Are you religious? Are you really?

First Humanist Society of New York

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The Problem

I don’t just follow commands from an institution that thinks it is better than me, the church (or should that be the British Humanist Association?)

– ‘jfe261’

And I want the British Humanist Association to stop telling me how to fill out my census form.

– ‘Benulek’

I think the BHA needs to be more realistic about the situation: you can’t tell people what constitutes “true” faith or observance.

– Porthos

All of the above quotes are from an article on the Guardian website about the British Humanist Association’s (BHA) latest plea – that lapsed religious folk and non-believers actually tick the most appropriate box on the 2011 census form: no religion.  Some people, however, seem to take this as an affront on all religious folk and people of faith.

What’s Going On?

The BHA aren’t asking people to lie on their census, or to convert to atheism for the sake of the census.  Instead, they want people to be honest about their religious status because it is important to how the country is run and, on a more personal level, how children are educated.

Faith schools in the UK constitute a large proportion of primary and secondary schools.  Many are publicly funded and yet are able to discriminate against children based on their supposed religion or the religion of their parents.  Since there are numerous areas in the UK where school choice is prohibitive or non-existent, many parents lie about their religious status in order to get their child into the school of their choice.

Just to emphasise that point: the UK government supports and subsidises with public money the discrimination of children based on their religion.

Why Don’t They Stop It?

Plainly, the government believes it has a lot of support from the general public.  In the 2001 census 37.3m people put Christianity, or a Christian denomination, as their religion.  By extrapolation this equates to half the population.  Even without the figures for other religions it would seem that there are a lot of religious people living in the UK.  However, church attendance figures tell a different story.

In 2008, the average weekly attendance figures to church show that approximately only 1.145 million people attended church.  Assuming the number of Christians (as reported on the census) stayed steady, this means that in 2008 only 3.07% of Christians went to church.  It simply does not follow to suggest that there truly are 37.3m Christians in the UK when so few of them go to church.

Affront On Religion?

What the above criticisms seem to be suggesting is that the BHA is attacking religion through the census forms or that they are trying to tell Christians how to observe their faith.  This does not seem to be a fair characterisation.

What the BHA are trying to do is to get people to “fess up” and state whether or not they are religious.  “Religiousness” has not been defined in their press release, so we’ll have to try and work out what they mean.

Being religious means observing the rites of a particular religion and imbuing yourself with them.  To use it in a sentence, we may frequently hear people saying “I’m not a religious person but I believe in God.”  There, in that sentence, is a separation between faith (here defined as believing in a God) and religion (following a specific order, reading scripture etc).

What The BHA Is Really About

The BHA wants people to make that separation.  They want people to be honest with themselves.  People should ask themselves “am I a religious person?” and “do I observe the practices of a particular religion?”  Sure, you may have been baptised or raised in a religious household but what about now?  Do you go to church?  Do you read the bible?  Do you say prayers?  The BHA does not think it unfair to ask these questions of people when they should be asking them about themselves.

The criticisms have said things like “don’t tell me how to practice my religion” and the like.  Well, if you feel that strongly about it then you probably are a religious person.  Religion in some people is deeply entrenched and when someone questions your religion you see that as them questioning you.  If that’s the case then you should probably write “Christianity”.

But to those who don’t go to church, read the bible or pray – you need to ask yourself whether you really consider yourself religious.  Sure, you might have faith – you might even believe in the Christian God.  But are you religious?

The government judges its position on faith schools partly on the public’s opinion.  If it sees that 37.3m are in favour of state funded faith schools then it’ll press ahead.  If it sees those numbers dipping, like the church attendance ones are, then it may change its position.  People have a once-in-a-decade opportunity to make their true position heard and they should take it.

Conclusion

Whenever people question the role of religion in our society we must try and steer away from knee-jerk hyperbole.  We must be calm and listen to what they say.  If, afterwards, you think they are wrong then fine.  But if you walk away or stand there with deaf hears, choosing only to react to what you think they are saying then your actions may have unfortunate consequences.

