Reducing the effect of religion via harm reduction

Harm reduction is the idea that while people will always engage in certain risky behaviors, the dangers of these behaviors may be mitigated by being aware of this. Rather than prohibition, more enlightened means of dealing with the behaviors are used. Drug use is a common example.

Can harm reduction be of assistance in reducing the effects of religion on society? Crikey’s Michael Gordon-Smith wrote so during the week. Link is here for Crikey subscribers but I’ll post some excerpts below.

A harm reduction approach would, for example:

  • Understand religion as a multi-faceted phenomenon, and acknowledge that some ways of using religion are safer than others.
  • See a person’s religion use as of secondary importance to the risk of harms consequent to use.
  • Put first priority on decreasing the negative consequences of religion use to the user and to others, as opposed to focusing on the religion use itself.
  • Accept that religion is part of our world and work to minimise its harmful effects rather than simply ignore or condemn them.
  • and…

    We need immediately to remove tax anomalies encouraging the spread of religion and urgently to develop a new response. The work done for drug policy provides an easily adaptable model:

    * Do not trivialise or ignore the real and tragic danger associated with licit and illicit use of religion.
    * Recognise that containment and reduction of religion-related harms is more feasible than eliminating religion use entirely.
    * Recognise that some religions are less harmful than others. Intervene based on the relative harmfulness of the religion.
    * Lessen the harms of religions through education, prevention, and treatment.
    * Protect youth from the dangers of religions by offering factual, science-based religion education and eliminating black market exposure to religions.

    Even though Gordon-Smith is being a little cheeky some great ideas. There could be atheists that want religion totally eliminated from society but that is a caricature of atheism rather than a concrete aim. I have no issue with religion being a part of a healthy, vibrant society but I don’t see why it needs to be pandered to and held sacrosanct.

    Australia says “Do as we say, not as we do” on abortion and contraception

    I was surprised to find out during that week that Australia has restrictions on Australian funded foreign aid programs that ban giving advice on abortions and contraceptions. This is perplexing as Australia has no such restrictions on its own citizens. People can freely seek out advice on contraception and abortions, the limitations only likely to be found in religious based programs.

    The imposition of such restrictions is worrying from a political perspective. The politicians know that such a ban would be political suicide in Australia. Unable to enforce their morality on Australians, they force it on those who need it the least. From a humanitarian perspective it is a disastrous policy. The conviction of the anti-abortion politicians may be strong but their intentions most certainly cause more misery than they would care to admit.

    Women in less developed nations have very little options when it comes to reproductive health. Abstinence (which is what this policy seems to encourage) is not an option in patriarchal cultures women have little power or find the sex trade as one of the few ways to survive.

    In East Timor, these aid restrictions kill women. It firms my belief that there is a element of misogyny that informs anti-abortion politics.

    It is very easily to take the high moral ground when you are immune from having to deal with the deadly consequences of such policies.

    Why Rudd should let the Brethren slide

    Prior to the Federal election, PM in waiting Kevin Rudd stated that the Exclusive Brethren were an “extremist cult” and called for investigation of their affairs by a number of government bodies. This was in response to allegations that the Brethren have a

    disproportionately high taxpayer funding of Brethren schools, dishonest political campaigning, their charitable status in relation to rate and tax exemptions, and their well-known intimidatory tactics during traumatic Family Court cases

    Which is fair enough. If you like a particular religion then by all means, support it how you see fit. Just don’t ask me to through my taxes. Religions should go it alone. There is no reason in a secular society for religions to received government largess.

    However, Rudd’s calls for investigation of the Brethren has mellowed and the PM has

    rejected the pleas of former members of the Exclusive Brethren for a broad-ranging inquiry into the sect, saying such an investigation would “unreasonably interfere” with their right “to practise their faith freely and openly”.

    Now, on first thought, I was outraged but thinking a little more I offer the contention that Rudd got it right. While Australia does not have a constitution that explicitly states the church and state must be separated, going after the Brethren with governmental powers could be seen as an attack on religious freedom. And this is the correct view. The Brethren, no matter how despicable of a cult they are, should have their religious freedom. Rudd, by asking for any wrong doing by the Brethren to be directed to the police or other authorities, has made the right decision.

    It seems that if there are instances of electoral and financial improprieties on behalf of the Brethren then they should be dealt with by the proper authorities. The federal government’s role should not be to show favour to the Brethren by allowing them access to the corridors of power nor target them as part of a (though understandable to be honest) campaign against them.

    Elsewhere: North Coast Voices give their view.

    The struggle over Einstein’s soul

    Obviously atheists are pleased with the revelation that Einstein viewed religion as a childish thing. For believers it finally removes Einstein as the authority in a classic argument from authority.

    But for non-believers, there is a note of triumphalism that understandable but we should be wary of using Einstein as an authority ourselves. James F McGrath’s piece at Exploring Our Matrix is close to my views:

    Plenty of people reject the Bible and specific religious ideas without being “atheists”. The term “atheist” is itself confusing, since it is often unclear whether those who use the label understand it to mean a rejection of every notion of God, or a rejection of theism. Depending on one’s definition, pantheism may be a tertium quid left out of consideration, or a “sexed-up” form of atheism. At any rate, Einstein’s view of the term “god” as impoverished and human is one that plenty of mystics and theologians would share!

    The Vatican want aliens to convert to Catholicism

    The Vatican have announced they are comfortable with the idea of alien life. The good news for aliens is that they may be free of original sin. The bad news for aliens is:

    …extraterrestrials would benefit equally from the “incarnation”, in which Jesus Christ, the Son of God, assumed earthlings’ flesh, body and soul in order to redeem them, which Funes called “a unique event that cannot be repeated”.

    Indeed. The ucky aliens face prostelyzation when they come earth.

