"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

Friday, 23 December 2011

Happy Christmas: No really!

Despite what the Christian right in America, and some pundits in the Daily Mail may say, there is no war on Christmas. Secularists like myself have no issues with people of faith keeping this time of year in accordance with their religion and have no rabid desire to go around forcing people to say “happy holidays” (which are still “holy” days in any event) or complaining about nativity displays.
What is irritating to atheists, pagans, Jews and other assorted non-Christians is the Christian's assumption that the season belongs exclusively to them. It doesn’t and it never has. The winter solstice has been a time of feasting and celebration for millennia and significantly predates Christianity. It has been associated with various religions and deities from Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt, classical Greece and Rome usually along with legends of a virgin born god-man who dies and is reborn / resurrected. It’s a sun cycle thing that, unsurprisingly, some Hellenised Jews in first century Palestine incorporated into their own mythology and Saul of Tarsus sold back to the Romans. It is the pagan roots of the winter celebration; Saturnalia in Rome, Yule in Europe that caused the puritans to ban the celebration of Christmas as a Christian holiday and of course the way we celebrate it now is a relatively recent invention of the Victorians with the addition of the dubious Santa/Odin/Green Man/St Nicholas/Father Christmas hybrid demigod that Christians have bizarrely adopted as their own.
The true meaning of Christmas is steeped in thousands of years of communities, hunter-gatherer and agricultural celebrating the passing of the low point of winter, looking forward to spring and sharing the fruits of the previous years harvest with friends and family. It was a seasonally enforced respite from toil in the fields and a reason to share resources, light and warmth. It continues to be so, even in these urbanised centrally heated artificially illuminated times and in culturally (if not actually) Christian Britain we all buy into the shared narrative of the era to make the season special. Tim Minchin has recently put it this way
I adore Christmas. The fact that I know that Christianity’s origins lie more in Paul of Tarsus’s mental illness and Emperor Constantine’s political savvy than in the existence of the divine has no bearing on my ability to enjoy this age-old festival of giving, family, and feasting.
Absolutely!
The dying and soon to be risen sun has been represented in narrative and deification by Osiris, Sol Invictus, Mithras, Dionysus and Jesus to name but a few. In this Christian dominated era we’ve all adopted the cultural norm of calling the season Christmas, and actually I have no issue with that. I am a culturally Christian atheist, which is why a divine Jesus is prominent among the many supernatural beings I don’t believe in. But I am happy to go along with the cultural norm, pleased to hear carols about the nativity (It’s a cute story; same reason I like Frosty the Snowman and Rudolf) and yes more than content to wish you all… a Happy Christmas!

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Mail peeved prisons pander to pagans

Ross Clark of the Daily Mail has got his knickers in a twist over pagan prison inmates getting a day off work detail for the winter solstice.. He is also annoyed that the prison service is expected to provide facilities and chaplains for Wiccans, Rastafarians, Seventh Day Adventists, Christian Scientists and a whole host of minority religions. In typical Daily Mail fashion this is all the fault of the Human Rights Act…
You may not be surprised to discover that all this madness is a result of the Human Rights Act, which guarantees ‘the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion’.
He then goes on to whine that Christians on the outside don’t get their religious rights protected.
The great irony, of course, is that law-abiding citizens who are not in prison seem to be offered scant protection from this law when it comes to respecting their own rights. For example, there was the case of a Christian couple who were successfully sued after refusing to allow a gay couple to share a bed at their B&B establishment, or the case of another Christian couple, from Derby, who were forbidden from fostering children because they refused to drop their belief that homosexual acts are wrong.
Oh dear! He obviously doesn’t get the point that one person’s human rights end where someone else’s begins. You don’t get to discriminate on gender (or racial) grounds just because you are a bigot for Jesus. Anyway, what’s the problem with religious diversity in prison? Sure it will cost money to provide services for a multi-faith population, but if you are going to cater for the popular delusions of Christianity and Islam, you have to cater for all the others as well. I’m also tempted to ask what days off atheist prisoners are entitled to, maybe they get to celebrate Richard Dawkins’ birthday with spaghetti and meatballs? The best solution would be for prisons not to pander to religion at all except in a minimal way. This does not mean that individuals would lose the right to believe whatever supernatural bollocks they like, or even have the odd festival day to themselves, but the provision of chaplains and ritual paraphernalia at the tax payer’s expense would be better substituted for secular counselling and education. After all, the mainstream religions have their own network of priests, imams, vicars and pastors. If they want their respective flocks to be tended while in prison the churches should foot the bill. The fringe religions rarely have hierarchical structures anyway; modern pagans don’t need priests to lead them. Somehow though I don’t think Ross Clark is advocating for removing services from Christians, just from the rest, as though the crazy beliefs of a minority are somehow less important than the equally crazy beliefs of the majority.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

"Evil" Christians boycott Tesco

Nick Lansley, Tesco’s head of research and development, posted a message on his personal Flickr.com profile which said:
“I’m…campaigning against evil Christians (that’s not all Christians, just bad ones) who think that gay people should not lead happy lives and get married to their same-sex partners.”
This has predictably raised the ire of several religious groups who are planning to boycott the supermarket chain for which he works.
Colin Hart, director of the Christian Institute, said: “I won’t be shopping at Tesco this Christmas, and I am repeatedly hearing from other Christians who have already come to the same conclusion. “Mr Lansley is entitled to his opinions, and Christians are entitled to choose not to shop at Tesco.”
Leaving aside the fact that Tesco has distanced itself from the comments which were made in a personal capacity and in any event have since been removed, it is typical that Christians should consider it OK to impose a collective punishment on the store, it’s shareholders and employees in response to an individual excercising his rights to free speech. Mr Lansley is perfectly entitled to consider the attitudes of people, Christian or otherwise who oppose gay rights as evil and he should be able to say so. I understand why Tesco has asked him to remove the post, although the reasoning is flakey
"Our values as a company are such that we abhor criticism of any religion, and we knew nothing about Mr Lansley’s comments until they were brought to our attention. "We are very sorry that anyone might have thought that there was any blurring of the boundary between his personal comments and his work for Tesco. We have therefore asked him to remove the comments, and he has done so. "
They “abhor” criticism of religion? Really? I suspect that Tesco had no attitude either way until now. Anyway it’s a nonsensical opinion. They have no idea what socially repellent act some religious sect might come up with that is fully deserving of criticism. It just feeds into the notion that religion is especially privilaged and above reproach regardless of what it does or teaches.
Another interesting feature of this story is it highlights the real problem with David Cameron’s call for the country to return to Christian values. The Christians that Nick Lansley calls “evil” are by their own lights taking the moral position. Now I’m with Mr Lansley and diametrically opposed to the biblical homophobia that informs Christian attitudes on these matters. I too find it highly immoral that people are discriminated against based on their gender or sexual preferences, and just because a 1st century evangelical once wrote a bigoted postcard to the Corinthians about it doesn’t make it OK. Finally and in an effort to be fair, I would not have called the Christians “evil” in this way. They’re not evil although their predjudices, admittedly sincerely held, may well be. But you know what they say “hate the sin, love the sinner”. With pursuasion and yes, robust criticism of their religious presumptions, such “evil” attitudes can be changed.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Mr Cameron, please don't start "doing God"

Prime Minister David Cameron wants a return to Christian values to combat what he sees as a decline in moral standards in the country. I'm not sure he realises how misguided this idea is; the last thing we want is a biblical agenda informing our view of morality.
First of all his statement that Christian values are central to Britain and they should be "treasured", including responsibility, hard work, compassion and humility is question begging. Are those values really Christian, or are they actually a desirable shared ethic that stands apart from Christianity? Britain is not as he maintains a Christian nation, we are in many ways the antithesis of America in that we are constitutionally Christian but largely secular in practice, which in an increasingly crowded multicultural society is in our favour. We should in my opinion be looking to ditch the established church not encourage it, but one thing at a time.
Although the Muslim council for Britain has welcomed Cameron's speech declaring that many biblical values are shared by Islam, Cameron's assertion that a strong Christian identity in Britain will make it easier for non Christians to practise their faith is wishful thinking. The ecumenicalism that religions display when faced with the secular disappears when they have no common enemy. Cameron's wishy washy liberal view of Christianity, which I suspect owes more to the Vicar of Dibley than any serious study of the King James Bible, is not the morality found in Islamic or Christian scripture.
The bible is not a repository of modern morality; it is misogynistic, homophobic and contrary to individual human rights. It is a licence for bigotry and persecution of minorities and legitimate twenty-first century lifestyles. It is this “morality” that the church seeks and Islam supports.
In asking the Anglican church to "keep on the agenda that speaks to the whole country". he is demanding the impossible. Unless it is prepared to a take view that recognises women's rights to equal opportunity, reproductive health including abortion, gay marriage, and free speech including blasphemy it cannot speak to me and the vast numbers of liberal secular citizens of this country. Personally, I am not interested in a government that takes the foibles of a neolithic deity into consideration when framing what is acceptable in our society. We are not morally degenerate, as Cameron appears to think but there are undoubtedly many problems in society that need addressing. Religion however is not the solution, it is a retrograde knee jerk appeal to the lie of religious moral authority. If this country must have faith to improve, it should be faith in ourselves and each other, not superstition and religiosity.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Dawkins is not a "proper" atheist: Discuss.

