Dawkins has no objection to Church of England’s ad in movie theaters; I disagree

Yesterday I wrote about a one-minute ad, “Prayer is for everyone,” that the Church of England wanted to show in British cinemas. The commercial agency that handles ads for UK movies refused, saying that their policy banned the showing of religious or political ads in theaters. I agreed, for reversing that policy would turn theaters into venues for religious proselytizing and political hoo-ha, which seems inappropriate and would surely be divisive. It might even drive patrons away from the movies, which is undoubtedly the motive behind the policy.

Surprisingly, in a piece at the Guardian, Richard Dawkins disagrees, for he wants the Anglican ads shown:

The [ad agency’s] decision prompted an angry response from the church, which warned of a chilling effect on free speech. Many expressed support for its position including Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist best known for excoriating religions.

He told the Guardian: “My immediate response was to tweet that it was a violation of freedom of speech. But I deleted it when respondents convinced me that it was a matter of commercial judgment on the part of the cinemas, not so much a free speech issue. I still strongly object to suppressing the ads on the grounds that they might ‘offend’ people. If anybody is ‘offended’ by something so trivial as a prayer, they deserve to be offended.”

Dawkins has been a long time advocate for free speech, arguing that protecting religious sensibilities is not a reason for censorship. And despite attracting controversy over his views on religion, the author of the God Delusion has previously described himself as a “cultural Anglican”.

So although Richard does understand that there is no “right” to have these ads shown in cinemas, he apparently feels that the ad should nevertheless be shown. And that means that he feels that the organization that banned the ads, Digital Cinema Media (DCM), should accept all ads, whatever religion or political ideology they espouse.

I disagree. The ads should be shown only if DCM had already allowed other religious and political ads. And that, of course, would open a can of worms. It’s not so much that I consider the ads should be banned because they’re offensive: rather, I think is that showing them in a place of entertainment is offensive. I don’t go to the movies and pay good money to hear Archbishop Welby tell me that prayer is really for me! It’s bad enough that, at least in the U.S. virtually all theaters show ads for food, soft drinks (Coke is a big offender) and other stuff, and that I have to sit through 15 minutes of that blather before I get to the movie. (This is why I usually go to the movies on campus, which has a big theater, comfortable seats, Dolby sound, good movies, and no ads.) But religious and political ads, which sell ideologies and worldviews rather than goods, are more invidious. After all, selling Coke isn’t divisive, but selling Toryism or Christianity is.

Why isn’t this like the “atheist bus campaign”, which was largely funded by Dawkins and the British Humanist Association? Because that was a matter of equity. A Christian organization had already been allowed to put its ads on buses, so it was only fair that atheist ads also be allowed. What a private organization decides to do with advertising is its own business so long as it doesn’t discriminate, and the DCA did not. But when a public organization already advertises Christianity on its buses (I presume London buses are run by the government, but I may be wrong), it’s illegal to discriminate against other faiths, or against no faith. I’m not sure about the legality of a cinema showing only Christian but not atheist ads, but it’s certainly unfair if it doesn’t. Best not to open that can of annelids.

The DCM made a proper commercial decision, and I agree with it. So do many British secularists:

But the church did not win universal backing with the National Secular Society describing it as a “perfectly reasonable decision” by a commercial organisation.

The society’s president Terry Sanderson, said: “The Church of England is arrogant to imagine it has an automatic right to foist its opinions upon a captive audience who have paid good money for a completely different experience.”


Krista Tippett annoys me again

The one disadvantage of shopping very early on Saturday morning is that, if I’m unlucky enough to be driving after 7 a.m., I’ll have to listen to Krista Tippett’s “On Being” show on National Public Radio. The show was formerly called “On Faith,” but, probably realizing that the religious overtones might cost her listeners, Tippett changed the name. Unfortunately, the subject remains largely the same: spirituality, which Tippett tries to inject as often as possible into the discourse. (This resembles the sociologist Elaine Ecklund, who, funded by Templeton, spends her academic career trying to show that science and religion are compatible because many scientists are “spiritual”). And, of course, Tippett never defines “spirituality.” She has a weakness for religion, so, in her mouth, the word seems to flirt with the ambits of divinity.