    : We come in peace and bring the secret of interstellar travel!

    Humans: Have you heard about your Lord and saviour, Jesus Christ!

    Aliens: Errr…we must be going. (to each other as they leave) Kang, you told us that there was advanced life on this planet.

    Many moons ago I did read a short story (I remember the author as being Phillip K Dick but I could be wrong) on what happened when human religion encountered an alien religion. The aliens were quite aghast at the idea that adherents to a religion would eat the flesh and drink the blood of their god. They felt the opposite was a more ideal realization of god.

    Which makes the point that aliens may not be devoid of religion and if they do have some concept of god, it would likely be very different to our own.

    Godless or not, intelligent alien life would be a thorny issues for most major religions.

    Atheism is not about ‘removing’ religion from society

    Over in England, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor is worried. It seems there are attempts afoot to eliminate the christian voice the public sphere.

    The cardinal is a little vague as to who wants religion removed from society. There seems to also be a thinking that a natural trend towards disbelief must have some movers behind it.

    But the cardinal’s words allow me to address a canard often thrown at atheists. And that is we want religion removed from public life. Far from it. I don’t speak for all atheists but I don’t want religion removed from the public sphere. I just want any special status that is applied to views and beliefs because they are religious, removed.

    And it is this idea, that religion needs to be demoted, that worries Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor the most. He reckons:

    Last month, in an interview with the Guardian, he hit out at the representatives of an “aggressive secularism” he said was gaining ground in the UK, defended the church’s role in the debate over “hybrid” embryos, and argued that Christian leaders should hold a privileged position over the leaders of other faiths when it came to their input into public policy in Britain.

    Sorry. But just being the dominant faith should offer no special favours. The idea that a belief or idea deserves special status because it has a religious foundation is absurd. One may claim to speak for God but God seems pretty silent about most things these days. Some followers reckon he wrote it all down in the Bible and seem content to apply the patriarchal, intolerant views of 2000 years ago (with some selection) to the modern day.

    The cardinal obviously has his vested interested in maintaining Christianity as the leader of faith. But Christianity deserves no special privileged in arguments of public policy. Nor can Islam or Judaism lay any claim either. The cardinal fears most people questioning religious authority. If the only argument you can muster is a variant of “Well, God said so, so there” then you deserve to experience a decline in privilege.

    The privilege has not been deserved through any intellectual rigor but simple being part of the religious old boys club.

    Zeus versus Vulcan in Chile

    An extraordinary image of a thunderstorm meeting with the dust cloud from Chaiten volcano. More can be found here.

    Pamela Bone and the lived atheist life

    Over the past few years, I didn’t take much to the writings of the late journalist Pamela Bone. She had tended towards routine attacks on so-called feminist inaction against Islam by conveniently ignoring what feminists were doing.

    But with her death, The Age has reprinted a beautiful statement of hers, relating to how she found meaning without religion.

    Commonsense on preachers and politics

    Via a comment at LP, I stumbled onto an excellent article by Katha Pollitt on the need for presidential candidates to have crazy, preaching guys as their spiritual advisor (part of Obama’s sin is that he chose a black crazy preacher guy, not the usual white bread crazy preacher guy).

    The on the money quote is:

    But here’s the larger point: If we kept religion out of the election campaign, we could just debate the issues, like rational people.

    This echoes a comment by The Daily Show‘s Jon Stewart who went after the media for their obsession with Wright. Granted, Wright is his own worst enemy at times (and Obama’s) but surely there are more important issues facing the United States?

    The need to pander to a collective superstition, of which whose leading practitioners seem to embody all that is wrong with religion, is a sad sign for the democratic process.

    Maybe US citizens may see more of such alarmingly effective policy measures as praying for petrol prices to fall. Via Pharyngula.

    The lot of an atheist

    Bernard Keane is Friday’s Crikey mentions that lot of an atheists and says a few things that reflect my position as an atheist. The article is for Crikey’s subscribers only but I’ll quote a few choice selections.

    Several complainants suggested I wouldn’t dare say such offensive things about Islam. Au contraire. Islam is about the only religion that makes Catholicism look enlightened in its attitude toward women. But, here’s the thing: oddly enough, we don’t shower tens of millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money on Islamic celebrations in which over a hundred thousand young Muslims are invited to come to Australia.

    I have come across this accusation before, often in political stoushes. Indeed, there are very stupid and deserving aspects of Islam but growing up in Australia, the majority of religious issues are framed around Christianity. It is the dominant strain of faith and hence the one most likely to come under attack.

    And no matter how it is justified or spun, and whether it’s in micro, regarding the WYD, or in macro, with the tax-exempt status enjoyed by all religions, the fact remains that in an ostensibly secular nation, massive resources are directed toward religious institutions despite the profound damage inflicted by such institutions via their attitudes toward women, gays and lesbians and children. Moreover, the conflict of interest when politicians who are religious — like Morris Iemma — make decisions in favour of religious organisations is never discussed

    Religion does have a privileged place in politics. Obviously there a votes involved. But a healthy lack of respect for religion should be encouraged and religions left to fend for themselves without relying on handouts from state or federal governments.

    It seems that the World Youth Day will not be the saviour of the NSW economy, a reason used to justify the $100 million or so spent so far by the Iemma government.

    This is not to suggest nothing but evil springs from the activities of the religious. For example, the Catholic Church, in which I was raised, has a relatively strong tradition of social justice, something almost entirely absent from the rather more fashionable happy-clappy churches like Hillsong, which seem more like lifestyle and self-help companies for aspirational dimwits than spiritual gatherings.

    I remember to Catholic Church of my youth as being much the same. However, the point has been made that there has been a theological shift to the left in the congregation of the happy-clappy types.