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Global Atheist Con, Day 2: Leslie Cannold

Leslie Cannold is a writer, activist, and the author of “The Book of Rachel”. Her talk: Separating Church and State: A Call to Action.

It’s one of those funny paradoxes that Americans seem super-religious, when their constitution has provisions for the separation of church and state — and what’s more important, that separation gets upheld in court. Australia, however, allows lots of religious stuff past the legal barriers — and Australians are largely secular. The net effect is that Australia does not really achieve a separation of church and state.

Cannold compared the relevant bits of each country’s constitution. Let’s start with Australia:

Section 116: The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.

And the USA:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…

Both texts read about the same. The difference is that of implementation. In USA, courts have a tradition of “reading it up”, so that an action is prohibited unless it’s explicitly okay. In Australia, they “read it down”, so that it’s okay unless it’s explicitly prohibited. That means a lot of religious stuff gets in.

The difference between the two methods of implementation shows up in two landmark cases, both of which involved the role of the government in promoting religion in schools: McCollum v Board of Education (USA, 1948)

“For the First Amendment rests upon the premise that both religion and government can best work to achieve their lofty aims if each is left free from the other within its respective sphere. Or, as we said in the Everson case, the First Amendment had erected a wall between Church and State which must be kept high and impregnable.”

and The Dog’s Case (Australia, 1981), in which one Justice said:

[Section 116] cannot readily be viewed as the repository of some broad statement of the principle concerning the separation of church and state from which may be distilled the detailed consequences of such separation.

What this means is that Australian taxpayers pay to promote religions:

  • religious festivals (millions of dollars for World Youth Day)
  • canonisations ($1.5 million in the case of Mary McKillop)
  • tax breaks for churches
  • private schools
  • and exposing kids to religion via chaplains

Cannold actually has no objection to Religious Education taught by teachers. However, at the moment we have a situation where access to high school students is thrown open to what can only be described as evangelists. Here’s the head of Access Ministries:

“There is enormous amount of christian ministry going on in our schools, both at state level and at at national level, both at government and non-government schools, but we must ask how much of that ministry is actually resulting in christian conversion and discipleship growing”

“Our Federal and State Governments allow us to take the Christian faith into schools. We need to go and make disciples.”

In Cannold’s view, Australia is a soft theocracy. Politicians feign religiosity because they think it will get them votes. Our Prime Minister (who Fiona Patten calls a “non-practicing atheist“) has given religions everything they’ve wanted.

So what can we do?

Cannold emphasises that “we” includes the non-faith community and some religious believers who can’t stand this trend and who consider faith a private matter. We need to find them and form coalitions.

Here are some simple suggestions from Cannold.

Join the Facebook group for Australians for Separation of Church & State
Help with the Australian University Freethought Alliance.
Donate to Ron Williams. He’s single-handedly mounting a challenge against the chaplaincy, and the legal costs are climbing. Throw him some dough.
Engage in web-based advocacy
Build alliances with teachers. There are teachers who agree that scripture shouldn’t be taught in school, but after school. Opt-in, not opt-out.

And foremost — we need to admit that we do not have a secular state in Australia. We think of ourselves as secular and non-religious, and we are. But we’re also kind of conflict-averse, and we need to stop that.

How to mark exam questions

I’m in Exam Marking Hell. It’s not that bad, really — students come up with some interesting things to say sometimes, and that’s how you know it’s a good answer.

For others in a similar plight, I thought I’d share my marking scale. Marking exam questions is easy. All you have to do is put an answer into one of five bins, and the bins all have easy-to-distinguish characteristics.
– – – – –
This answer is so good, I want to memorise bits of it and use them in a conversation later. Brings information about the topic together, and does it in an original way. Wow.

This answer has the facts straight, and says something smart and interesting about the topic. Is full of win.

While there’s nothing wrong about this answer, it’s flat and uninspired. It goes no farther than we did in lectures, and it even uses some of the same examples. A rehash.

This answer is incomplete, gets things wrong, or misses the point completely.

