May 20

Man accused of playing God

Scientists have created the world's first synthetic life form in a landmark experiment that paves the way for designer organisms that are built rather than evolved.

The controversial feat, which has occupied 20 scientists for more than 10 years at an estimated cost of $40m, was described by one researcher as "a defining moment in biology".

Craig Venter, the pioneering US geneticist behind the experiment, said the achievement heralds the dawn of a new era in which new life is made to benefit humanity, starting with bacteria that churn out biofuels, soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and even manufacture vaccines.

See Guardian article.

May 20

Two weights, two measures in Facebook fine

This morning, a 24-year-old man was sentenced to one month in prison, suspended for one year, and fined EUR500 for posting an offensive comment about Pope Benedict XVI on a Facebook group (Full details here: http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20100520/local/swieqi-man-fine...).

While not condoning the nature of the comment posted by Mr Karl Farrugia - which was basically to suggest that the Pope be shot through the hands, feet and side in order to emulate the wounds of Christ - MHA would none the less like to make the following points:

1) We consider the charges brought against Mr Farrugia to be a basic violation of his right to freedom of expression. The argument that Farrugia was 'inciting to violence' is quite frankly ridiculous, in the context of what was clearly not intended as a comment to be taken seriously. Furthermore, we feel the Magistrates' Court was in duty bound to assess not only the intention, but also the seriousness of the threat before passing judgement in this case. It is clear from the sentence that neither was given due consideration.

2) We consider the sentence to be particularly excessive, especially when compared to the paltry fine of just EUR80 handed down on the same day to two men found guilty of violently assaulting and injuring Birdlife volunteers last month. Similar mismatches in sentencing abound in recent Maltese case history, and do no favours whatsoever to the lawcourts' reputation as being erratic and unpredictable.

3) While the police promptly arrested, interrogated and charged Mr Farrugia in court, no corresponding action has been taken in numerous other cases of clear incitation to violence concerning online comments on Facebook and other websites. Examples include racist, misogynist and homophobic remarks routinely posted on The Times website, among others. Ironically one could also include comments posted with regard to Mr Farrugia himself: in particular this one, in response to the same sentence;

dvella(7 hours, 18 minutes ago)
only a month!!!! And after let's perform that torture on him to see how he feels like!!!

And also this one, posted on www.di-ve.com:

sur j azzopardi / 5/20/2010
jekk forsi hemm xi konnessjoni allura nistaw il karl farrugia nisparawlu bhall ma ried jispara lil papa... ('if there is any connection then we can shoot karl farrugia like he wanted to shoot the pope')

If the Maltese justice system wishes to avoid accusations of double standards, it has left itself with no option but to proceed in all these cases without exception.

4) The case against Mr Farrugia was wrapped up, sentence and all, in a tidy 46 days. When one considers that criminal proceedings against three priests charged with raping 11 boys entrusted to their care at the St Joseph Home in Santa Venera have now been going on for seven years, without reaching any conclusion, one can only express serious doubts about the priorities of the law courts when it comes to expediting justice.

It would be a very grave indictment of Malta's entire justice system to have to conclude that special efforts are made to expedite cases which involve a perceived offence to the Catholic Church... while an almost identical effort appears to be made to delay cases when closure may be inconvenient for the same Church.

For these and other reasons, an explanation from the lawcourts for the different weights and measures applied in different cases would not be entirely amiss.

May 17

Homophobia is the real aberration

Raphael Vassallo

Last Monday (May 17) gay and lesbian organisations around the world observed International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.

The theme chosen for this year’s commemoration was ‘religion and religious oppression of sexual minorities’ – a fact which places this topic entirely within the sphere of interests of any organisation aiming to represent secular humanist values.

Even were it not for the chosen theme, the issue of homophobia would still be of direct concern to Humanists: a category of free-thinking individuals who hold, among other things, that discrimination on any grounds is a fundamental violation of the dignity we all share as human beings.

As a Humanist myself, and as co-founder of the Malta Humanist Association, I would like to take the opportunity of May 17 (albeit two days late) to outline a basic humanist perspective on the issue at hand.
First off, two small observations. It must be pointed out that religion in general is not in itself the cause of homophobia – as a cursory glance at 20th century politics will readily confirm. But as both the Malta Gay Rights Movement and Drachma (a Catholic LGBT group) asserted last Monday, it remains one of the few factors still in use today to justify and legitimise homophobic arguments... and in some cases to prolong active persecution of sexual minorities. To this day, homosexuals continue to face the death penalty in many Islamic countries across the world. Even in Western countries with strong democratic traditions, there appears to be a resurgence of religious inflexibility that would hold us to the beliefs and value-systems of peoples who lived over 4,000 years ago.

