Jul 06

Curiouser and curiouser: JPO proposes divorce

After Adrian Vassallo, from the supposedly progressive PL, published his tirade against letting tourists view pornography in their hotel bedrooms, we get another surprise, with Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando from the conservative PN presenting a private member's bill for the introduction of divorce.

Good for JPO. I wonder how his mates will stand on this. PL leader Joseph Muscat has already promised to move a private member's bill for the introduction of divorce if elected.

Update: It didn't take long for Archbishop Paul Cremona to chime in. He said that the church "would not be launching any crusade against divorce", but still started dishing out instructions to MPs, saying "Convinced Catholics have to vote for a stable marriage and against divorce".

Jun 30

Declaration at Cophenhagen conference

In the recent Gods and Politics conference held in Copenhagen the following Declaration on Religion in Public Life was adopted. The conference was the first major European event of Atheist Alliance International, and was co-hosted by AAI and the Danish Atheist Society. Below is the text of the Declaration -

We, at the World Atheist Conference: "Gods and Politics", held in Copenhagen from 18 to 20 June 2010, hereby declare as follows:

  • We recognize the unlimited right to freedom of conscience, religion and belief, and that freedom to practice one's religion should be limited only by the need to respect the rights of others.
  • We submit that public policy should be informed by evidence and reason, not by dogma.
  • We assert the need for a society based on democracy, human rights and the rule of law. History has shown that the most successful societies are the most secular.
  • We assert that the only equitable system of government in a democratic society is based on secularism: state neutrality in matters of religion or belief, favouring none and discriminating against none.
  • We assert that private conduct, which respects the rights of others should not be the subject of legal sanction or government concern.
  • We affirm the right of believers and non-believers alike to participate in public life and their right to equality of treatment in the democratic process.
  • We affirm the right to freedom of expression for all, subject to limitations only as prescribed in international law – laws which all governments should respect and enforce. We reject all blasphemy laws and restrictions on the right to criticize religion or nonreligious life stances.
  • We assert the principle of one law for all, with no special treatment for minority communities, and no jurisdiction for religious courts for the settlement of civil matters or family disputes.
  • We reject all discrimination in employment (other than for religious leaders) and the provision of social services on the grounds of race, religion or belief, gender, class, caste or sexual orientation.
  • We reject any special consideration for religion in politics and public life, and oppose charitable, tax-free status and state grants for the promotion of any religion as inimical to the interests of non-believers and those of other faiths. We oppose state funding for faith schools.
  • We support the right to secular education, and assert the need for education in critical thinking and the distinction between faith and reason as a guide to knowledge, and in the diversity of religious beliefs. We support the spirit of free inquiry and the teaching of science free from religious interference, and are opposed to indoctrination, religious or otherwise.

Adopted by the conference, Copenhagen, 20 June 2010.

Jun 26

Humanists and gay rights activists deplore statements by religious leaders

A joint statement by the Malta Humanist Association and the Malta Gay Rights Movement - 25 June 2010.

The Malta Humanist Association and the Malta Gay Rights Movement are deeply concerned by statements issued last Thursday by Archbishop Paul Cremona and Ammar Hreba, head of the Islamic Centre and Propagation Bureau, at a joint Muslim-Catholic seminar organised by the World Islamic Call Society.

The MHA and MGRM are all in favour of inter-cultural dialogue, but reports of this seminar suggest a ‘marriage of convenience’ between Malta’s two largest religious denominations, specifically to propagate views on marriage and human sexuality which both the MHA and MGRM consider to be inherently flawed.

From a humanist perspective, it is alarming that such influential institutions should use their combined strength to prevent couples of the same gender from marrying, simply because of an ancient myth about a man, a woman and a talking snake.

Quotes attributed to Cremona and Hreba suggest that the local Catholic and Muslim community leaders incline towards a literal interpretation of the Creation myth from their respective Scriptures. The Malta Humanist Association - being an organisation rooted in the principles of science and rationality – cannot but reject interpretations which disregard all scientific knowledge on the subject of humanity’s origins: especially when such distortions are used for political ends, in order to influence legislation that affects the private lives of thousands of people.