The Rev Dr Peter Mullen has an article on the Daily Telegraph’s blog page entitled Richard Dawkins says David Cameron is 'not really a Christian'. But is Dawkins a proper atheist?
Well according to the good Doctor, we can’t know if David Cameron is a true Christian or not, because only God (his god presumably) can know that. However we can be sure that Richard Dawkins is not a “proper” atheist because, apparently, he is not David Hume. Of Dawkins he says:-
We can, however, know that Dawkins is not a proper atheist – that is an intelligent atheist – from his own puerile writing and pathetic attempts at philosophical theology. For example, he writes: “Either God exists or he doesn’t. It is a scientific question. The existence of God is a scientific question, like any other.”
Hume on the other hand
did not possess an irrational, inhumane, roaring opposition to men of faith. He was a close friend of that great English Christian, Samuel Johnson. Unlike Dawkins, Hume did not wish to obliterate Christianity from the public realm. Hume was guided by a conscience which was generous enough to understand that other men’s consciences may guide them differently.
So his real beef is that Dawkins unlike Hume doesn't treat his world view with the respect he thinks it deserves. Funny how "proper" atheists are expected not to ridicule the ridiculous. The fact is that at the time Hume was writing, ridiculing religion would have been professional suicide, you had to be Voltaire to get away with that.
But forgetting about the ad hominems in this article, what about the specific charge of Dawkins' putative scientism? You see according to Mullen the existence of God cannot be a scientific question because
No competent theologians or philosophers – not even the atheist ones – have ever declared that God (if he exists) is an object in his own universe.
First of all, using the The Courtier’s Reply against Dawkins is old news, so if anyone is being puerile and intellectually lazy here it is Dr Mullen, secondly “competent” theologians should be able to understand that a god that exists outside of our observable universe is tantamount to one that doesn’t exist at all. Dawkins is absolutely correct to say that any deity that can interact, affect or otherwise influence events in our universe is testable by scientific means. Any claims to the contrary are a confession that you’re just making stuff up. Christianity, Mullen’s delusion of choice, makes factual claims about their God answering prayers for example. This is a testable hypothesis that has consistently failed, so no wonder he wants to immunise his beliefs against empirical enquiry. But, he can’t have it both ways, either his god is so ‘effin ineffable that he can’t be experimentally falsified, in which case that god can be safely ignored. Or he is the personal and interventionist god of the Abrahamic tradition and can be expected to be discoverable by physical means.
What is almost amusing here is the idea that Dawkins has never read Hume (who was more philosopher than theologian) or indeed any “sophisticated” theologians. I don’t know of any serious atheist who hasn’t some autodidactic grounding in theology as it is impossible to argue for atheism with an educated theist without it. It’s often been said that atheists know more about religion than believers do, and although I would not insult Dawkins by calling him a theologian, I’ll bet he’s a much better one than Mullen gives him credit for, and certainly a better theologian than Mullen is a biologist.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

US foreign aid decisions to be based on gay rights

US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has been addressing the palais de nations in Geneva as part of the celebrations of Human Rights Day.
In a very forthright speech she used the opportunity to advance the cause of LGBT rights throughout the world, whilst managing to recognise that America doesn’t have the best record itself on the issue.
This is a significant speech, because in the run up to an election year this puts the Obama administration firmly in the culture wars zone, standing against the likes of Newt Gingrich , Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann who have come to epitomise the religious right on the republican side. She said
Today, I want to talk about the work we have left to do to protect one group of people whose human rights are still denied in too many parts of the world today. In many ways, they are an invisible minority. They are arrested, beaten, terrorized, even executed. Many are treated with contempt and violence by their fellow citizens while authorities empowered to protect them look the other way or, too often, even join in the abuse…

…I am talking about gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, human beings born free and given bestowed equality and dignity, who have a right to claim that, which is now one of the remaining human rights challenges of our time. I speak about this subject knowing that my own country's record on human rights for gay people is far from perfect. Until 2003, it was still a crime in parts of our country. Many LGBT Americans have endured violence and harassment in their own lives, and for some, including many young people, bullying and exclusion are daily experiences. So we, like all nations, have more work to do to protect human rights at home…
…It is violation of human rights when people are beaten or killed because of their sexual orientation, or because they do not conform to cultural norms about how men and women should look or behave. It is a violation of human rights when governments declare it illegal to be gay, or allow those who harm gay people to go unpunished. It is a violation of human rights when lesbian or transgendered women are subjected to so-called corrective rape, or forcibly subjected to hormone treatments, or when people are murdered after public calls for violence toward gays, or when they are forced to flee their nations and seek asylum in other lands to save their lives.

You can read the whole transcript here

Republican nominee and Texas Governor Rick Perry has already been on US television calling this Obama’s “war on religion” and I doubt his fellow bigots for Jesus will be far behind.
To my mind this is the first openly liberal and controversial policy stand the Obama administration has made since he was forced to water down his health care reforms. It will be interesting to see how this plays with the American voting public and could well be a touchstone issue for the Presidency.
More importantly if Obama goes through with his intention to tie US aid to LGBT human rights issues it could go a long way to stemming the poisonous attitudes that the Christian churches in Africa, with US fundie encouragement are promulgating among their people. It may not changed their warped religion addled mindset but may persuade them that self interest is not best served by persecuting people over their sexual orientation.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Can secularists take the heaven out of Devon?

It’s not often the issue of Church / State separation appears in an English court. This is because unlike in America there is no legal or constitutional imperative for the two not to be entwined. Indeed, with bishops being members of the House of Lords our system of government specifically endorses religious involvement in politics.
However in Devon, Bideford Town Council is in court today over their custom of saying prayers before meetings.
The National Secular Society is taking the council to court on behalf of one of its councillors, Clive Bone who as an atheist claims he is embarrassed and disadvantaged at having to either sit through the event or leave the room.
Now personally, if I was him I would not turn up until the prayers were over, which if it exposed him to disciplinary action would make a perfect discrimination case to test.
However the discomfort of one atheist is not really the issue. Presumably, Bideford’s population contains no Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Wiccans or Druids concerned that their council tax is funding these councillor’s daily conversation with their particular invisible friend. What will they do if someone gets elected who is not an atheist but a devout member of another faith? Get an Imam in to lead a prayer to Allah? I doubt it.
The NSS puts it this way…
The NSS contends that the saying of prayers in what should be a secular environment concerned with civic business is inappropriate and could put off people of other religions and none from taking part in an important democratic activity.
Which seems fair enough to me. In a rational world this wouldn’t even be an issue, whether it’s legal or not a council chamber is not a church (or a mosque/synagogue) and should not be wasting its time in prayer or tax payer’s money defending this case.
I’m predicting that the council will win this one and get to keep their prayers as the NSS are going into this on Human Rights grounds, which despite the mythos of the right wing press is not the legal panacea they claim.
The NSS case is
· those of no religion were being indirectly discriminated against without justification (and this unlawfully)
· the Council’s actions breach Articles 9 and/or 14 of The European Convention on Human Rights (right to freedom of conscience and protection from discrimination)
· the Council has no power to conduct prayers
In America the secularists would win this hands down but in good old Anglican Britain I can’t see it.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Another Prospective Free School Wants to Teach Creationism

...and so it continues. Christian Family Schools Ltd (and if that title doesn't scare you I don't know what will) is bidding to open a free school in Sheffield with an unashamedly creationist agenda.
One would hope that Micheal Gove will reject this for the same reasons he rejected the application from The Everday Champions Church that wanted to start one in Newark. However it is clear that a strong enough signal failed to get through on that occasion. If the government insists on pursuing this flawed policy, it needs to make an explicit declaration that creationist dogma will be an automatic fail for such bids. At the moment it seems to be pursuing an "each case on it's merits" policy, which just gives the impression that there is a half open door to be be pushed at. It needs to be shut, quickly and firmly.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