The second point involves the legal status of gays and lesbians here in Malta, which has improved in leaps and bounds since the landmark decision to decriminalise homosexuality in 1974.
But while the government of Malta has taken various positive steps over the years, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that homophobia still exists, and that religion continues to play a dominant role in its propagation. Consider the following comment, posted on Monday on www.di-ve.com: “It is them [homosexuals] who have to adapt to the normal way of life and not vice versa. It is against God and against nature to accept otherwise. In the beginning God created them man and woman and that is the normal way of life, other styles are to dig deep down and remain there unless they want to live normal lives like the rest of us - J. Farrugia.”

To be fair, Mr Farrugia may not be entirely representative of the religion he claims to speak for – though that is ultimately a matter for the Maltese Catholic Church to decide, and so far no effort has been made to distance itself from such statements. None the less, Farrugia’s world vision is definitely shared by many people in the name of religion: and as the above quote itself clearly spells out, much of this prejudice takes root in a primordial misconception that the Earth, and all exists thereupon, was created with a specific goal in mind... from which premise it follows that all aspects of life on Earth are intended to serve an ultimate purpose according to a ‘Divine Plan’.

To put the matter succinctly: Humanism rejects this interpretation out of hand. For the purposes of this article I shall limit myself only to how it impinges on views of human sexuality – though of course there is plenty more to be said about the issue.

Humanists generally believe that, like all other aspects of a human being’s physical and psychological experience, sexuality is also a product of evolution: that complex, much-maligned and entirely natural process that has been going on now for over four billion years.

For fairly straightforward reasons, this process was itself alien to the understanding of those who shaped our subsequent perceptions through the religions and mythologies they devised over the millennia: including the religion prevalent in Maltese society today. So it is hardly surprising that religions tend to take such small account of the scientific realities that underpin our planet: choosing instead to rely on a superstitious belief (or ‘faith’, if you prefer) that sacred texts such as the Bible or the Koran, even if unscientific in the detail, are somehow manifestations of a deeper Truth whose veracity cannot be denied.

To be honest even a Humanist may sympathise with part of this argument. For while only the seriously deluded would turn to such books specifically in search of scientific principles, it does not follow that that they have nothing whatsoever to offer the modern reader. On the contrary, ancient texts do provide an invaluable insight into the early civilised mind, and are at their most richly rewarding when shedding light on mankind’s earliest conceptions of the universe, and above all his own place therein.

But the wisdom they contain is not scientific wisdom. The premises from which they depart are not logically unassailable – far from it – and while much of the modus vivendi that emanates from these works is one a Humanist might be comfortable to live alongside, some aspects of it are very emphatically not.

One such example involves precisely the so-called ‘sexual norms’ propagated by the Bible and the Koran, among other holy books. It is a strange thing to have to reiterate in the 21st century, but humankind is in a slightly better position today than it was in the Bronze or Dark Ages to reassess the precise circumstances of its own origins. And what has emerged from our observations of the Universe over the past 500 years – before which time, let’s face it, our ability to observe was severely limited – is that there is no evidence to suggest that the tentative steps we have so far taken as human beings on this planet, were choreographed from beforehand in accordance with some sort of pre-determined, cosmic 'roadmap'.

In fact, the available evidence suggests quite the reverse: i.e., that in the absence of a fixed musical score (and at the risk of anthropomorphising that which is not sentient) nature makes up its own words and music as it goes along. If the resulting symphony sounds in any way harmonious to our ears, it is only because each individual note, each chord and each arpeggio – simply by virtue of existing in the first place – can only be the way it is for having survived the process of natural selection, thereby becoming the best possible adaptation to its own environment in its own time.

This applies to all aspects of all living things: from butterflies to bottlenose dolphins, from echolocation to photosynthesis, and from prehensile tails to Presidents of the USA. Naturally, it also applies to sexual diversity among humans: which was produced by nature in exactly the same way as all other dimensions of the infinite variety of life on Earth: i.e., unprompted.

