Sunday 23 September 2012

The Demise of Sensible Conversation

A Post by Dr John Quinn

Photo Courtesy Q&A
One of the more disturbing trends in the current Australian public discourse is the reliance on second hand information in the formation of closely held views.  As I watched Monday night’s Q&A program on ABC Television the problem was most obviously manifest in the discussion of the “Innocence of Muslims”, the Youtube video which has sparked riots all across the world, including one here in Sydney.  Panelist after panelist condemned both video and rioter alike, describing the video as hateful and insulting, the handiwork of a “nutter”. There is, however, another common feature in every panelist’s response, as is evident in the transcript excerpts below. 
GREG SHERIDAN: Well, look, I haven't seen the film but everything I hear about is it sounds like his objective was to incite hatred.
CLOVER MOORE: Well, I haven't seen the film either and I know that Hillary Clinton came out very early and condemned it as being very insulting and appalling.
ROBYN DAVIDSON: I haven't seen it either but from what everyone says, you know... Look, I think he’s a nutter.
Panelist after panelist confessed to not having personally viewed the video. Instead, they sought to rely on the observations and reflections of others.  In some cases this might be perfectly legitimate and reasonable, but the question then immediately arises as to whether those secondary sources are reliable. Had the secondary sources seen the video themselves and, if they had, was their interpretation accurate and their reaction fair? To be frank, I haven’t seen the “Innocence of Muslims”, and nor am I intending to.  But I am not putting my second, third or possibly fourth-hand view about it on national television, either. Although the Q&A discussion of the “Innocence of Muslims” makes for a colourful example, this reliance on hearsay is by no means peculiar to controversial Youtube videos. It might equally be applied to the discussion of history, science, politics or religion.  Later in the same program, on the topic of Israel:

GREG SHERIDAN: I comprehensively reject Ilan's narrative of Israel. I think it’s wrong in every respect. I haven't had time to read all Ilan's books. 

Here we see the same problem – Mr Sheridan has “comprehensively” rejected historian Ilan Pappe’s narrative of Israel as “wrong in every respect”. The language could not be more definitive.  Even so, Greg’s conclusion must have been reached at least partially on the basis of secondary information, as by his own admission he hasn’t read all of Ilan Pappe’s writings.

The same issue comes up recurrently in the climate science discussion, where second and third hand interpretations of science are constantly espoused by commentators and politicians with unwavering conviction. For people without any scientific training it is seemingly impossible to spot the fact from the fiction.  The public are left baffled, unable to determine whether climate change is a problem warranting immediate action or an enormous hoax that means we should never trust a scientist again. It is frustrating enough to see opinions given about topics in history, science and culture on the basis of flimsy or completely absent research.

Photo courtesy of ABC

As a Christian, though, it is especially troubling to see the way in which public figures approach the Scriptures.  One week prior to the discussion of the “Innocence of Muslims”, the same program featured Anglican Archbishop of Sydney Peter Jensen and Melbourne comedian and atheist Catherine Deveny, among others discussing the position of the church on marriage (here). One question covered the interesting issue of whether there was anything that would convince Catherine to give up on atheism and become some sort of believer. In her answer, Catherine Deveny took strong issue with the text of the Bible.

CATHERINE DEVENY: “I mean one of the things that I always think about is like if God exists why doesn't he show himself? But when you actually look at the Bible, which is - that's the only text that I’m - like, religious text that I'm really familiar with, it is basically social engineering embedded in fairytales and horror stories which is just chock full of homophobia, misogyny, discrimination and division and most people haven’t even read it. It has been written by 44 - you know, 60 people, I think, 44 chapters, you know, three different languages over thousands of years, thousands of different interpretations and despite all of those different interpretations, the only thing they can all agree on is homophobia, misogyny, discrimination and division." 

So which is it – 44 or 60 authors? And how many “chapters”? Catherine Deveny’s answer seems to betray the extent of her real familiarity with the Bible. And to assert that “it is basically social engineering embedded in fairytales and horror stories which is just chock full of homophobia, misogyny, discrimination and division” seems to be a fairly crass characterization of the content of the Bible. I won’t deny that there probably are a good many different interpretations of parts of the Bible, and that regrettably some people have used the Bible to justify all manner of terrible practices.  However,the main thing that “they can all agree on” is probably more that Jesus, God’s only Son came as part of God’s perfect plan to rescue the world from sin. Of course, I wouldn’t expect to see or hear that on Q&A: the first rule of modern media commentary is to never let the facts stand in the way of a good diatribe.

Monday 10 September 2012

Living and Dying Ethically

Photo courtesy of wiki commons
Frequently there are news items that challenge me and bring up various questions. It was little wonder therefore, that this weeks news regarding the expansion in distribution in the RU486 tablet ( which is prescribed to terminate early stage pregnancies) gave me pause for thought (SMH and Australian).

The debate surrounding the use of this medication, is a sensitive one, and has been bubbling away since around 2006 when the drug was first given a very limited release  in Australia. The 'Therapeutic Goods Administration' (TGA) recently decided to allow a wider use of the drug. This will no doubt see the discussion heat up again. This post will not cover the issue of abortion directly, I write though, as I have found a recent read through of  Case #17 entitled  "Living And Dying Ethically" quite timely as I think through many of the issues that arise from these recent news articles.