This week’s show, an interview with artist Ann Hamilton, was particularly distressing, forcing me to keep my eyes on the road rather than bang my head on the dashboard. If you can bear to listen at the link (it’s a year-old interview from Minneapolis), you’ll hear two people talking almost entirely in Deepities, so that many times I had no idea what the hell they were talking about. Further, Tippett does her usual up-talking, a style of speaking that irritates me.

The show started off promisingly as Hamilton shut Tippett down at the very beginning, when the host tried to drag in spirituality. But then things went south when Hamlton began palavering about religion. Here’s my transcript:

Tippett: A lot people speak of you as a spiritual artist, or an artist who’s in the realm of spirituality. Actually I don’t really see you claiming that word so often.

Hamilton: I mean, I think that word makes me very nervous, because I don’t actually know exactly what it means. And I think it’s a word that is for a lot of people very loaded and means very particular things. And I think that artists are very slippery–that we want to not be categorized.

[JAC: Tippett doesn’t know exactly what it means, either!]

Tippett: So if I ask you, you know, what was the spiritual background of your childhood—in the best connotations that you fill that word with.What do you think of?

Hamilton: I’m a Calvinist, and I certainly grew up going to church with my family . . .

Of course what Tippett means by the “best connotations” of spirituality is opaque to any rational listener, but if you know of her show you’ll realize that she means religious connotations.

Conclusion #1: If you’re going to use the word “spiritual,” define it, for most people imbue it with religious overtones.

Conclusion #2: I still want to do an NPR show called “On Thinking,” in which I’d interview scientists, science-oriented philosophers, and rationalists of all stripes. When I suggested this before on this site, one reader responded, “They already have that show: it’s called Science Friday.” But that’s not the show I’d have; it would be more like Tippett’s show, with interviews, but it would deal instead with real issues— with the wonder of reality—rather than with insubstantial and woo-ish “spirituality.”


Picture and description from here (my emphasis): U.S. President Barack Obama (R) presents the 2013 National Humanities Medal to radio host and author Krista Tippett (L) during an East Room ceremony July 28, 2014 at the White House in Washington, DC. Tippett was honored for thoughtfully delving into the mysteries of human existence.

My snarky comment: she may have delved into them, but she hasn’t solved any of them. Solving them is for science!


(July 27, 2014 – Source: Alex Wong/Getty Images North America)

Here are Tippett’s two books; I read the later one—a fulsome dose of accommodationism—and won’t read the first:

  • Speaking of Faith: Why Religion Matters—and How to Talk About It (Penguin, January 29, 2008)
  • Einstein’s God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit (Penguin, February 23, 2010)


Belgian police thank citizens for tw**ting about cats

Yesterday I reported the hilarious but lovely Belgian response to the police lockdown, in which the city was largely closed or monitored by police for a week as they hunted for two terrorists. The cops asked citizens not to report the nature or location of police activity so as not to aid the terrorists.

Belgians then created a Twi**ter site, #brusselslockdown, and tweeted pictures of cats. Go have a look; the site is hilarious. (The BBC has a summary of some of the funnier posts.)

And, this morning, the Beligan police thanked the citizens who tweeted:

Translation: “For the cats who helped us last night. . . Help yourselves!”

And there’s a response!:

A bit of humor in a grim world. . .

h/t: Anthony R.