U.S Bishops confuse privilege with liberty

Catholic Bishops in the U.S are fighting back. They are responding to the increasing acceptance of gay marriage in various states, and the requirement that their adoption agencies respect those unions with a ‘Religious Liberty’ Drive.Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York says
We see in our culture a drive to neuter religion […] well-financed, well-oiled sectors [are trying] to push religion back into the sacristy.
In fact all that is happening is that secular society is changing around them and rather than impinging on their religious “liberty” it is containing their previously enjoyed privilege to be bigots for Jesus.
In its frantic scramble to reclaim some moral high ground in the midst of the constantly evolving child abuse scandal it is choosing as its battlefield the rights of the LGBTQ community to a family life and the reproductive rights of women. It is demanding exemption from the laws that enforce those rights so that they can continue to oppress and discriminate against women and gays on spurious religious grounds.
I suspect that they are on the losing side of history on this, just as they were in their suppression of science in the past. But that doesn’t mean that they have no influence in the short term. Secular freedoms are ironically hard won in America, largely because for a modern secular democracy it is socially conservative with a high degree of religiosity. The message will be heard in Washington, particularly among Republicans with an election year approaching and recent victories in health reform (which includes access to contraception and abortion) and gender equality could easily be reversed.
We must not let the church redefine religious privilege as religious liberty.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Encouraging signs of a secular Tunisia

It this is true then the Islamist party that is set to form Tunisia’s first post Arab Spring government is setting a great example for the rest of the region.
According to Ennahda party leader Rachid Ghannouchi the new constitution will focus on “democracy, human rights and a free-market economy”. He says:
“We are against trying to impose a particular way of life,”
We can only hope that such an attitude becomes the norm for Libya and others and that the revolutions do not become hi-jacked by more extreme elements.
Secular democracy is the only way to ensure freedoms and opportunities for all members of society and the west should do all it can to encourage this attitude to become a trend.

Friday, 28 October 2011

St Pauls and the Occupation: Not a lot to say really

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey has taken a swipe at the dean and chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral over their handling of the Occupy London protest.
He seems to be siding with canon chancellor Giles Fraser, who resigned yesterday over suggestions that the Cathedral may now take legal steps to have the protesters removed.
In an article for the Telegraph he wrote
One moment the church was reclaiming a valuable role in hosting public protest and scrutiny, the next it was looking in turns like the temple which Jesus cleansed, or the officious risk-averse ’elf ’n safety bureaucracy of urban legend
Actually I’ve been equivocating about bothering to comment on this particular incident, despite it having a fairly high profile in the press. The cathedral has been closed to the public, ostensibly on health and safety grounds since Giles Fraser appeared to sanction the occupation of the area, resulting in the loss of some £20,000 per day in tourist revenue, but it has been difficult to tell whether this was a genuine concern or a passive-aggressive ploy to persuade the occupation to end.
In the event it actually now appears to be a conflict of opinion between members of the cathedral clergy, pitting a progressive liberal faction against a more conservative administration.
Carey and Fraser seem to be seeing this as an opportunity to align the Anglican Church with a popular liberal socialist agenda, in support of peaceful protest and grass roots activism. The Dean appears to be more concerned with revenue and displaying a more traditional church conservatism. There are similar stories of progressive Christians supporting the Occupy Wall Street protest in New York.
I have to be honest; I don’t really have a dog in this fight. The “Occupy” demonstrations don’t really seem to have much focus and whilst I support the peoples right to protest it’s not really clear what they are protesting against. I am not personally convinced that capitalism or even globalisation are unmitigated evils, so whilst highlighting the excesses and unfairness they can engender is fine and dandy, no one seems to be suggesting viable alternatives.
As for St Paul’s; they can’t have it all ways. If they want to be relevant and down with the kids on this they should shut up, be tolerant and stop playing games. The protest will have a natural life of its own and will wind down eventually without the church having to tie itself in ethical knots. Essentially as with all things, the church doesn’t really have anything useful to say here, as you can spin the Christian message to support any political or social agenda you like, as is evidenced by the Tea Party in the U.S. That dichotomy of opinion now appears to be evident in the microcosm of this little spat, but it should surprise nobody and concern us not a jot.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Good News

Back in March I wrote about a prospective Free School prepared to teach creationism as part of its ethos. Well, I'm pleased to report that its application has been refused, and for all the right reasons
The school’s bid was rejected on Monday, and the reason is now known. In having their bid rejected, the Church was told by the Department for Education that ‘The Secretary of State carefully considered your application, the views and beliefs of your organisation as set out in your application, your responses at interview and information about your organisation available in the public domain. He was unable to accept that an organisation with creationist beliefs could prevent these views being reflected in the teaching in the school and in its other activities. It is his firm view that the teaching of creationist views as a potentially valid alternative theory is not acceptable in a 21st century state funded school.’ The Church is now planning to re-apply for 2013, and is adamant that they would only teach the story of creation in RE.
This particular school was very high profile and many secularists wrote to Micheal Gove about their concerns for this particular bid. This proves that secular activism works, however we need to stay vigilant. Every round of approvals for free schools has a number of faith based applicants and few can be trusted to teach science in an unbiased Way. Until the secularisation of Children's education can be assured, every faith school needs scrutiny on the same level.

"There's no science without metaphysics", or is there?

Have you ever had one of those conversations where, having admitted you are an atheist in Christian company you find yourself, yet again defending the scientific method as the only objective way of knowing things?
If you are unlucky, you’ll be subjected to a lot of metaphorical arm waving and claims that you are just blind to the evidence of God around you and stuttering badly informed appeals to the cosmological argument.
If you are luckier, as I was recently, you may get the argument that while the scientific method works up to a point, modern hypotheses for the nature of reality are more metaphysics than science.
There is some validity in this and so at least exercises the mind to explain. Take for example the standard model of particle physics with its exotic array of sub-atomic particles, endowed with flavours and spins to account for the diverse forces observed in nature.
A reasonable person could easily conclude that the existence of these particles is pure fantasy, that they have never been observed directly and any pretence that we really understand what they “look” like, is simply that.
However, said reasonable person is perhaps overlooking the fact that all of science is about constructing models. Newton had a model of gravity, as did Einstein, both of which work up to a point depending on circumstances but what is certain is that neither of them were absolutely correct. This inconvenient truth however does not prevent dropped objects from falling, or satellites staying in orbit.
This is really the point. Modern science can look like metaphysics but despite its esoteric appearance, it works. Without theoretical effects like quantum tunnelling your mobile 'phone wouldn’t function and the lack of direct observation of the phenomena is irrelevant to its efficacy.
This is why it is wrong to point to, say, string theory and insist that just because it is empirically un-falsifiable at the moment all sorts of epistemological relativism is justified. The statement “No-one has ever seen an electron ergo God”, is false and models of the world that require the existence of gods singularly fail to work as anyone who has prayed for a signal on a broken mobile could testify.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Funny, but fail

A Christian friend of mine shared this on Facebook recently. It's funny... no really, it is. As a caricature of the atheist worldview it works and as an atheist I take it in good part. Let's be fair, atheists are fond of similar caricatures of religious people that represent all faith positions as irrational and unthinking. Now of course you will have seen the obvious holes in the argument, but phrased as a joke we may forgive the dinosaur references and egregious omission of evolution by natural selection as a reason other than "magic".
The interesting bit is the appeal to the cosmological argument at the top, because this is where the joke really fails. For one thing, this is a straw man; no atheist except the laziest would maintain that "nothing magically exploded..." The big bang is a well tested theory, there is little doubt that as a cosmological event it happened at a specific distance away in time from now in the order of 14 billion years. Observations by various telescopes have failed to falsify the predictions contingent upon the big bang and as a working model of the observable universe it seems sound. However, hypotheses of the state of the universe preceding that event are still speculative and largely immune to experimental falsification. Consequently all scientists and most sceptics would say; "Hey! Just now, we don't know"
If this joke is representative of how theists interpret our position, we have work to do. It is work that won't go away just by pointing out the absurdity of the theistic position (which I did on Facebook anyway, 'cos you have to) as the real points are not in the scoring, but in the understanding of what science can reveal now and where its current limitations are.
It is, or seems to be, inevitable that the further science probes into the mysteries of this immense, complex and beautiful universe we inhabit the more improbable specific creation myths will become. It is also probable that, "common sense" perceptions of the universe will become undermined as working models become ever more abstract, not only to the layman but even the moderately scientifically literate.
That is both the comic appeal of this caricature and the root of its failure . It's not the literality, as there is none; It's the simplicity.

