CFI On UN Resolution Condemning “Defamation of Religions”

Once again the The United Nations Human Rights Council has revealed itself to be anything but, passing a resolution in a 23-11 vote condemning the “defamation of religions” and urging nation states to pass laws to stifle criticism of religion. Yes, that’s right, in the 21st century the United Nations is onboard in support of the worst sort of anti-blasphemy laws.

The Center for Inquiry issued a press release denouncing the resolution, saying,

“The concept of ‘defamation of religions’ is both absurd and dangerous.” said Ronald A. Lindsay, CFI’s president and chief executive officer. “Legally speaking, it’s gibberish, and any ban on so-called ‘defamation’ would effectively prevent any critique of religious beliefs or practices.”

In the opinion of a broad range of civil society organizations, these pronouncements do nothing but lend legitimacy to the repression of political and religious dissent around the world, particularly in Islamic countries. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, for example, which carry mandatory sentences of death or life imprisonment, are frequently used against members of the Ahmaddiya community, a peaceful minority Muslim sect.

Through its UN representative, Dr. Austin Dacey, CFI participated in the negotiations over the resolution during the March session of the Council in Geneva, and delivered an oral statement before the plenary meeting on March 24. Most worrisome, according to CFI, is that the present language equates religiously insulting speech with “advocacy of religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility, or violence,” a category of speech that is prohibited by existing treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which have the force of law.

“Now the argument becomes very awkward for Europe,” said Dacey, “since many European states have laws against hate speech, Holocaust denial, and even blasphemy (for example, in Austria) that have been upheld by their regional human rights courts. The Islamic states will say they simply want to extend the same protection to all beliefs.”

CFI on Baylor Study of Religiosity in America

The Center for Inquiry has a press release announcing a new report criticizing the methodology of Baylor University’s ongoing look at levels of religiosity in America, recently published in book form as What Americans Really Believe.

The CFI report, available as a PDF download here, makes a fairly persuasive case that the Baylor reports are cherry picking data to exaggerate the extent of religious belief in the United States and diminish the growing level of skepticism about the existence of God (though that does not necessarily, unfortunately, lead to atheism per se).

Baylor outsources it polling to Gallup, which has long been asking Americans about their religious beliefs, the core of the CFI argument is that there is a lot of Gallup data that directly contradicts the Baylor claims. Essentially, the report alleges that Baylor is classifying a lot of people who do not believe in God or are agnostics as religious. In the process, a lot of fascinating data about religious belief and skepticism is prevented including this amazing chart based on Gallup polls,

2001 2004 2007
Believe in God 89.70 89.91 86.29
Not Sure About God 6.83 5 7.56
Don’t Believe In God 2.69 4.25 5.84
Don’t Know 0.7 0
Adding the last three together for total atheists and agnostics 9.52 9.95 13.4

As Greg Paul, author of the CFI report argues,

Just last year, more than 13 percent of Americans told Gallup they had significant doubts about the existence of God. This is the highest level of religious skepticism recorded by the organization over six decades. Nor does any recent Gallup survey match the extremely low levels of disbelief in God reported from the 1940s into the 60s. Gallup’s data shows clearly that popular atheism has not held stable over time. On the contrary, unbelief in God was far less prevalent in the mid-twentieth century than it is today. This forces the question: How could the Baylor team be unaware of a large body of findings made by the organization that is its partner in the current survey project?

The entire report  can be downloaded here (PDF) and is well worth reading in its entirety.

The Vatican’s ‘Dignitas Personae’

The Center for Inquiry issued a press release in mid-December attacking the Catholic Church’s Dignitas Personae, largely on abortion-related grounds (the Catholic Church, not surprisingly, is still against it). According to CFI,

The Center for Inquiry, a think tank headquartered in Amherst, New York that supports research on bioethical questions, deplores the Vatican’s pronouncement. The Vatican’s position has no justification other than religious doctrine, according to the Center for Inquiry, and may have a serious adverse effect on scientific research and the development of medical therapies.

“I regret the renewed effort by the Vatican to censor—indeed prohibit—research in reproductive science,” said Paul Kurtz, chairman and founder of the Center for Inquiry. “Do we have to wage the Galileo battle again? The Vatican claims that their objections are “moral,” but they are based on a theological doctrine that a formless fertilized egg is a full human being, a position which most scientists reject.” Kurtz says there is a need to defend freedom of scientific research and the positive good that can ensue for countless numbers of infertile couples. “The effort to curtail stem cell research is especially disturbing in the view of the possible beneficent results for improving human health,” he said.