Readers’ wildlife photographs

Reader Anne Houde is an old acquaintance who was a grad student when I first taught at Maryland, but is now a named (i.e., titled) professor of biology at nearby Lake Forest College. And she sent in some shorebird photos:

They are from Memorial Day weekend 2012, eastern Long Island.  The sandpipers are Sanderlings (Calidris alba).  They are on migration and they range from full breeding plumage (bright brown) to still mostly winter plumage (shades of gray).  The others are Piping Plovers (Charadrius melodius), already well into their breeding season as you can tell.  You can also see why they are endangered: their preferred nesting habitat coincides with humans’ preferred sunbathing and walking habitat.  This particular beach had a roped off plover nesting area, but the chicks ran all over the place.
The first three photos are Piping Plovers; the last three Sanderlings:
And, of course, a day without a photo by Stephen Barnard is like a day without sunshine, so here’s a photo he sent yesterday of a raptor, along with this caption:
This is a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) photo I especially like. There’s a lot of information in this photo.
Readers are welcome to impart that information in their comments.


Monday: Hili dialogue

It’s Monday, and I slept restively, so posting will likely be normal in frequency but weak in brainpower! This week most Americans will have a Thanksgiving holiday on Thursday, meaning that they’ll be off work from Wednesday through Sunday. Hili, however, won’t have turkey, as Thanksgiving is an American holiday. On this day in 1992, the first smartphone, the IBM Simon, was introduced, and in 1965, atheist and writer Jennifer Michael Hecht was born.  Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is inflicting Andrzej with her continual cattish dithering about whether to go out or stay in. Why do cats do that? To mess with us?

Hili: Which is more reasonable, to stay at home or to go out?
A: It depends on what you feel like doing.
Hili: That’s what I’m asking about.


In Polish:
Hili: Czy jest rzeczą rozsądną zostać w domu, czy wyjść na dwór?
Ja: To zależy na co masz ochotę?
Hili: Właśnie o to pytam.

Ceiling Cat bless the Belgians!

Much of Brussels is closed, on lockdown, or under police scrutiny as they search for two terrorists wanted in the Paris attacks. They’ve requested that citizens remain mum about the details. A tw**t from Pia Micallef, courtesy of Matthew Cobb, gives the response. And ;check out the #BrusselsLockdown site. It’s a hoot if you ignore the circumstances to which it’s responding.

Egyptian television host criticizes fellow Muslims for their ISIS-apologetics

Here is a brave Egyptian journalist: Ibrahim Eissa, who, in this four-minute video translated by the The Middle East Media Research Institute, chastizes his fellow Muslims and Egyptians for promulgating Western conspiracy theories about terrorists attacks, and for claiming that ISIS simply isn’t Islamic in nature and intent. Click on the screenshot to go to the clip (Eissa has received several awards for favoring democracy and freedom of expression):

Screen Shot 2015-11-22 at 8.48.08 AM

Because of what ISIS does (for example, killing non-Sunni Muslims and Yazidis, brutally repressing women, killing apostates, adulterers  gays), the time is coming when we can no longer credibly claim that it isn’t either acting on Muslim dictates, or that all of its actions (and those of other terrorists groups like Boko Haram) are caused by Western colonialism.  People like Eissa recognize that, but of course we can ignore him because we Westerners know better.

The ironic thing is that many people (e.g Maajid Nawaz, Ayaan Hirsi Ali) claim that it’s moderate Muslims like Eissa who will really help turn Muslims away from terrorism, and yet he gets virtually no airplay in the West, for his own message doesn’t suit the blame-the-West narrative.

h/t: Geoff

University of Ottawa yoga class suspended for “cultural appropriation”

This could have come from The Onion, but these days it’s hard to tell the difference with articles like this one from the Ottawa Sun. The Student Federation at the University of Ottawa, apparently infected with the same brain virus that’s sweeping through British student unions and U.S. colleges like Dartmouth, has suspended a yoga class because it’s a form of “cultural appropriation”. This may have been prompted by a complaint from the Centre for Students with Disabilities:

Staff at the Centre for Students with Disabilities believe that “while yoga is a really great idea and accessible and great for students … there are cultural issues of implication involved in the practice,” according to an email from the centre.

The centre is operated by the university’s Student Federation, which first approached Scharf seven years ago about offering yoga instruction to students both with and without disabilities.