Monday, 3 October 2011

BC/AD Vs BCE/CE on the BBC

What is it with this Christian persecution complex? It seems some Christians are never happy unless they can prove their precious and over privileged beliefs are being marginalised or “banned”.
This time it is over the substitution of the secular BCE (Before Common Era) and CE (Common Era) for the “traditional” BC and AD on the B.B.C Religion and Ethics web site.
Since the site is for all flavours of religion this seems fair enough to me, after all what relevance is Anno Domini to a Buddhist? Also BCE/CE is the accepted academic format so would seem the logical choice.
Some people have protested that there is a BBC wide edict against the use of BC/AD, but this has been denied by Aaqil Ahmed the B.B.C head of religious programming.
"We have issued no editorial guidelines or instructions to suggest that anyone in the BBC should change the terms they use."
In any event colloquially many people read CE as Christian Era instead of Common Era, which is fine and makes some logical sense. The abbreviations themselves have also been around for some time
The English phrase "common Era" appears at least as early as 1708, and in a 1715 book on astronomy is used interchangeably with "Christian Era" and "Vulgar Era"
.
There is a definite oversensitivity to issues like this lately. Christians (and the more generally religious) don’t seem to realise the difference between not privaliging their world view and attacking it. Neither this country or the world at large is predomonantly Christian and with luck the last census will indicate this country isn’t even mostly religious, we shouldn’t need public discourse to be littered with assumptions of religious truth where other secular alternatives are available.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

D'ya wanna be in my gang?

Ophelia at Butterflies and Wheels has caught the Pope Ratzi in the same act of hypocritical ecumenicalism as Rowan Williams.
He’s on a tour of his home country at the moment and while at a shared service with Lutherans (That’s Lutherans notice, Martin must be turning in his grave) he said
“The most urgent thing for ecumenicalism is, namely, that we can’t allow the push of secularism to force us, almost without noticing, to lose sight of the major similarities that make us Christians, and which remain a gift and a challenge for us,”
. Oh the irony. You can tell we’ve got the Vatican on the run when the Pope calls on one of the oldest protestant sects for help. What next; an appeal to the Dalai Lama?

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

"Gang up on the atheists" as the comic said to the Archbishop

Catholic comedian Frank Skinner has been in conversation with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams at a recent event called “The Gathering”. held at the cathedral.
It seems Frank has a problem with atheists…
Atheists we might see as people like those who deny global warming. You might celebrate their right, and defend their freedom of speech, to deny global warming – but if they're wrong, and millions of other people have taken their view, then it could end in a terrible, terrible disaster for a lot of people.
It’s a pithy but ultimately ironic choice of analogy. In the first place, it is rarely atheists that align themselves with global warming denialists, as we are the ones that appreciate the science and the evidence that anthropogenic climate change is real (I know there are some atheists who won’t agree, but they are definitely the minority). If anything it’s the fundi-evangelical Christian right that foment the conspiracy theories and deny the science. But beyond that is the thinly disguised Pascal’s wager that suggests that if the atheist argument prevails millions will be condemned to hell.
Frank does his best to frame this in an ecumenical way
At a time when secularism is a threat to the salvation of millions, believers should get together, find what we have in common, and sell that
But theologically this doesn’t fly. His own religion denies salvation to anyone who isn’t a Catholic, so there is no point in recruiting all the Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, Baptists Ad Nauseam to the fray, let alone the Muslims, Hindus and Jews he is presumably letting into his big cosy theistic tent.
This na├»ve cuddly, “we’re all believers together” trope is a common one when the religious are confronted with the spectre of secularism. But this appeal to ecumenicalism is really a sham and a convenience that gets dropped once they have to deal with each other on their own terms.
Bizarrely, later in the conversation Frank touches on this himself when he compares faith to his other religion, football.
They all gave some sort of allegiance to his great game, but it’s compartmentalised by tribalism, In the Eighties people would be clubbing each other because they had different colours on, but it’s all about this brilliant game.
Yep! Exactly. Ask a West Ham supporter to be “ecumenical” about Chelsea fans and see where that gets you. You might engender some cooperation in a pub argument with rugby aficionados, but back on the terraces it’s business as usual. It is the same with religion; tribalism wins over cooperation in the end. In fact if that wasn’t the case I doubt that the “New atheists” Frank goes on to strawman as “sitting on leather chairs in gentlemen’s clubs with Dawkins and Bertrand Russell”, would be half so strident if religions really were the benign institutions he believes them to be.
It’s a funny sort of argument in my opinion, but then Frank Skinner is a comedian after all.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Catholics are back to fish on Fridays

For centuries and certainly, even in my youth, fish on Friday’s was a kind of cultural ritual for Catholics in this country. Until the Second Vatican Council, Catholics were required to abstain from meat every Friday, as a form of penance in honor of the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, but this rule was rescinded and any chosen alternative form of penance was deemed acceptable.
Now Catholics in England and Wales are being asked to revive the practice.
The general secretary of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, Father Marcus Stock, said
"Because sometimes penance in the past had become mechanistic, many bishops' conferences were wanting to use the opportunity to renew the spirit of penitence. I think what hadn't been envisaged at the time was that because people wouldn't be carrying out the same act together that this might lead to the loss of penance in people's lives."
At a time when the Catholic church should have bigger things to worry about, following the Cloyne Report and the wider child abuse scandal, they are back trying to micro manage the personal lives of the faithful.
I don’t think this is a coincidence. Many Catholics have lost trust in the church and its hierarchy in recent times, even if their core beliefs have not changed and this loss of authority is anathema to the Vatican. This smacks to me as a non too subtle ploy to re-assert some authority and cohesiveness on Catholics in the west and create the impression that the faithful are united behind the Bishops. I predict a series of similar initiatives over the next few months, along with more vocal efforts by the Church to assume the moral high ground on all sorts of issues it has no business meddling in.

As an aside, I can’t resist commenting on the absurd theology (is there another kind?) underlying this Friday penance.
For one thing, there is no evidence, biblical or otherwise that Jesus died on a Friday. In fact some readings of the scriptures make it a Wednesday
But Father Marcus makes it even sillier with this…
It's about recognising that a wrong was done when our Lord was crucified and killed, It's linked to almsgiving and concern for the poor and to bring to our minds that we have responsibilities - all of us.
Christian theology rests on the assumption that Jesus had to be crucified. Without their bloodied scapegoat for original sin, they haven’t got a religion so in what way can they consider it a “wrong”.
Also if it’s about almsgiving, fine, give something to charity and do it regularly. If you have to give up some treats to afford this and you are prepared to do it, more power to you but don’t parade your piety just because you eat environmentally suspect cod and chips in front of the telly instead of rib-eye steak on Fridays.

Monday, 12 September 2011

The rise of Chinese Christianity

Watching from a European perspective it has long seemed that the last bastion of rampant evangelical Christianity was the U.S and to some extent even that is confined mainly to the Bible belt. However, somewhat under the radar there is now a phenomenal interest in Christianity emerging in China

China being China, the state has officially sanctioned Protestant and Catholic churches and maintains control of the clergy

The officially sanctioned Catholic Patriotic Association appoints its own bishops and is not allowed to have any dealings with the Vatican, though Catholics are allowed to recognise the spiritual authority of the Pope.
But underground churches are springing up in private houses, which the state appears to be tolerating as long as worship does not spill out into the public forum.
It’s difficult to know what to think about this. The suggestion has been made that it is a reaction to growing capitalism and greater freedom from the ideological atheism demanded by the communist party structure. Whatever the reason, the scale appears to be immense

It is impossible to say how many Christians there are in China today, but no-one denies the numbers are exploding.

The government says 25 million, 18 million Protestants and six million Catholics. Independent estimates all agree this is a vast underestimate. A conservative figure is 60 million. There are already more Chinese at church on a Sunday than in the whole of Europe.
That religion has been suppressed for so long and is now fighting back may not be surprising, but why Christianity? China has its own religious traditions such as Buddhism and Confucianism and you may think that the first shoots of revival would be from amongst these.
My guess is this is an unconscious homage to the U.S. The protestant work ethic that built the mighty economic engine that the U.S represents is the lure for the commercially aspiring modern Chinese citizen and they are seeing the Christian religion as a key part of this.

How much of a threat to secularisation this will be is not easy to predict. State control of religion will certainly fail and that is all to the good. Maintaining the party’s ideological atheism may also finally appear futile, which is also as it should be. But as China’s economic reach expands will we have another front on which to combat religionist superstition and bigotry, or will Chinese Christianity turn out to be a different animal altogether? Watch this space…

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Should Jesus endorse mobile 'phones?

