18 May 2008

Gray calling the kettle black

The following article is slight adaptation of something I put together and did the rounds with a few weeks ago (namely during Easter Week), when ace philosophical poseur, John Gray, was commissioned not one but two full-length opinion pieces in the Irish Times. It wasn't published in The Irish Times or anywhere else.

Now it may be that I can't write (please let me know if this is the case), but since no other article was later published to rebutt the poisonous tripe contained in the two Gray efforts, I feel the whole episode illustrates my previously expressed contention that people are allowed write any calumny they like in the Irish print media (and particularly in the Irish Times) without having to concede right of reply to those they insult, just as long as the lie is written for the benefit of 'belief'.

Philosophical poseur, Gray is best known for bad-mouthing the EnlightenmentThe flurry of anti-secular aggression written under the cover of Easter week in the Irish Times is illustrative of the level of absurdity that the debate on the role of religion in society has reached in Ireland. In holy week British celebrity philosopher, John Gray, had not one but two opinion articles hostile to atheism in the Irish paper of record (as usual, you may need to pay your dues to Geraldine to get these links to work). As well as his efforts, our own home-grown scourge of the secular, John Waters, put his oar in, as did Roman Catholic Orthodoxy’s defender of the faith, Breda O’Brien. And what was there in reply for the non-religious? Not a column inch outside of a single rather mild letter to the editor on Easter Saturday.

Blood libel
In his book-length rant against the Enlightenment, “Straw Dogs”, Gray rolled out the old blood libel that has become a weapon of choice for anti-secularists everywhere: i.e. that atheism was at least partially responsible for Nazism. He repeats this ridiculous accusation in the first of his IT articles. (Incidentally, this nasty piece of propaganda was since repeated without a squeak from the media by the Benedict during his visit to the US.) No argument does Gray present apart from the earth-shattering insight that the Nazis foully perverted the discoveries of Darwin to justify their extraordinary savagery.

Gray (and, shamefully, Benedict too) seems to know very little about the history of Nazism, which owed as much to pagan and Christian religious traditions as it did to atheism. Indeed National Socialism’s ideology was informed more by nostalgic anti-enlightenment romanticism than ever it was by any great enlightenment philosophers, as any study of proto-Nazi movements in 19th and early 20th Century will clarify. Indeed it seems it was mainly this Nazi yearning for a non-existent past that attracted the philosopher Heidegger to the ranks of the Hitler’s party (though ambition also surely played a role). It’s ironic now that the same Heidegger is one of the two or three world philosophers most cited by the Irish religious intelligentsia as leaving open a space for religion in a post-enlightenment world.

Schoolyard taunts
Gray’s case against memetics is even worse. Memetics is Richard Dawkins' exploration of the relatively modest and thought-provoking idea that genes may not be the only information storage systems in the world that both affect human behaviour and are capable of reproduction and variation, and are therefore also subject to their own evolutionary pressures. Cultural change, suggests Dawkins, may also be fruitfully be analysed in a similar way, where the concept of genes is replaced by what he calls "memes", which we are to interpret as ideas, opinions, beliefs and other mental artefacts that may be more or less effective in reproducing themselves via communication between human minds. Gray doesn’t even bother to argue with him. Indeed his attack is little more than a series of schoolyard taunts.

In fairness, maybe Gray is responding to Dawkins’ unfortunate metaphor for “memeplexes” (including religious memeplexes) as “viruses of the mind” (this expression has indeed led to much misunderstanding – especially when some of Dawkins’ other undiplomatic pronouncements are added to the mix). However, in neither his books nor his newspaper articles does Gray let us in on his reasoning on the merits of the theory. He limits himself to thumbing his nose at it.

Religions don't make factual claims - Gray
Gray also informs us (amid a diversionary swirl of intellectual-sounding verbiage) that religions do not make any claims about how things are in the world (apparently only “some western Christian traditions under the influence of Greek philosophy” do that), and accuses his scientific opponents of refusing to acknowledge this factoid. He doesn’t mention the oft-repeated assertion by Dawkins that any religion that avoids making such supernatural metaphysical claims is ok with him.

