"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Atheists at the top

So Ed Milliband has beaten his older brother to the top spot in the Labour Party.He's slightly to the left of his brother politically but what I find worth cheering is that both the Milliband brothers are atheists; culturally Jewish, but atheists all the same. So with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg also an atheist we might finally end up with a government that really "doesn't do God", rather than just saying it doesn't.

Monday, 27 September 2010

More on that ice cream advert

I wrote about this ice cream advertisement a while ago, protesting that the ASA had been wrong to ban it as offensive to Catholics.
I wrote a short email to the ASA and they have responded...

Thank you for your e-mail. I appreciate that you disagree with the ASA’s decision to uphold complaints which were made against the Antonio Federici magazine advertisement.

Complaints made on the grounds of taste and decency are often challenging given their subjective nature, a fact reflected by a number of communications we have received from individuals both opposed to and supportive of our decision. Although you disagree with our ruling I would like to reassure you that the ASA made its ruling only after very careful consideration.

The advertising rules were created and are maintained by the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP), a body representing all parts of the ad industry. The rules state that no ads should contain content that is likely to cause serious or widespread offence on the grounds of race, religion, sex or disability.

It is the ASA’s role to administer these rules and, in this case, we felt that the ad by Antonio Federici was likely to cause serious offence to some readers.

If you have not already done so, I would encourage you to read how the ASA Council reached its decision. Please access the ASA ruling in full,here.
If you read the full adjuducation as they suggest you will see that they got eight complaints from the readership of a particular magazine following which they concluded that...
the use of a nun pregnant through immaculate conception was likely to be seen as a distortion and mockery of the beliefs of Roman Catholics.
So what? why must anyone be protected from criticism or mockery of their beliefs? If they are going to go around claiming a god man was born of a virgin 2000 years ago, they should expect to be mocked in my opinion unless they can provide some evidence.
No-one has to take these ideas seriously in a free society, including advertisers and I still say the ASA was acting beyond its remit and with bad judgment.

Go easy on science budget cuts

The coalition government is on a mission to reduce the budget deficit and is looking for spending cuts wherever it can find them. One of the casualties looks like being British science funding, which could lose anything between 10% and 25% of the 3.5 Billion pounds currently invested.
Leaving aside the debate about whether now is really the time to be cutting the deficit, given that economic recovery is not yet assured, there are some things that cannot go on the back burner if we want to stay at the forefront of technological development.
I am aware that everyone affected by the cuts; from welfare to health services, public sector redundancies to cancelled building projects, will plead special circumstances. But fundamental science is worthy of this consideration precisely because it impinges on so many aspects of this country’s success.
If our children are to be inspired to study sciences at school they need to see breakthroughs being made in this country, not abroad. If we want to sell new technology to the world, blue-sky research needs to happen now. The U.S, which in similar financial straights, is actually funding science as part of its stimulus package as Obama seems to understand the value of research to the economy.
There is a danger that Government will try to sell an application driven science to the general public, where funding is preserved for “practical” research. However historically this is not where the big breakthroughs come from. Cutting edge science is what generates the big ideas, even if the attrition rate is high. Cutting fundamental research is cutting opportunities, handing the ball to emergent economies and leaving U.K innovation in the doldrums for decades.
There is no doubt that we need to get better at commercialising the ideas we do have, but we need to foster an environment for those ideas to flourish.
If we must have cuts then science will surely share the pain, but it must not be seen as an easy target for government, nor should it bear an unfair portion of the burden.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Pope's visit a success? Meh!

