My Free Speech Fiasco

When I was at university I worked, on a voluntary basis, as a writing tutor for first-year students.  Many students got rather shirty when they realized that their personal opinions and experiences were not welcome in their assignments; their job, as undergraduates, was to consider the viewpoints of others according to academic criteria – not according to their own personal experiences and ideologies.  The temperature in the tutorial room was raised even higher when I suggested that, to maximize their marks, students might consider framing their arguments in favour of their marker’s particular bias.  Some were outraged.

“I didn’t come to university to be told what to think!” was a frequent complaint.

I explained that students were not being told what to think – they were being taught how to think.  Students could indeed argue against their professor’s particular bias and take, for instance, an anti-feminist or anti-socialist stance.  Theoretically, if their essay was good, it shouldn’t effect their mark.  But, human nature being what it is, they would need to make a much more cogent argument to ‘cut through’ the personal bias of the marker.  It takes a very accomplished undergraduate to do that.  As a student, I never saw this strategy as compromising my ethics.  I saw it as an intellectual exercise in, sometimes, arguing for a side of a debate I didn’t necessarily agree with.  In many instances, this changed my stance, or, at least, gave me a more sympathetic view of an argument I had previously dismissed out of hand.

To the rejoinder, “I should be able to write whatever I want!”, I replied, “You can – but you will have to accept the consequences of that decision.”

I went on to explain that, if my students wanted to write whatever they wanted, they should resign themselves to a future of writing only for their own entertainment.

“No-one,” I reminded them, “gets to write exactly what they want.”

Authors who wish to be successful, have to write with their readers’ tastes in mind.  They also have to write with a publisher in mind.  If you’re writing for advertising or public relations, you have to write for your clients – not yourself.  If you’re in business, you answer to your boss and your customers.  If you’re a journalist, you answer to your editor and the owner of the newspaper.  Blogging was in its infancy in those days but, even here, I’d argue, if you wish to be successful you have to write for your audience – and not just blurt out every stray thought you might have.

“In that way,” I said, “university is an apprenticeship.  You learn to write for an audience.  Here, your  audience is the person who marks your paper.  To maximize your marks, you need to understand your audience;  their biases, their likes and dislikes.  If you want to challenge your audience’s existing ideas and sympathies, you can do it, but you have to do it in a way that is so convincing you don’t alienate them.  So, yes, you have the freedom to write anything you like – but the consequences of that choice will be reflected in your marks.”

Which brings me to the quandary I found myself in this week when I became embroiled in a free speech fiasco.

I have been writing for Online Opinion for a few months now.  I greatly appreciate the opportunity it provides to get my message out to a much wider audience.  I enjoy writing for my blog, and I love my readers and subscribers but, ultimately, in my own little corner of the blogosphere, I’m preaching to the converted.  Graham Young, the founder and editor of Online Opinion has been very generous in publishing my work, even though he disagrees, personally, with many of my arguments.  That has not influenced his decision to give me a voice on his forum.

So, when I heard that Graham was being persecuted for publishing an anti-gay marriage article by Catholic conservative, Bill Muehlenberg, I was outraged.  I disagree with everything Muehlenberg said in the article, but, in the cause of free speech, I supported his right to put his point of view, and Graham’s right to publish it.  Muehlenberg’s article is highly selective, makes some ridiculously broad assumptions and is clearly biased.  On the other hand, it is reasonably well written and, while being critical of what he sees as homosexuals’ proclivity for infidelity, he doesn’t (in my view) directly vilify GLBTI people, either as individuals or as a group.

The story I heard, initially, was that someone had taken offence at the article, complained to some of the advertisers on the site (specifically IBM and ANZ) and that these companies had removed their ads – at significant financial cost to Online Opinion.

Impulsively, I contacted Graham and offered my support.  I also did a quick survey of articles about same-sex marriage on Online Opinion and found that pro-gay articles far outnumbered anti-gay articles.  There was no question of anti-gay bias.

Graham then made me aware of an article about the incident on the gay online journal, SX.  The story suggested the problem was not so much Muehlenberg’s article, as Graham’s failure to remove an offensive comment, by ‘Shintaro’ on another article which suggested that gays should either stay in the closet or be murdered.  Graham protested that he hadn’t removed the comment because it had been taken out of context.  He provided me with the link and I satisfied myself that the person who posted it was not advocating violence at all; he was pro-gay and anti-violence and the comment was intended to show where the anti-gay rhetoric in the discussion could lead.

Now, in high dudgeon at the injustice of it all, I posted a comment on SX defending Graham and Online Opinion and I wrote an email to a number of influential bloggers and columnists suggesting that they join me by writing in Graham’s defence.