Self-confessed Gray fan John Waters, in his Good Friday article, accidentally illustrates the absurdity of Gray’s position, at least in an Irish context. In time-hallowed, Greek-influenced, Christian tradition, Waters makes the claim that the Resurrection of Jesus was an historical fact. (“… Jesus became, once again, as alive as we are. … This, too, is history”.) ... Well, ahem, on the contrary, a newly released book – “The Resurrection” by biblical scholar and historian Geza Vermes – eloquently argues the already obvious fact that the story in St. John’s Gospel was nothing more than a myth.

Geza Vermes, who has illustrated that the resurrection myth is just that, a myth.Whether or not Vermes is right (and he clearly is), Waters is repeating a (perhaps the) central factual claim of the most influential religion in Ireland. The assertion (to adapt some of Gray’s phraseology) is obviously a proposition struggling to be accepted as a fact. Like any other historical assertion, it must therefore stand or fall on the basis of evidence. In short, nobody has a problem with the Resurrection story as an allegory, but as an historical claim it requires evidence (and, being an extraordinary claim, it needs extraordinary evidence at that).

So, does Gray support Waters’ assertion? He should be forced to answer the question clearly. Does he support the legitimacy of such claims as that Resurrection actually occurred? If his answer is yes, then his argument falls apart immediately, as this is almost the prototypical example of a religion making claims about objective historical fact. If it is no, then Dawkins and others have no beef with him. And there simply isn’t room for a maybe. Either it happened or it didn't.

The myth of anti-religious bias
RTE and the Irish Times are often accused of having an anti-religious bias. Yet the Irish Times provides a pro-religious opinion piece every week (Rite & Reason) which rarely or never invites non-religious contributors. The paper also routinely provides regular space for predictably pro-religious commentators (such as O’Brien and Waters) and yet provides effectively no counterbalancing space for opposing views. In this context, the Holy Week articles were fairly typical of the Irish Times editorial approach. Of course and as usual, RTE provided full coverage of a variety of religious events during the week, reported uncritically on the religious pronouncements of a variety of religious and political leaders. Both organisations clearly have a de facto policy of ensuring that non-religious writers refrain from articulating views critical to people’s religious beliefs (this policy is possibly especially strongly enforced in the time leading up to Easter and Christmas, but clearly applies all year round).

Prof Geraldine Kennedy has defended the indefensible views of Kevin Myers and John Waters in the past on the basis of freedom of expression, but obviously doesn't give a hoot about fair play to Irelands irreligiousThe bias in the Irish media that religious commentators never tire of complaining of on religious matters is obvious to anyone who makes the effort of looking. However, the articles printed in Holy Week 2008 in the Irish Times neatly illustrate the point that this bias is by no means against religious world views. On the contrary, the imbalance is very much against non and anti-religious views, and is largely based on a fear of offending religious sensibilities. Sensitive as the print media are to the feelings of the religious-minded, they seem completely indifferent to the devastating effect their self-censorship has on the freedom of expression of what John Gray calls “proselytising secularists” – i.e. people critical of religion who are unwilling to be shut up.

For an excellent critique of Gray's nonsense, have a look at A.C. Grayling's article on the New Humanist Website.

13 May 2008

The bishops haven't said enough

The long-overdue admission by the Catholic Bishops' Conference yesterday that there are too many catholic schools in the country to meet demand for this model of education has been the source of much optimism. Yesterday's pastoral letter even included plans to cede control of some of their schools to "wholly or partly to lay people". It would seem petty not to praise them for making this admission and responding by announcing these plans. And indeed John Walshe of the indo is almost breathless about them.

However, we need to be very careful about what they said -- and what they didn't say, for indeed they didn't say very much about the Irish education system's present that wasn't already obvious, and they didn't say very much about their plans for Irish education's future that wasn't already inevitable.

That there is an oversupply of catholic schools has been clear at least since 2004, with the publication of the Educational Research Centre's survey, Views of the Irish public on education in 2004. Very mysteriously it didn't receive wide publicity at the time, but its raw results showed that between 49.6 and 61% of Irish people favoured a non or interdenominational approach to education in the Republic of Ireland. Just 44.7% were willing to even grant parents the right to choose denominational education for their children. See Table 20 on page 34.