The institutionalised discrimination may continue in our schools.  Throughout the country children and teenagers may not be able to go to the school that they want.  Parents everywhere may end up lying, simply to accommodate their children.  Children may become indoctrinated in a religion that they never truly believe but must follow simply because they have no other alternative.

Personally, I don’t agree with organised religion and I especially don’t agree with faith schools, whether they are publicly or privately funded.  We are fortunate to have such liberal rights in our country where parents are free to bring up their children in a way that they see fit, where a government-endorsed religion isn’t forced upon them.  I don’t agree with thrusting a religion on a child but I agree with the human right that allows it.  However, we simply cannot allow the indoctrination of children to be state-funded, and part of the fight against that starts with adults being honest about their religious beliefs in next year’s census.

This campaign isn’t an affront on religion, it’s an affront on dishonesty and its awful effects.

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Glee’s GQ photo shoot “betrays the spirit of the show”

The title card for the musical comedy series G...

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Apparently 24-year olds posing as sultry school girls is an abomination.  Really?

Smells Like Teen Spirit

There has been a furore recently over a recent photoshoot where actors who play teenagers on TV show Glee have posed provocatively for GQ magazine.  Let’s see how the situation has been described.

The images, by photographer Terry Richardson, are overtly, cheesily sexy. Website Jezebel summed it up with the headline: Terry Richardson Makes Glee All Porny and they have a point. The pictures are also amazingly sexist. Monteith, who plays Finn, is wearing approximately 10 times more clothing than both of the women, who are draped over him like fancy accessories.

Source: Guardian.co.uk, “Glee’s GQ photo shoot betrays the spirit of the show“, 22nd October 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk/tv-and-radio/tvandradioblog/2010/oct/22/glee-gq-photo-shoot

And:

Among PTC’s complaints, it says the photo shoot “borders on pedophilia.”

“Many children who flocked to ‘High School Musical’ have grown into ‘Glee’ fans,” PTC President Tim Winter bemoaned in his organization’s missive. “They are now being treated to seductive, in-your-face poses of the underwear-clad female characters posing in front of school lockers, one of them opting for a full-frontal crotch shot. By authorizing this kind of near-pornographic display, the creators of the program have established their intentions on the show’s direction. And it isn’t good for families.”

Source: Washington Post, “After ‘Glee’ GQ photos cause controversy, cast member responds“, 21st October 2010, http://voices.washingtonpost.com/tvblog/2010/10/after-glee-gq-photos-cause-con.html

I think we’ve captured succinctly what people’s problems are here:

1. The photos are overtly sexual.

2. The photos are sexist.

3. The photos “border on” paedophilia.

4. Children are going to be influenced by these photos.

5. The creators of the show have used this photoshoot to indicate the show’s direction.

Let’s examine these in turn, though I suspect there to be some overlap.

1. The Photos Are Overtly Sexual

Yes they are.  However, this is not surprising.  GQ is a “lad’s mag” – a publication targeted at men.  In fact, “GQ” stands for “Gentleman’s Quarterly” so it’s not surprising that it features things that men want to see. 

2. The Photos Are Sexist

I’m tempted to write “see above.”  Mathilda Gregory, in the Guardian piece cited above, argues this and again it’s true.  She complains that Finn is wearing “10 times more clothing” than his female counterparts.  Remembering what we learnt in the previous section, about this being a lad’s mag, it’s conceivable that the majority of GQ’s readership are heterosexual men.  Heterosexual men typically don’t want to see scantily dressed men, which is why adverts that typically feature them, for, for instance, men’s fragrances and underwear, are actually aimed at women as they are the ones who would buy these products.

So what’s the problem?  Well it seems that she is surprised that there are scantily dressed women in a lad’s mag.  To everyone else, this is not surprising. 

3. The Photos Border On Paedophilia

This one surprises me the most.  But then again, maybe it doesn’t.  We’ve already had Amanda Bynes, famous for her days on Nickleodeon, stripping down for MaximMiley Cyrus has gotten herself into trouble for making racy videosDon’t forget Britney Spears’s photoshoot in Rolling Stone, all those years ago which you could hold up as the archetype for all these controversies.  Indeed you can find numerous articles where adult women have chosen to do ‘sexy’ poses for magazines.  How are they paedophilic?