Graham emailed back saying, in effect, “Nice email, but the facts are wrong.”

It seems that in my rush to play the part of Crusader Rabbit,  I hadn’t done my homework on the issue thoroughly enough, and Graham had (quite rightly) assumed that I had.  The advertising, it seems,  wasn’t lost because of the comment mentioned on SX, it was withdrawn because of another comment altogether.  This comment read:

“It’s interesting that so many people are offended by the truth. The fact is that homosexual activity is anything but healthy and natural. Certain lgbt’s want their perversion to be called “normal” and “healthy” and they’ve decided the best way to do this is have their “marriages” formally recognised. But even if the law is changed, these “marriages” are anything but healthy and natural. It is, in fact, impossible for these people to be married, despite what any state or federal law may say.”

Posted by MrAnderson, Thursday, 25 November 2010 10:09:39 AM

A gay reader brought the comment to Graham’s attention and asked for the reference to the ‘perversion’ of LGBT people to be removed.  Although Graham did not agree with the remark, he felt that it was a view which was commonly expressed among a minority of Australians, which did not incite violence, and which would have been acceptable (if widely condemned) in a parliamentary debate.  Given his commitment to free speech, Graham refused to delete it.

Having been rebuffed by Graham, the reader then decided to complain to the site’s advertisers.  Someone within IBM (it is not clear whether it was the same person) also complained to their management.  As a result, IBM and the ANZ decided to withdraw their advertising from Online Opinion and a number of other advertisers followed.  Sadly, as Online Opinion is part of an advertising co-operative, this meant that other bloggers also lost a substantial amount of their income, despite having nothing to do with Graham’s editorial decisions.

Now I was in a quandary.  In fact, I felt like I’d been hit with a ton of bricks.  All day I’d been sending supportive emails to Graham and shouting loudly from my ‘freedom of speech’ soap-box.  He thought I was an ally.  I thought I was an ally!  Now I realized I’d gone off half-cocked and, with this new information to hand, I felt I couldn’t defend Graham’s actions.  I felt sick, conflicted and embarrassed.  OK, I felt stupid.  I’d emailed all these people and said ‘stand up for freedom of speech!’  Now, if I was to be true to my own moral compass, I was going to have to write back to them and say, “Given new information to hand, I’m no longer standing up for free speech.”  I wished that a large black hole would just open up and consume me right then and there.

When I told Graham that I could no longer speak out publicly in his defence, he said I didn’t understand what free speech means.  Perhaps he was right.  I support free speech within limits, but not untrammeled free speech.  Perhaps that’s a terrible cop-out.  Perhaps it is ideologically unsound.  All I know is that every ethical atom of my being was screaming at me that I couldn’t defend the right of anyone to call a gay person perverted.  Nor could I support the decision not to delete a comment which was not only highly offensive, but, given the weight of expert medical and sociological opinion, patently untrue.

In a submission on Freedom of Religion and Belief, prepared for the Human Rights Commission in 2008, I wrote about the impact of these kinds of derogatory comments on GLBTI people – particularly adolescents.

I researched the high incidence of suicide in the gay community.  I quoted from the diary of young Bobby Griffith, who, at 20 years old, threw himself from an overpass into the path of a semi-trailer.  Before his suicide, Bobby wrote:

I can’t ever let anyone find out that I’m not straight. It would be so humiliating. My friends would hate me. They might even want to beat me up. And my family? I’ve overheard them….They’ve said they hate gays, and even God hates gays, too. Gays are bad, and God sends bad people to hell. It really scares me when they talk that way because now they are talking about me.

Bobby had been made to believe he was a pervert – and he just couldn’t live with that.

The experience of being gay in Australia is movingly expressed in the following internet post from Australian, Phill Herbert:

From twink to date I have continually endured the expressed condemnation by the dominant voices in organized religion. I have seen young Gay people being tortured by their religious backgrounds, their alienation from family and significant others, their drop in esteem, their self harm at both emotional and physical levels. Indeed I have known young people to tragically take their own lives as a result of this alienation and resultant self perception.  … History and the dominant contemporary voice of organized religion has maintained a line of ill informed and ultimately damaging shit that has persisted not only over decades, but millenniums …How many people have died, had their careers destroyed, had their health and self perception compromised by the utterances of those like Ratzinger/Pell/Jenkins … I maintain my right to rage …

In similar vein, Peter Taylor, a gay member of the Atheist Foundation of Australia, reminded me that it is not only young gay, lesbian and transgender people who suffer the effects of discrimination.  In an email to our submission team, Taylor wrote:

… It is good that you are writing about youth suicides, but don’t forget adult suicides. Single gay men, especially the elderly are killing themselves by drinking too much to dull the pain. There are no statistics, of course, because it’s not called suicide, it’s called liver and kidney malfunction.