The Advertising Standards Authority have upheld just short of one hundred complaints regarding this Phones4u advertisement displayed last Easter.
The ad, featuring a cartoon Jesus winking and making a thumbs-up sign to “Miraculous deals” on android ‘phones was deemed to be offensive to Christians and cannot be shown again.
Well O.K, we all know how precious the religious can be about their images and icons, so it’s unsurprising that the ASA got quite a few complaints. In comment on the judgement the ASA said:
'We considered that, although the ads were intended to be light-hearted and humorous, their depiction of Jesus winking and holding a thumbs-up sign, with the text "miraculous" deals during Easter, the Christian Holy Week which celebrated Christ's resurrection, gave the impression that they were mocking and belittling core Christian beliefs,'
Well possibly, but so what? Why do they feel that any beliefs require protection from mockery? I’m sure plenty of people could find something to mock in my core political and philosophical beliefs, but I wouldn’t take offence at that, mainly because I believe that I can make a good case for justifying them. Somehow the religious don’t have that level of confidence in what they believe forcing them to suppress criticism and mockery rather than meet it with rational argument.
The ironic thing about this ad though is that in my opinion Jesus is a poor choice of character to endorse mobile ‘phones. Think about it: he was hardly the world’s best communicator. Jesus left no first person account of himself or the god he purported to represent. What accounts he did leave were reportage and hearsay which even if you believe them to be accurate were couched in allegory, metaphor and parables so open to interpretation as to be practically meaningless. Then, for the last two thousand years, not a peep: he never ‘phones, he never writes, tweets, or posts a status on facebook. Let’s face it, if the risen Christ wanted to get a message to the world there was never a better time to do it. No more relying on open-air sermons on a Middle Eastern hillock or risking his gospel to the vagaries of mistranslation and political manipulation. He could make his presence and intentions for the world known at a stroke to countless millions of people all over the world (yes I know, he could have done this in the first place being omnipotent and omnipresent and all, but “mysterious ways”, indulge me).
No, call me cynical (I won’t be offended) but if I were head of marketing for Phones4u, neither Jesus nor his dad would be on my list of sponsors.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

The end of the morning assembly?

When I was at school each day started without fail with a morning assembly, where the masters would lead us in an act of prayer, bible readings and hymn singing as mandated by the law. The gap between the end of this session and the commencement of more secular notices was punctuated by the shuffling in of the minority of pupils who were not of the assumed Christian pursuasion and who had withdrawn at the behest of their parents.

In the news today is this story in which a BBC survey found that a majority of schools were not fulfilling their legal obligation to provide a daily act of collective worship. Interestingly 60% of the parents polled had no problem with this.
Unsurprisingly, in this multicultural and largely (in practice) secular country imposing a requirement on schools to spend time in religious observance seems silly and from my point of view sends a wrong headed message to pupils. The time would be much better spent in giving community and civic instruction; religion should be left at home where it belongs.
Predictably religious voices are taking the opportunity to equate faith with morality
A spokesman for the Church of England said the law stated schools provide collective worship and the church supported that.
He said: "It provides an important chance for the school to focus on promoting the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of its pupils.
Which as I have pointed out previously is a specious proposition and not born out by reality.
This spokesperson also goes on to say
"Collective worship is when pupils of all faiths and none come together to reflect - it should not be confused with corporate worship when everyone is of the same belief."
Which is just inane. What exactly is a person of no faith supposed to worship?
It is perfectly possible and I would say preferable to teach a school as a community; morals, ethics and civic responsibility without recourse to religion. Perhaps since the majority of parents don’t want this archaic display of superstition it is time to abandon it.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

U.K "riots": Moral decline or civic failure?

In the wake of the riots in London and other cities in the U.K the coalition government has been pointing the finger at moral decline in British society.
"For me it is clear that the root cause of this mindless selfishness is the same thing that I’ve spoken about for years. It is a complete lack of responsibility in our society. It is as much a moral problem as a political problem"
Says David Cameron.

I understand the rhetoric, but rhetoric it is and somewhat overblown in my opinion. Whilst the behaviour of those looting and “rioting” was reprehensible, the absolute numbers were a tiny fraction of the youth of this country and most of what was seen on our T.V screens looked more like opportunism than anything else.
Incidentally I put “rioting” in scare quotes because, despite the government designating them as such, these weren’t really riots in the sense of organised violent demonstrations of civic malcontent, just bunches of feckless, poorly educated kids with an inflated sense of entitlement looking for an outlet and a new pair of trainers.
Interviews with some of the looters revealed the lack of purpose or rational behind the violence
"We’re showing the rich we can do what we want"
was one of the more depressingly incoherent thoughts from a pair of girls in Croydon.
This not to say there’s no underlying problem here, I just don’t believe it is symptomatic of a recent moral decline, more a lack of education and a poor understanding of civic responsibility.
For example it has been said frequently that the politician’s expenses scandal and the greed of bankers has sent messages to deprived neighbourhoods that taking what you want is acceptable at any cost. But of course bankers have been rich and politicians have screwed their expenses for time immemorial. The fact that we now see this as wrong is more indicative of a moral rise than a decline, a wider understanding that egalitarianism is a thing to strive for and privilege a thing to be avoided. That politicians have been jailed should suggest that the culpable will face the consequences whatever their status.
The fact that the message has not got through to some teenagers in Croydon says more about the lack of political and social awareness in this subset of British youth than it does about moral decline.
I suspect that given the opportunity to hide in a crowd and get free stuff some kids and young adults of all generations past would have taken it, the difference now is that such opportunities are easier to manufacture.
If I were to offer a solution, my short answer would be education. Focus on those areas in cities known to be deprived and problematic, invest in social projects that schools can be a part of, teach civics, discourage tribalism (abolish faith schools) and encourage integration (invest in secular schools and institutions). Some of this takes money, which we know is in short supply, but the potential rewards are great and available in the relatively short term. Morality is largely about mutual self-interest, and a kid that torches local businesses that are potential employers simply does not understand where her own interest lies. This is a failure of civic instruction and these are concepts that parents in these circumstances may not understand sufficiently themselves to pass on. This is therefore a responsibility of society as a whole and good inclusive secular schools are the key.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Even I would go to this church

Here is a heartwarming story about an atheist clergyman in Holland who is teaching Christianity as a humanist religion.
"When it happens, it happens down to earth, between you and me, between people, that's where it can happen. God is not a being at all... it's a word for experience, or human experience."

Mr Hendrikse describes the Bible's account of Jesus's life as a mythological story about a man who may never have existed, even if it is a valuable source of wisdom about how to lead a good life.
This ticks a lot of boxes for me. For one thing I am pretty sure that the number of clergy worldwide who are in reality atheist or agnostic is a lot higher than might be apparent. Secondly a church that can expound and expand the good in people without recourse to a god is acknowledging what traditional Christians don't which is that people are intrinsically altruistic and don't need to be "saved".
One disappointing thing about the article though is this statement by Robert Pigott the journalist
But the message from Mr Hendrikse's sermon seems bleak - "Make the most of life on earth, because it will probably be the only one you get".

That's not a bleak message at all, it's a liberating one that encourages us to be the best we can be in the one life we have without burdening ourselves with guilt and fear about some mythical afterlife.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

La La La La It's not our fault

Fuck me the Pope's a wanker. Even if he actually believed this crap he should have the sense not to say it.
But yeah! Guess what? The Cloyne report is a pack of lies, the child abuse was the governments fault and by the way if a pedophile priest confesses we still won't tell you. I give up read it for yourself...
Tosser Pope absolves himself

Saturday, 30 July 2011

The role of the confessional in the Catholic child abuse scandal

The real scandal of the revelations about pedophile priests abusing children is not so much that it happened, although for the victims it is a personal tragedy, but that the Church so systematically covered for the perpetrators and failed to report cases to the secular authorities. Part of this is the unconscionable arrogance of the Holy See in believing its own cannon law supersedes the law of the countries in which it operates, but also the traditions of secrecy in the confessional will have provided ground cover for those priests who felt guilty enough to confess their transgressions to other priests.
The seal of the confessional is inviolate. No matter how heinous the crime committed by the "penitent", the priest hearing the confession is bound on pain of excommunication to keep the confession a secret. The only obligation on the priest is to seek advice from a superior, whilst still maintaining the anonymity of the penitent.
When the penitent is another priest confessing to fiddling with the altar boys, the "seal" provides an excellent excuse to keep the issue within the church and preserve its reputation. The dodgy priest's confessor need only seek advice and the hierarchy can begin operation cover-up.
In highly catholic countries, no government would question the seal of the confessional, but they should. If anyone has evidence that a serious crime has being committed, especially where circumstances suggest the crime will be repeated they should be legally bound to report this to the secular authorities before they talk to their superiors. It should be an offence for a priest to know about such crimes and not report them.
Pedophiles have a problem. Pedophilia is not of itself a crime, it is a psycho-sexual condition which like all other fetishes that fall outside of "normal" vanilla heterosexual concepts is probably more prevalent than anyone realises. Also, like most sexual orientations it is probably to some extent innate. However, no society is ever going to tolerate the sexual molestation of children, no matter how liberal it becomes and in my opinion rightly so.
I suspect, while offering no evidence whatsoever, that most pedophiles would rather not be attracted to minors so enforced celibacy in the priesthood may seem a good option for them. This will have the effect of concentrating these people within the ranks of the Catholic church and frankly, as long as they keep their vows of celibacy, that can only be a good thing. But if ever once they break those vows and molest children, they need to be exposed. The confessional is where they will go, and the confessional needs to grow up and 'fess up on its own account.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

It must be the wrong kind of sharia...