In March of this year, David Quinn's IONA Institute received the result of a Red C poll they commissioned on the same subject (for more on this survey and IONA's dishonest interpretation of it, see my previous post here). The results were slightly different, as the subject is very sensitive to how questions are put on the questionnaire (I've asked for, but still haven't got, the IONA wording), but even with the IONA-commissioned survey, only 49% of parents favoured catholic denominational education. Compare this against the figure of 92% of schools in the country being catholic and denominational, a figure which understates the real position, as catholic schools tend to be larger than schools of other denominations and of none.

Another unpleasant surprise was the survey commissioned by the bishops' conference itself, which, despite a wording that could be expected to heavily bias results in favour of pro-denominational views, and despite the fact that the survey was conducted only in catholic schools, support for catholic denominational education came out even lower: 52%, given the choice, would not opt for a denominational school. The survey was made over the whole island, north and south. (A couple of other things about the survey need to be borne in mind: it was clearly marked as having been commissioned by an organ of the Catholic Church and was collected personally, both of which factors could also be expected to influence the results.)

So it's hardly rocket science that there are too many catholic schools in the country.

As for handing over schools to lay management, we're not talking about anything that hasn't already started to happen. Last year, for example, the Christian Brothers, largely due to the fact that they haven't got the personnel to do the work (there hasn't been a single new Christian Brother created in a good few years now), ceded control of many of their schools to the Edmund Rice Schools Trust, made up of "the laity". It should be noted though, that this does not necessarily mean such schools become automatically non or interdenominational (The charter of the CBS trust expressly specifies that schools under its care remain catholic, and trustees were all appointed by the order). In fact, no catholic school has yet declared itself no longer catholic and/or no longer denominational in the history of the state. The bishops' pastoral letter doesn't say anything about plans to do so either.

The Christian Brothers are not the only ones having trouble finding manpower. There is not a single organisation of the religious that's bucking the trend of generalised recruitment meltdown. Nobody wants to be a priest or a nun anymore. The immediate future of the catholic church does indeed seem therefore to be in the hands of the laity. But the laity includes, for example, most of the membership of Opus Dei, very few of whom are likely to be well disposed towards multi or non-denominationalism.

Personally, your blogger is not expecting any catholic schools to become multi-denominational overnight. It is, of course, possible that the new trusts running the schools will be eventually controlled by the parents of children attending them, which would probably over time lead to the school slowly converting to a multi or non-denominational model as new parents become involved in school management. It's not yet clear what models of trusteeship will be chosen. The catholic heirarchy is not renowned for its commitment to democracy in bodies under its tutelage.

John Walshe obviously ran with a tactical leak of the pastoral letter in his article yesterday. For some reason or other, he mentions casually a rough figure of 10-20% of schools that he suggests may be removed from direct church control. I wonder whether he picked the ballpark figure out of the air, or has a reason for quoting it. To be clear, given the results of the three surveys outlined above, the appropriate percentage of schools for removal from church control would seem to be about 50%. The maths is easy: actual percentage of schools controlled by church: at least 92%, percentage of parents requiring catholic denominational education: 45% or so (and falling).

The bishops have declared their strong support for the "primacy of parents' rights in the education of their children." It seems possible that their pastoral letter is a sign that they take their position on the issue seriously. I hope so.

But after looking at the numbers and at what the Bishops say and fail to say, what emerges could still be interpreted by an aggressive secularist like me as a damage limitation exercise. I hope I'm wrong.

The bishops have indicated that their letter should be interpreted as an invitation to dialogue. They are not clear, however, on who they want to participate in this dialogue. I hope aggressive secularists are invited.

10 May 2008

The Reville-led Counter-Reformation

If you pay the online tithe to Geraldine Kennedy you can see the latest offering from the Irish counter-reformation in the form of a letter to the Irish Times (under the title "Report on Stem Cell Research"). There are lot of impressive names at the bottom of said letter.

