Spitting on Authority

December 22, 2010

One should be careful when making assumptions about religious divisions. In the High Street, just uphill from St Giles Cathedral, is the shape of a heart, laid out in cobblestones, known as the Heart of Midlothian. Every time I walk past it has several gobbets of spit in it. If I am accompanied by a puzzled visitor, I will mutter that I think Catholics spit on it because it is a symbol of Protestantism. Or possibly the other way round. Not sure. But I think thats what I heard somewhere. English visitors like hearing this because it reconfirms their prejudice that Scotland is still crippled with sectarian division, whereas in England all that nonsense has withered away.

Now, reading Edinburgh, A History of the City by Michael Fry, I find that the real truth is that the Heart is a symbol of class war, not religious struggle. In olden times, this was the site of the Tollbooth, a bizarre building that combined an actual tollbooth, sittings of the mediaeval parliament, and down below street level, the city prison. The prison floor was a large open plan affair, with prisoners chained to a long bar running the length of the room. In the middle however, was a square box of plate iron, in which was incarcerated whoever was currently condemned to die. It was this grim cage that was known as the Heart of Midlothian. This building, ugly in spirit and fact, was finally torn down in 1817, and the cobbled heart left to mark the spot. Since then, the lower citizens of Edinburgh have been spitting on the heart as a symbol of authority and repression. Walk from there down Victoria Street to the Grassmarket and you will find a pub called The Last Drop. Yup, thats where the scaffold was. Grim sense of humour, the Scots.

When the Tollbooth was torn down, Walter Scott took away the door and kept it in his house at Abbbotsford. A year later, he published his famous novel, The Heart of Midlothian. The story is about a family of Covenanters. The father, Davie Deans, gets hot under the collar about religious affairs, and fights his corner. Daughter number 1, Effie, turns away to a life of secular sin. Daughter number 2, Jeanie Deans, also turns away from theological dispute, but in calm serenity.

The most famous part of the book however relates a true story of Edinburgh history – the Porteous riot. in 1736, Captain Porteous was condemned to death for ordering his soldiers to fire on a crowd attending a hanging. Then news came from London that Captain Porteous was to be reprieved. At this time, the Act of Union was shall we say not uniformly popular with ordinary Scots, and this was seen as an insult and injustice by a remote power. An angry mob stormed the Tollbooth, dragged Porteous out, carried him down to the Grassmarket, and hanged him. This famous story, and Scott’s re-telling, must have cemented the feelings of bitterness and injustice connected with the Tollbooth.

Wind forward a hundred and ninety years, and time has almost erased the memory in the stone tape. I am not the only inhabitant of Edinburgh who is vague about that be-spittled symbol. If you stop most people passing the Heart and ask why people spit in it, they will simply say “Err .. dunno, its a tradition”. Check out this wee YouTube documenetary-ette .  Or they are Hibs supporters, who have now taken the Heart of Midlothian as a symbol of the rival football team of that same name. Of course that team division reflects a traditional sectarian split, but thats almost gone too – somebody will probably tell me what fraction of the Hibs team are not Catholics.

It can be sad when the traces of history fade. I wrote here about my favourite chip shop unknowingly commemorating the widows of Flodden, until it changed its name, and a six hundred year link was snapped. But maybe, where a sense of history is still re-inforcing bitterness and division, it is better to forget.

The Gaskell affair

December 20, 2010

Yesterday I saw a Twitter link to  a New York Times article about an astronomer suing the University of Kentucky, claiming he was rejected as a job applicant because of his religious faith. This piqued my interest. When I got there I found it was someone I know reasonably well on a professional level – Martin Gaskell. Martin graduated from the Edinburgh astrophysics degree the year before me – 1975 – and is a well known AGN researcher. He is an imaginative and thoughtful scientist, and a pleasant guy, but a bit of an odd fish, so in some ways I was surprised and in some ways not. The job concerned had a research element but was mostly about constructing a new public/student observatory and outreach programme. Having done just the same thing in Nebraska, as well as having a strong research record, he was clearly the leading candidate, although not the only good candidate.  However, panel members discovered an article he wrote about the links between astronomy and the Bible . Martin is not a creationist, and believes in evolution, but says it has “problems”, and he cites some authors who write about intelligent design. Apparently the biologists more or less vetoed him, and most but not all of the panel were nervous about appointing such a person to a scientific outreach position. Even given Gaskell’s nuanced position, such nervousness is quite reasonable, although there seems to be no evidence that his beliefs have distorted his past work. He was asked about his religious views at the interview. Email exchanges after the interview leave it fairly clear, as far as I can tell, that he would have been appointed were it not for this issue.

The NY Times and myself are a little behind the times. Martin was interviewed in 2007. He issued a formal complaint in July 2009. Over a period of many months, the US District Court in Kentucky received a series of depositions which you can find collected at the NCSE website . On November 23rd, the court decided there was a formal case to answer and set a trial date of February 8th 2011. The story seemed to break publicly in a Kentucky newspaper on December 10th. Blog posts were appearing by Dec 13th – 14th – in Nature blogs, in Pharyngula, and in several knowledgeable and intelligent pieces by another AGN bod, Mike Brotherton, here here and here.

Legally, the situation seems simple but not yet clear. It is quite permissible for Kentucky to reject an applicant on the grounds that there is evidence he may not perform the required job well. But it is illegal to reject him on the grounds of his religion per se. The paper trail in the depositions has suggestions of both. So the trial has to decide which of these is the case. Difficult, but perfectly clear.

Unfortunately this is not what is happening on the internet of course. Gaskell has become yet another symbol in the American religious wars.  Naturally the Gaskell affair has been leapt on by evolution skeptics and even global warming denialists, but what really depressed me was the discussion on Pharyngula. These are the good guys right ? PZ Myers is a kind of hero, but I was bit shocked how right from the start in this post he set up Gaskell as a straw man, implying that he sued Kentucky more or less at random because of not getting a job, artificially claiming that it was because of an anti-christian bias. This ignores the public evidence that he had a prima facie case that was way more specific than this. Thats why the judge has sent it to trial. The comment stream that follows is, well, aggressive, on both sides of the argument. It contains lots of good points, as well as complete bollocks, but is so full of bile – “thats not what I said, dickhead !!” etc – that I find it hard to read.

I do actually feel, as Christopher Hitchens said, that religion poisons everything : not by evil intent, but simply by distorting the process of thinking. Somehow, atheists, and even non-theists, in the US have found themselves trapped into a religious war, where every episode is a symbol of a larger struggle. People are so frightened that the US will be dragged into a theocracy by the religious right that they are panicked into unreasonable behaviour.

Its important to get this right in a calm and factual manner. If Gaskell was rejected because of a reasonable lack of confidence in whether he would do the job well, he will lose the case. The end. Shut up. If he was rejected explicitly because of his religious faith, he has a strong case, and atheists should support him. If a precedent is set that individuals can be rejected employment because they are christians, then they can also be rejected employment because they are atheists.