Monday, 26 January 2015

New Greek Prime Minister Proud Atheist & Firm Secularist

Alexis Tsipras. By FrangiscoDer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Last month, we heard about Greece's Justice Minister, Haralambos Athanasiou, who refused to even talk about same-sex marriage and LGBT parents adopting in Greek, because: religion.
He said: “Our country has structures. We have to look at it from the religious point of view, the political point of view, the social point of view. The ministry of justice will not, under the pressure of anyone, examine such an issue without calmness and composure."
This was after his Prime Minister had originally announced they would redress LGBT inequality but then caved to fundamentalist clerical pressure.
Following the judgment, the prime minister Antonis Samaras’s conservative-dominated coalition signalled that it would redress the wrong but got cold feet when rightwingers and clerics reacted in fury. Greece and Lithuania stand alone in refusing to grant such rights.
Well, Antonis Samaras and his party got thrown out in the last Greek election.  His conservative party has been replaced with SYRIZA (Coalition of the Radical Left). When's the last time you heard a party that calls itself radical left win an election in Europe?

New Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras is openly atheist, which could very well be a first for Greece.
"As scores of news photographers clicked away, Alexis Tsipras took his oath of office today in Athens. He said he promised to uphold the Constitution and look out for the welfare of Greeks. Tsipras is an atheist, so he refused a religious oath — the custom in this Greek Orthodox country. He's the first prime minister to do so. He's only 40, so he's also the youngest leader in Greece since 1865.
So, this is about the strongest message he could have sent to conservative religious clerics in Greece. Further reports indicate that he is also not adverse to working with religious groups -- he hasn't an axe to grind -- but it seems clear, for now at least, that he isn't one to be pushed around by the church.
GREECE'S new prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, made history within hours of his victory by informing the Archbishop of Athens, very politely, that clerical services would not be required for his swearing-in ceremony. An avowed atheist who has nonetheless made a point of dealing courteously with senior clergy, Mr Tsipras lost no time in making known that his oath of office would be a secular procedure. It was also explained that when the whole cabinet was sworn in, a more junior cleric (but not the archbishop) would be invited to assist those who wished to take a religious oath.

It's hard to overstate what a rupture this marks with the ceremonial culture of Greece. For as long as anybody can remember, every senior office-holder, from socialists to right-wing dictators, has assumed the post with a ritual involving Bibles, crosses and often holy water, sprinkled about with a sprig of basil. The opening words of the Greek constitution recall the theological formulas of the early church which predate by the Hellenic state by more than 1,300 years: "In the name of the holy, consubstantial and indivisible Trinity......" 
Tsipras is a committed secularist who seems willing to work with everyone in the country to bring about true and real state-church separation -- or so I've read. This is great news and we can only hope that, without religious excuses against it, LGBT equality -- including same-sex marriage and LGBT adoption -- will be not far behind for Greece.

Still waiting for an atheist to be Prime Minister of Canada.

Secular Montreal & Its Big Bright Crucifix

Mount Royal cross lit purple in 2005. (source)
When I first arrived here in Montreal in 1993, I was impressed by just how secular the society seemed. On paper, this seems to be the case.

Then, with the 2014 Secular Charter downplaying the crucifix in the National Assembly, things began to go downhill. This was apparently for our highly endangered patrimoine historique -- we couldn't even move it into another room! (Although the Secular Charter 2.0 will apparently address this.)

I suppose all this could be excused, but then I learn that Quebec funds private Catholic schools, to the tune of around 70%! Does this make these schools 30% private? Is this secular business all for show here in Quebec? Because it seems like the government talks the talk for the mainly secular population while walking arm and arm with the Catholic Church.