Isn't it ironic that one of the most conservative of British newspapers should get itself in a lather about a couple of stories involving alleged "sharia" in London boroughs?
O.K the stories are disturbing enough, in that a handful of Islamic dumbnuts have made unilateral statements that particular areas are under Sharia Law and will not tolerate alcohol, drugs, music, gay sex, liberated women prostitution or any other of the traditional liberties that grace British culture in the twenty-first century. But in all these cases the real law, you know, the one made by parliament and enforced by the police and the courts is dealing with them.
The irony lies in the fact that under normal circumstances, most of what this non existent sharia laws demands is exactly what the Daily mail would advocate if it wasn't being proposed by (faux) Muslims.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Vatican gets peevish

Following the publication of the Cloyne report into child abuse by Catholic priests the Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny issued a well-deserved rebuke to the Vatican over its continued attempts to save face rather than address the issues.
In response the Vatican has recalled its Apostolic Nuncio to Ireland, Archbishop Giuseppe Leanza for consultations.
However the Vatican cannot resist showing its offence at being publicly called out by Enda Kenny.
- The recalling of the Nuncio, a measure rarely used by the Holy See, denotes the seriousness of the situation, and the desire of the Holy See to deal with it objectivity and with determination, as well as a certain note of surprise and regret regarding some excessive reactions(my emphasis).
Excessive reactions? The gall of the church in the face of its abysmal behaviour is astounding. Even allowing for the absurdity of pretending it is in some kind of diplomatic relationship with the Irish state they are lucky their ersatz ambassador was not expelled.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Blag Hag's blogathon


Why am I promoting a donation to a U.S secular organisation? Because like it or not, where the U.S goes so do the rest of us. The U.S is in danger of becoming the biggest threat to reason in the world. The best strategy is to help the youth of that christian besieged nation to break free. Here's a fun way to do it. BTW Jen is awesome.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Religious bigotry is still bigotry.

Following on from the Equality Commission’s blatant misunderstanding of the difference between equality and privilege, the Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks has mounted his own attack against equality legislation.
“Lord” Sacks, who occupies this privileged position merely by dint of being a Rabbi and for no good democratic reason, believes that in expecting religious people to obey equality legislation we are impinging on their religious freedoms. Even further he believes it will create a new “Mayflower” mentality where the faithful will leave in search of these freedoms
“I share a real concern that the attempt to impose the current prevailing template of equality and discrimination on religious organisations is an erosion of religious liberty. We are beginning to move back to where we came in in the 17th century - a whole lot of people on the Mayflower leaving to find religious freedom elsewhere.”
For one thing, this is a gross misreading of history, the Pilgrim Fathers left for America to escape the domination of one state sponsored religious orthodoxy for the freedom to pursue whatever faith they desired. In doing so the founding fathers wrote a constitution expressly preventing the U.S government from establishing or promoting one religion over any other, or indeed none.
Sure, we can argue that America has constant constitutional battles and challenges from the Christian right over this, they too make the same bleating calls for special dispensation, but essentially you are free to believe what you like.
Well guess what? You can believe what you like in the U.K too. You can believe that women are inferior to men, you can believe that gays are evil and bound for hell, you can believe that black people are the descendents of Ham and natural slaves. You can believe all of these things and you can justify it as a faith position (actually, probably the only way you could justify it). You can proclaim your misogynistic, homophobic, racist putrescent beliefs to your hearts content.
What you cannot do is impose those beliefs on other human beings. What you cannot do is refuse services to people you disapprove of if you are employed, or set up in business to provide those services. What you cannot do is put your beliefs above the law, those equality laws are there to ensure no citizens are discriminated against in the public sphere.
As an atheist there is no reason I cannot be a bigot too, it’s not exclusively the preserve of religion, and if I were I would be prevented from imposing my bigotry on society by the same equality legislation. Just because your bigotry has religious motivation does not privilege you in anyway. If you don’t want to perform civil ceremonies for gay couples, don’t be a registrar! That is the decision I would have to make were I so inclined. Just because you are a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim does not make your bigotry special.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Equality Commission gets it wrong!

After a series of eminently sensible court rulings which dismissed cases of religious discrimination, the Equality Commission has now said that judges have been interpreting equality laws too narrowly.
Among the cases involved are
Ms Eweida, a Pentecostal Christian, was sent home from work in 2006 after refusing to remove a necklace with a cross

Mrs Chaplin was moved to a desk job by Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Trust Hospital for similar reasons

Mr McFarlane, a Bristol counsellor, was sacked for refusing to give relationship advice to gay people

Ms Ladele was disciplined after she refused to conduct same-sex civil partnership ceremonies in north London
Some of which I have mentioned on this blog.
Admittedly some of the cases appear trivial, like insisting on wearing a cross when all other employees are forbidden to wear jewellery, whereas others are egregious, like refusing to council or conduct civil partnerships for gays.
This is not about equality, it is about religious privilage and the Equality and Human Rights Commission of all bodies should see that.
The most ridiculous justification comes from John Wadham, legal group director at the commission.
Our intervention in these cases would encourage judges to interpret the law more broadly and more clearly to the benefit of people who are religious and those who are not.
The idea of making reasonable adjustments to accommodate a person's needs has served disability discrimination law well for decades.
It seems reasonable that a similar concept could be adopted to allow someone to manifest their religious beliefs.
Making adjustments for someone with a disability is promoting equality. It allows people to participate on as near equal terms in employment and society as possible. Making religious accommodation is promoting inequality in that it is privileging some people to pick and choose their duties and obligations based on religious views.
Why is this so difficult for people to understand? Have we spent so long pussyfooting around religious sensibilities that we can’t see the consequences? Unless of course by equating religious belief with disability they are admitting that faith is disabling, in which case we should treat the religious exactly as the original judges in these cases ruled by helping them to function as rational fully competent members of society despite their handicap. Admitting defeat does not assist them to participate fully in society on equal terms, in the same way that not providing an access ramp marginalizes a wheelchair user.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Talking to the Taliban

In the wake of announcements by President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron that substantial troop withdrawals are to be made from Afghanistan in the coming months, the prospect of engaging the Taliban in political talks has been raised by politicians on both sides of the Atlantic.
Now, while it is true that there are no ultimate military solutions to the problems in Afghanistan and a political resolution need to be found, I find it hard to believe that the Taliban can be engaged in this way. Even if the rhetoric from the west is true and the recent military surge has weakened the Taliban to the point where they could be persuaded to negotiate, what will they negotiate about?
The Taliban are not the Afghan equivalent of the IRA, their aims are not political or territorial they are cultural and religious.
The Taliban want an Islamist state and sharia law. They want to rule a country that forbids women an education and the right to work. It wants to force them to wear the burqa and be subject to male dominance. It wants to stone rape victims to death. It wants a theocracy with no god but Allah, where apostates and blasphemers can be killed with impunity.
These people do not have a middle ground, you cannot negotiate with Allah and whatever they appear to concede will quickly evaporate once they have the power and the west has gone away.
I have yet to hear any politician make this point, but I can’t believe they are not aware of it. Either they are afraid of insulting “moderate” Muslims by pointing out that it is their religion that is at the root of the problem or just a desire to seem reasonable in their engagement with the enemy. But whatever the reason it will do no good to pretend that the Taliban will, or even can negotiate in good faith.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Move over Palin...Make way for Michelle Bachmann

I don’t usually mention U.S politics, except perhaps in passing as many of the well-known atheist blogs carry enough of that already. However I have to mention Michelle Bachmann’s bid to become the Republican candidate for the 2012 presidential election.
The thing is, I’m not sure whether I’m pleased, on the basis that no sane person would ever vote this bible thumping, homophobic tea bagger conservative wingnut into the White House. Or terrified because there just might be enough insane Republican voters to put her there.
Make no mistake about this; “President” Bachmann would make George Bush look like a ultra liberal “pinko”. If she were leader of the free world, not only would civil rights, free speech and rational government become a thing of the past in America, the de-facto theocracy she would attempt to impose would become one of the most destabilising influences in world politics imaginable.
If you were ever disturbed by Bush’s anti-intellectualism, try some of Bachmann’s quotes for size:
"I find it interesting that it was back in the 1970s that the swine flu broke out under another, then under another Democrat president, Jimmy Carter. I'm not blaming this on President Obama, I just think it's an interesting coincidence." -Rep. Michele Bachmann, on the 1976 Swine Flu outbreak that happened when Gerald Ford, a Republican, was president, April 28, 2009

"There are hundreds and hundreds of scientists, many of them holding Nobel Prizes, who believe in intelligent design." -Rep. Michele Bachmann, Oct. 2006

"Carbon dioxide is portrayed as harmful. But there isn't even one study that can be produced that shows that carbon dioxide is a harmful gas." -Rep. Michelle Bachmann, April, 2009

"Does that mean that someone's 13-year-old daughter could walk into a sex clinic, have a pregnancy test done, be taken away to the local Planned Parenthood abortion clinic, have their abortion, be back and go home on the school bus? That night, mom and dad are never the wiser." -Rep. Michele Bachmann, on health care reform's potential to dupe parents, October 2009

If you trust the American people to find this rhetoric as absurd and abhorrent as I do, we have nothing to worry about and we can at least get another four years of Obama style centre politics (I won’t call him a liberal, all U.S politicians lean much further to the right than their equivalents in the U.K) and an administration that knows where the rest of the world is on a map. If on the other hand the Democrats over there don’t come out in force and vote, Bachmann’s God bothering, Christian nation brand of popularist conservatism could get her and the Tea Party Rethuglicans the power they crave. Then watch out!

