Religious organisations should learn what respect looks like in a secular society

South Africa's best satirical cartoonist, Jonathan Shapiro (AKA Zapiro), is in hot water for depicting the Hindu god Ganesh in a cartoon. As usual, those who worship said god are demanding respect for religious beliefs (presumably their beliefs, not all religious beliefs).


Just consider the phrasing: The cartoon, according Hindu organisations, shows "flagrant disrespect and denigration of our glorious Hindu faith".

As you can see here, they're the ones who consider their religion worthy of respect; they're the ones who consider it "glorious". The beauty of a secular society is that not only are religious people of multiple faiths allowed to have their faiths, but that Zapiro and anyone else is welcome to not have any; it is not required of us as non-Hindus (let alone non-believers) to respect Hinduism or any of the religions.  Further, we should always be suspicious of those who "demand" respect; like adoration, respect isn't something that can be pumped out of your opponents.

Most importantly, concepts aren't phenomena that can - let alone are worthy of - respect. By definition, concepts - as human-made things - are there to be assessed from multiple angles or discarded as need be, as with almost anything. We are right to be suspicious of those who claim to have infallible beliefs or ideas, since it means improvement is not necessary and dissension is unwelcome. If an idea or belief is so perfect, it should be able to withstand all critiques and mockery thrown at it. That we want apologies for depicting concepts in a certain way is indicative of shakily held beliefs, not ones we're comfortable with.

Consider: If someone mocks the idea of equality of the sexes or equality of the races, would we want an apology? Would we demand the sexist "respect our belief" that women don't deserve prejudice because of their sex? Would we demand the racist "respect our belief" that black people aren't lesser than other races? Presumably, we'd either laugh off the childish, unfounded basis of the bigot's mockery or shrug it off, knowing they have no facts to back it up.

That is the adult thing to do. We don't need to show our conviction or our passion for how much we believe in equality of the sexes or races by silencing those who disagree; what matters more than passion is that our ideas are justified, have evidence, etc., which isn't aligned to passion. All the passion in the world doesn't change facts about it. This strutting of sensitivity from those with such fragile beliefs only does the believers a disservice, not their opponents.

Indeed, if Zapiro apologises, removes the post and so on, Hindu organisations would have less - not more - respect from us non-Hindus. And here, respect is rightly placed: at the people themselves, not the beliefs.

Respect me enough to tell me my ideas are bad, because you care about wanting me to have the best kind of ideas and views and beliefs. It seems patronising to think people of faith can't handle criticism or be treated like adults, yet organisations that claim to speak for them are demonstrating just that with such childish demands of respect. We're treating them like fellow, adult citizens by subjecting their ideas to mockery, satire and criticism just as I'd hope they do for me. That is what respect looks like.

Header image: Boberger / WikiCommons (source)

You can see Zapiro's cartoon and context here (link)

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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

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The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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