Words are weapons.  The word ‘perversion’ in one comment on one article on one online journal may seem infinitesimal in the barrage of hate to which homosexuals are subjected throughout their lives.  But the word is still a bullet in the assault on gays and, while, on the battle-field that is a gay person’s life, there may also be cannon-fire and bombs exploding and a million trillion bullets being fired simultaneously, that doesn’t make that one, lone bullet any less lethal.

It is no longer acceptable to call black people ‘niggers’.  If that word had been used in a comment on Online Opinion I expect it would have been deleted.  I wonder whether Graham would have permitted a comment which referred to women (generically) as sluts.  If neither of these are admissible, why should it be OK to refer to homosexuality as a perversion?  Perhaps there is a rationale for this – but I can’t think of one.

It seems that, while Graham is admirably committed to maximising free speech on the site, he also (reluctantly) accepts that he can’t allow open slather or chaos would reign.  Comments are moderated, so, clearly, some speech is not allowed.  This equivocation seems, to me, to result in a lack of firm and clear guidelines which make it appear to his critics that Graham’s moderation is ad hoc and inconsistent.  This leaves Graham open to accusations of bias (of which I am genuinely sure he is not guilty).  Other forums are prepared to compromise on untrammeled free speech and make it clear that personal attacks, sexist, racist or homophobic remarks will not be published.  Online Opinion’s rules of engagement are much less clearly defined.  This makes the moderation decisions confusing for those who are participating.

This is not an attack on Graham. I believe he edits Online Opinion and moderates the forum with a good heart and with a firm commitment to free speech and freedom of the press.  What I wish to suggest is that, while pure ideology is all well and good in theory, it cannot exist in its pure state when exposed to the murky waters of human nature and free enterprise.

As other bloggers have pointed out, Graham’s freedom to publish what he wants and moderate his forum as he wishes have not been quashed.  He has not had his internet rights revoked.  He hasn’t been thrown in jail.  He is not being threatened by a mob of gay activists outside his house waving flaming torches and brandishing pitchforks.  No legislation has been put in place to prevent him from seeking advertising to support the site.  What has happened is that his admirable commitment to the principle of free speech has alienated at least some of his readership.  In turn, some advertisers bowed to pressure from those offended readers and withdrew their support for the site.  It may be an over-reaction.  It may be short-sighted.  It may, perversely, hurt the very customers they are trying to appease.  But, ultimately, it is an advertiser’s right to place their money where they see fit.  Online Opinion needs them – they don’t need it.

The fact is that, just like my first-year university students, Graham made a choice to run his site his way and he found that choice has consequences.  To an extent, he placed ideology above an, apparently, large and influential segment of his audience and above the concerns of the advertisers who supplied his income. In business terms, I’d say he lost touch with an important segment of his market. By refusing to compromise his commitment to free speech, Graham suffered the consequences of that choice.  To my mind, while principles are important – and there should be a point beyond which you will not compromise those principles – you simply can’t run a business without also considering the wants and needs of your ‘customers’ and financiers.  Regrettably, those wants and needs may not always be as pure as yours.  This is the ‘deal with the devil’ you do when you cease to write, or publish, for your own entertainment and undertake it as a business enterprise.  You don’t get to call all the shots any more and, if you ignore the views of those who make your business prosper, you’re likely to pay the price.

The pity is, this doesn’t just effect Graham Young.  Online Opinion is not just a blog.  It’s a business (whether profitable or not).  It’s also an important resource for people, like me, who want to have our voices heard. Perversely, it’s also important for me to be able to  hear opinions like Muehlenberg’s so I know what we’re up against. I understand that Online Opinion is also seen as a valuable source of information for the public service.  My friend, Chris, writes policy for a government minister and is required to read Online Opinion as part of her job.  Her department sees it as an important tool for keeping in touch with grass-roots public opinion.

If Online Opinion folds through lack of funds, Graham Young is not the only person who will suffer the loss.  It will be a loss to the whole Australian community.  Is it really worth losing such a valuable resource in order to protect the freedom of a minority of uninformed bigots to spout their hatred in public?

As one contact wrote to me today:

I used to subscribe to OLO but discovered I’m not emotionally strong enough to read strident, vitriolic idiocy about everything from climate change to population, chaplains to mining. I know that having a place for people to let off steam is healthy, but this reacquaintance with OLO has confirmed my aversion.

