Monday, January 9, 2006

Suppressing Religious Beliefs

An interesting lawsuit in Italy, attempting to prohibit teaching that Jesus Christ was a real person:
An Italian court is considering whether the Roman Catholic Church is breaking the law by teaching that Jesus Christ walked the earth 2,000 years ago.

The case pits against each other two men in their 70s, who are from the same central Italian town and went to the same seminary school in their teenage years.

The defendant, Enrico Righi, went on to become a priest writing for the parish newspaper. The plaintiff, Luigi Cascioli, became a vocal atheist who, after years of legal wrangling, is slated to get his day in court later this month."I started this lawsuit because I wanted to deal the final blow against the church, the bearer of obscurantism and regression," Mr. Cascioli said.

Mr. Cascioli says Father Righi, and by extension the Roman church, broke two Italian laws. The first is "Abuso di Credulita Popolare" ("Abuse of Popular Belief"), meant to protect citizens against being swindled or conned. The second crime, he says, is "Sostituzione di Persona," or impersonation.

"The church constructed Christ upon the personality of John of Gamala," Mr. Cascioli said, referring to the first-century Jew who fought the Roman army.

A court in Viterbo will hear from Father Righi, who has yet to be indicted, at a Jan. 27 preliminary hearing meant to determine whether the case has enough merit to go forward.

"In my book, 'The Fable of Christ,' I present 'proof' Jesus did not exist as a historic figure. [Father Righi] must now refute this by showing proof of Christ's existence," Mr. Cascioli said.
Now, I would like to think that the freedom of religion and freedom of the press provisions of the First Amendment would prevent such a suit from going forward in the U.S.--but you never know what cleverness the ACLU will pull out of its bag of magic tricks next.

In Britain, a prominent scientist is arguing that religion is a form of child abuse:
CONTROVERSIAL scientist Richard Dawkins will assert tomorrow evening that religion is a “virus” that amounts to child abuse.

The new two-part series, to be shown on Channel 4, will compare Moses to Hitler and claim that God is racist. It will also argue that religion is a “backward belief system” responsible for terrorism.
Ah, that's it! The ACLU will argue that children have a right to not be mentally abused by exposure to religion. This was, after all, the policy of the Soviet Union, which prohibited teaching religion to those under 18, and the ACLU's founder was a defender of Soviet practices on civil liberties.

I was amused by this article in, of all places, the left-wing Guardian responding to Dawkins:
His voice is one of the loudest in an increasingly shrill chorus of atheist humanists; something has got them badly rattled. They even turned their bitter invective on Narnia. By all means, let's have a serious debate about religious belief, one of the most complex and fascinating phenomena on the planet, but the suspicion is that it's not what this chorus wants. Behind unsubstantiated assertions, sweeping generalisations and random anecdotal evidence, there's the unmistakable whiff of panic; they fear religion is on the march again.

There's an aggrieved frustration that they've been short-changed by history; we were supposed to be all atheist rationalists by now. Secularisation was supposed to be an inextricable part of progress. Even more grating, what secularisation there has been is accompanied by the growth of weird irrationalities from crystals to ley lines. As GK Chesterton pointed out, the problem when people don't believe in God is not that they believe nothing, it is that they believe anything.

There's an underlying anxiety that atheist humanism has failed. Over the 20th century, atheist political regimes racked up an appalling (and unmatched) record for violence. Atheist humanism hasn't generated a compelling popular narrative and ethic of what it is to be human and our place in the cosmos; where religion has retreated, the gap has been filled with consumerism, football, Strictly Come Dancing and a mindless absorption in passing desires. Not knowing how to answer the big questions of life, we shelve them - we certainly don't develop the awe towards and reverence for the natural world that Dawkins would want. So the atheist humanists have been betrayed by the irrational, credulous nature of human beings; a misanthropy is increasingly evident in Dawkins's anti-religious polemic and among his many admirers.
UPDATE: Professor Volokh refers to this post as "ACLU Derangement Syndrome." But even a self-identified civil libertarian who describes himself as "am more likely to defend the ACLU then criticize it" argues in the comments over there that, "even I see that in a few instances ACLU takes its position to an extreme to threaten other freedoms."

UPDATE 2: The comments section has degenerated into a discussion of how I am out of the mainstream of American thought because I think the Supreme Court decided wrongly that virtual child pornography is protected by the First Amendment. Every time I wonder if I have misjudged liberalism, I get these examples of lawyers and law professors defending child pornography, and I realize that the only real hope for this country is adding loyalty oaths and religious tests to the bar exams. (Okay, not really, that would just make them liars as well as liberals.)

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