Almost comically wrong. It’s tempting to type these answers out and email them to other professors. The student is trying to bluff you, and failing.
– – – – –
The hard part is deciding what numbers should go with each category, but that’s why they pay us the big bucks.

The Dr Fox Effect

As a lecturer, I used to worry that students would figure out how little I knew. After a while, I realised that I didn’t have to know everything, and more importantly, I probably knew ‘enough’ to be capable at my level. Now I’m quite relaxed about knowing hardly anything, as long as I keep reading and discussing things with people who know more than I do.

But this clip terrified me all over again. It’s about the ‘Dr Fox Effect‘, and it describes how an engaging lecturer can give students the impression that they’ve learned something, even when the presentation was content-free. In this clip, professors think they’re getting a lecture on game theory from an expert, when they’re really listening to complete gibberish from an actor.

Now I wonder: In a lecture, do I give students something real and useful? Or are students happy with my lectures because I’m ‘entertaining’, while getting nothing of real value?

This is really a little bit scary.

h/t/ weird experiments

Advance Australia what?

I’ve read that Christians in Roman times were mistrusted for having allegiance to a king other than Caesar. And now it seems that modern Christians are doing little to dispel such suspicion.

Some private Christian schools are singing an alternative version of the national anthem which promotes religious values and talks of Christ.

Instead of the official second verse of Advance Australia Fair, which starts “Beneath our radiant Southern Cross”, the alternative verse says “With Christ our head and cornerstone, we’ll build our nation’s might”.

The version of the anthem is sung every fortnight at Thornlie Christian College and Christian Schools Australia WA executive officer Ray Dallin confirmed that it was regularly sung at other school assemblies and churches.

Original verses from 1879 in the National Library of Australia music collection do not include the Christian verse.

A spokeswoman from the office of Prime Minister Julia Gillard said that under national protocols, the anthem should not be modified and alternative words should not be used. The two authorised verses were proclaimed in 1984.

This story has been front-page news in Perth, but I’m actually having trouble getting worked up over it. For one thing, I’ve never been big on national fervour, anthems, or the like, so I don’t feel personally affronted that someone has altered it. It’s more annoying than sacrilegious. For another, this is happening in private religious schools, which is bad, but at least I’m not paying (as much) for it.

About the worst thing is that, just like in America, Christians are trying to re-write history, claiming that the original version was intended to be more Jesus-y. This kind of revisionism is SOP for that mob.

h/t to Calico in comments

Education in reverse

Aren’t you glad you’re not a kid going to a private Christian school in Perth, Australia? Because if you were, you’d have assignments like this:

Gay sex ‘sickest of sins’

CHILDREN have been asked whether homosexuality is “the sickest sin” in a school assignment.

The homework given to 14 and 15-year-olds at Armadale Christian College, also also points them to bible quotes describing homosexuality as an “abomination”, and describes “coming out of the closet” as “open sinning”.

Way to go, Christians. Imagine you’re 15, trying to figure out what your sexuality is, and you get handed that as homework. High school students are already cruel enough about ferreting out the gay kids in their midst, without the teachers piling on.

Another question asked what God said about homosexuality and pointed to Bible quotes for the answer, which called it an “abomination”.

The assignment also stated that homosexuality was a “compromise for the need to be loved and accepted”, resulting for many from “low self-esteem (and) gender emptiness”.

Also on the assignment was: “Many people say that homosexuality is an inborn trait. Is a person born greedy, jealous, malicious, gossiper, slanderer, thief, child abuser, serial killer?”

Because being gay is just like all those other things.

I managed to procure a copy of the actual assignment (PDF), and yeah, it’s pretty much the standard anti-gay stuff that gives Christians a hate-on, plus Bible scriptures.

“Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites…” (1 Corinthians 6:9)

Preliminary Thoughts

1) What is homosexuality?

2) Is homosexuality a new practice? Why do we hear so much about it now?

3) What are some reasons people give to justify homosexual practices?

4) Why are some people tempted with homosexual feelings and others are not?

5) Are feeling and temptations wrong, or do they become wrong when we do something about them (James 1:12–15)?