While the articles on Online Opinion are of a consistently high quality (Muehlenberg’s may be a notable exception!) the tone of its discussion forum has been noted by some online commentators (and some of my own contacts) as a deterrent to visiting the site.  To some, it seems to have been hijacked by a small group of regular posters.  To me, they seem like a particularly virulent version of the Muppet’s Waldorf and Statler, howling abuse at the article writers (and each other) from the dress circle.  After my second Online Opinion article I felt like I’d been thrown into a pit of ravenous lions.  I’d never thought of writing as a blood sport!  When I complained, Graham responded, “You think that’s bad?  You should see what they do to me!”

I am not saying that Graham’s decision in this matter was wrong.  How can you condemn anyone for sticking to their principles, even when under siege?  No, I am simply saying that I hold a different view.  This matter is too complex to be argued in terms of right or wrong, black or white.

It is, however, my personal view that, while, in theory,  untramelled free speech is admirable, when the act of maintaining the purity of that ideal leads to a toxic atmosphere in the forum, alienates your readers, discourages good writers, frightens off your advertisers and threatens your whole enterprise, I think it’s time to reconsider whether sticking steadfastly to ideology is worth the cost.  And, when words are used as weapons against a vulnerable minority, I think it’s time to consider whether free speech is more important than people’s lives and human dignity.

Chrys Stevenson

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Related Articles

Graham Young’s account of the incident and an appeal for new financial backers.

You want our ads? Keep your opinions to yourself by Graham Young on ABC’s The Drum

Oversensitivity can only compromise debate by Christopher Pearson, The Australian

Controversy in the Australian Blogosphere by Peter Black

Of  secondary boycotts, free speech … and revenue by Skeptic Lawyer

Free speech and corporate interests by Mitch Sullivan

Homeopathy – There’s Nothing In It

I took part in the 10:23 Challenge on Saturday, 5 February 2011.  The aim was to highlight the inefficacy of homeopathy by taking a mass overdose of homeopathic sleeping pills.

I’ve written about my experience on Online Opinion.

But, as an added bonus for my readers and subscribers, my friend Raphael Fraser (aka @Tsuken) recommends this for your viewing pleasure:

And here is the gorgeous Jason Ball talking about the 10:23 Challenge  in Melbourne. (Brisbane was similar but we weren’t anywhere near as nattily kitted out!)

And, finally, this brilliant find from Dr Ben Goldacre’s Posterous blog:  Homeopaths are at their most amusing when they’re being honest with each other.  A lobbying email sent within the British homeopathic community:

The message below from Jennifer Dooley, formerly of the H:MC21 campaign.  Please personalise the template below and send a letter/email to Ms. Andrea Farmer at the MHRA.  We only have a few days now to inundate them with our views.  Many thanks.

===============

Dear EVERYONE,

This is urgent. TOP PRIORITY!!!  The deadline is the 18th of February. The practice of homeopathy by lay homeopaths is at stake, and if the MHRA changes the wording to the document mentioned below, we will not be allowed to practice any longer. This will take effect immediately.  The new wording which is being suggested by sense against science, and is being considered by the MHRA will effectively put us in catch 22 so that we can no longer give out remedies – basically, it is about the difference between dispensing and prescribing.  all homeopaths dispense remedies as a normal part of daily practice. the new rules will mean that it will be illegal to dispense without a license, and only a qualified doctor can make a prescription.  without the ability to dispense, all we can do is sit and listen to people’s problems, but can do nothing else about it.  this will also have an affect on the homeopathic pharmacies, who will only be allowed to dispense licensed remedies (currently, only arnica and possibly one or two others are licensed) unless prescribed by a physician, and this means the potential loss of thousands of remedies.  The key words in the version we want, which help keep homeopathy going are   “…use within the homeopathic tradition”.  This avoids the need to prove the science behind prescribing of remedies and allows us to practise as normal.

 

Chrys Stevenson

Book Recommendations

Gladly hates his honey diluted, but reckons homeopathic sugar pills don’t taste too bad.

If you’re interested in reading more about homeopathy and alternative medicines Gladly recommends the following from our friends at Embiggen Books.

Trick or Treatment  – Alternative Medicine on Trial by Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst

The Whole Story – Alternative Medicine on Trial by Toby Murcott

Bad Science by Ben Goldacre

Snake Oil and Other Preoccupations by John Diamond

Science Meets Alternative Medicine: What the Evidence Says about Unconventional Treatments by Wallace Sampson; Lewis Vaughn

Bad Medicine: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, From Distance Healing to Vitamin O by Christopher Wanjek

Preaching by The Book? My Correspondence with Father Tim Moyle

My regular readers may recall that, in December, Father Tim Moyle, a Catholic priest, wrote an open letter to atheists, Dear Atheists: Why the Long Face?

Father Moyle believes we atheists are angry because we, “… will never experience ultimate justice, peace or love” and “… cannot look past the annihilation in death.”