From this perspective, any attempt to argue homosexuality away as ‘unnatural’ can only betray a crude, almost brutish ignorance of how the natural world really operates. And far from being ‘despicable’ or ‘reprehensible’, the Humanist would argue that sexual diversity deserves to be respected and cherished in its own right, as it also forms part of the great natural wonder we call the Universe, which we are committed to defend.

On another level altogether, homophobia is objectionable not merely because it breeds hatred and violence – though that alone is a good enough reason to repudiate it – nor even because it results directly in great injustice and social exclusion.

Homophobia is objectionable also because it is severely (to put it mildly) irrational.

Paradoxically, this is best illustrated by reverting to the selfsame religious argument that Humanists generally reject. Once it is established that so much of the bias against homosexuality arises from a perception of what is and what is not ‘God’s will’, then the argument becomes rather meaningless to those among us who quite frankly do not believe in God to begin with.
But even if one were to accept the existence of God – and the subsequent premise that He created the entire Universe according to a ‘Divine Plan’ – it would be to say the least presumptuous to also assume the authority to speak and decide on God’s behalf.
Logically, anyone who believes in God and the doctrine of Creation has little choice but to also assume that homosexuality itself, by virtue of its undeniable existence in the Universe, would also have some part to play in the unfolding of God’s Plan... for which (let’s be honest) we do not really have a final, conclusive blueprint, other than perhaps the words of prophets and mystics who lived as long ago as 2,000 B.C.

In the final analysis, I personally find the Humanist recommendation (no commandments in this world vision) altogether more reassuring. If people were to value others for what they really are, instead of what they think ‘God might have intended them to be’, the world would almost certainly be a better and safer place to live in.

This article appears in MaltaToday, Wednesday 19 May 2010

www.maltatoday.com.mt

May 02

Report on homophobia and discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation in Malta

This report on the social situation concerning homophobia and discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation in Malta was published in March 2009 by the Danish Institute on Human Rights on behalf of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA). One of the key observations in this report is how the influence of the Catholic Church has hindered the implementation of the EU Framework Directive and set barriers for promoting LGBT rights.

May 02

Humanists win debate on religion and society at the Oxford Union

Oxford students voted 120 to 80 against the motion that ‘Religion is a force for good in this country’ at the Oxford Union debating society.

The opposition used survey data to demonstrate that there was no difference in pro-social behaviours such as volunteering between religious and non-religious people, pointed to historical and contemporary instances of the tremendous harm that has been done by religions to offset against any good they have done, argued that religion did not in any case add anything to compassion and human morality, and that religions clouded our ability to understand the world through reason, science and experience. See the BHA short report on the debate. It is critical that this discussion is picked up in Malta where the prevailing notion is still that whatever huge defects the RC Church might have, it still a force for good in Malta and the rest of the world.

Apr 26

MHA elects new committee

The Malta Humanist Association has elected an official committee to replace the ad hoc committee originally set up by its founder members in April 2010.

Elected during the association’s first annual general meeting – held at Europe House, Valletta, on April 6 – the new committee consists of Godfrey Vella, Raphael Vassallo, Philip Manduca, Ramon Casha, Michael Mercieca, David Friggieri, Raisa Tarasova, Joshua Degiorgio, Kevin Cassar and Jackson Levi.

The following roles were approved at a subsequent committee meeting:

Chairman: Godfrey Vella

Deputy Chairman/PRO: Raphael Vassallo

Secretary: Philip Manduca

Assistant secretary: Ramon Casha

Treasurer: Michael Mercieca

Assistant Treasurer: Joshua Degiorgio

PRO: David Friggieri

Education/Research: Raisa Tarasova, Kevin Cassar

Student Affairs: Jackson Levi Said

Apr 26

Letter to the President of Malta

The committee of the Malta Humanist Association has written to request a formal appointment with H.E. The President of Malta, Dr George Abela, in the light of his recent statements regarding the close ties between Church and State in Malta.

Here is the full text of the letter, dated 26 April 2010:

Your Excellency

We write to you on behalf of the Malta Humanist Association: a newly formed non-governmental organisation which aims to represent the interests and concerns of a growing number of secular humanists in this country.

As secular humanists we believe, among other things, in the need for a clear distinction between State and Church. We are therefore deeply perturbed at the sectarian direction the Republic of Malta appears to be taking under your Presidency.