6) Is there a limit to the power of any temptation (1 Corinthians 10:13)?

7) The subject of homosexuality is confusing because everyone calls it something different.
• Is homosexuality a physical or genetic disease?
• Is homosexuality “the sickest sin there is?
• Is homosexuality “natural” for some people, being an inborn trait (Romans 1:26–27)?
• Is homosexuality a legitimate “alternative lifestyle” (Genesis 2:24; Hebrews 13:4)?

8) Most people seem to have no idea how homosexuality can be a temptation to anyone. Therefore we are not very helpful to a person who is struggling with the temptation (cf. Galatians 6:1–2; Jude 22–23). Maybe that can change if we understand a few general things about homosexuality.
• God makes every person unique (Psalm 139:13–16; 1 Corinthains 12:12–27). He may be different, but God does not make him “gay” (James 1:13).
• Homosexuality generally has little to do with sex. The sexual involvement with another person of the same sex, is a compromise for the need to be loved and accepted.
• Some inborn factors may contribute to the development of homosexual attractions, but these are not sufficient to make a person homosexual (James 1:14–15; 1 Corinthians 10:13).
• Factors which lead to each person’s struggle with homosexual attraction are different, but certain stages are common to many—low self-esteem, gender emptiness, gender attraction, sexual attraction, homosexual reinforcement, homosexual identity.

What Does The Bible Say?
1) Is homosexuality a new practice (Genesis 19:1–29; Judges 19:1–28; 1 Kings 14:24; 15–12; 22:46; 2 Kings 23:7)” Is there anything new (Ecclesiastes 1:9–10)?
2) What did God say about homosexuality under the Law of Moses (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13)?
3) Many people say homosexuality is an inborn trait. Is a person born greedy, jealous, malicious, gossiper, slanderer, thief, child abuser, serial killer (Mark 7:20–23)? Why would people say that homosexuality is inborn?
4) Is homosexuality a “natural” practice (Romans 1:26–27)?
5) Is homosexuality against God’s law or sanctioned by it (1 Timothy 1:8–10)?
6) Homosexuals advocate “coming out of the closet” and being open with their lifestyle. What does the Bible say about such open sinning (Isaiah 3:9)?
7) Men try to lessen the severity of sin by softening its description. The Bible does not describe homosexuals/lesbians as “gay” or living an “alternative lifestyle“. How does the Bible describe such people?
• 1 Kings 14:24—
• 1 Corinthians 6:9—
• Colossians 3:5—
• Jude 7—

8) What two things does 1 Corinthians 6:9–11 teach us about homosexuality?

9) Those who oppose homosexuality are often called “homophobes” or “gay bashers“. Some people really are—but how would you desribe a caring, concerned Christian who wants to help a person overcome his struggle with homosexuality (1 Corinthians 13:4–7; James 5:19–20)?

Practical Solutions

1) Can a person who is engaged in homosexual practices remain in that condition? What much he/she do (Ephesians 5:1–14)?

2) Does God care about our struggle? What are some practical ways that God gives to overcome this temptation (1 Corinthians 10:13)?
• How did Jesus overcome temptation (Matthew 4:1–11)?
• Who can we turn to for help (Philippians 4:13; 1 John 4:4)?
• How must we respond to the devil’s temptation (James 4:7)?
• What activity helps us as much as anything (Philippians 4:6–7)?
• What do we need to try and master (Philippians 4:8; 2 Corinthians 10:5)?

3) After you rid yourself of this practice, what must you do to keep worse sins from returning (Luke 11:24–26)?

4) How is the church to respond to a practicing homosexual who repents (2 Corinthians 2:3–11)?

5) Do you have a closing thought?

Maybe some parents at ACC wouldn’t mind having this assignment plopped down on their child’s desk, but I suspect more than a couple would. And people in the wider community should definitely be concerned that high schoolers are being exposed to the hateful teachings of the Christian bible — subsidised by tax dollars, no less. Remember, this is happening not in the American South, but in good old secular Perth WA, today. It can happen here.

