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Sunday, 16 October 2011

Malta Humanist Association (MHA)

Malta Humanist Association (MHA)
The Malta Humanist Association said yesterday it was “concerned” by certain reactions to a recent declaration by television presenter Lou Bondì, to the effect that he is ‘not a believer in God’.
These concerns included the view that people were “shocked” by Mr Bondì’s statement, and, more ominously, that “something should be done” about it.
“And yet there is nothing at all unusual about an individual coming to the conclusion that God does not exist,” the MHA said yesterday. “On the contrary, this is a perfectly rational conclusion to reach, and atheism is today an opinion shared by countless ordinary and respectable people all over the world.
“To express ‘shock’ at one man’s atheism is therefore indicative of an anachronistic and essentially flawed impression of what the word means. But to suggest that ‘action’ of any kind should be taken against atheists is far more serious, as it implies active prejudice on religious grounds.”
The MHA said that in this case matters are exacerbated by the fact that a judge was asked to rule on Mr Bondì’s prior statements, made under oath during a libel suit, implying that his testimony is somehow less reliable, now that it is known Mr Bondì does not believe in any deity. 
Dr Toni Abela, the lawyer who made this request, also suggested that Mr Bondì’s declaration of atheism might even have invalidated his earlier testimony, as he had sworn to tell the truth by kissing a crucifix.
“It bears pointing out that the same Dr Abela is also deputy leader of the Labour Party,” the MHA observed. “As such, one hopes his approach in this case does not constitute a foretaste of what is to come in the imminent election campaign.
“All this is troubling on a number of counts. Firstly, it is unacceptable to call into question a person’s sworn statements based only on that person’s lack of faith in God. By comparison, it would be deplorable – and possibly illegal – to suggest a person’s testimony should not be taken seriously simply because he is (for example) a Muslim or a Jew. One fails to see why atheists should be treated using a different yardstick.
“Moreover, there is an enormous difference between religious belief, and the values we often (erroneously) associate with religion. Such values are for the most part universal, and are therefore unrelated to any one religion. For instance: ‘belief in God’ is not in itself a value – but tolerance towards others, irrespective of faith, gender, race, sexual orientation, etc., most certainly is.”
Separately, the MHA pointed out how this particular incident also highlights a more widespread discriminatory attitude towards atheists throughout the judicial process.
The MHA said it is informed of a number of cases in which lawyers have highlighted the fact that witnesses are declared atheists in order to influence the court’s opinion against them. This, it said, holds especially true of child custody battles in separation cases.
“If our law-courts are to guarantee justice equally to all, this sort of undisguised prejudice can no longer be accepted in the court room. Otherwise, we would be forced to regrettably conclude that Malta’s justice system is weighted in favour of one category of person, and against another.
“Besides, Mr Bondì’s case also illustrates a grey area with regard to oath-taking in court. It is debatable whether witnesses are given an adequate choice when it comes to taking their oath. In most cases there is a tendency to simply assume that witnesses would be willing to swear on a crucifix. Indeed this is often the only option they are physically presented with, thus forcing all those unwilling to swear on religious icons to ask for an alternative themselves – something many witnesses will be reluctant to do, owing to justifiable concerns that this initiative may affect the eventual outcome of their case.”
The MHA holds this to be unfair and discriminatory, as it places atheists in the awkward position of having to make a public statement of their atheism each time they testify in court.
It added, however, that, “We believe this problem can very easily be solved, if the law courts assume a policy of simply presenting all witnesses with a choice – to take their oath on a religious symbol, or make a solemn declaration – without forcing the witness to ‘conscientiously object’ every time.
“Lastly, one cannot discuss this entire issue without also deploring similar tactics employed in the past – including attacks on former Prime Minister Alfred Sant, when he refused to take his oath of office on a crucifix in 1996,” the MHA recalled.
“In all such cases, we must firmly and categorically insist that all political parties, and other comparable institutions, cease to behave in a discriminatory and prejudicial manner towards people whose beliefs are different from their own.”
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