It is also regrettable that religious leaders (Hreba in particular) would resort to such alarmist language with regard to same-sex unions. Hreba was quoted as saying: “if we let the family collapse, there will be catastrophe and destruction. Same-sex marriage destroys the entity of the family, which began with Adam and Eve.”

The MHA and MGRM both strongly deplore this as an example of hate speech, and urge Hreba to retract the statement and apologise for the hurt caused to thousands of Maltese citizens currently in same-sex relationships.

The Malta Gay Rights Movement further holds that same-sex marriage is no more a threat to heterosexual couples and straight families than space exploration or deep sea diving. It is regrettable that the focus should be on same-sex marriage, rather than on the real threat to families of all shapes and sizes, that is: poverty, poor parenting, inadequate housing, low educational aspirations and attainment; poor mental health, child abuse, domestic violence and unemployment, among others.

Furthermore, the Malta Humanist Association finds it strange that the Church would cite only ‘divorce’ and ‘polygamy’ as examples of areas where it disagrees with Islam. One would have thought the Church founded by Christ would also object - as Christ did - to the death penalty for adultery (which Sharia law applies only in the case of women), as well as for atheism and apostasy - a state of fact which flies in the face of decency, and also blatantly breaches fundamental human rights.

These are a few of the many issues the local Catholic Church appears to have overlooked in its current dialogue with the Muslim community. The MHA and MGRM sincerely hope this is not an indication of the direction Malta’s majority religion intends to take in future.

For further information:
The Malta Humanist Association (www.maltahumanist.org)
The Malta Gay Rights Movement (www.maltagayrights.org)

May 31

RC Church to indulge in outreach to atheists

The Vatican is planning a new initiative to reach out to atheists and agnostics in an attempt to improve the church's relationship with non-believers. Pope Benedict XVI has ordered officials to create a new foundation where atheists will be encouraged to meet and debate with some of the Catholic Church's top theologians.

A new foundation called The "Courtyard of the Gentiles" is being set up by the Pontifical Council for Culture, the influential Vatican department that is charged with fostering better relations with non-Catholics.

However, Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, the president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, made it clear he would not be willing to give a platform to certain prominent atheists. So Dawkins and Hitchens will not be invited! What on earth is the Archbishop scared of?

See the full story in the Independent.

May 23

EHF asks to intervene in Lautsi case

The European Humanist Federation has welcomed the decision of the European Court of Human Rights last November in the case of Lautsi v. Italy. The judgement upheld the principle of the neutrality of the state in relation to religious and philosophical convictions - that is, the principle of secularism - which is fundamental to the objectives of all EHF member organisations and is progressively being recognised in national and international institutions as the best way of guaranteeing freedom of religion or belief for everyone.
The EHF has therefore requested permission to make a third party intervention in the case before the Grand Chamber. Read here the submission being made by the EHF.

May 22

Greek Humanists file Complaint against Abusive Bishop

The newly formed Humanist Union of Greece has filed a complaint against the the Bishop of Kalavryta and Aegialia Amvrosios and against the Greek State (equally liable as bishops are civil servants) alleging that an article by him “intentionally incites to actions that may cause discrimination, hatred or violence and expresses ideas that offend persons or groups of persons only because of their religion”. The bishop had written “When . . . there are Greeks who proudly claim that they are without Nation, God, or Fatherland and the Hellenic Republic DOES NOT STRIP THEM OF THEIR GREEK NATIONALITY AND CITIZENSHIP, sending them to hell as traitors of our Fatherland, then the end of Greece is near!”

The Humanist Union has also protested against a violent attack on the offices of one of their members, a lawyer involved in the legal case seeking removal of crucifixes from Greek court rooms - a follow-up to the Lautsi judgement.

A press statement by the Humanist Union of Greece is here.

By courtesy of the European Humanist Federation

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.