I responded here, saying, “Has it never occurred to you, Father Moyle, that we atheists get angry because you religious types give us a whole lot to get angry about?”

After detailing the religious behaviour which gets us riled up, I  concluded:

“… in short, Father, if you’re looking for the cause of atheist anger, you need not look very far.  Simply open the door of your Church, take off your theistic blinkers and take a good, hard look inside.”

Prompted by this exchange of blog posts, Doug Steley of Victoria (Australia) decided to contact Father Moyle personally.  The following article details Doug’s response to Father Moyle’s hypothesis about atheist anger and documents the correspondence which followed.

I’m delighted to welcome Doug as a guest blogger on Gladly, the Cross-Eyed Bear.

 


Preaching by The Book? My Correspondence with Father Tim Moyle

by Doug Steley

I am in the midst of an interesting exchange of emails with a Catholic Priest in Canada by the name of Father Tim Moyle.

Father Tim posted an article on why atheists like myself are angry.

I have to admit I found it curious that someone who appears to have been a life-long, very devout Christian like Fr Tim would know much about how atheists think,  but he professed to be an expert on the subject so who am I to disbelieve him?

So, I documented the reasons why I had become an atheist and why I was still angry –  angry at religion, and somewhat angry at life I guess –  and why I am certainly angry with people who try to tell me things that are not true.

This is the email I sent the priest, edited slightly as on re-reading it there were sections that weren’t well written.  (As a dyslexic, I still have problems reading and writing.)

Hi Father Tim

I recently read your blog on why we atheists are angry and I must admit you put a slant on this I had not considered before.

I have been an atheist for the last 25 years after 25 years as a Christian so, unlike you, I think I possibly have more of a perspective about these things.

In my short life I have seen a fair amount of death. I have quite often been in life threatening situations as both a Christian and an atheist and, I have to admit, that there is very little difference when you are seconds away from death.

I am neither angry at death nor particularly afraid of it.  I know my death is inevitable and I just plan to live as long as I can (and remain useful to society) and to die, hopefully, as peacefully and as pain free as I can.

I would also at this point say that this is pretty common amongst my atheist friends.

May I ask you one of the questions that I have asked for decades now and which is one of the main points of my becoming an atheist?

I would really appreciate your answer on this.

As I said, I was born into a  Christian family. I am also severely disabled with dyslexia and could barley read or write until I was 20.  At school, I was regularly beaten for being stupid and lazy and abused by the good Christian teachers and other students because I came from a broken home (that was unusual and shameful in the 1960s) and because I could not cope with my school work.

At night, I would regularly and earnestly pray that I would be able to learn my lessons and be a good student or that my teachers would understand that I was trying and not cane me.  This never happened and I continued to be a poor student and I continued to be caned and strapped for my mistakes. I was also abused and beaten for being a liar. I would be accused of not studying and of not doing my homework because my grades were so poor. If I lied and said that I had not studied I was hit for not doing what I was told. If I told the truth and said I had studied as hard as I could, I would be hit for telling lies. There was no way to escape this.

Before you say, “God does not give us any more than we can cope with”  here, I did have two close friends at school in similar situations. One committed suicide because he could no longer cope with the abuse and the other has spent her life in and out of mental institutions.

Anyway, the question that has kept arising in my mind for many years now is:

If someone eventually loses their faith after years of abuse at the hands of Christians and after earnestly praying for help from God and Jesus both as a child and later as an adult to no avail;

If that person then rejects religion and says “There is no God or at least no God I would care to praise”,  then is that person doomed to hell for eternity according to the Bible’s scriptures?

If a person abuses an innocent child so badly that they lose their faith and suffer physical and mental harm, but that person asks for the  forgiveness of Jesus and prays for their own salvation, why are they then promised eternity in the paradise of heaven according to the Bible?

As you can see, I have quite a personal interest in your reply. I have studied the Bible for many years, both as a Christian and as an atheist, and, so far, the only scriptural answer I can read is the abused will go to hell and the abuser to heaven.

I cannot see how this can in anyway be called justice or love, and this is one of the reasons I left the church and religious beliefs behind.

I must admit, in the 25 years since I left I have been happier and had far better friends than I ever did as a believer.

Anyway, thank you for your time, I hope you have a safe and happy Christmas season, I look forward to hearing from you perhaps in the New Year.

Doug

His answer arrived quite quickly, within a few days, and full of good cheer, confidence and platitudes and I must admit it was somewhat surprising in its sweeping challenge  to the teachings of the Bible as I understood it.