I wonder in what room they put this nonsense together? Smells very well organised. I betcha if you asked Opus Dei, they'd tell you they had nothing to do with it.

Would you believe them?

Leaving that aside, have you ever heard seen such bullshite published in a national newspaper before (excepting the musings of John Waters)?

Try just this: "Scientifically it is a fact that a new, unique, human individual comes into existence when the DNA from sperm and ovum come together at fertilisation." Well, your blogger's wife's an identical twin. Are her and her sister to be considered collectively a unique, human individual? On first consideration, this is quite an attractive prospect to a red-blooded Irish male like your blogger. I'd be married to both of them! But then, on second thoughts, since the other one's married too, they'd be bigamists, and poor Aggresso and his brother-in-law would both be cuckolds.

As for the fact that about two thirds of naturally produced zygotes die as part of the normal reproduction process, well that's hardly mentioned. Could that be because the letter writers are well aware that their stubborn "at conception" position would logically imply that medical science has an ethical responsibility to save such new, unique, human individuals? Where is all the medical work being done in catholic university hospitals, with catholic researchers selflessly and ceaselessly working on ways of preventing tiny, tiny, tiny humans from dying because of their inability to implant into the wall of the womb? Is this not a human disaster on a scale that dwarfs the terrible price of the western "culture of abortion"?

Well, no it's not. And it's not so, not because the processes involved in a zygotes failure to implant are 'natural' (children dying of smallpox is also natural), but because a zygote quite simply and clearly doesn't have the same status as either a new-born baby or my wife.

These absurdities are not resolved by simply denying their existence: "Neither the fact that many embryos die, nor that twinning can occur, changes the fact that destroying IVF embryos is destroying the lives of human individuals." Perhaps not -- maybe you can after all deal with the many objections to considering a zygote a human being. But you need an argument. A denial is not a refutation.

Now these people are clearly well-educated enough to know all this, and also know enough to be aware that there is no magical moment of conception (the process takes quite some time). The only reasonable conclusion to come to is that they are, of course and as usual, being disingenuous (a term generally used as a euphemism to indicate a desire on the part of the speaker to use harder words).

But the hottest quote your blogger can find in the letter is this: "The issue of the rights of embryos is often portrayed as a religious one, but our position is based on scientific principles and concern for fundamental human rights, not on religious dogma." Which scientific principles, they don't say. How their view can be described as scientific, they don't say either.

Perhaps they mean the position outlined by William Reville a few days ago in his "Under the microscope" column (available, again, only if you pay the Times Tithe), which turns out to be more of the same sort of claptrap.

What is clear from the latest flurry of catholic-inspired controversy is that this "at conception" stuff, while not quite as dishonest and crass as intelligent design, is not far off.

For a more detailed critique of Reville's view, have a look my post here.

02 May 2008

Catholic Schools and segregation

David Quinn is at it again. His article in last Friday's Indo attempts to defend catholic schools against the "slur" that they promote segregation. The coverage of the issue of denominational education is "hysterical" he claims, implying that they accused the Catholic Church of promoting "educational apartheid". The atmosphere he said had been so poisoned as to conjure up visions of "Balbriggan Burning"(a clever reference to the film, Mississippi Burning, you understand).

The article was entirely the product of his imagination. None, absolutely none, of what he says has any factual back-up. The tone in which he said the media dealt with the matter is entirely undetectable.

I had a look at the serious media commenting on the Department of Education audit of enrolment policies and found two pieces on it in the 'serious' media prior to Quinn's piece. First up is a very restrained and professional report by Emma O'Kelly on Friday last's news programmes on RTÉ, in which she reported the findings of the audit, accurately mentioning one VEC that was taking on a disproportionate share of immigrant children, as compared to the secondary schools in its catchment area. No mention of educational apartheid appeared anywhere, nor was there any mention of the catholic church. There was, however, in the background an unspoken suggestion that the problem of integration of immigrant children was being made more difficult by the denominational nature of Irish education (remember the Troubles in Northern Ireland?). Possibly to avoid giving offense to people like Quinn, even this obvious point was not explicitly mentioned.