We feel that this direction was amply demonstrated in the tone and thrust of your welcoming address to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI on the occasion of his visit to Malta on April 17-18, wherein you stated that:

'Today, we face the wave of secularism which has as its starting point the strict separation of Church and State: a laicist model advocating that the State should be strictly separate from religion which is conceived as belonging exclusively to the private domain. This profane character which has developed in some European States is driving people to be laicist or even anti-Christian...

'However, as we all know or as we all should know, the moral foundations of a society as a whole, comprising believers, agnostics or atheists, are better served not with the falling away from religion but with the reinvigoration of the moral consciousness of the State.. .'

The Malta Humanist Association is alarmed to note the underlying assumption, inherent in the second paragraph quoted above, that the 'moral consciousness of the State' is rooted in religion - not just any religion, but one religion in particular to the exclusion of all others.

We believe this statement to constitute a direct and unequivocal threat to the rights of non-religious minorities to be represented equally under the banner of the State. As such, we would like to request an appointment for a meeting, to be held at your convenience, in order to discuss the issue as a matter of urgency.

We trust that such a meeting would be beneficial to all sides, as we are confident that Your Excellency intended no deliberate offence to Malta's non-Catholic population. Nonetheless, it remains a fact that non-Catholics in general, and secular humanists in particular, have justifiable cause for concern at an apparent increase in hostile attitudes extended in their direction.

We look forward to exchanging views on this important subject in the near future.

Yours sincerely,

Godfrey Vella, Raphael Vassallo, Philip Manduca, Ramon Casha, James Debono

Apr 25

MHA dismayed by President’s anti-secular stance

The Malta Humanist Association wishes to convey its disappointment and consternation at remarks made by the President of the Republic, HE Dr George Abela, during his address welcoming Pope Benedict XVI to Malta on Saturday.

“We were surprised and alarmed by the apparent aggression with which our President rejected the secular principles upon which so many modern European democracies are founded,” MHA spokesman Raphael Vassallo said on Monday. “Dr Abela at one point stressed that Malta ‘is not a confessional state’. Sadly, however, it seems the rest of his speech was devoted to flatly contradicting this very message.”

In a televised address watched by thousands, Dr Abela made various attempts to forge a direct link between Catholicism and Maltese identity, and at one point even appeared to directly challenge the notion that Church and State should be kept separate: “... the moral foundations of a society as a whole, comprising believers, agnostics or atheists, are better served not with the falling away from religion but with the reinvigoration of the moral consciousness of the State,” Dr Abela said.

The Malta Humanist Association strongly rebuts this inference.

“As an association representing the interests of both atheists and agnostics in Malta, we feel we have a duty to correct the President on this particular detail,” Vassallo said. “How can an atheist’s interests be best served when his or her own country’s President publicly dissociates himself from atheism, and even talks of secular humanism in terms of a threat to the nation’s moral and ethical fibre?”

The MHA wishes to stress also that the President manifestly overstepped his Constitutional remit by confusing the disparate roles of Church and State. Even before his televised address on Saturday, the sheer extent of his involvement in preparations for the Pope’s visit – going so far as to appear on national TV, and call on the Maltese to attend High Mass at the Granaries – served only to erode any distinction between secular and ecclesiastic authorities.

“Dr Abela would be well advised to bear in mind that he is the President of all the Maltese, including a substantial minority who are not Catholics,” Vassallo added. “He himself may not be aware of this, but his choice of words last Saturday was deeply offensive to thousands of Maltese citizens, and could conceivably also be dangerous. It is after all not the President’s job to foster a climate of intolerance directed towards adherents of faiths other than his own, or for that matter those who espouse no religion at all.”

On another level, the MHA notes with concern that the President may have unwittingly also insulted other EU member states, especially those with a long and proud history of secularism, in the presence of their diplomatic missions in Malta.

“By referring to secular Europe as ‘profane’, and by disparaging European secularism in no uncertain terms in front of EU ambassadors, we feel that Dr Abela may have undone decades of good work by Maltese diplomats – including his own predecessor, President Emeritus Guido Demarco – in establishing Malta’s credentials as a modern European democracy. Moreover, one would have expected Dr Abela to buttress such controversial statements with serious and well-researched references. Disappointingly, however, the President chose to limit himself to quoting a single article in an Italian daily newspaper...”

