Friday, October 22, 2004

Vive La France!

France Turns to Tough Policy on Students' Religious Garb

By Elaine Sciolino

From the New York Times

PARIS, Oct. 21 - To enforce its new law banning religious symbols from public schools, the Ministry of National Education has decided to get tough.

This week it held formal disciplinary hearings and began expelling students who violated the law. The goal was to get rid of those defined as hopeless cases before the 10-day All Saints school vacation that ends with a national holiday honoring all of Catholicism's saints.

The French government sees no contradiction or irony here.

Nine female Muslim students who have refused to remove their Islamic head coverings have been thrown out of schools across France. After the All Saints break, dozens of cases that are pending will be reviewed.

"The phase of dialogue and consultation is over," said an official at the ministry, who refused to allow her name to be used. "It was an unbearable situation for the teachers and the pupils. It was a crazy situation. The law has to be respected at some point."

Since school started a month ago, students who have refused to remove what school administrators define as conspicuous religious symbols have been quarantined in study halls or libraries and not allowed to attend class.

The banned symbols include anything that can be construed as an Islamic veil (head scarf, bandanna, beret), a Jewish skullcap, a large Christian cross and a Sikh turban.

Officially the law is aimed at enforcing France's republican ideal of secularism. Unofficially it is aimed at stopping female Muslim public school students from swathing themselves in scarves or even long veils.

There have been odd, unintended consequences.

Despite the 1905 law separating church and state in France, public schools have been allowed to keep chaplains, most of them Catechism-teaching and Catholic, on their staffs as long as they were not paid by the state. In 1960 a law set up a formal process to create new chaplain posts and allowed existing ones to continue.

But this fall some teachers at the Dumont d'Urville high school in the southern city of Toulon objected to what they said was a double standard: Muslim girls had to doff their scarves, but the Rev. Antoine Galand, the school's Catholic chaplain, could wear his priestly garb.

So Father Galand was barred from the school and may return only if he removes his collar and cassock and dons a business suit.

"We regret this interpretation of secularism, because it's not what the law says," said the Rev. Charles Mallard, the priest responsible for youth instruction in the Catholic Diocese of Toulon. "But it's not worth fighting over an article of clothing, knowing that in Catholicism, 'the cowl doesn't make the monk.' "

He added that even in secular France it was considered "normal" to have Catholic chaplains in public schools.

Cennet Doganay, a 15-year-old Muslim of Turkish origin from Strasbourg, showed up on the first day of school in a large beret. The school administrator told her that the beret was a religious symbol, refused to admit her to class and advised her to take a correspondence course from home, Ms.Doganay said.

She refused. She asked her parents to help her shave off her hair, returned to school in the beret and when she was required to remove it, she revealed her bald head in protest. Since there is nothing particularly religious about baldness, she is going to school again.

"They drove me crazy and tried to brainwash me so much that I got fed up and I did it - I shaved my hair off," she said. "Now I feel alone; I feel like a monster. It's like being naked on the street."

France's Sikh community, meanwhile, challenged the new law in court after the Louise-Michel school in the Parisian suburb of Bobigny barred three male Sikh students from classes because they were wearing turbans.

The three boys were at first put into a separate room where they could not attend class and then banished from school without having the chance to defend their case at a formal school hearing, Antoine Beauquier, one of the boys' lawyers, said.

"For the moment we are in this no man's land of no law," Mr. Beauquier said. "These three kids, who are good students with no problems, have had no access to classes. The effects are terrible."

Confusing matters, he added, some Sikh boys in other schools have been allowed to attend school wearing a hairnet or a small piece of fabric on their heads.

In a letter to President Jacques Chirac nearly a year ago, the Sikh community argued that the turban should be allowed because it is a cultural, not a religious, symbol.

Under the new law, expelled students have the right to appeal to their local school boards. If they are under 16, the legal age for quitting school, they have a stark choice: they must be schooled at home or by correspondence or find a private school. France has only one Muslim high school.

In an interview with France Inter radio on Tuesday, Education Minister François Fillon said he was pleased with the way things were going. He said that at the start of the school year there were 600 cases of students refusing to remove their religious symbols - most of them Muslim girls in scarves - but that most had agreed to do so after a "dialogue."

