{Wed 15 August 2007}   Are you for or against democracy?

There is a heartfelt, rousing cry for people everywhere to choose sides in the battle between democracy and theocracy in the article Time to Attack by Avraham Burg in Haaretz today. I agree 99%, I have to say.

The 1%: I’m not sure I agree that physical death and “democratic and moral death” are exactly the same, because while there is physical life there is hope for change and rehabilitation. So although I do think that all the different theocratic fundamentalist leaders are dangerous, I think that those who advocate physical killing are more dangerous, because there is no possibility at all of undoing that act. I am aware that for many this is a very theoretical distinction, though, because for those trapped inside very closed “heart and mind” belief systems, there is no realistic prospect of change or rehabilitation unless some kind of trauma or crisis ruptures and challenges their structures. However, these challenges do sometimes occur and opportunities arise for thinking differently, and in the mean time people can grow and develop and obtain some satisfactions from the many positive elements of their traditions. This clearly cannot happen at all if the person is dead. Therefore, I do see those religious people who declare their territory to be hearts and minds only and who leave physical death to God as marginally more advanced than those who believe they have a right to take physical life in the name of their religion. This does not mean I think we should leave any of them to continue teaching poison without challenge.

Although I would love to live in a world where nobody ever killed anybody, I accept that this would only be possible if a critical mass were mature, loving and responsible at all times, were able to prevent violence against everybody always, and were able to offer adequate material and emotional support to all disadvantaged people always, and this is not likely. I don’t think we should ever kill as punishment, but we are likely to have to kill for reasons of self-defense or protection of others sometimes and to make hard choices between possible deaths sometimes. But those choices should be governed by the evidence and the individual circumstances in each case, not by the idea that some religious Authority who cannot be proven to exist says that it’s OK to kill anybody who doesn’t believe as you do.

I think it comes down to differentiating between respect for the person and respect for the person’s beliefs. I respect people. I respect their right to choose their beliefs. I do not necessarily respect the beliefs themselves. I expect people to accept the civil consequences of and limitations on the beliefs they choose. I expect to be free to challenge their beliefs. I welcome their challenge of my beliefs. Beliefs that are valid to hold until good information requires them to change are those that concern issues that cannot be examined or proven scientifically. Where it can be proven scientifically that a particular belief is wrong (the earth is flat; all black people are stupid; all women are inferior; all women are better at housework than men; all men are better at providing for and protecting a family than women; all women are natural mothers; all homosexuality is a matter of choice; all humans are either male or female; all men are better leaders than women; covering women prevents sexual infidelity by men or women; AIDS is best cured by noshing on beetroot and garlic…), the belief should be robustly challenged by the institutions of government, not “respected” in a misguided attempt to celebrate diversity. And don’t start on that rubbish that “science is just another form of belief”! Just because some scientists are as misguided and misleading as some fundamentalist leaders and create mythologies to fill in the gaps between things that can actually be proven, this doesn’t invalidate the scientific approach.

I don’t think that democracy is “perfect” or without risks, or that all Western laws are right, moral or ethical, or that existing non-religious civil structures should be accepted without question or challenge, but I see more potential in this route for the evolution of mankind than in closed theocratic systems. I’m for democracy.

On Monday, 13 August 2007, in an article titled “Amnesty to defy Catholic church over rape victims’ abortion rights”, The Independent newspaper reported some very good news. Amnesty International had declared that the human rights of women should include access to abortion if they have been raped or if their lives are in danger.

Inevitably, many in the anti-abortion lobby were unable to appreciate the careful consideration given to supporting the rights of women without taking a moral position on abortion. Some asserted that Amnesty had now abandoned its support for human rights, apparently implying that the unborn are human, while women are not.

This assumption also underlies the selective inference of the “Pro-life” label that the unborn have a right to life no matter how much this compromises the life of the mother. The unborn, of course, might be male, whereas the mother’s femaleness is incontrovertible, so there is a further implication that men are human, while women are not. This illogical thinking is similar in nature to the theological assumptions underlying anti-abortion positions.

Amnesty’s deputy general secretary, Kate Gilmore, denied the organisation had become “pro-abortion”, insisting the organisation took as its guide legal, not theological, imperatives. “Amnesty International’s position is not for abortion as a right but for women’s human rights to be free of fear, threat and coercion as they manage all consequences of rape and other grave human rights violations,” she said.

“Amnesty International stands alongside the victims and survivors of human rights violations. Our policy reflects our obligation of solidarity as a human rights movement with, for example, the rape survivor in Darfur who, because she is left pregnant as a result of the enemy, is further ostracised by her community. Ours is a movement dedicated to upholding human rights, not specific theologies. Our purpose invokes the law and the state, not God.”

The organisation is to be applauded for distancing itself from theology and focusing on human rights. However, the theological position that, because the child has been conceived, God intends for it to live at all costs, is illogical. It suggests that God intended the rape. This position allows people to continue to downplay society’s responsibility to protect women, because if God sanctions violence against them, there is no reason for society to do any better.

The woman must then “live” (for many it is a living death) with the physical, psychological and emotional trauma of having been raped, with the physical discomfort and risks of a pregnancy when she is in this weakened state, with the rejection of her partner and the ostracism of her society both of whom illogically blame her for the dishonour she had no power to prevent, with the burden of responsibility for a child she does not want and whose presence reminds her every day of the violation she experienced, with the need to find alternative sources of income and sustenance for herself and the child now that her normal sources are denied her and the likely worsening of her health and material circumstances as a result, and with the further punishments of an unforgiving society if she is not a good enough mother to this unwanted child. Her human rights, her right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” or to “liberty, fraternity and equality” are effectively annihilated, in an instant, at the whim of a man. The child of such a mother is also similarly disadvantaged.

The conception of a child is no longer a “mystery”. We know that it occurs when a suitable sperm meets a suitable egg in a conducive physical environment. We also know that this meeting occurs after intercourse, i.e. after a man penetrates a woman. While this action does not always result in a child, we know that without it a child cannot be conceived. When it is conceived, it is not a “miracle”. It is a function of calculable odds. Our feeling that each new life is a miracle proceeds from either our ignorance of, or our inability to hold in mind, all the factors involved, due to their complexity, but they are in fact identifiable and quantifiable. A child is a possible consequence of man exercising his free will, and, as the mainstream interpretation of the Eden story suggests, these consequences are not always desirable.

Quite frankly, God has nothing to do with it. Whether one defines God as a personal being who created the universe or simply as the force that holds the universe together, God’s provision of the materials does not constitute a sanction for every use that humans make of those materials. Otherwise, one is left with the logical conclusion that God intends and approves every evil action as much as every good action that occurs in the universe. This mocks any conception of free will and therefore any concept of wrong action, effectively making it impossible for anyone to do wrong (or, in theological terms, to sin).

Until the world sanctions the compulsory sterilisation of men (which it is already possible to do, and which is not an illogical option as it is simple, inexpensive, and reversible), there is a strong argument for allowing abortion when men force themselves on women. This would not yet put women on an equal footing with men, because the rape and the abortion would still be traumatic in ways that men can never begin to imagine or experience, but it would prevent much of the consequential abuse that women and their unwanted children suffer.

et cetera