Doug,

Short answer:  No. People who have suffered as you have and lost your faith as a result are not destined for hell. Live a good life, love the people in it and then trust in the providence of a loving and forgiving God who understands abuse, pain and suffering too. As to the ‘God doesn’t give us more than we can handle line’… if that were true, why do psychiatrists and therapists have such a good business? Why do people suicide? Clearly the events of life are capable of crushing us and this has nothing to do with God. Remember our faith teaches us that he is not the only spiritual power at work on the earth.

May you be blessed with a Christmas of peace, love and joy!

Thanks for writing.

Fr. Tim

Could this be true? Atheists and unbelievers who live a good life will be welcomed into heaven and true Christians who have followed the faith and asked forgiveness are punished?  This was pretty amazing stuff and bordering on the heretical.  It sure went against everything I had been taught in the Bible that no sin was too great to be forgiven if someone believed and asked forgiveness –  as any Christian must regularly do  – and that people were only saved and granted access to heaven by their faith,  not by any good works.  No faith, no belief, no heaven!

I immediately sent back an email questioning the scriptural validity of these comments and got this reply:

Doug:

Sorry. Can’t help you with this one due to time constraints (next 72 hrs  Christmas are kind of hectic for priests). It is Catholic teaching however and I could refer to the Catechism if you like and send you the references.

Logic itself should be enough though to validate the point I am making. No one can know the state of mind/heart/soul of another before God. We cannot judge what is in one’s soul if when they get to the end of their rope, they lack the grace, strength or capacity to go on. I simply do not believe in a God that would punish someone for all eternity simply because the trials and struggles of life became too heavy for them to bear. Exempting those who commit existential suicide – no rational person would willingly choose to end their life if they could see another path to relief. Does this not demonstrate in itself that they are suffering from an illness of the heart/mind/soul – especially if they follow through with ending their life? If God will not deny someone eternal life because they died of a physical illness, why would he do so for someone that suffers an illness of the spirit?

Fr. Tim

Ah ha! Logic!  The Catholic Church was using LOGIC to define the word of God Almighty!  This was, indeed, a new and interesting turn of events.  Here, I must admit, I don’t know much about the Catechisms.  I am not a Catholic, but I was interested to see what he had to say, so I waited until the New Year and reminded him of his offer to send the Biblical and Catechism references he referred to.  Unfortunately, this time there had been a lot of his parishioners die from the cold and he was busy.  Could I remind him later in the week?  As requested, I waited and replied, reminding him of his promise.

To that email I have had no reply as yet and I am getting the feeling that I never will.

I will continue to ask questions of Fr Tim. If he is willing to make sweeping statements then I am happy to discuss the issues with him.

Sadly, as I often find in such discussions, Christians are more than willing to make such sweeping comments but, when asked to defend their comments and back up their statements, they suddenly find they are busy with other things or fall silent. I do note that Fr Tim has found time to keep his blog updated and posted many new comments and items since our discussion began.  He has time to spread God’s word to those who don’t ask questions.

But, when it comes to one small voice asking questions, he falls silent.

Odd?

Doug Steley

Postscript: Since he wrote this article several days ago, Doug has received further correspondence from Father Moyle – none of which, according to Doug,  provides Biblical references for Father Moyle’s assertion that God would not deny access to heaven for an atheist who lost their faith as a result of psychological or physical abuse by his earthly representatives.

In Father Moyle’s defence, despite having some strange ideas about atheists, he seems like a nice, intelligent  guy who has constructed an image of ‘God’ which is completely at odds with the deity which (allegedly) speaks through the Old and New Testaments.

It seems that in order to cope with the cognitive dissonance Father Moyle has done what, ultimately, any intelligent, rational Christian must do – abandon or creatively interpret scripture so as to create a deity in his own image, with his own sense of fairness, logic and reason.  And that, Father Moyle, is exactly our point.

Chrys Stevenson

Religious Conversion by Stealth in NSW Schools

We have known for some time that state schools, throughout Australia, have been breaching Education Department guidelines in respect to religious education (i.e. instruction) classes and that politicians and bureaucrats have shown little interest in policing this area.

I regularly receive emails from irate parents who have found that, having opted their child out of RE, their wishes have been ignored – usually discovered when their child comes home and starts spouting Scripture, or worrying that her non-church-going parents are destined to burn in hell.

Today, comes a story from the Daily Telegraph:

Parents at three schools on the [NSW] South Coast complained after their children were forced to listen in on religious lessons, despite having opted out of the classes.

The Department of Education and Training started investigating after the Ulladulla High School’s final newsletter last year said that students in years 7 and 8 “will sit in a section of the classroom” where scripture was taught, “so minimal supervision can take place safely”.

The newsletter also said students could opt out of actively taking part in the lessons only in the first few weeks of the new school year.

After objections from some parents, the department said it would contact the schools to ensure parents and students were aware of the policy.