A number of opponents of the law criticize the "dialogue" process as nothing more than pressure to break the will of students. "It's a machine that destroys the individual in the name of a fundamentalist secularism," said Dr. Thomas Milcent, a Strasbourg physician and convert to Islam who heads a Muslim lobbying group. "Some girls have been treated with cruelty, kept in isolation for days. This is extremism."

Hélène Fouquet and Ariane Bernard contributed reporting for this article.

An Open Letter

“There's no reason to bring religion into it. I think we ought to have as great a regard for religion as we can, so as to keep it out of as many things as possible.”

- Seán O'Casey
- The Plough and the Stars

Dear Friends,

Are you among a growing number of citizens who are increasingly wary of the alarming interference of religious fanatics in our political system? Do you find it more than a little troubling that in this day and age a political candidate must openly declare his religious beliefs (or lack thereof) in order to be elected to any office? Would you be willing to vote for a man or woman who prefers rationalism, science and inquiry as opposed to having their life ruled by the fairy tales of psychotic desert nomads from thousands of years ago?

Many Republican voters say that there is a crusade at stake here, that President Bush's absolutist positions reveal the moral and – some would say – Christian heart of our nation. Many Democrats, on the other hand, see something just as important at risk: the Enlightenment idea that human reason and rational debate are the source of political truth, a notion championed by deists like Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin as the sine qua non of American democracy.

And speaking of our founding fathers and the constitution; does it not strike you as a little strange that a document, purported by the Bible-thumping pseudo-patriots to be “divinely” inspired, gives the Almighty such short shrift by not mentioning Him once!

The Thomas Aikenhead Society is for readers and writers who cherish a secular and tolerant society; for whom the appellation skeptic, agnostic and atheist is a source of pride rather than that of disdain.

Barney F. McClelland

If you would like to contribute interesting links, articles, or original essays, stories, and poetry to the The Thomas Aikenhead Society please submit them to:

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Quote of the Day

"Fear of power invisible, feigned by the mind or imagined from tales publicly allowed, [is] religion; not allowed, superstition. "

- Thomas Hobbes

Leviathan: The Matter, Form, and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiastical and Civil (1651), quoted from Jonathon Green, The Cassell Dictionary of Cynical Quotations

U.S. Bishops Back the Forces of Reaction

As if this was a surprise. It seems a group of the Pedophile Protecting Prelates of America (otherwise known as Catholic Bishops) have decided take up the cause with the fundamentalist protestant wingnuts in their effort to have George II installed again in the White House.

The august vicars of Rome have joined forces with the U.S. Christian Coalition, (or as I like to refer to them, “The Cousin-lovin’ Crackers for Christ”) in a mean-spirited ecumenicist fervor and have decided to use the old eternal damnation tactic on U.S. Catholics who vote for the rational and secular leaning John Kerry. What upsets their Excellencies so? Kerry, a Catholic, has had the temerity to suggest that since not all of his countrymen share his religious viewpoint, they should be allowed to have the freedom to choose in the matter of abortions.

Kerry also openly admits to preferring science and inquiry over superstitious mumbo-jumbo by supporting stem cell research. While Kerry opposes gay marriage, he does support the idea of “civil unions” which would allow those who subscribe to a same-sex preference to enjoy many of the benefits we “normal” folks do.

It is these three issues the good bishops want to make the focus of the upcoming election. For Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, the highest-ranking Roman Catholic prelate in Colorado, there is only one way for a faithful Catholic to vote in this presidential election, for President Bush and against Senator John Kerry. Archbishop Raymond L. Burke of St. Louis also issued just such a statement. Bishop Michael J. Sheridan of Colorado Springs and Archbishop John J. Myers of Newark have both recently declared that the obligation to oppose abortion outweighs any other issue.

The implication is simple: vote for Kerry and you commit a sin.

While most people associate this sort of political meddling with crackpots like Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell, Catholic bishops have had a long history of supporting despicable reactionary regimes in the past. Look at Franco’s Spain.

Our founding fathers desperately wanted to keep religion out of our political system and for good reason – religion, of any kind, is a corrupting influence.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Thomas Aikenhead (c.1676-1697)

Thomas was the son of James Aikenhead, an Edinburgh surgeon-apothecary, and Helen Ramsey. Nothing is known of his upbringing, except that by age 10 he was an orphan. At age 17, in 1693, he matriculated at Edinburgh University. By then the University library held books by Descartes, Spinoza, Thomas Hobbes and other so-called atheists. While Thomas was a student, Toland’s Christianity Not Mysterious was added to the collection, as was Michael Servetus' Christianisimi Restitutio. In 1696 the Scottish Privy Council ordered a search for books deemed "atheistical, erroneous or profane or vicious" in the stock of Edinburgh booksellers.