Pope Benedict XVI left British soil yesterday with the Vatican hailing his visit as a “spiritual success.
Well, maybe. On the face of it he was well protected from the “aggressive secularism” he perceives as being inherent in British society and he even had the Prime Minister defending our faith credentials.
"Faith is part of the fabric of our country. It always has been and it always will be,"
he said.
But the fact is that Benedict did not attract anything like the interest or crowds expected and I doubt that any minds have been changed by his speeches on Catholic Social Teaching, or more inclusion for religion in British society.
History is against him I believe. The Church is more and more on the wrong side of the moral debate on issues such as gender equality, AIDS and contraception, and this along with its appalling response to the child abuse scandal is the reason why the visit was so lacklustre.
On Sunday’s Andrew Marr Show, ex Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy suggested that Benedict XVI position on Church doctrine and morality was not significantly different from Pope John Paul II who visited twenty-eight years ago to wider acclaim. This he suggested was due to John Paul’s greater charisma, but I’m not so sure. If their positions are the same is it not more likely that the rest of us have moved on? Grown up even?
The Pope fears secularisation, not because it really does lead to a “pick and mix morality” (no more so than religion anyway) but because a secular society can do what the Church cannot. It can move with the times and free itself from outdated dogma. It can have the debate free from preconceptions and arrive at rational approaches to civil liberty and individual human rights. It can make religion irrelevant, or at best just one voice in the marketplace of ideas with no special privileges. Which of course is exactly how it should be.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Religion in "Big Society"

With the Pope’s arrival for a four day state visit to the U.K comes a heightened debate about the role of religion in British society.
One of the reasons for Joseph Ratzinger choosing Britain for such a visit is his dismay at the application of equality laws preventing Catholic (or any religion's) discrimination against Homosexuals, which he sees as a secular imposition on the freedom of religion.
The Pope hopes to extend the influence of Catholic Social Teaching in the day to day political and social debate and sees this as a valid contribution to David Cameron’s “Big Society” program which seeks to engage the public and volunteer groups in wider engagement with their communities.
It worries me somewhat that voices within the coalition government, and I suspect Cameron as well, see the greater influence of religious groups in society as an intrinsically good thing. There are several reasons why it isn’t.
In the first instance Religion’s involvement in society rarely comes without strings. Organisations like The Salvation Army work with and feed the homeless, but expect their subjects to listen to Christian messages. Catholic adoption agencies want to exclude same sex couples from their pool of adoptive parents and evangelical groups working with Aids in the third world promote abstinence only policies and deny contraceptives save lives.
While religious groups working for social welfare are well intentioned they cannot help but carry the dogmas of their faith with them and as a result often confound the good they would otherwise do. In many cases they will deny evidence that contradicts their worldview.
This latter point is what makes their usefulness in wider social and ethical debates so moot. The opinions they offer are rooted in scripture and the mores of tribal cultures long past. They are not informed by science unless it happens to confirm their bias and even when they do make concessions to the secular view they want their own exemptions and demand dispensations and respect for their beliefs.
The Pope is already on this visit trying to warn Britain against “aggressive secularism”. During his meeting with the Queen he said…
"Today, the United Kingdom strives to be a modern and multicultural society. In this challenging enterprise, may it always maintain its respect for those traditional values and cultural expressions that more aggressive forms of secularism no longer value or even tolerate."
…by which he means the adoption of societal norms that do not conform to his religious dogma.
There is no reason why religious groups should not have a voice in any debate, but in this they are no different from any special interest group. What we must not do is give them the credibility, degree of deference and public space that enables them to punch above their weight.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Ice cream ad offensive to Catholics

This seems a trivial story but it isn’t. The Advertising Standards Agency has banned an advert for a brand of Ice Cream because it
"was likely to cause serious offence to readers, particularly those who practised the Roman Catholic faith"
The image is of a pregnant nun, eating ice cream with the strap line “Immaculately Conceived”.
The company, Antonio Frederici is trying to make a point with this advert, saying they want to
"comment on and question, using satire and gentle humour, the relevance and hypocrisy of religion and the attitudes of the church to social issues"
and they have plans to post follow up adverts on a similar theme close to Westminster Cathedral.
How many times does it have to be said? People have no right in our society not to be offended. Religion is fair game for mockery and satire and to do so has long been a tradition in this country. Where would British comedy have been without Dave Allen, Father Ted or Monty Python? All of these shows attracted criticism but quite rightly were never banned. You would after all think that an almighty God could defend himself without the help of the ASA, but the point is they should not be making this kind of judgment.
If an advert is promoting prejudice or anti-social behaviour or glamorising violence, or if an advert is making false claims for a product then that is the point at which the ASA should get a say. It should not be using its powers in the suppression of free speech.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Burning the Qu'ran