The centre goes on to say, “Yoga has been under a lot of controversy lately due to how it is being practiced,” and which cultures those practices “are being taken from.”

The centre official argues since many of those cultures “have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy … we need to be mindful of this and how we express ourselves while practising yoga.”

Well, all I know of yoga classes is that the ones my friends take are given as a form of exercise and stretching that originated in Asia. I have never heard of any class even remotely resembling “cultural appropriation.” If it is, then going out for an Indian meal, something I love to do, is also “cultural appropriation.” (In fact it is seen by some people as that—an issue I’ll discuss tomorrow.) At any rate, it is not “cultural appropriation” to adopt some practices or eating habits that you admire from other cultures; and those who promote diversity don’t realize that by doing stuff like banning yoga classes, or criticizing our penchant for ethnic food (see tomorrow’s post!), they’re actually suppressing diversity.

It gets even worse: they tried to fix the issue by renaming “yoga”!:

Ahimakin said the student federation put the yoga session on hiatus while they consult with students “to make it better, more accessible and more inclusive to certain groups of people that feel left out in yoga-like spaces. … We are trying to have those sessions done in a way in which students are aware of where the spiritual and cultural aspects come from, so that these sessions are done in a respectful manner.”

Scharf [the yoga instructor] offered a compromise, suggesting she change the name from yoga to “mindful stretching,” since that would reflect the content of the program and would “literally change nothing about the course.”

“I’m not pretending to be some enlightened yogi master, and the point (of the program) isn’t to educate people on the finer points of the ancient yogi scripture,” she told the Sun.

“The point is to get people to have higher physical awareness for their own physical health and enjoyment.”

According to email correspondence between Scharf and the centre, student leaders debated rebranding the program, but stumbled over how the French translation for “mindful stretching” would appear on a promotional poster, and eventually decided to suspend the program.

This is absolutely insane. Apparently the “no offense” virus has spread quickly and widely, and is now in Canada.

I’ll just echo those who espouse the offense culture: “I can’t even. . . ”


Jennifer Scharf, beleaguered yoga mindful stretching instructor


The unfair treatment of the animal rights movement

It seems to be a common opinion among atheists and scientists that the animal-rights movement is ridiculous, and I’ve seen it criticized and mocked on many secular websites. And indeed, the tactics of some animal-rights groups, like PETA, have been such as to offend or turn off many people. PETA, for instance, shows ads featuring semi-clad women, and even though the ads are promoting vegetarianism and the non-wearing of fur, I know women who find them sexist, for where are the naked men? More important, PETA and other groups have engaged in violent activities, threatening researchers and trashing labs, and freeing lab animals that could never find an alternative home. Finally, some animal-rights groups decry owning pets (excuse me, “companion animals”), on the grounds that this leads to overpopulation of unwanted pets as well as stressful confinement of animals like cats and dogs, who still have their evolutionary instincts to roam free.

But regardless of the invidious tactics of some animal-rights groups, the general point stands: if you think animals are capable of suffering, and they are, then don’t they at least have some of the “rights” that we reserve for humans? Isn’t the criticism of groups like PETA, or the kneejerk feeling that any experimentation on animals is justified so long as it has potential to save human lives, simply something that we espouse to avoid thinking about the important issue of animal suffering?

Yesterday I saw a photo in the New York Times of a turkey farm (Thanksgiving is upon us); in it a farmer was standing in a huge building in which turkeys, obviously stressed, were packed wing to wing. (See photo at boottom.) The birds had no room to roam, and it was disturbing. Experiments have shown that chickens, for instance, much prefer wandering on grass than standing in wire cages. And what we do to chickens—confining them in cages, clipping their beaks, and crowding them horribly—is unjustifiable if you think that these animals suffer. The evidence suggests that they do, and who with a scientific and empathic turn of mind could deny that suffering, or the proposition that animals feel pain?