Paedophilia is a condition where someone is attracted to children.  In this sense, the argument is that the photos that these women are posing are either are: a) paedophilic in themselves (i.e. depicting children in a sexual way) or b) encourage paedophilia (i.e. encourage people to find children attractive).  Is this true of the photos?

Definition (a) is obviously false.  The women posing in the Glee photoshoot are both over 18 years of age.  In fact, both Dianna Agron and Lea Michelle are 24.  24 year olds are not children, ergo this cannot be true.

Definition (b) is closer to being right than (a).  However, does it encourage paedophilia?  I highly doubt this.  However, it hasn’t stopped some rather odd reactions.  For instance, there was a story BoingBoing.net recently which stated that the Australian censor no longer allows young, small-breasted women to show their breasts in adult movies.  In fact, if you look hard enough on Google there are people who believe that almost anything can encourage paedophilia.  Here are some:

Shaving your pubic hair might encourage paedophilia.

Making padded bras in small sizes might encourage paedophilia.

Second Life might encourage paedophilia.

Paedophilia is a genuine concern, I don’t doubt that.  But the fight against it is not helped by some groups of people constantly trying to construe anything associated with youth and sexiness as ‘paedophilic’.  It’s like the hysteria The Daily Mail promotes with its endless articles on the things that cause cancer.

Enough is enough.  Unless it is blatant paedophilia or you have a study that links something to paedophilia you should just stay quiet.  Besides, have you watched Glee?  It’s not exactly something young children should be watching anyway.  The season 2 opener featured Britney Spears songs and videos, and not the cutesy-wutesy ones.

4. Children Are Going To Be Influenced By These Photos

You let your kids read GQ magazine?  What’s wrong with you?

I don’t remember the last time I heard about a GQ photoshoot other than this one and yet I have now, simply because some people have made public their disagreement with it.  Now it is all over the news everybody will be hearing about it, including your kids.  There’s a Radiohead song where there is a lyric, “you do it to yourself / just you and no-one else”.  Apt, it seems.

The problem that some people may have is not simply that this photoshoot happened but rather that there are 20-somethings playing the role of teenagers.  This kind of “age deflation”, as it were, is rife across TV and film.  Is it a bad thing?  Again, I don’t know I can’t see any studies that say either way.  But what it enables producers to do is guarantee that their actors know about the role they are playing, that they have the maturity to reflect on it and play it convincingly.  If people have a problem with the photoshoot then they should probably direct their anger at this industry standard.

5. The Creators Of The Show Have Used The Photoshoot To Indicate The Show’s Direction

Glee never has been clean-cut and free from sex.  Never.  As I mentioned earlier, the Britney Spears episode was anything other than sex-free.  Previous artists that have been used include Madonna and Lady Gaga, neither of which are vestal virgins.  Furthermore, I am unsure how these photoshoots are arranged but I’m pretty sure that the magazine usually retains creative control.  I find the idea that Glee’s producers called up GQ and said “we want you to take sultry photos of our cast” unlikely.

Ultimately, however, responsibility lies with the actors themselves for this photoshoot.  They decided to do it and they were the ones who were (probably) paid for it.  To say that it indicates a New Direction (ha ha ha) for the show is absurd.  It was already an overtly sexual show.

Conclusion

People are free to make their own choices, especially adults.  The uproar that this photoshoot has garnered borders on the bizarre.  The shots are not paedophilic are in-line with all the other sexual shots found in lad’s mags and adult movies.  If parents do not want their children to see these images then they can stop their children from buying the magazine or by introducing parental controls on their computers.  By kicking up a stink they have ensured that these images get a wide circulation across news outlets everywhere.  By doing so they only made things worse for themselves.  Silly parents.

Steve Jobs on Google and Microsoft’s “openness”

Image representing Steve Jobs as depicted in C...