Aikenhead had talked about his reading with friends. After John Frazer was imprisoned and sacklothed for reading deist literature, one of them, possibly Mungo Craig, informed on him. In the autumn of 1696 Thomas was arrested and remitted to the Tolbooth Prison "to be tryed for his life" for blasphemy. He mouldered there until December 23, when he crossed Parliament Square to the High Court to be charged under both of Scotland's Blasphemy Acts, one enacted before and one after the Revolution of 1689.

The 1661 Act ordained death for anyone "not being distracted in his wits" who shall "rail upon or curse or deny God, and obstinately continue therein." The 1695 Act confirmed the earlier act but graduated its penalties: first offence, imprisonment and sackcloth; second offence, imprisonment, sackcloth, and a fine; third offence, death.

The charges were that for more than twelve months Aikenhead had blasphemed against God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Scriptures, and all revealed religion. Five student 'friends' appeared as prosecution witnesses. Aikenhead was accused of having said that theology was "a rhapsody of feigned and ill-invented nonsense" and made up of "poetical fictions and extravagant chimeras". It was reported that he had called the Old Testament "Ezra's Fables" and the New Testament "the History of the impostor Christ who learned magic in Egypt and picked up a few ignorant blockish fisher fellows". The 'friends' told the court that Aikenhead rejected the Trinity as "not worth any man's refutation", scoffed at the incarnation as contradictory, professed pantheism, and denied creation. They further reported that he had declared that he preferred Mohammed to Jesus and hoped to see Christianity soon extirpated. Finally, he was accused of having wished, when cold, to warm in Hell.

No defence was recorded, but the prisoner did have defence counsel. On December 24, the next day, came the verdict: "that. . . Thomas Aikenhead has railed against the first person, and also cursed and railed our blessed Lord and second person of the holy Trinity, and further finds the other crimes libelled proven, viz. The denying of the incarnation of our Saviour, the Holy Trinity, and scoffing at the Holy Scriptures." He was sentenced to be hanged on the 8th of January.

Aikenhead petitioned the Privy Council to consider his "deplorable circumstances and tender years." Also, he had forgotten to mention that he was also a first time offender. Two ministers and two Privy Councillors pleaded on his behalf, but to no avail. On January 7, after another petition, the Privy Council ruled that they would not grant a reprieve unless the church interceded for him. The Church of Scotland’s General Assembly, sitting in Edinburgh at the time, urged "vigorous execution" to curb "the abounding of impiety and profanity in this land". Thus Aikenhead’s sentence was confirmed.

On the morning of January 8, 1697, Thomas wrote to his 'friends' that "it is a principle innate and co-natural to every man to have an insatiable inclination to the truth, and to seek for it as for hid treasure. . . So I proceeded until the more I thought thereon, the further I was from finding the verity I desired. . ." Aikenhead may have read this letter outside the Tolbooth, before making the long walk, under guard, to the gallows. He was said to have died Bible in hand, "with all the Marks of a true Penitent".

Aikenhead’s story has been told many times. Thomas Macaulay mistold it to illustrate the dictatorial powers of Scottish clergy. He wrote that "the preachers who were the poor boy's murderers crowded round him at the gallows, and. . . insulted heaven with prayers more blasphemous than anything he had uttered." More recently, George Rosie wrote in the newspaper The Scotsman, "The killing of Thomas Aikenhead, like the hounding of Salman Rushdie for the same ‘offence,’ was a disgrace. . . a prime example of a God-fixated state killing a man in an attempt to stop the spread of an idea."

Archival information on Aikenhead can be found at the Scottish Record Office. T. B. Howell et al., eds., A Complete Collection of State Trials (1809-28), vol. 13 contains an account of the trial. Modern studies include Michael Hunter, "'Aikenhead the Atheist': the Context and Consequences of Articulate Irreligion in the Late Seventeenth Century", in Michael Hunter and David Wootin, eds., Atheism from the Reformation to the Enlightenment (1992) and Andrew Hill, "Heresy and Freedom of Speech during the 300 Years since the Hanging of Thomas Aikenhead" (unpublished lecture given at the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 1998).

Article by Andrew Hill