Monday, 27 June 2011

This is sweet

This is a cute little story.Five Norfolk parishes are to install beehives in their churchyards in order to help the environment in response to the decline in honeybees.
Naturally they are also using this as a way to “…bring the local community together”, for which read create an opportunity to evangelise. Well O.K, you can’t blame them for that and the project is of itself a worthwhile one, however I couldn’t resist a wry smile at this…
"If we can get people together to look after bees... barriers can be brought down and people might feel that it's safe to come into church as well."
I wonder in what sense people feel it is not safe to go to church, other than maybe they’ll get suckered into believing a lot of mystical nonsense and end up crooning hymns to a long dead Palestinian every Sunday. Sort of the same reason people don’t feel safe attending timeshare presentations, they know there is a danger they might end up buying something they neither want nor need.
Whatever, I wish the church well with the bees and hope the locals will still get involved while avoiding the obvious sting.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

BHA calls out chair of EHRC

It's difficult to improve on the statements in the BHA newsletter which run as follows (Wiki link mine)
Humanists call for EHRC Chair Trevor Phillips to apologise, following ‘sectarian and divisive’ statements


The Chair of Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) Trevor Phillips has been called on to apologise by the British Humanist Association (BHA), after he made heavily biased remarks in favour of religious people and against the non-religious in an interview. The BHA has described Mr Phillips’ comments as ‘divisive and sectarian’.

With no reference whatever to the EHRC’s duties, which legally apply equally to the non-religious, Trevor Phillips stated: ‘Our business is defending the believer. The law we're here to implement recognises that religious identity is an essential part of this society. It's an essential element of being a fulfilled human being.’

He also made a number of acerbic comments about those who are critical of religious beliefs – an important right of free speech, which it is also the purpose of his commission to defend – and suggested that they wanted ‘to drive religion underground’, with no supporting evidence.

Trevor Phillips has something of an ambiguous position on free speech in relation to religion. For example he did say in response to the Dutch cartoons of Muhammed
"One point of Britishness is that people can say what they like about the way we should live, however absurd, however unpopular it is."
He has also spoken on the need for free speech to 'allow people to offend each other.'Which is definitely at odds with his current pronouncements.
I see no evidence that any secular body wants to drive religion underground. Personally I am passionate about exactly the opposite; religion should be visible, exposed and made to justify its claims. It is religion that hides in the shadows of obfuscation, theodicy and equivocation, not humanism and rational thought.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Religion is just a conspiracy theory

When I say “religion is a conspiracy theory”, I do not mean this in the Dan Brown sense with cabals of black frocked priests and secret societies hiding some deep “truth” from the rest of the world. No, I mean that religion, all of it, is a conspiracy theory.
In the classic conspiracy theory the underlying assumption is that there is an agent or agents clandestinely manipulating events that on the face of it have otherwise perfectly logical and rational explanations. Hence when Princess Diana has a fatal car accident in a French tunnel, (a predictable outcome of being driven too fast by a drunk driver while not wearing a seat belt) it becomes a murder plot involving MI5, senior members of the royal family, the British government, the French police, several coroners and the British and French judiciary. Or, when a lone gunman with a history of assassination attempts on US senators kills President Kennedy, a decades long confabulation of CIA, Russian or Zionist plots are implied as the “real” reason.
The typical signature of conspiracy theories is that they fail the test of Occam’s razor in that the “official” explanation of events is usually much more parsimonious than the conspiracy theory. Assumption is piled on assumption, collaborator upon collaborator until an edifice of daunting complexity is built, all to point to the original premise that “something fishy” is going on.
Our natural tendency to assume intelligent agency behind the simplest of phenomena is one explanation for the appeal and tenaciousness of conspiracy theories. This may be an evolved survival mechanism, if a bush moves in the savannah it is better to assume the presence of a predator and be wrong than assume the opposite and be eaten. Similarly, if enough people shout “tiger!” just because you can’t see it is probably not a good idea to ignore the warning.
Religion got started this way; If it rained or failed to rain, if you survived an illness or not, if the volcano blew, if the lightening struck. All these things required an explanation for the evolving human brain and in the absence of scientific explanations, intentionality was assumed and the conspiracy of the gods was born.
Once the conspiracy was established the familiar tropes emerged. Assumptions piled on assumptions, collaborators upon collaborators, fables upon fables all forming a self serving self supporting edifice that in the absence of cold hard facts to the contrary just grew and grew. Enough people have been yelling “GOD!” for long enough that it takes a strong will to resist buying into the conspiracy. You might not get eaten, but you could wind up in hell.
However, we have now had the police investigation, the results of the judicial enquiry are in and the official records have been made public. Yes, hundreds of years of scientific enquiry and examination of the facts have now proved conclusively that the conspiracy of the gods is just another confabulation. There is no Machiavellian mind behind the volcano, the rainfall or the lightening and no reason to believe there is one hiding behind any of the natural phenomena we observe, no matter how the universe shakes and rustles.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Bashing the (Arch)bishop

Dr Rowan Williams the current Archbishop of Canterbury has ruffled some political feathers by viciously criticising the current coalition government.
In an article for New Statesman magazine, he accuses the coalition of “committing Britain to radical, long-term policies for which no-one voted", and accusing them of creating “anxiety and anger” in the country by moving forward with swift reforms without sufficient public debate.
Now I suspect that Dr Williams is one of those people I would like in person. As churchmen go, he is a small “l” liberal, with something of a radical past and a nuanced theology, which actually makes me suspect that like a lot of intelligent people in church hierarchies his religious beliefs are far from literal.
I also have some sympathy with some, though not all of his concerns though perhaps for different reasons. He, for example is sceptical of Cameron’s “Big Society” as am I, but where he sees it as a cover for spending cuts, I see it as a cover for faith communities to gain undue influence (maybe he’s missing that opportunity). Also like me he is critical of “Free Schools” although I’m not sure of his motivation (mine is outlined elsewhere).
But all this aside and regardless whether I agree with the substance of his article, the attention it has drawn is yet another example of the ridiculous amount of weight we give to religious opinion. Dr Williams is a theologian (a dubious academic discipline at the best of times) and a poet; he is a member of the House of Lords purely by dint of being a Bishop, totally un-elected and representative of nobody’s views but his own. He cannot even be said to be representing the views of his flock, since Archbishop is not a position you reach democratically. What exactly is his constituency that makes his voice so powerful in the political arena?
The answer of course is the continuation of the established church, a situation that has so little relevance in our multicultural and largely secular society that it is surely time we divorced religion (and certainly a specific religion) from our government altogether. This in my view would be the best outcome of wholesale reform of the House of Lords.
It would not prevent high profile clergy from expressing their political and social opinions and nor should it, but it would put them in the appropriate position of being just another voice in the marketplace of ideas, rather than a privileged arm of government allowing us and our elected officials to treat those opinions accordingly.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Troops from 16 Air Assault Brigade hold Afghan service

I’m going to do my best not to sound churlish about this, nor am I intending to trivialise the tremendous risks and sacrifices made by our troops abroad. But I could not help thinking that the thanksgiving service held today at St Edmundsbury Cathedral in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk need not have been, and should not have been such an explicitly Anglican one.
It’s a fair bet that a significant number of the troops attending will be atheists or agnostics, of those that are religious as well as Anglicans there will be Catholics, other protestant sects, Hindus Sikhs and Muslims, so it seems unfortunate that the event was run by the state sponsored religion.
I understand the logic of course; the Queen is the head of the Church of England and Commander in Chief of the Army. These people fight on behalf of queen and country and the established religion gets the job helping them deal with the aftermath.
Lets leave aside for one moment the obvious snipe…
Soldiers from the Army's largest brigade have attended a service to give thanks for their return from Afghanistan and to remember the fallen.
i.e “Giving thanks” to some deity for safe return but conveniently ignoring the point that the same deity is presumably responsible for the deaths as well, in favour of considering why, in this enlightened age we cannot have secular ceremonies that would also have ecumenical religious aspects to allow soldiers of all faiths and none to find their own meaning and comfort.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Proselytising Doctors

