A year-old, incorrect story about Barack Obama “canceling” the National Day of Prayer made the rounds today. Meanwhile, in reality, Obama’s Justice Department was defending the Day of Prayer to a U.S. District Court that just ruled it unconstitutional.
U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb declared section 119 of US Code 36—establishing an annual National Day of Prayer—to be unconstitutional. Her decision is available here. We certainly agree with everything she writes, and we’re sure there will be no major controversy over any of this.
The Freedom from Religion foundation brought the suit, claiming that the statute calling on the president to proclaim a National Day of Prayer each year is a violation of the Establishment Clause. Crabb found that the plaintiffs had the standing to challenge section 119 itself, but not presidential proclamations generally.
In Crabb’s reading of the case law, the government can encourage prayer when it has “a significant secular purpose,” but the National Day of Prayer has no point beyond encouraging everyone to pray.
Unfortunately, § 119 cannot meet that test. It goes beyond mere “acknowledgment” of religion because its sole purpose is to encourage all citizens to engage in prayer, an inherently religious exercise that serves no secular function in this context. In this instance, the government has taken sides on a matter that must be left to individual conscience. “When the government associates one set of religious beliefs with the state and identifies nonadherents as outsiders, it encroaches upon the individual’s decision about whether and how to worship.” McCreary County, 545 U.S. at 883 (O’Connor, J., concurring). Accordingly, I conclude that § 119 violates the establishment clause.
No, not really, but I got your attention, yes? On the other hand, these are precisely the words used by PZ in a recent post, aimed at criticizing Michael De Dora’s observations about a recent debate in Knoxville, TN on the wording of a biology textbook.
Let me start with a full disclosure: Michael is a friend, and of course one of the contributors to this blog. But this post has little to do with that, it deals with the substance and the tone of PZ’s remarks, both of which are highly relevant to the quality of discourse within the atheist community (currently, pretty low), something I deeply care about.
First the form. PZ’s post reads like it was written by an intemperate teenager in the midst of a hormonal rage. Among other things, he calls De Dora “witless,” “wanker,” “wishy-washy,” and “sloppy-thinking”; he accuses Michael of engaging in “cowardly intellectual dishonesty” and of using a “quisling” approach. So that we are crystal clear on just how low these ad hominem (a logical fallacy!) attacks go, let me refresh your memory about the dictionary definitions of some of these terms:
Quisling = a traitor who collaborates with an enemy force occupying their country;
Wanker = a person who masturbates (used as a term of abuse);
Wishy-washy = feeble or insipid in quality or character, lacking strength or boldness;
Witless = foolish, stupid, to such an extent that one cannot think clearly or rationally.
If PZ thinks that this sort of language belongs within any thoughtful writing about rational discourse, he really needs to look up the dictionary definitions of rational, thoughtful and discourse. Then again, it is precisely this sort of theatrics that apparently makes him so popular, as nothing gets people’s attention on the internet so much as shouting as LOUDLY as possible, regardless of the vacuity of what one is actually saying.
And speaking of content, what was so witless, wanky, wishy-washy, and witless about De Dora’s post? Oh, he dared question (very politely, and based on argument) one of the dogmas of the new atheism: that religious people (that’s about 90% of humanity, folks) ought (and I use the term in the moral sense) to be frontally assaulted and ridiculed at all costs, because after all, this is a war, and the goal is to vanquish the enemy, reason and principles be damned. Michael had simply noted that the recent controversy in Tennessee was a bit less clear cut than usual: while of course creationism doesn’t have a leg to stand on, and of course biology textbooks should teach evolution without apologies, De Dora also noted that using the word “myth” when the book refers to the biblical story of creation was an uncalled for breach of the principle of separation of Church and State (if invoked in the context of a biology class in a public school). Therefore, on that narrow technical ground, and on that ground only, the creationist who complained had, in fact, a point.
Contrary to PZ’s invective, acknowledging this point is in no way a cowardly act of intellectual dishonesty. On the contrary, it is a paragon of intellectual honesty because one is able to maintain the nuance that is necessary in distinguishing positive science education from gratuitous religion bashing. (And please, do note that I’ve got plenty of credentials in the department of religion bashing, but I try to do it in what I consider the appropriate manner and context.)
No one is infallible. Not I, not Plaitt, not Randi, no one! We all make mistakes sooner or later. I am sure that in my years of blogging I have made many errors, committed logical fallacies, reported or commented on something too soon, based on insufficient evidence etc. That’s because we are human; we all come with baggage, biases, emotions that, try as we might, we cannot completely isolate or stop from affecting our thinking.
Today was a great day for skepticism. Simon Singh emerges victorious from his libel suit against the BCA. I am very happy, but that event brought something into my mind. For the past few days I have been engaged in the arrest-the-pope saga, specifically in the “should organized skepticism get involved” side of it. Many prominent names in skepticism have voiced their opinions, and they range from “not our job” to “could be our job depending on the defence the Church uses” approaches. Since the beginning, I had a strong feeling that yes skepticism should get involved, but that was a gut feeling, I coud not quite articulate properly why. Could be due to an inherent bias, the fact that I strongly believe that skepticism, properly applied to the god hypothesis, should lead to atheism. Maybe that is why I feel that the Church, the “enemy” must be held accountable. Perhaps!