And the suffering we inflict on chickens also applies to many of our other food animals. Driving through Texas and the Midwest last summer, I saw cows crowded together in feedlots, getting fattened up before the slaughter. The lots were simply bare expanses of mud filled with stinking cow dung that you could smell miles away. I have no doubt that those animals were stressed.

These thoughts were prompted by a good book I’m reading, Darwin, God, and the Meaning of Life, by Steve Stewart-Williams (2010; Cambridge University Press). The book is the best discussion I’ve seen about the philosophical implications of the theory of evolution; and believe me, there are philosophical implications—dealing with issues like the existence of the soul, the nature of morality, and human exceptionalism. I recommend it highly: Stewart-Williams, an associate professor of psychology at Nottingham University, Malaysia Campus, writes very well and has thought deeply about these issues. Even if you think you understand the implications of evolution for your own worldview, you’ll still learn a lot.

At any rate, Chapter 13, “Uprooting the doctrine of human dignity,” contains this paragraph near the end:

Singer [Peter Singer, author of the excellent book Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for our Treatment of Animals] makes the extremely interesting and challenging point that the amount of suffering and pain caused by the tyranny of human beings over animals (particularly in food production) far exceeds that caused by sexism, racism, or any other existing forms of discrimination, and for that reason the animal liberation movement is the most important liberation movement in the world today.  Women and disadvantaged ethnic groups have never been farmed, killed for sport, or systematically experimented on in anything like the numbers that non-human animals have. Furthermore, unlike women and slaves, non-humans cannot talk or campaign for their own liberation, and, because they can’t vote, they’re not a high priority for most politicians. This further underscores the importance of the animal liberation movement.

I see a lot of sense in that. For, when you think about it, evolution teaches that for some traits we’re different quantitatively but not qualitatively from our animal relatives, and that they, like us, can suffer and feel pain. Perhaps humans, because we have greater rationality and the presence of culture, may suffer more than some animals, but can you really say that a gorilla or chimp who is captive in a zoo, or subject to experimentation to cure human diseases, isn’t suffering? (Recognizing this, the US National Institutes of Health just joined many other countries in ending “invasive research” on chimpanzees.)

Those are our primate relatives, but what about guinea pigs, mice, and laboratory cats and dogs? They are subject to horrible procedures that cause them to suffer, not even considering just their confinement. People automatically assume that this is okay if such experimentation will save human lives, but how many dog, cat, or mouse lives are worth one human life? Could it be justified, as Stewart-Williams asks, to experiment on humans, killing a few humans to save thousands of chimpanzee lives? If not, why not? Why is the saving of human life worth the expenditure of vastly more animal lives, and perhaps—adding it all up—the greater suffering of animals than of humans?

It’s even less justifiable to eat factory-farmed animals, I think, for we can live without eating them. Why—and I am complicit in this—do we simply ignore all that suffering so that we can have a nice roast chicken or a plate of fried eggs on our tables? In our hearts we know that animals suffer to give us that food. Is their suffering truly worth nothing?

We need to face the fact that if we really care about suffering, there is no justification to limit our concern to the suffering of Homo sapiens. That’s especially true because, as Stewart-Williams argues, we cause immensely greater suffering of animals, and they have no representation save groups like PETA. If evolution and science tell us anything, it is that animals suffer as we do—perhaps not as intensely in cases like the death of a relative—and that many species are apparently conscious, and surely many feel pain. By what right do we ignore all of that when doing so is just a convenience for our own species? Is any amount of animal experimentation and suffering justified by its potential to save human lives? If so, why?

Few people have come to grips with these issues. Singer is one, Stewart-Williams another. But we need to face those issues if we’re to be consistent in our concern for the suffering of the disadvantaged. As for me, I feel pretty bad about all this, and consider myself a hypocrite for eating eggs and meat. I don’t know if I’ll do something about that, but at least we can oppose the confinement of animals in zoos, and agitate for humane treatment of the animals we put into our stomachs.