If you want to write your own answers for this assignment, give it a go in comments.

Naming rights

The issue of names and naming is interesting. Names are a rich source of cultural information. They tell us about our history, and our social networks.

In a recent Linguistics class, I brought up the topic of names with an exercise that you can do, if you like.

Try making a list of all the names you have. Don’t skip any. Think about nicknames, or alternate versions of your name that you’ve used. Could someone use more than one name for you? What does it mean if they pick one or the other?

Usually people find, as I did, that names tell about our history. No one calls me ‘Dan’ or ‘Danny’, unless they knew me when I went by those names. Internet names can tell about our interests — sometimes I’m ‘fontor’ or ‘GoodReason’. And a lot of names have to do with our social system; family titles like ‘Dad’, or a name that belonged to a relative that’s been handed down (as is the case with my actual ‘first name’, Thomas). There may even be names that people aren’t supposed to know. Maybe you don’t like your middle name, and you’d rather people don’t know it. Sometimes nicknames between intimates are kept private.

Sometimes names are conferred ritually, which brought me to the LDS temple name. I explained to the class that in my former religion, when someone is initiated into the temple rituals, they’re given a new name which is never to be revealed, except under very limited circumstances.

“But that doesn’t make any sense,” said one student. “What’s the point of having a name, when no one can use it?”

Why indeed?

I answered this way: Who gets to name a comet? Whoever discovered it. Who gets to name a person? The parents. In marriage, a man sometimes gives a woman part of his name, which reflects the social agreement of the time that she belonged to him. In other words, the act of naming is done by the one who has ownership (in some way) over the thing being named.

So the act of naming something isn’t just to create a way to refer to someone. By giving a new name to someone as part of a temple ritual, the church could be seen as asserting its ownership.

Access Ministries: “We need to go and make disciples”

The state of Victoria allows Christian group Access Ministries to have unfettered access (hence the name) to high schoolers. This allows them to evangelise what is essentially a captive audience.

And how does Access Ministries feel about this? They can’t believe their luck! Listen to the CEO crow about it:

”In Australia, we have a God-given open door to children and young people with the Gospel, our federal and state governments allow us to take the Christian faith into our schools and share it. We need to go and make disciples,” she told the Evangelical Fellowship in the Anglican Communion national conference in Melbourne. ”What really matters is seizing the God-given opportunity we have to reach kids in schools.”

Now can we agree that this is an evangelical conversion campaign that has no place in secular schools?

Maybe I shouldn’t get too worked up about it though. Danny Katz sees a silver lining to religious education.

Thank God Almighty! This is really good news: I heard the Victorian Education Department has started forcing public primary schools to host non-compulsory Christian education classes during school hours and all I can say is HALLELUJAH, PRAISE THE LORD. Because, as we all know, religious education is the ONLY way to turn our young children into decent, moral, compassionate, lifelong despisers of anything to do with religion.

Seems perfectly obvious to me: if you want to create an instant atheist, just add holy water. Everyone I know who is a committed non-believer had been saturated with religious education at an early age, either through school or Sunday school or youth groups – I’m telling you, it works.

UPDATE: There’s a Facebook group: Get Access Ministries out of our schools. Like it.

University retirement crisis somewhat overstated

Haven’t we heard this story before?

Ageing academics set university timebomb

UNIVERSITIES face a new crisis: up to 40 per cent of academics and lecturers are expected to retire over the next decade, with no one to replace them.

I remember reading stories like this ten years ago. You’d have thought everyone was going to retire by now, leaving lots of lovely jobs for all the up-and-coming grad students like me. Then, mysteriously, the old guard failed to retire, or if they did retire, the university decided not to keep their position going. Or they came back to teach part-time because they liked it so much. Apparently only 41 percent of American academics plan to retire at 65. (No stats for Australia, sorry.)

And no one to replace them? I wouldn’t worry. Even if everyone retired tomorrow, there’d still be a huge backlog of postdocs and postgrads to do the teaching, since many departments haven’t been good at discouraging students from doing PhDs. Ironically, the less discriminating and the less responsible they are about this, the more postgrads they have to do the teaching. Postgrads are cheaper, too, so it’s a win for everyone except for PhDs who are trying to get on permanently. (I say this as one of the lucky postgrads, getting to teach like I have.)