The Pastor of a small Florida church has been hitting the headlines over the past few days over his plan to burn copies of the Qu’ran on the 11th of September in protest against the proposed Islamic centre to be built close to Ground Zero in New York.
Terry Jones has received direct appeals from President Obama, castigation from Hilary Clinton and direct condemnation from the leaders of several Islamic states over the plan. This if nothing else has ensured maximum publicity for his opposition to the Islamic Centre, plus I am sure he is relishing the attention.
It is of course a tawdry protest for a measly cause. There is no purpose other than blatant prejudice served by opposing the building and burning Qu’rans and to my mind this and only this is the reason to condemn the protest.

What is not a good reason to condemn the protest is the fear that it will incite Muslims to violence. There is a free speech issue here, which says that the right to express an opinion, no matter how misguided should not be stifled by the fear of violent retribution, and religious extremists in particular should not be given the message that threats of terrorism will silence criticism of their actions.
Unfortunately this is exactly the message that the U.S administration is sending, with Barack Obama saying it would be a "recruitment bonanza" for al-Qaeda and David Petraeus, the US and Nato commander in Afghanistan, warned of retaliatory action against US troops after protests took place in the capital Kabul at which effigies of Jones were burned alongside the American flag.

Now there is no doubt that it is particularly easy to offend Muslims in this way, but that is no reason not to do it when appropriate. For example Everybody Draw Mohammed Day was a particularly apposite protest against censorship of the television show, South Park, an episode of which attracted death threats for portraying the prophet.
The reason the Qu’ran burning is not appropriate is that, although the Pastor is attempting to frame this as free speech, the action has nothing to do with his right to protest against something he doesn’t like. Terry Jones is perfectly entitled to argue against the siting of the Islamic Centre through any forum he likes; burning the Qu’ran is a stunt and an irrelevence with deliberate intent to offend and incite hatred.

To any rational person the burning of any number of mass-produced “holy” texts, be the Bible, Qu’ran or Gita is a trivial act, more damned by the waste of resources than anything else. To the religious mind it’s a sacrilege so you might think a Christian Pastor would think twice before engaging in this kind of idiocy. After all wouldn’t he be offended if Bibles started to be burnt all over the Middle East?

As of today the burning is in his words “on hold”. If he backs down I hope that it will be because he realises what a mean minded protest it is and not because of threats of reprisal.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Handsome is as handsome does

The ”Thought for the Day” today was given by Clifford Longley. His premise was that Pope Benedict is being criticised for what people “think” he thinks, rather than his actual position.
He compared this with the problem allegedly faced by the Tory party.
People often said they liked a particular policy - until they found out it was Tory policy. The problem facing the Catholic Church is somewhat similar - how to detoxify the brand,
However, the one example he quoted of a socially acceptable opinion…
"The economy needs ethics in order to function correctly," he declared. "We must prioritise the goal of access to steady employment for everyone" and "Food and access to water are universal rights of all human beings... Investment always has moral, as well as economic significance."
is so appallingly weak as to be next to useless. In fact the statement is practically a truism that almost anyone would agree with in principle, no matter how free market or profit driven they were. What it fails to say is what ethical policies should we follow to achieve that.
Well here’s a few suggestions for the Pope.
1 Encourage free access to contraception
2 Allow Women into the priesthood so as not to set a bad example to private industry
3 End opposition to abortion so that women can choose when to have families
4 Stop discriminating against Homosexuals thereby encouraging others to do so
5 Promote science and reason instead of faith and superstition so we can maximise the benefit of our intelligence

The Pope like the Church he represents and religion in general is full of worthy words, but his actions speak louder.