Here’s the picture from the New York Times that disturbed me; it’s from an article called “After bird flu scare, plenty of turkeys for Thanksgiving.



British cinemas refuse to show Anglican commercial; CoE is upset

There’s a religious kerfuffle in the United (?) Kingdom, one that probably wouldn’t occur in the U.S. According to the BBC, many cinemas in the UK are refusing to show a one-minute religious film that highlights the Lord’s Prayer.  The Church of England, which apparently produced the commercial, is miffed:

The Church called the decision “plain silly” and warned it could have a “chilling” effect on free speech.

It had hoped the 60-second film would be screened UK-wide before Christmas ahead of the new Star Wars film.

The agency that handles adverts for the cinemas said it could offend those of “differing faiths and no faith”.

The advert features the Christian prayer being recited or sung by a variety of people.

They include refugees, a grieving son, weightlifters at a gym, a sheep farmer, a gospel choir and the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Justin Welby.

Here’s the commercial; judge for yourself:

Well, it is the UK, but isn’t it some kind of violation of speech to refuse showing a religious commercial? I don’t think so. First of all, the UK doesn’t have a First Amendment (after all, they have a state religion), but even if it did, private enterprises such as cinemas are not forced to show religious commercials.

Indeed, although the commercial was passed by British Board of Film Classification and The Cinema Advertising Authority, the cinemas refused to show it because it violated their general policy to avoid showing religious and political commercials. The main agency for advertising in these cinemas, Digital Cinema Media (DCM), declared “some advertisements – unintentionally or otherwise – could cause offence to those of differing political persuasions, as well as to those of differing faiths and indeed of no faith,” and “in this regard, DCM treats all political or religious beliefs equally”.

I think that’s a good statement and a smart idea. For if they showed that Anglican ad, there would be no end of religious and political propaganda inflicted on innocent, entertainment-seeking moviegoers. After all, if the moviehouses showed one religious advert, then they couldn’t refuse any of them, and every faith might compete to proselytize the audiences. Besides that, who wants to watch political ads before a film? I’d choke on my popcorn if I had to see an ad for the Tories.

The Church is of course making growling noises about how this violates free speech, and is speaking darkly of possible legal action, but I don’t see this as a violation, any more than I’d see it as a violation if the cinemas refused commercials for atheism or humanism—so long as they also refused religious commercials. Theaters are private enterprises, not public spaces or government agencies, and can refuse certain genres of ads so long as they apply their standards consistently.

The Church of England’s pushback includes a statement by Justin Welby, who I’m growing to dislike more and more.

The Most Reverend Justin Welby said he found the decision “extraordinary”.

“This advert is about as offensive as a carol service or church service on Christmas Day,” he said.

“Let the public judge for themselves rather than be censored or dictated to.”

The Reverend Arun Arora, director of communications for the Church of England, said: “We find that really astonishing, disappointing and rather bewildering.

“The prospect of many families attending the release of the new Star Wars film had seemed a good opportunity to launch the advert and a new website justpray.uk to promote prayer ahead of Christmas.

“The Lord’s Prayer is prayed by billions of people across the globe every day, and in this country has been part of everyday life for centuries.”

He added: “In one way the decision of the cinemas is just plain silly, but the fact that they have insisted upon it, makes it rather chilling in terms of limiting free speech.”

Well, have they considered that the ad might be offensive to unbelievers and adherents to other faiths like Islam? Look at its title: “Prayer is for everyone.” It’s not for me! And really, would Welby want to see cinema ads featuring Qur’anic verses? And what about statements like the bus ads proclaiming that there’s probably no God and we should enjoy the one life we had? That would surely offend Welby, but if they ran the ad above, they’d have to run atheist ones as well. And believe me, the British atheists and humanists would insist on it!

I don’t recall ever having seen a political or religious ad in a US cinema, and I’m glad of it. Welby and his Anglican minions are simply upset that they can’t push their faith into people’s lives, even at the movies.

Or do readers think otherwise?

h/t: Geoff


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