So with all this, I learn that back in 2005, our secular city government decided to colour the Mount Royal cross purple because the Pope died -- just to show everyone in the city the deference still paid to the Catholic church.
In 1992, the incandescent lights were replaced with a high-tech fibre-optics lighting system that reduced the number of bulbs to 30 and increased the bulb life to three years. There would be no more bare-handed bulb changes. The new system allowed the cross to be lit in several colours, including purple, which occurred in 2005 when Pope John Paul II died. The cross remained purple until a new pope was elected. In 2009, the cross was taken down so an LED lighting system could be installed. The city of Montreal also improved access to the site. However, the cross is still off limits to the public and cameras and motion detectors alert authorities if someone climbs on the cross.
This isn't just preserving the cross as a piece of our Quebec heritage -- like the Parthenon in Athens -- this is active praise towards a religion.

I know this is not a really big deal.  It doesn't bother me any more than a single paper cut out of many, but it sort of makes me think twice before jumping all over the Ontarians for celebrating their Pope Day every April 2nd. In the end, it comes to the same thing.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

London Hasidic Jewish School Facing Action Due to Substandard Secular Education

By Benqish at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
Back in November, I posted about the cloistered Ultra-Orthodox village of Kiryas Tash only minutes away from Montreal, yet so very far. All the schools within the village -- there are several -- are completely unlicensed, and the graduate of one, Yonanan Lowen, is suing Quebec authorities for allowing these exclusively religious instruction to be taught, at the expense of any secular subjects whatsoever.
But despite being raised and schooled for most of his life in the cloistered Hassidic Jewish community of Boisbriand, north of Montreal, the 37-year-old cannot read or write in French, stumbles through English texts and is confounded by the most basic tasks asked of grade-school students.
I'm becoming more and more aware that this is not an isolated phenomenon. Terry Firma has recently written about Kiryas Joel in New York state.

Now, just last week, we hear about a similar case of a cloistered ultra-Orthodox school offering a substandard education. This time it's in North London. The UK Office of Standards in Education (Ofsted) has already failed an emergency inspection over the summer. Now the school has failed again and the office is considering what regulatory action is appropriate. 
Secular subjects are taught for an hour and a half at the Yiddish-speaking school but are not introduced until year two. "Many of the required areas of learning are covered but the school does not make sure that pupils gain technological skills or develop their creativity," Ofsted reported.

"Although almost all pupils speak Yiddish as their main language, English is not taught to pupils in year one or to the children in early years." While some pupils made the expected progress in maths, only a few did so in English.

Lessons did not actively promote "fundamental British values" or give pupils enough opportunity to "develop respect and tolerance for those of different faiths and beliefs". There were no regular classes to make sure pupils learned about English institutions.
It's nice to see government doing its job. If only we didn't require an already traumatized, nearly illiterate graduate of similar schools (with virtually no secular education) to take legal action here in Quebec for the welfare of our province's children!

The school also neglected to teach the children anything about different human sexualities and gender identities. Oh really, quelle surprise! 
The comments reflect the new drive launched by the government last year to instil "British values" in schools to combat Islamist radicalism - although some Orthodox Jewish educators have questioned whether inspectors are taking the equality agenda too far.
Really? It seems to me like they are doing a fine job.

Has John Baird Turned Over a New Leaf?

John Baird. By Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict) [OGL or CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Friday, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird brought up his concern about the Raif Badawi floggings with Saudi prince Turki Al Faisal.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has raised concerns with a Saudi prince about the flogging sentence handed down to a blogger with family in Quebec.

A government official, speaking on condition they not be named, said Baird spoke about blogger Raif Badawi's case directly with Prince Turki Al Faisal, a member of the House of Saud.
This is good and I hope something comes of it. This same prince is expected to visit Ottawa next month and I hope Baird brings it up again if Badawi is still being held at that time. I do wonder how close our government has become with the Saudis and how this could be.

All this got me considering for a moment whether or not Baird might have turned a new leaf since he had announced in the past that he just didn't think that atheists were in any real significant danger across the world.



Although I'm happy Baird is now doing the right thing, I cannot say he's sticking up for atheists because Raif Badawi is a secular Muslim who is facing 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison for simply standing up for free inquiry -- including atheists' right to free speech -- in Saudi Arabia. This is more than I think we can say about Baird, so far at least. I am, however, perfectly happy to stand corrected.