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On Monday 18th October 2010, Steve Jobs gave a rare speech at Apple’s earnings call.  He used his time to criticise Google’s Android operating system.  One prong of his attack was one of Android’s key selling points: it’s “openness.”

The Problem

What is openness?  As a philosopher, before you can criticise something you must first characterise and define what it is that you are talking about.  If you’re not sure, or what you are talking about is not common knowledge, it is important to define it openly.  One drawback to this approach is if you don’t you may end up building a “straw man” of your opponent, i.e. improperly characterising your opponent’s argument so that it is easy to knock down.

As someone interested in technology, I thought I had a pretty clear understanding of what “openness” meant but I was keen to see what other’s thought.  Jason Pontin of Technology Review writes,

[Openness is a] technical term originally derived from thermodynamics (where it referred to any system that interacted continuously with its environment), openness came to be applied to systems theory, and thence to software, where it initially had a very specific meaning: open computer programs and languages are those that have some combination of portability (that is, they can run within a variety of environments) and interoperability (which means they can exchange data with other software). They must also adhere to open standards, a term that is generally understood to refer to two related ideas: that the software should be free for use, and its source, or underlying, code should in some manner be defined by its community of developers and users. The operating system Linux is the best-known open software.

Source: Technology Review, “On Openness”, September/October 2009. http://www.technologyreview.com/web/23170/

So we have a starting definition: portability and interoperability.  These two ideas, which he defines as the ability to be used on different hardware and seamlessly with other applications respectively, seem intuitively plausible.  Linux, the example he offers, is a good one because Linux has been built up over the years by community effort, unlike corporations such as Microsoft and Apple, which have made billions of dollars by keeping their code tightly under wraps and licensing it for a fee.

More research into the area, yielded three interesting definitions provided by Matt Zimmerman who defines them as:

1. Open (available) – open in the sense that anyone is “able to find out about it and experience it for themselves”.  So, for instance, you might release the software for free.

2. Open (transparent) – open in the sense that people can find out what’s happening with the project and get involved with its creative process.  This might involve allowing “read access to discussion forums, source code history or bug reports.”

3. Open (participation) – open in the sense that people are able to “observe activity in the project, react to it and then actually change its course.”  Thus people are given read/write access to the project, changing ownership from “yours” to “ours”.

Adapted from source: We’ll See, “Open vs. open vs. open: a model for public collaboration”, 26th October 2009, http://mdzlog.alcor.net/2009/10/26/open-vs-open-vs-open-a-model-for-public-collaboration/

So “openness” can vary, depending one’s definition.  It can mean either: giving away your product for free, letting people see what’s happening inside the project or giving people full access to your project.

Jobs on Microsoft Windows

Now, to return to Jobs’s speech, one wonders what he means when he says:

Google loves to characterize Android as open, and iOS and iPhone as closed. We find this a bit disingenuous and clouding the real difference between our two approaches. The first thing most of us think about when we hear the work [sic] open is Windows which is available on a variety of devices. Unlike Windows, however, where most pc’s have the same user interface and run the same app, Android is very fragmented. Many Android OEMs, including the two largest, HTC and Motorola install proprietary user interfaces to differentiate themselves from the commodity Android experience. The users will have to figure it all out. Compare this with iPhone, where every handset works the same.

Source: Seeking Alpha, Apple’s CEO Discusses F4Q10 Results – Earnings Call Transcript, 18th October 2010, http://seekingalpha.com/article/230710-apple-s-ceo-discusses-f4q10-results-earnings-call-transcript

He characterises Microsoft Windows as being “open” but by which definition is this true?  Examining the “classical” definitions, as it were, Windows is certainly not portable.  Certainly, there are mobile phones that use “Windows” but it doesn’t resemble the Windows software you get on PCs.  Even if one were to concede that it does, you can’t simply get a Windows installation disc and install it onto your phone.  You can, however, purchase various parts of a computer (a motherboard, CPU, RAM, HDD etc) build it yourself and install Windows onto it.  However, the standards that allow this to happen is not specific to Windows: if you have an x86 or x64 based system you are able to install a wide range of operating systems on it, not just Windows (even also Apple’s Mac OS X).  Windows-branded software is available on some phones but it is not the same software you get on your PC.