All the articles of  Case #17 were useful in light of  the current debate, and well worth a read. Megan Best's article entitled "Embryo Liberation" is very insightful. While it isn't about abortion, it examines the ethics surrounding the use of embryos for research, (after they have been discarded as potential IVF embryos). The article investigates the question of when life begins, exploring first the basic biology of conception. Best concludes that fertilization,

"… is a critical landmark because, under ordinary circumstances, a new, genetically distinct human organism is formed when the chromosomes of the male and female pronuclei blend in the oocyte (egg). The embryo, from the time it is created, is a unified, unique, dynamic, self directed whole, not just a collection of cells."

Megan Best explains that secular views concerning the issues surrounding the embryo debate come down to a matter of person-hood. She contends that human personhood is not merely a matter of biological conception. Secularists see personhood as demonstrated through such things as self awareness, a rational nature and the ability to exercise this nature. The question of personhood is also overridden by many in the debate, as they consider consequentialism (ie in short, the end justifies the means approach).

Our community has decided that, while the destruction of developing humans may been seen to be regrettable, the potential consequences of their destruction—medical cures through embryonic stem cell research, improved IVF, freedom to women through availability of some contraceptives and abortion—justify the use.

Finally Dr Best concludes her thesis with an investigation  into the biblical view surrounding the debate. In essence she states there is is no doubt that the Bible indicates that we have a relationship with God that originates in the womb, supporting her conclusion with various biblical references.

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place.When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. (Psalm 139:13-16)

As stated in the introduction of this post, the issues involved in the RU486 debate are challenging, emotive, and understandably we often wish to avoid the discussion altogether. However I would recommend a re-reading of Dr Megan Best's excellent article, as it clearly defines many of the views and history of the issues surrounding the debate. Increasing our understanding of all the relevant information and becoming more familar with all the facets of the discussion, will ensure we may better be informed, and be able to constructively contribute to future conversations regarding this most difficult topic.

The main article I reference in this post is available as free download from the CASE Website. CASE Associates receive Case magazine 4 times per year as part of their benefits. For blog followers who are yet to be CASE Associates you can sign up HERE or order a single copy HERE.

Edwina Hine (New College and CASE)

Monday 3 September 2012

The Difficulty of Marriage Equality

A Post by Dr John Quinn

Photo Courtesy of Free-extras
One of the hot button issues in the current federal parliament is the issue of marriage equality, or the right of people of the same sex to enter into marriage relationships. Much of the debate and discussion on this issue has focused on the ‘traditional’ definition of marriage, and the extent to which that can be altered.  Proponents of marriage equality are adamant that marriage has a legal definition and as such can be changed on the say-so of the Parliament.  Others contend that marriage is a historical and traditional institution, with a meaning fixed-in-time and thereby unalterable.  In one of the more colourful contributions to the debate, Nationals Senate leader Barnaby Joyce said on Meet the Press in August last year “it is like saying, ‘I have a four-wheel bicycle.’ It is fine if it has four wheels but it’s just not a bicycle”[i].

St Andrews Cathedral. 
Photo courtesy Weddings NSW
It goes without saying that marriage equality poses some difficulties for evangelical Christians, and it is heartening to see Christian leaders such as Archbishop Peter Jensen making serious and thoughtful contributions to the debate.[ii]  That said, the debate also raises deep questions about the nature of lawmaking and the reach of government power that, to a large extent, have not been scrutinized. A significant number of Parliamentarians and advocates for marriage equality are utterly convinced that it is within the remit of the government to examine the definition of marriage, and to re-write it.  Even some of those defending a traditional view of marriage are engaging in the debate in such a way that recognizes the parliament’s authority on the issue.  If we accept that the parliament has the power to define marriage, we might justifiably ask what its next intrusion into the social fabric might be.

Until the Marriage Act of 1753, there was no statutory requirement to register a marriage relationship and the government had little authority over the process of getting married.  That Act introduced a requirement for the marriage to be conducted before a priest of the Church of England, with exceptions for Jews and Quakers. So began the process of government intervention in questions of marriage that continues to this day. With the passage of time the statute has continued to evolve, introducing celebrants and various restrictions over who can and can’t marry. Common law marriage, which the statute effectively replaced, has been slowly disappearing from most jurisdictions.

Photo courtesy Wiki commons
Many of those arguing strenuously for marriage equality are also those who would argue that religious organizations or religious thought have no part in public life, in spite of the significant historical role that churches have played in the institution of marriage.  For these proponents, the “separation of church and state” has been become a useful catchphrase in sidelining Christian thought from public discussion.  On the other hand, the same proponents do not seem to hesitate at the prospect of the state legislating in areas of personal morality or personal religious conviction, even in area like marriage where the government’s role has been, in the greater scheme of things, a relatively recent addition. 

As Christian people we ought to recognize the authority of government and seek to live quietly in submission to ruling authorities: such is clear from Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17.  At the same time, the book of Revelation encourages a healthy concern about what over-reaching authorities might do, and the difficulties that might bring upon Christian people. As Christian people we ought to be attentive to the debate about marriage equality, not only because of the Christian view of that institution, but also because of what it says about the government’s perception of its own authority.

Dr John Quinn is Dean of Residents at the New College Village