I've heard some confusion in the atheist community where people are saying Raif is himself an atheist -- I made this mistake myself. Although I do not think he personally has any problem with atheists -- he is a secular liberal, perhaps a living Voltaire, and ended up in the slammer for it -- Badawi is still not an atheist himself.
"Lawyer Waleed Abu Alkhair told the BBC that Mr Badawi, a father of three, had confirmed in court that he was a Muslim but told the judge 'everyone has a choice to believe or not believe'."
I would Baird's action a step forward for atheists solely because it is a demonstration to Saudi Arabia that the world values secularism and the freedom of expression. However, this is not John Baird standing up for atheists. To the best of my knowledge, that hasn't happened yet.

Irrational Beliefs, Woo & Superstition: Another Child Dies

By Tim Evanson [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
A publication ban has been lifted and the Toronto Star identified Sean and Maria Hosannah as having killed their toddler daughter through neglect. The article starts out with information about the ban itself, but I'm more interested in the original case, which I do not recall seeing in October.
The couple was convicted of manslaughter by failing to provide the necessaries of life by a jury in Brampton last October, but until now the names of the parents and the toddler who died could not be published due to a sweeping publication ban.
You'll see that this case resembles an incident in Calgary where Jennifer and Jeromie Clark starved their son to death while implementing a strict religiously motivated vegetarian diet. Well, it seems like history has repeated itself. The Hosannahs also implemented a strict vegetarian diet apparently believing this would be more nutritious for the child based off no evidence.
An autopsy concluded four months later that she died from complications of asthma and malnutrition. The trial heard she had a rare case of rickets blamed on a lack of Vitamin D, which had also caused two broken bones. She had not seen a doctor since March 2010 and had not received any vaccinations.
Maria testified that she was very, very, very, very, very concerned about her daughter. I believe her. I think she was so concerned as to be paranoid and this paranoia is rooted in superstition,   pseudoscience, a distrust of science, medicine and Big Pharma.
She said Matinah was born healthy, but believed her daughter was “experimented on” in hospital after her birth. She said Matinah was injected with antibiotics without Sean and Maria’s permission, “and they cause a lot of side effects, something that could cause, you know, a child’s death.

Matinah Kabirah Hosannah was born on Nov. 26, 2008, at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Toronto, and weighed 2.575 kg (5.9 pounds), according to an agreed statement of fact filed in court. She was given antibiotics and fed intravenously because her doctors were concerned she had low blood sugar and a possible infection. She was discharged on Nov. 30.

Maria spoke at length to police about her family’s diet. She said she only buys whole foods, and stays away from sugar. Most of the meals she cooks are vegetarian, she said, and typically include oats, brown rice, lentils and navy beans. She said she avoids fish “because of with mercury and stuff like that.”
This is a familiar story about parents who have bought into conspiracy ideas about vaccines, injections, fad diets, etc. This sort of non evidence-based thinking is quite prevalent in middle-class Canadian families -- more prominent on the West Coast, I would think. 

This event is made more tragic because the mother appears by all accounts to be well meaning. She is just misguided and undermined by her belief in so much woo -- she did her best but her lack of reality based beliefs worked against her and her child. This is the danger of faith -- whether it be in religion or alternative medicine, etc. If anyone asks what the harm is, this is it.

Naturally, the poor child wasn't vaccinated either.
Her family refuses vaccinations for religious reasons, she said, telling police she had converted to Islam from Roman Catholicism.
What can you do when your compass for reality has been completely broken and you've bought totally into an anti-vax, anti-antibiotics, whole foods narrative, which is so popular these days? What happens when you believe you must cook vegetarian for your baby but do not have enough knowledge to do this safely? You are drifting in open sea with no compass and no rudder; you've lost your footing in reality.
When asked at the end of the interview if she and her husband had provided the best possible environment for their daughter, including warmth, nutrition, education and love, she replied: “We did the best that we can.”
It's sad. It really does matter if your beliefs are true. Irrational and false beliefs can have fatal consequences.

The couple both face possible life sentences.