In fact, it’s hard to glean exactly what Jobs is trying to define openness as.  Windows is certainly not released as free software.  Ebuyer, a leading seller in the UK of computer hardware and software, currently sell Windows 7 Home Premium OEM for £71.76, so it can’t be that.  Windows have forums for developers, wishing to build apps for their software but it doesn’t let people have access to their source code.  As Pontin notes in the rest of his article,

The Windows operating system, by contrast, is closed, or “proprietary,” in the jargon of information technology: it is not portable and possesses limited interoperability. Although elements of Windows adhere to open standards, the program must be licensed, usually for a fee, and its source code has been compiled and hidden from users and developers outside Microsoft. Developers write to application programming interfaces, or APIs, which until last year were mostly closed, and which still Microsoft jealously guards.

This directly contradicts what Jobs says.  If people think that the Windows OS is transparent then they are sorely mistaken.  Their source code is tightly under wraps.  Finally, what about openness for “participation”.  Well, again this isn’t true as a logical consequence of their lack of transparency.  If developers aren’t allowed access to their code then they certainly cannot improve upon it.

Jobs on Google

Jobs talks about “fragmentation.”  Unsure what he means by this I googled “software fragmentation”.  The first post was exactly what I was looking for.  Tricia Duryee writes,

The problem with fragmentation is that developers will have a difficult time developing applications that could run smoothly on each platform. Besides hardware differences, like screen sizes, there will be software differences, too. Some phones will support multi-touch, and others won’t. Not to mention, each manufacturer is building their own user interface on top of the platform that offers a host of other features.

Source: moconews.net, “Will Google’s Android Suffer From Fragmentation?”, 6th November 2009, http://moconews.net/article/419-will-googles-android-suffer-from-fragmentation/

We seem to be getting to the bottom of things now.  Fragmentation is related to openness in the sense that by making their software available to anyone many intonations exist, often designed specifically for each device.  This is not true for Apple’s iOS.  Fragmentation is a damaging blow to Android.  Fragmentation means a lack of interoperability as apps must be written in different ways many times depending on the Android iteration that you are using.  This a headache for developers and consumers and a stumbling block for Android.

It’s clear, then, what Jobs is talking about.  It’s not about openness vs. closedness per se but rather its effect on the consumer.  He makes this point, arguing that the debate is a “smokescreen to try and hide the real issue, which is, what’s best for the consumer.”

What’s Best For The Consumer

From his position, however, this seems like a very odd thing to argue.  Apple does not bundle or even allow third-party software to run on its iPhone.  Take Adobe Flash.  Flash is used widely across the internet.  Although one could criticise Flash’s for its own lack of openness and other “nightmares”, like Adrian Kingsley-Hughes does, the fact is a lot of people use Flash everyday whilst using the internet.  Users who want to use Flash on their device can use other platforms, including Android’s, where it works just fine.  People who want Flash on their iPhone must do so in a way that is not endorsed by Apple.

What about Sun’s Java?  Well, again there is evidence that Apple will no longer want to support that on its iMacs following a note it left with its latest update.  Thom Holwerda writes,

“As of the release of Java for Mac OS X 10.6 Update 3, the version of Java that is ported by Apple, and that ships with Mac OS X, is deprecated,” Apple notes, “This means that the Apple-produced runtime will not be maintained at the same level, and may be removed from future versions of Mac OS X. The Java runtime shipping in Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard, and Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard, will continue to be supported and maintained through the standard support cycles of those products.”

Source: osnews.com, “Apple to remove Java from Mac OS X?”, 21st October 2010, http://www.osnews.com/story/23923/Apple_To_Remove_Java_from_Mac_OS_X_

It has been leaked that Apple no longer wants to support apps that use “deprecated or optionally-installed technologies” and will reject them from its apps store.  In other words, if you try to use software from a third-party Apple doesn’t like then they’ll stop you from doing so.  This can’t be “what’s best for the consumer” can it?

