incarcerating those who do for inordinate amounts of time. European countries express solidarity while resisting the idea of sharing in the responsibility of hosting these immigrants. In the meantime, dangerous undercurrents of fascism are raising their heads, each new voice encouraging others with messages of hate and barely hidden glee at these stories of suffering.

Humanity has to come before colour or culture, nationality or religion, before citizenship or proper documentation. Europe must put into place a comprehensive plan, encompassing the immediate requirement to save lives, the short-term goals of addressing migration, and long term goals of promoting peace and respect for human rights throughout the region.

Apr 06

Free the nipple

James English

They’re Nothing Special (Unless You’re a Baby)

Fellow humanists, we have a body image problem.  To be specific, men’s half-naked bodies are works of art to be swooned over and women’s bodies are shameful sex puppets that must be covered at any cost.  Don’t believe me? Turn on the television or go to the cinema.  Bare-breasted men litter popular culture, nipples and all, but women?  Their breasts are shameful things leading innocent men to their ruin.  In other words: Look out!  She’s got a boob!

Read the rest of this entry »

Apr 06

Feminism from a male perspective or Perfect pussy, because otherwise, we won’t have it.

Alexander Saliba

Feminism has always been fought from the radical sidelines, the fight for female cultural, social and personal equality has always been considered as a guerilla war, small numbers of recalcitrant women who refuse to sit down and listen. Mocked, branded as man haters, the deniers of masculinity and as the ones who dare try to skew societal imbalance to their favour.

The modern 21st century fight resides on the ever expanding and thus infinite universe of the internet. From sewers of 4chan, to the back alley of Reddit and over to the mainstreet of Facebook, there constantly pervades this relentless fight for equality. The difference is only perspective. Read the rest of this entry »

Apr 06

Atheist Myths!

Krista Sullivan

Atheism! The word used to stick in my throat until I eventually realised that really, there is little that is more honorable than to cast aside all superstition and rely on oneself for good moral behavior.

You can hardly blame me. Thinking back, when as a young kid, I asked an adult what the word meant, I was told, and I remember the exact words, "atheists believe in nothing, they have no God and so they value nothing". Read the rest of this entry »

Apr 06

Religious Taboos

Godfrey Vella



Certain taboos appear to have been created to protect society’s very existence.  A society will fight back against anything that threatens its survival.  And what threatens a society more than attitudes or activities which reduce the capability of a society to regenerate itself?  The biggest threat that a society can possibly face is extinction.  It is therefore to be expected that a society could  look very unfavourably at practices that put at risk it's reproductive fitness. Homosexuality, abortion, adultery and contraception can be seen as such practices.  It is hence not surprising that traditional societies have erected strict prohibitions - taboos - against these non-reproductive sexual practices.  The snag is that we have inherited these taboos in an age when they no longer make any sense.

We must bear in mind that in primitive societies where infant mortality was high, life expectancy was low and there was a huge dependency on manual labour, the pressure to reproduce was very strong.  Societies with lower birth rates faced extinction.  Therefore it is not surprising that practices such as homosexuality, abortion and contraception were frowned upon and very actively discouraged. Read the rest of this entry »

Apr 06

Freedom of Thought and Speech

Ramon Casha



In 1616 the Roman Inquisition ordered Galileo Galilei to abandon his claim that the earth orbited the sun - not to think it or teach it. 330 years later, many countries came together to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, one of the most important documents in existence today, and in it, Article 18 states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” Article 19 adds “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Read the rest of this entry »

Apr 06

Focus on Ethics

Krista Sullivan



Professor Kenneth Wain is the brains behind the Ethics program being introduced in state schools this scholastic year. I was lucky enough to have the pleasure of his acquaintance this week and to talk to him about the program.

Professor Wain explained that the Ethics Program aims to create a classroom which is a "moral community and a community of enquiry, in other words a community which learns together, what we want from Ethics Studies is an education in values”. I thought this was a beautiful statement and goal. I was very happy about the introduction of this subject from the word go but I am even more thrilled now that I have a better understanding of what it's all about.

Skills involving communicating, discussing, talking and listening are at the core of this programme.  That to me seems like a good thing because just one look at our local TV channels and social media is living proof of how much all this is needed.  It is true that part of our Maltese charm is our passion but it rings sorely true that we need to start enjoying/developing the skills of listening and expressing our viewpoint calmly. And it is also quite  obvious that we need to stop disliking someone simply because aspects of their belief system do not coincide with ours.