The Vatican has focused on commonplace scientific technologies used in the United States and elsewhere, which the Church believes demean human “dignity,” and bring humans perilously close to “playing God.” The Church continues to hold steadfast to its key theological proclamation that “life begins at conception,” thereby rendering as “illicit” the use of embryos or fertilized eggs in research or otherwise, including IVF for married Catholic couples wishing to conceive.

Dr. Ronald A. Lindsay, president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry (and author of the book Future Bioethics: Overcoming Taboos, Myths, and Dogmas) said that “the Vatican has once again manifested its regrettable preference for religious doctrine over science. Until roughly fourteen days after conception, one cannot even meaningfully refer to the embryo as an individual, let alone the equivalent of an adult human, since both twinning and fusion are possible until that point.” Lindsay added that the Vatican’s rejection of IVF on the ground that it results in the discarding of embryos is especially ironic since from 60 to 80 percent of embryos conceived “naturally” are spontaneously aborted. “If the Vatican wants to prevent embryos from ‘dying,’ then they will have to instruct couples to avoid sex completely.

Dignitas Personae is interesting both for the technologies it deplores and the “logic” it bases those judgments upon.

For example, consider intracytoplasmic sperm injection — a procedure whereby a single sperm is injected into an egg to fertilize it. ICSI has a number of purposes, including being used in to overcome male infertility. Dignitas Personae objects to ICSI because it separates procreation from the sexual act,

Just as in general with in vitro fertilization, of which it is a variety, ICSI is intrinsically illicit:  it causes a complete separation between procreation and the conjugal act. Indeed ICSI takes place “outside the bodies of the couple through actions of third parties whose competence and technical activity determine the success of the procedure. Such fertilization entrusts the life and identity of the embryo into the power of doctors and biologists and establishes the domination of technology over the origin and destiny of the human person. Such a relationship of domination is in itself contrary to the dignity and equality that must be common to parents and children. Conception in vitro is the result of the technical action which presides over fertilization. Such fertilization is neither in fact achieved nor positively willed as the expression and fruit of a specific act of the conjugal union”.

Similarly, the objection to genetic engineering comes down to vague and poorly defined concerns,

27. The question of using genetic engineering for purposes other than medical treatment also calls for consideration. Some have imagined the possibility of using techniques of genetic engineering to introduce alterations with the presumed aim of improving and strengthening the gene pool. Some of these proposals exhibit a certain dissatisfaction or even rejection of the value of the human being as a finite creature and person. Apart from technical difficulties and the real and potential risks involved, such manipulation would promote a eugenic mentality and would lead to indirect social stigma with regard to people who lack certain qualities, while privileging qualities that happen to be appreciated by a certain culture or society; such qualities do not constitute what is specifically human. This would be in contrast with the fundamental truth of the equality of all human beings which is expressed in the principle of justice, the violation of which, in the long run, would harm peaceful coexistence among individuals. Furthermore, one wonders who would be able to establish which modifications were to be held as positive and which not, or what limits should be placed on individual requests for improvement since it would be materially impossible to fulfil the wishes of every single person. Any conceivable response to these questions would, however, derive from arbitrary and questionable criteria. All of this leads to the conclusion that the prospect of such an intervention would end sooner or later by harming the common good, by favouring the will of some over the freedom of others. Finally it must also be noted that in the attempt to create a new type of human being one can recognize an ideological element in which man tries to take the place of his Creator.

In stating the ethical negativity of these kinds of interventions which imply an unjust domination of man over man, the Church also recalls the need to return to an attitude of care for people and of education in accepting human life in its concrete historical finite nature.

Leaving for the moment the absurdity of the Catholic Church being suddenly concerned about the “unjust domination of man over man”, the concern about “man trying to take the place of the Creator” is telling.

Of course human beings wouldn’t have to take that route if the Creator hadn’t done such a piss poor job of it in the first place. The Church’s position is that we should simply accept our numerous defects — such as the ridiculously short lifespan — as “God given” and simply not attempt to improve our arbitrary genetic heritage.