Where "apartheid" was mentioned was in the excellent Irish Times article of the same day (the link will only work if you pay your dues to Geraldine Kennedy). Sean Flynn, the IT education editor and author of the article didn't single out the catholic church either and concentrated on the obvious fact that denominational education will make the task of integration of new immigrants a lot more difficult, if not impossible. Indeed, the headline didn't seem inappropriate, but neither it nor the article under it accused the catholic church in particular of anything at all.

What he did say is that students from better-off families tend to "gravitate" to church-run schools, leaving other categories of students to be dealt with by the rest. This is manifestly true (indeed 'twas ever so, as anyone with two eyes in their head can see) and is backed up by the figures in the Dept of Ed and Sc audit of enrolment numbers.

Incidentally, the Dept's own interpretation of the audit can be found here. It differs very radically from Quinn's completely unfounded gloss on it (i.e. that catholic schools are doing "more than their fair share of immigrant children, and Traveller children, and children with 'special education needs'"). The Audit indicates nothing of the sort. What it does say (according to the Dept's interpretation and mine) is that the enrolment policies of some schools have the effect of excluding certain classes of children from those schools, so that such students have to be catered for exclusively by other schools in within the same catchment area. It is also clear that the majority of such exclusivist schools are catholic (indeed it could hardly be otherwise, catholic schools being the vast majority).

It should be remembered that we're talking only about schools that are financed almost exclusively by the public purse. No fee-paying schools (which also receive large amounts of public money) were included in the audit.

In his usual melodramatic style, Quinn demands an apology from the media for the catholic church for having "hysterically" accused the catholic church of not carrying "its burden" of immigrant children. Nobody has accused it of this. The assertion is a typical Quinnean paper tiger. But he does tell us (as usual, without evidence) that "Catholic primary schools ... are blind as to a child's social background, or educational standard." It is precisely this that the Audit is denying (with evidence). Again as usual, Quinn makes the mistake of thinking saying it makes it so. It doesn't.

Of course, what he's trying to defend against is the charge that catholic schools' behaviour amounts to 'segregation' of students. Yet he admits that:

Catholic primary schools, like other denominational schools, do give preference to children of their own faith. This is why they exist. This is why many parents want them.
What the policy implied above could mean other than segregation is very hard to imagine. It's not segregation on the basis of race (but then I haven't heard anyone accuse the church or any school management of racism), but it remains segregation (namely, segregation on the basis of religion). Basically what he's saying is that catholic schools are entirely entitled to select on the basis of religion. He may be right (though this blogger reckons that the insistence on this form of segregation all though the Troubles in Northern Ireland -- and indeed up to this day -- was a huge contribution to the continuance of those troubles).

The state, however, is entitled to dispose of public funds in such a way as to radically reduce segregation, whether of this sort or of any other. Especially when the "many parents" who want segregation are well under 50% while while at least 96% of schools provide this segregation. What Quinn is trying to prevent is precisely this sort of radical de-segregation.

His view should be exposed and his purpose should be resisted. The Archbishop of Dublin has said some encouraging things about the non and inter-denominational education but has really only provided mood music. The Irish catholic church, as owners of the vast majority of schools in the country, should be asked to make a proposal on how the current issue of religious and (de facto) racial segregation of education in Ireland should be dealt with.

The Department of Education and Science should have its own radical proposals in mind. The suggestions made in their letter to education partners on the audit would suggest that they realise something has to be done, though their proposals don't seem to go any further than appointing regional officers responsible for monitoring school enrolment policies and their results.

Given that the public purse has paid for the erection and maintenance of almost all such schools, the Department should drive a far harder bargain than the letter suggests. It should form part of the Department's strategy to correct the huge overrepresentation of denominational schools in Irish education.

One central issue to be negotiated is how ownership of the network of school buildings in Ireland can be gradually made to better reflect who actually paid for them -- i.e. the Irish people. Since the chuch is unlikely to give its bricks and mortar away, and the Dept of Ed is unlikely to have the money to buy them, your blogger fears that this could take a long time to settle.