…  Nowra High School principal Wayne Pryce said yesterday students who opted out still sat in on the lessons because there wasn’t “enough staff for supervision”.

Batemans Bay High School has had an arrangement for several years whereby non-religious students remained in the classroom while scripture was being taught.

The Australian Secular Lobby said that, given the ease with which the schools had breached NSW policy, the department should notify all schools of their obligations.”

Now, you might consider it possible that one principal was unaware of Education Department guidelines, but three?  And the article notes that this arrangement was put in place after all three consulted together.  Really?  And not one said, “Ummm, guys, I don’t think we’re allowed to do that – maybe we should check with the Department.” ?

So, call me suspicious, but I was already thinking that the real reason that parents’ rights were completely disregarded in this matter was less administrative (lack of available supervision) and more theological (convert the little heathen blighters against their parents’ will).  And it’s not just non-religious kids we’re talking about here.  I’d be willing to bet there are kids from non-Christian religions in these schools being forced to sit in on Christian religious education classes as well.  Let’s put aside the assault on secularism for a moment – this is outright Christian imperialism.

Don’t believe me? Check this out. Imagine if you were the parent of the Muslim child encouraged to act against her parent’s wishes and faith in this video.

And then someone sent me this – from SRE teachers in the same school district (Illawarra).

“Pray for year 8 & 9 classes today, especially for the students who have not attended SRE before and who will be bringing their own work to do in class. Pray that they will be quiet and that they will hear God’s message as Bernie teaches the other students. Pray for Holy Spirit annointing, power and authority on Bernie.”  Link

Being a born cynic (or should that be born-again cynic) , I’m expecting this post to be ‘disappeared’ once they realize that what they’re doing proves that opted out students are being targeted for conversion.  In fact, being a born cynic, I’ve taken a screenshot of the page for posterity. (Click to enlarge)  (My friend Dan has ensured that the rest of the site is similarly enshrined.)

Click to enlarge

Update: As predicted, all the ‘prayers’ on this website have been deleted – I’ll take that as an admission of guilt.  If they had said nothing wrong, why delete them?  But don’t worry boys, if you decide you want to put them back, we have copies.  And if there’s any media, or parents with lawsuits in mind who’d like copies, we’re willing to share. ;-)

Non-religious and non-Christian parents with children in NSW State Schools should be rightly horrified to hear that when they send their children to (supposedly) secular state schools, they are being strategically targeted by evangelistic Christian zealots.  Not only that, the SRE teachers are canvassing to have specifically Christian teachers appointed to the school to further influence your children.  Far-fetched? Well, they’ve already managed to have opted-out kids put into their RE class, why wouldn’t a sympathetic principal also agree to practice affirmative action in employing good Christian teachers?

“Praise for the witness of Christian staff, students and volunteers this year. Pray for the appointment of Christian staff for 2011″ Link

“Pray for all SRE classes next year, especially year 9 classes, as students will not be allowed to have a free period instead of Scripture. Those students who have notes to exempt them from SRE will have to bring homework or other school work to do in class.” [Emphasis added.] Link

“Praise for God’s ongoing ministry to many non-Christian youth at Ulladulla High School.” [Emphasis added] Link

“Pray especially this week for parents NOT to sign notes excusing their children from
Scripture lessons. Pray for the Holy Spirit’s control over these notes.” Link

And once they have your kids in their class, they’re not above scaring the bejeezus into them:

“Pray for Year 9 students as they talk about “Life After Life”. Bernie will use confronting material from “Ninety Minutes in Heaven” and “Raised from the Dead”. [Emphasis added] Link

“Continue to pray for year 9 as they discuss “Life After Life”. This week they will hear about an atheist’s death experience of hell.” Link

It’s so easy to be complacent.  I remember RE classes, both at state school and at the Presbyterian and Methodist private school I attended.  We had either a doddering old Anglican minister who’d drone on a bit while we doodled on our notebooks, or a deacon who’d give us some Bible passages to read and consider.  There was no sense whatsoever of being evangelised.  But, things are different now and parents have to realize that what their kids are receiving in state schools is almost certainly not religious education, but religious instruction.  They are not being told about religion, they are being told to be religious – and not just religious, but fundamentalist, Bible literalist, happy-clapping, talkin’-in-tongues, fallin’-to-the-floor Christians.

And it’s not just happening in New South Wales.  A Queensland friend told me recently that a child at her school whose father has terminal cancer was told by the school chaplain that her father would burn in hell when he died if he didn’t accept Jesus as his personal saviour.

Another Queensland parent discovered that his infant daughter had been included in RE classes against his will when he took her to feed the ducks in the park.