The Telegraph has highlighted this story of a doctor censured by the general medical council for discussing faith with his patients.
Dr Richard Scott is part of a practice called the Bethesda Medical Centre in Margate, Kent – a practice well-known for having Christian partners - and has been threatened with an Official Warning by the GMC and is currently under investigation following a complaint by the parent of young patient.
In 2010, Dr Scott saw a patient on the practice list at the request of the patient’s mother. At the end of the consultation, the patient and doctor discussed religion, each being of different faiths. The patient has continued to seek treatment from the practice, but his mother filed an official complaint, claiming that the GP had not offered medical advice during a consultation, but instead, talked about Jesus! [source]
Apparently Dr Scott claims he only did so after a lengthy medical consultation and that no objection was made at the time.
Actual facts about this seem to be scarce. It is clear that the Bethesda practice is overtly christian in nature and perhaps someone not of that faith should choose a different practice if they do not want to be exposed to it. However, most people in this country would normally expect a medical professional to confine their advice to the domain in which they were consulted i.e medicine and keep their religion to themselves. If a practice wants to style itself on christian lines, perhaps to demonstrate faith as a motivation to public good, I suppose that's fine, but it should not be seen as an invitation to evangelise. Also the suggestion that the parent did not complain at the time is hardly surprising. Most people are polite and naturally deferential to doctors who are among the most respected professionals in the country, so while someone like me might well call them out on such an unwarranted intrusion into non-medical areas, a mother accompanying a child may well wait until later to complain.
On the available evidence I cannot decide whether the GMC are over reacting to this event or not. If this is the first time such a complaint has been made, I would take the view that sullying the personal record of a doctor with twenty-eight years unblemished service is probably harsh and unnecessary. Also, I would hope that the good doctor has learnt that such transgressions of professional boundaries are inappropriate and avoid them in future.
Beyond that, personally I would call the matter closed, except to say that attempts by the Telegraph and Christian Concern to frame this as evidence of persecution of christians is absurd and unhelpful. Christians and indeed all faiths are at complete liberty to ply their wares, set out their stalls and attract the "rubes" to their own peculiar and contradictory brands of irrationality without restriction. But, as consumers of professional services, be it medicine or any other, nobody should expect religion to be offered as part of the package if they didn't buy into it at the outset.

Update:
the description of the Bethesda Medical Centre on the NHS website is rather extraordinary (bold emphasis added):

WELCOME TO BETHESDA MEDICAL CENTRE

Bethesda was a place in Bible where Christ healed a lame man and means literally 'house of mercy'
The 6 Partners are all practising Christians from a variety of Churches and their faith guides the way in which they view their work and responsibilities to the patients and employees. The Partners feel that the offer of talking to you on spiritual matters is of great benefit. If you do not wish this, that is your right and will not affect your medical care. Please tell the doctor (or drop a note to the Practice Manager) if you do not wish to speak on matters of faith.

"So it seems faith is something patients must opt out of at that surgery." [Source]

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

I like this joke

I've always liked Emo Phillips but you don't hear much from him these days. Anyway commenter "democommie" over at Despatches From the Culture Wars posted this and I thought I'd share...
I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. So I ran over and said "Stop! don't do it!" "Why shouldn't I?" he said. I said, "Well, there's so much to live for!" He said, "Like what?" I said, "Well...are you religious or atheist?" He said, "Religious." I said, "Me too! Are you christian or buddhist?" He said, "Christian." I said, "Me too! Are you catholic or protestant?" He said, "Protestant." I said, "Me too! Are you episcopalian or baptist?" He said, "Baptist!" I said,"Wow! Me too! Are you baptist church of god or baptist church of the lord?" He said, "Baptist church of god!" I said, "Me too! Are you original baptist church of god, or are you reformed baptist church of god?" He said,"Reformed Baptist church of god!" I said, "Me too! Are you reformed baptist church of god, reformation of 1879, or reformed baptist church of god, reformation of 1915?" He said, "Reformed baptist church of god, reformation of 1915!" I said, "Die, heretic scum", and pushed him off.

Emo Phillips

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Bin Laden: Thoughts on conspiracy and jubilance

Ever since the news broke that Osama Bin Laden had been killed by a U.S task force in his Pakistani compound, almost everyone I’ve talked to has suggested that the American government might be making it up.
The desire to see conspiracy theories in practically everything to do with 9/11 is, to my mind, totally bizarre and the credibility of such theories close to zero.
For a start, what possible benefit is there to lying about killing Bin Laden? The only possible one I can think of (that they might just get away with) is that they actually have him in custody, but don’t want Al Qaeda to know. In which case they’ll pump him for whatever they can get then kill him and bury him at sea. But it’s hard not to suppose that Obama could resist the propaganda win of actually having Bin Laden stand trial.
But anyway, that’s not what is being claimed. People are saying it’s a stunt to restore Obama’s popularity, or to cover for death by natural causes but that’s not credible as Al Qaeda could expose either in a heartbeat. Sorry people, but sometimes the world is exactly as it appears to be.

So accepting the fact that he is dead, does it really do the American people any justice to be seen dancing in the streets with jubilation?
In my opinion no, nor is it seemly for their politicians or ours to be claiming a moral win for assassinating an individual on someone else’s sovereign territory. Incidentally, assassination is probably the correct word here, because it seems that the operation was mounted with no intent to apprehend him, only kill.
For one thing, to his ultra-Islamist followers, we have just delivered a martyr. They believe he is in paradise right now. For another, in reality death is no punishment for Bin Laden, as he no longer exists (not even in paradise), so we have denied the world an opportunity to actually make him pay for his crimes. I know, I know… to the Christian right he is suffering that punishment in the fires of hell, but we have no more reason to believe that, than that he’s getting started on his first couple of dozen virgins. If we want people punished we should use due process and the international courts. That’s how we maintain the moral high ground and advance democracy and the rule of law, not by deploying hit squads.

I’m not saying that the world is not a different and potentially safer place by killing Osama Bin Laden it’s just that celebrating the death of anyone, no matter how dangerous to society, seems wrong.
We can be pleased, that for now, the game has tipped in our favour. We can accept that our all too human desire for vengeance had been temporarily appeased. But celebrating in the streets at the death of Bin Laden makes us no better than the Muslims that celebrated the assassination of Salman Taseer
Presumably given his extensive family there will be people who loved Osama Bin Laden as a son, a brother or a father. They will not be celebrating.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Who wants a Templeton then?

I hate to lay into one of Britain’s most popular science presenters, not to mention one of the country's pre-eminent fertility specialists in this way. But Dr Robert Winston is not the ambassador for scientific rationality we might wish him to be.
In this interview with Sam Harris he nails his accomodationist colours firmly to the wall in such a nauseating post-modern way that any claim that he understands the point of the scientific method goes completely out of the same second floor window he presumably uses (pace Isaac Newton) when he leaves for work in the morning.
Take this exchange:
SH: Religious language is, without question, unscientific in its claims for what is true. We have Christians believing in the holy ghost, the resurrection of Jesus and his possible return – these are claims about biology and physics which, from a scientific point of view in the 21st century, should be unsustainable.

RW: You talk as if science is an absolute, and I don't think it is at all. It isn't the truth either, because I don't believe there is such a thing as "the truth". You rail against the ultimate truth of what some people believe – ie religion, God, Jesus, whatever. I don't, because I don't think it makes any more sense than railing against scientific truths. I say "truths" in inverted commas, because truths have a habit of being altered as we develop our knowledge.
Sure scientific truths are subject to change, or more accurately refinement as new evidence presents itself. But that is completely different from religious “truths” inferred from ancient neolithic tomes and and believed to be unchangeable for eternity, whatever the evidence against them.
It’s embarrassing. This is the kind of idiocy we expect from the U.S on a regular basis, but it’s cringe making from one of the U.K’s most prominent scientists. It matters too, because Dr Winston is an influential person, a popular educator in a country where scientific literacy is not all it should be and it gives succour to the “intelligent design” proponents who would redefine science to suit their creationist agenda.
The bizarre thing is, no matter how much respect Dr Winston has for religion (and that’s entirely a matter for him) I find it hard to understand how a scientist of his stature can really believe there is no difference between the “truths” of science and religion. A cynic might think he was angling for a Templeton prize, and if he keeps this drivel up, he might just get one.