The main focus of the Ethics programme for schools is creating a mindset of harmony within our increasingly pluralistic society. This is not limited to issues in our immediate surroundings but also towards other issues such as lifestyle choices and civic freedoms which might not even affect us directly.  There are issues which divide us as a people, emotional issues as well as intellectual disagreement and we need to learn not only to tolerate but rather to understand and hopefully even appreciate the reality of a varied society.  The skill of discussing and listening is vital if we are to progress as a nation and as individuals and that includes giving space and listening to the talker, and in not being too forceful or aggressive when voicing our own point of view.  In Professor Wain's own words; “The problem in our contemporary society is that very often the differences between people, how they value certain things combined with how passionate they feel about them turns a discussion into an angry confrontation.  It becomes a matter of people talking at each other rather than people conversing.  A crucial part of this programme is to introduce a culture in the classroom whereby the children regard themselves as belonging to a community of enquiry and discussion. When they are there in the class, they don’t just happen to be there but they form part of a community, they share values together, values we see in the class, the school and in life.”


The course is to a certain extent an anti-indoctrination program. It does not teach absolute truths without question; quite the contrary - it recognises that it is time to allow people to think for themselves and to come to their own conclusions intelligently.  Those conclusions, whatever they may be, must be respected.  Religious beliefs will be presented not as singular truths but as philosophies one may wish to believe in or not.  It is important that children, and adults for that matter, to learn to understand what they are subscribing to, what their friends subscribe to and to and how they wish to live their lives within the understandings of that which upholds a functioning, peaceful society.  Children will learn to base their opinion on their own intellectual and emotional findings about a variety of social issues which will be explored collectively and holistically in class.

Respect and knowledge of other cultures, not only abroad but also in different Maltese families and communities, is important and a very strong focus of the programme.  The understanding of people's different ways will allow all to live in harmony within our diverse community and maybe, through intelligent methods of enquiry, they will hopefully learn to live together with their differences.  Values may be experienced differently in real life - “Do not kill” may clearly apply to your neighbor but how does it apply to a war enemy or to animals? How do we distinguish between right and wrong?

Very young children will learn to question what they are taught.  The very beginning or basis of the programme is “who am I, and what is my role in life”?  First in the context of the family, then in the context of the class, the school and the world at large. We start off by socialising children into certain values which we have common agreement with; honesty, truth, respect for others. In later years young people will learn reason and rationality, they will discuss amongst other things hard realities such as war, bioethics, euthanasia and more.  Issues which, if people are not well informed about can cause distress, conflict and repression of others' rights.  If we truly want  to lead a good life, we must include those who we do not come across every day, and furthermore other people's wellbeing should be as important as our own explained Wain.

“The world has become more ethical than has ever been the case in the past. Even because traditional points of reference are slowly being lost and we are coming to depend on our own resources to live in a harmonious and respectful way.”  At the end of the day we want people to depend on themselves for correct behavior, but we need to move away from teaching moral truths which have no alternatives.  People should have society’s support to live as they please in a morally correct framework.  Professor Wain is aware that some topics will be controversial; some truths will be challenged but hopefully in a healthy, intelligent way so that the students acquire their understanding of right and wrong in a deep and integrated manner.  Of course certain truths are universal and accepted by all.  Everybody in our society appreciates democracy, freedom of speech and lifestyle freedom.  We however want citizens who use their freedoms responsibly and who will navigate the reality of our pluralistic society respectfully and reasonably.

The studies will include a knowledge of cultures far and wide, leaving them with a firm understanding of how other people think, what they find offensive and what is a show of respect. One simple example is that in Thailand people find it offensive to point at objects with their feet whereas we don’t blink an eye at such practices.

This is an ambitious project that Professor Wain has devoted a lot of time to.  He is creating the syllabus from scratch as there is no international model Malta can copy.  His team and involved lecturers put together the lessons he outlines in the syllabus and they meet regularly to discuss progress which he has every intention of continuing to do during the coming scholastic years. "This will be a living, growing approach to teaching which I hope to see extended to all sectors of education".

Professor Kenneth Wain is a major Maltese philosopher and educator. His areas of specialisation in philosophy are chiefly education, ethics and political philosophy. He was also appointed Dean of the Faculty of Education at Malta’s university. Apart from playing a leading role in Malta’s national educational policy development, and in the setting of the national curriculum, he continued to contribute actively in the field as chairman of the Foundation for Tomorrow’s Schools, and of the Foundation for Educational Services. Wain is also a board member of the International Network of Philosophers of Education. Source:
He has recently launched his festschrift entitled My Teaching, My Philosophy.

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