Monday, 8 March 2010

Sceptical Intersections

This guest post at Liberal Conspiracy, is in many ways an excellent example of the "Sexism in the atheist community" described by Amy Clare.

It describes the "Skeptical Voter" project, which is asking MPs the following questions:

  1. Do you support the use of public funds to provide unproven alternative "treatments" such as homeopathy?
  2. Should schools be allowed to teach creationism as an equivalent theory to evolution?
  3. Do you believe that religious belief should be legally protected from ridicule?
  4. Should an independent government adviser whose views in their area of expertise conflict with government policy be able to express those views publicly without fear of being sacked?
  5. Should Sharia law be allowed as an alternative system within UK law?
  6. Do you agree that testing on animals (within strict criteria) is a necessary part of the development of medicines?
  7. Should policy-makers trust scientific evidence even when it appears counter-intuitive?
  8. Do you think that abortion time limits should always be determined by the current scientific and medical consensus?
  9. Should religious leaders be entitled to vote in the House of Lords?
  10. Do you support the reform of English and Welsh libel law to allow a stronger 'public interest' defence?

Presumably the answers an MP totally in line with their views would give are "Yes" to 4, 6, 7, 8 and 10, and "No" to the others.

Here we have the example, because some of these questions could quite easily be given an answer other than the expected one by someone who was nevertheless in favour of science-based policy and a secular society. There seems both to be an anti-religious attitude (rather than a secular one) and (at best) a lack of understanding of privilege.

Question 3 is not completely clear, because of the way this question is sometimes tied to similar questions about sexuality, and might end up tied to similar questions about other axes of oppression should the Public Order Act be extended further. An MP might reasonably conclude that such a provision was a compromise worth making in exchange for similar provisions on gender, appearance, sexuality, disability, and so on. If removing the "avoidance of doubt" clause in 29J was the price to remove the far more problematic one in 29JA, it might well be worth paying.

Question 5 is extremely worrying. The group seems (from comments at the LC post) to be in favour of banning faith-based arbitration. I really don't see what it has to do with them if two people mutually agree to arbitration under particular terms, even if those terms are religious. Furthermore, while the group seems to be in favour of banning faith-based arbitration generally, the question and most of their efforts are towards Sharia-based tribunals rather than the longer standing (but less subject to recent tabloid panic) Beth Din.

Even without the discriminatory notes of singling out a particular religion's method of arbitration, the whole question seems more anti-religion than secular. With the focus on Sharia specifically, it seems to tie in to the general Islamaphobic racism present in the UK today.

Question 8 is another extremely worrying one. The recent debate on the time limits for abortion provision (England, Wales and Scotland only, with two doctors approving) was mostly framed around how likely it was that premature babies born after X weeks gestation would survive, with '24 weeks' being "reasonable chance" with current technology, and '20 weeks' being "extremely unlikely indeed" with current technology (but claimed to be "also a reasonable chance" by many of those pushing for a lower limit).

While it's true that those in favour of reducing the limit were misrepresenting the science, I don't think an answer of "Yes" to this question is a particularly pro-choice stance either, because it accepts a very dangerous - and inevitably losing - frame for the argument. At some point medical science will probably advance to the stage where the "uterine replicators" of science fiction are possible. Their existence will not be a good reason to ban abortion. Closer to the present, when medical science does advance to the point where a baby born after only 20 weeks gestation does have a reasonable chance of survival, this won't be a reason that abortion of an unwanted fetus shouldn't be allowed to 24 weeks (though, it will probably be used as one).

Viability of premature babies provides another (slightly fuzzy) dividing line to go along with conception and birth, and being currently somewhere in the middle, it's an obvious one to use for many people (including myself, before I actually thought about it a bit more). That doesn't mean it's the right line to use.

Question 9 is not as clear as they seem to think, either. Yes, the appearance in the House of Lords of the Anglican bishops is a historical anomaly and not a desirable one (but then, the appearance of people in the House of Lords whose sole qualification for membership is that their great grandfather was there too is also an undesirable anomaly).

However, several proposals for reforming the House of Lords involve making a chamber of representatives from various sectors of society. It wouldn't be unreasonable in that case to have a few representatives from the major UK religions (and of course in that case there should be some form of representation for atheists and agnostics too). Religion is a major part of many people's lives, and some representation for it in government seems fair (especially for those of religions other than Christianity, who in the UK at least are subject to more discrimination than atheists)

Any other problems I've missed?