Let’s do the math. Say every professor supervises — what — 30 PhD students over their career? How many will get that professor’s job when he or she retires? One. Or maybe none, if universities keep downsizing. Which means that more and more qualified academics are chasing fewer and fewer jobs. There’s your real timebomb. The collapse of the academic talent pool when everyone realises that going for a PhD won’t lead to an university job.

Working with the rough kids

This week, I took part in a program called ‘Race Around Campus’. It’s an outreach program that UWA puts on to give high schoolers a taste of what they’d be doing at university. I gave the same 20-minute mini-class over and over again for about 18 different school groups.

I got to see the contrast between different groups. Some were great. One group came into the lecture room, and they actually waited at their chairs until I realised what they were waiting for, and I said, “Please take a seat.” Which they did. But these groups weren’t just well-behaved; they were really switched on, they took an interest in the linguistics problems I was presenting, and they grasped them quite readily. Maybe they needed a little ‘entertainment’ in the teaching to keep them interested, but when they got it, they responded.

Other groups were from underpriviledged schools. Some had a teacher/student ratio of about 1 to 4. These groups had real control issues. While some groups were inattentive, some were potentially dangerous. One student started trying to punch a hole in his water bottle with his pen, and ended up injuring himself right there in class. (That was in the first ten minutes.) They had a hard time staying on task. They cracked private jokes at my expense. They talked incessantly, despite the best efforts of their teachers. It was rather dispiriting to be using my best presenting skills, and not magically captivate their interest like I normally do, but eventually I shifted my focus to simply holding their attention, and failing that, maintaining order and getting through the twenty minutes.

I had to reflect about the difference between the ‘good’ groups and the ‘more difficult’ groups. The kids in the good groups were responsive, smart, and able to take an interest in problems and solve them. The kids in the tough groups couldn’t do any of that. They probably weren’t dumb — they just didn’t see the need or take the interest. And why would they? I was presenting material that was utterly remote from their experience. They were never going to do linguistics, and they might not ever see the inside of a university building again. It wasn’t part of any framework they were used to, or one that they had ever succeeded in. It felt like my job was to attract the students that were interested, and let all the rest filter through. Which was the most I could do in twenty minutes.

I felt bad for the kids from the rough schools, and I felt worse for their teachers. But the ones I felt worst about were the students who were actually quite bright, and clearly capable of doing the work, but they were being forced to go to school every day with some unpredictable and rather frightening kids. It reminded me of everything I hated about being that age.

Call for compulsory teaching of evolution in the UK

Should the teaching of evolution be compulsory, even in primary schools? OH HELLS YES.

Richard Dawkins among academics calling for compulsory evolution teaching at primary school

Evolution should be taught to all primary school pupils, according to leading scientists and academics.

Experts including three Nobel laureates and Richard Dawkins, the prominent atheist, are calling on the new Government to make teaching of the theory a compulsory part of the curriculum.

They say it is necessary because of the increasing number of schools that do not have to follow the curriculum, and because of the “threat” posed by the religious concept of creationism.

They wrote: “Evolution is the most important idea underlying biological science. It is a key concept that children should be introduced to at an early stage.

“Whatever curriculum reforms are made, we urge that there is teaching of evolution for all school-age children, and especially in the primary curriculum.”

Evolution is the foundation of biology, and it’s as well-supported as a theory gets. Everyone should know this stuff to be considered an educated person. It should be regarded as just as essential and mandatory as maths or writing.

We need this kind of move just to move things back in the right direction. Creationists have been engaged in a protracted struggle to get their ignorance illegally enshrined in school curricula for decades, so this is a nice bit of pushback.

Would the know-nothing religious right scream that the government is forcing evolution down everyone’s throat, and outlawing the teaching of alternative Bible-based points of view?

Of course they would. But that’s what they’ve already been saying for years, so who would notice?

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