Android does not have a Java virtual machine but it is not because it blocks them, like Apple might, but simply because they are not supported.  There are, however, converters that convert MIDlets into Android applications.   This allows developers to convert their applications and have them supported on Android devices.  Surely allowing this is better for the consumer?

What Jobs Must Think Is Best For The Consumer

There’s nothing like someone telling you what’s best for you and then forcing you to do it.  The guidelines for app submission to their store are notoriously strict.  For instance, they supply their rejection letters with non-disclosure agreements preventing developers from revealing the reasons Apple cited for rejecting their app.  Android does not.  However, one can criticise Android’s marketplace for being filled with useless apps.  Jobs’s thinking is probably “let us tell you which apps are good.” It’s censorship – benevolent censorship but still censorship.  Android, on the other hand, lets users make their own mind up.  Hence, Android here is “open” and Apple is “closed”.

As noted above, Jobs doesn’t want “fragmentation” but “integration.”  Integration to Jobs means “we control”.  Indeed, the true conundrum – what this is all about – is what the consumer wants.

What The Consumer Wants

I can’t seem to find any study or poll which represents what the consumer wants.  The battle though is not in the ways that they seem to be presented in the media.  To say it is “open vs. closed” or “integrated vs. fragmented” is clearly wrong.  Given a choice people would obviously choose open over closed, or integrated over fragmented.  The battle seems to be open vs. integrated.

On the one hand, being open allows great consumer choice and support for third party developers.  This should swell the market place with a great choice of apps.

On the other hand, being integrated allows for stricter controls and standards meaning that consumers can “just use” their device without having to spend time (and money) trying out different apps to find one that suits them.

Giving Some Ground

Both sides could afford to give up some ground here and it would give them an edge too.  For instance, if Android had a better way of filtering their app store so the best apps float to the top then they could have a wide range AND quality apps.  If they could enforce some standards, whilst still keeping it all open, they would make Apple look draconian and overly-controlling.

If Apple lightened up a bit, allowed third party developers more freedom they would get more and imaginative apps on their market place and allow for greater competition.  If developers are frustrated by Android’s lack of interoperability then they must also be equally frustrated by Apple’s incessant standards and control-freakery.

Conclusion

Why Jobs referred to Windows as being “open” is bad reasoning.  It’s not.  Android is open, though not fully read/write open.  It’s open enough to allow developers enough access to be called “open” and for many that’s enough.  The philosophy of “openness” is a controversial area.

Apple, like Microsoft, goes to great lengths to ensure its operating systems remain unmolested.  Whether or not this is bad for the consumer is the main question.  It’s not a debate about open vs. closed, or fragmented vs. integrated.  It’s about open vs. integrated.  The two seem to be mutually exclusive.

However, it would serve both sides well to give a little ground.  Android’s fragmentation may annoy a great number of consumers who simply want their device “to work”.  But Apple’s closedness places stringent and draconian pressure on developers, thus restricting what is available to consumers on the market.

As for Steve Jobs, it’s hard to know what’s going on in his head sometimes.  He may be right to suggest that to talk about openness vs. closedness is the wrong debate to have, but he is guilty of straw-manning Android.  Fragmentation is a result of both the openness and popularity of Android.  Like Linux, which grows in popularity every day, Android has many different iterations simply because developers are allowed to tailor the software to their devices.  If it’s disingenuous of Google to say that iOS is “closed” then it’s also disingenuous of Apple to call Android “fragmented.”  After all, whilst anyone can tailor Android to work on their device, iOS is not available on a wide range of devices.  The ones that do are tightly controlled by Apple, which again is a significant part of the debate.

Both philosophies seemingly have their merits.  What is unjustified is one side saying the other puts consumers in a bad position as it seems that Android and iOS pander to different side of the market.  iPhones are capable of becoming highly functional devices but are being crippled by their OS.  Likewise, devices with Android installed cause a headache for some developers and consumers with their lack of interoperability.  Depending on your loyalties you can frame the debate one way or the other.  The true way, though, seems to be open vs. integrated – allowing users to do whatever they want vs. “benevolently” keeping control over your device and software.