But then, the Singh news brought it all into perspective. Because, you see, the Libel Law Reform case, that the whole of organized skepticism got behind, is not a purely skeptical issue either. The BCA made no claims that fall within the skeptic’s sphere when they sued Simon Singh. They said he had defamed them and proceeded to sue him. THAT is not a skeptical issue, anymore than the arrest -the-pope issue is. Yet, we, the skeptics, got behind Simon and endorsed and loudly advocated for reform in the British Libel Laws. AS WE SHOULD!
However, how is the libel law case different from the pope/church case? They are both legal issues, neither of them falls within the skeptical sphere of expertise; yet we support one but remain silent on the other? Why? Because, someone may say, the libel laws are being used, or can be used, to silence skeptics. Hmmm, interesting, but if the church is left to its method, doesn’t that mean that it can continue practices that can lead to a child of skeptical parents being molested? Would it then become something we can get behind? I find that excuse unsatisfactory. Clearly, the skeptical world has, and still can, get behind causes that do not fall within its area of expertise; the Simon Singh case proves that. Then the question becomes: how do we choose which causes we’ll get involved in? That’s a more interesting question, but we cannot have our cake and eat it too. Either we stay “pure” and do not get involved in anything that cannot be examined skeptically, or we do; but we cannot, at the same time, claim to only want to get involved in “skeptical issues” and, as a movement, support Simon Singh’s battle, a purely legal issue! If I have to choose, I choose to support Simon, but that implies that we should be open to support other issues as well, if logic so demands. If we do not, when we do not, we only prove that skepticism isn’t immune from fallibility either.
British Chiropractic Association ends legal action against science writer for comments in Guardian article
The British Chiropractic Association dropped its libel action against the science writer Simon Singh today, filing a notice of discontinuation in the high court.
The case had become a cause celebre, with scientists, celebrities and freedom of speech campaigners lining up to condemn the British libel laws and argue that Singh had a right to express his opinion in print.
The sudden end to the case will strengthen the campaign for reform of the libel laws, which Jack Straw, the justice secretary, is considering. It is also a specific pledge in the Liberal Democrat manifesto.
Singh was sued by the BCA for a piece he wrote in the Guardian‘s comment pages, criticising the association for defending chiropractors who use treatments for which there is little evidence on children with conditions such as colic and asthma.
Singh and his supporters were dismayed by an early verdict by Mr Justice Eady on the meaning of the words used in the article. The judge ruled that Singh was stating facts, which he would have to prove in his defence, rather than voicing opinion and that he had implied the members of the BCA knowingly promoted what Singh called “bogus treatments”.
Singh argued that was not what he meant and went to the court of appeal. Two weeks ago, he won the point.
Is there no end to the bullying by the British Chiropractic Association? Not content with putting the man through two years of hell with their ridiculous libel action against him, this morning brought the news that they have now decided to deprive Dr Simon Singh of his day in court, where it was confidently expected that he would wipe the floor with them.
The very reason why Simon didn’t meekly cave in, withdraw his comments and apologise as they expected him to when they first brought the case, is because when he said,
The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments.
he knew it was the truth and that he could defend the claim in court. And now they aren’t going to let him. Bastards!
Those of us who were eagerly awaiting the libel trial of the decade will just have to console ourselves with the thought that, as a result of this action, the absurd claims made for this particular brand of quackery have been exposed and chiropractors the length and breadth of the land are being forced to get their houses in order and stop spouting crap on their websites and promotional leaflets. Alas, this won’t necessarily stop them lying through their teeth to people’s faces, as I discovered from personal experience.
Better yet, it has put libel reform firmly on the agenda but that’s no help to the countless victims who’ve already been forced to withdraw comments that they — like Simon — knew to be the truth but who — unlike Simon — simply didn’t have the resources to fight the bullies. And it’s no help to heroes like Dr Peter Wilmshurst who don’t have the resources but who’ve decided to fight anyway at risk of financial ruin.
For crying out loud, sign the petition for libel reform and badger the politicians. It’s high time we put an end to this nonsense.
Follow Jack of Kent for further news on this story.
What an absolutely pathetic statement that has just been released by the BCA. Mr Justice Eady, who cocked up and made the astonishingly illiberal ruling on the meaning of the words used in the article at the preliminary hearing a year ago, is described in the statement as “the UK’s most experienced defamation judge”. So who were the Court of Appeal — chopped liver? The fact that they included England’s two most senior judges, the Lord Chief Justice of England and the Master of the Rolls doesn’t get mentioned. Nor does the fact that, having been refused leave to appeal against Eady’s ruling twice, Simon was finally given leave by Lord Justice Laws — said to be one of the “savviest” High Court judges on human rights issues, who was much more emphatic about it than he needed to be.