The newly formed humanist organisation will shortly be writing to request a formal audience with Dr Abela, in the hope of clarifying a few important issues before any future misunderstandings arise.

“Clearly, the President has not understood the core values and principles of secular humanism,” Vassallo said. “We trust this is a genuine oversight on Dr Abela’s part, and not part of a strategy to misrepresent secular humanists, and force them, along with other minorities, into a position of social and cultural exclusion.”

Further information about humanism in general and the MHA in particular can be found on www.maltahumanist.org.

Apr 25

Even the Sunday Times has a go at the President

In an editiorial on 25th April, the Sunday Times states "The only controversy, locally at least, caused by the visit came not from the Pope, but rather unexpectedly from President George Abela, who in his lengthy welcoming speech on the airport tarmac declared that "today we face the wave of secularism which has as its starting point the strict separation of Church and State"."

In its concluding remarks the editorial goes on to say "...given that these words, though carefully chosen, have upset some people - and that the President should be the President of all those who live in modern Malta as a fully fledged EU member - perhaps Dr Abela should seek to clarify and explain some of the terms he used.

What does he mean by "strict separation of Church and State"? Is he saying that "secularisation" in itself breeds anti-Christian sentiment? And should his other comments be taken to exclude certain members of society? It is hoped that his responses will not throw up any surprises."

Apr 25

The Identity Question

In a letter to The Times, Ray Azzopardi argues that "Our true identity as Maltese has to be linked to our Christian roots". Nothing could be further from the truth.

Whenever one refers to "roots", one is implying a beginning, and it's obvious even from the Bible's account of Paul's arrival here that Malta and the Maltese had their own distinct identity well before the Christian faith even reached our shores. Throughout our history, we have retained our identity even during times when this faith practically disappeared from these islands.

If I had to choose a characteristic that identifies us as Maltese, I'd have to choose the Maltese language. Nothing distinguishes us more from any other nation. Even expatriates maintain the language alive in their adopted countries because of this very reason. In centuries of foreign rule by the Knights, the French and the British, we retained our language - often using it to distinguish ourselves from "the outsiders". Within Malta, people who can't speak Maltese are considered to be foreign residents, irrespective of what their passport or ID card says.

Throughout our history there have always been people who are not Catholics, or even Christian, yet are entirely Maltese. There is evidence of a Jewish community in Malta since before Paul's arrival, making it probably the oldest surviving religion in Malta, though it has not done so continuously. Today there are many Maltese who are Muslim, Hindu, or have no religion at all.

The national anthem is quite irrelevant in determining our identity. It was written by a priest, so it's hardly surprising that it contains references to God. It also refers to "min jaħkimha" - a reference to the British governor of the time. Hardly meaningful today.

I'm surprised that Mr. Azzopardi attributes "our generous and altruistic nature" to Paul's Christianity when the Bible points out that Paul himself was surprised by the natives' "uncommon kindness". It seems that our friendly nature is part of our pre-Christian identity, and has survived 2000 years later. Nor were they "our Christian values" that kept us struggling for independence, since most of our foreign rulers shared that faith.

Mr. Azzopardi asks a loaded question when he asks why we are passing on "a secular and narrow vision of our society" to the next generation. Actually, we are passing on a secular and more open vision of our society. A secular society is one in which each individual has the right to his own faith - or none at all, but the govern remains separate, thus not discriminating against - or in favour of - anyone based on their religion. A nation when one can apply for a teaching post in a government school without being asked to confirm whether they are Catholic first. A nation where the church and the state are separate.

What would our life be like if we did not have this separation between church and state? You can look at Iran or Saudi Arabia as an example of what happens when religion and government are in the same bed. Condoms - and indeed any other form of contraception - would be illegal. Going to mass on Sunday would be compulsory. Unwed mothers would be in prison. Marriage between Catholic and non-Catholic would be prohibited by law, and unmarried couples living together would be harshly punished. Do not make the mistake of thinking that these things only happen in Muslim countries. Not only does our history show otherwise, but even now, fundamentalists in the USA and other nations constantly seek to use the laws to make such impositions on the whole population.

Thankfully, we are already partly secular, but more needs to be done. Religion should be a personal matter even if 99.9% of the country adhered to one faith. Certainly it should not be something for the government to be involved in, nor for our laws to control. A secular society is the foundation for a better future.

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