“Daddy!  You’re going to go to hell!”

“What???? Why????”

“For feeding the body of Christ to the ducks!”

Parents, please be vigilant.  If you’ve opted your child out of RE, make sure your wishes are being complied with. Don’t allow the school to use emotional blackmail to coerce you into changing your mind.  Common excuses are “We don’t have anyone to supervise her …”, “You’re causing a lot of trouble for the teachers,” and “All the other kids go to RE – you’re singling your child out and that can be very emotionally damaging for him.”

Also remember, that if your school has a chaplain you should have been consulted.  If you haven’t been consulted, you have a right to see the application documents sent to the government asking for funding.  If they say that parents were consulted and agreed, you need to make a noise – or contact the Australian Secular Lobby to make a noise for you.

If you are having problems with the unwelcome intrusion of religion into your child’s state school, please contact the Australian Secular Lobby for help and advice.  At the very least, they can log your concerns which helps to combat the inevitable response from Education Departments that this problem ‘isn’t widespread’.  We know it is!

In the meantime, whether or not you’re in New South Wales, and whether or not you’re a parent, please consider writing to the NSW Premier, the Education Minister and the Department of Education and Training with your thoughts on the situation in the Illawarra schools mentioned in the Daily Telegraph article (and the additional information supplied on this blog).   Contact details are as follows:

  • premier@nsw.gov.au (NSW Premier)
  • office@firth.minister.nsw.gov.au (Minister for Education and Training)
  • brian.elliott@det.nsw.edu.au (NSW Department of Education and Training)

Again, if you have your own story to tell, please contact the Australian Secular Lobby.  Your anonymity can be preserved if you fear your child will be victimised due to a complaint.

If you feel strongly that the government should not be funding Christian chaplains in Australian state schools,  (a scheme to which nearly half a billion dollars has either been spent or committed), please consider making a donation to the High Court Challenge against the National School Chaplaincy Program.  This is a serious case which will be heard before the High Court later this year, possibly in May.  More details are available on the website.

And, finally, when it comes time to complete your 2011 Census,  if you are no longer a practicing Christian, please mark ‘No Religion’ on the form for yourself and your children.  Having accurate statistics of those who aren’t practicing Christians will help secular organizations to argue against the intrusion of religion into our government, educational and other public institutions.

Chrys Stevenson

 

Update

This story just keeps getting worse.  A relative of one of the opted out students at Ulladulla writes on the Victorian Humanists’ website:

“A relative of mine attends Ulladulla High School. Yesterday she (a non-SRE) student was placed in a courtyard and told they must sit (and not move from) an old BBQ table. The table was damp and as is typical for such a design, had planks well spaced so it is most uncomfortable to sit for the entire period. Supervision was provided by a person in the neighbouring classroom. This person was not a qualified teacher but the local pastor running his scripture class. He left the door wide open so all the non-SRE students could enjoy his prosleytizing.

So, despite all the fuss, secular students are still having to listen to religious ranting in their secular schools. This is discrimination.”

I understand this person was Bernie Hughes, the same person mentioned (above)  in prayers for the conversion of opted out students.  Seems Bernie hasn’t learned yet that this isn’t going to go away.  Keep the door closed, Bernie – and for your own good, don’t agree to supervise opted out students – it’s not doing your cause any good.

Another Ulladulla State High School contact wrote to me earlier in the week:

” … today we are all back to Square 1 it seems. The school continues to claim it is working on changing its policy towards non-SRE students and that it has implemented changes and the Big Wigs in the NSW Education Dept (David Ashford and Maria Grey- Pearce) claim Ulladulla High School has fallen into line with the NSW policies and Act.

However in actuality, today’s non-SRE students ended up in a deserted derelict area of the school in the rain for non-SRE (this is the apparently newly arranged area) and when they went searching for a teacher (these are Yr 7 kids who have only been at High school for 6 days – plus a swimming carnival) they ended up being invited back into the SRE room to partake in the Scripture lesson.

When they protested that they shouldn’t be there, they were sent to the Deputy Principal who assumed they were there for punishment (and made some comment to the effect that “good that they weren’t” – initial presumption being that they were all of course in trouble for something). He then led them to a deserted stairwell in the school for them to sit for the period. He came back 10 mins later to check the roll and then wasn’t seen again for the remaining 40 mins.

The Yr 7 girls were not at all happy being in a deserted area of the school between demountables and with no supervision. The school is in the midst of major building work, it is heavily treed and has many dark isolated areas. “

Not good enough!

 

Related Articles

South Coast Public School Kids Unable to Opt Out of Scripture Classes – ABC Illawarra

Religiously follow the rules, or catch the church in bed with state – Richard Ackland, Sydney Morning Herald