"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

Monday, 28 February 2011

Should this "Homophobic" couple foster?

This is an unfortunate story. The high court has upheld a decision by Derby City Council not to allow a Christian couple to foster children because of their views on homosexuality. Eunice and Owen Johns, went to court after a social worker expressed concern when they said they could not tell a child a "homosexual lifestyle" was acceptable.

First of all I don’t think this is a Christian issue at all and shouldn’t be framed as such. This aspect of the story has either been emphasised to suggest the couple are “good” people and being hard done by , which is not necessarily the case, or to highlight that Christians are homophobic, also not universally true. What is true is that were they not Christians it is unlikely that the subject of homosexuality would have arisen in quite this way. I would be surprised if there were not plenty of people actively fostering who have wrong headed views about the LGBT community that have nothing to do with their religion.

For what it is worth I think this is a poor decision framed in the wrong context. This couple have fostered fifteen Children before, presumably perfectly satisfactorily. They are wanting to to be respite carers for short-term placements for a single child between five and ten years old. This being the case and if they are sincere, all this couple need to do is refrain from proselytising and avoid the subject, which should not be difficult with young children, even if highly sexualised by circumstances. Sensitive choice of placements by the council would help too. If they are aware that the child has gender orientation issues, send them somewhere else.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Why we're not ready for the "Big Society"

David Cameron’s “big society” idea has taken a bit of a knock recently. For the most part this is because local government spending cuts appear to be affecting the very infrastructure that most people’s concept of “big society” requires. I’ll come back to this later as there is a valid argument that says if you are closing down already successful volunteer organisations like the citizen’s advice bureau, it’s a bit rich to expect local communities to start volunteering for other projects. Lead by example guys!
But actually I think “The Big Society” as Cameron wants it has a much deeper-rooted problem. Here in Britain, we just don’t get it!
Cameron is looking to the U.S model of public service provision where local communities provide a lot of the social welfare support, and where civically minded groups and individuals will tidy up public spaces or adopt a stretch of highway to clean. But this is a model baked in a completely different political environment. The U.S is a country of low taxation, small government, local legislature and local democracy. Historically U.S citizens have not expected the government to pay for the sorts of things we take for granted in Britain. However in Britain we are taxed relatively highly at both a national and local level, we pay our council tax and expect the park to be clean, a library available and support for the sick, old and homeless to be on tap. That is the way our country has worked for decades and we don’t see why it should be any different.
I’m not making a political case for a smaller welfare state here, just pointing out that even under Conservative governments we are a “big government” sort of country and it will likely take a long time and radical reform to change that. Even should we wish to.
As a result the U.S has developed a strong infrastructure that makes it possible for local communities to mobilise. Inevitably in such a religious country the churches and chapels are the primary hubs for local charity and civic projects, (which may be one of the few positive purposes they serve) but that is unlikely to be replicated here and it probably would not be a welcome development in any case. However if we are to agree that greater civic participation is a good thing, (and I can’t think of a reason why it wouldn’t be) the first thing we need is secular spaces where like-minded people can meet and organise. It doesn’t matter if that is a local library or the village hall or even the pub (actually especially the pub!). We also need local politicians to seed projects that need our input with some leadership and resources. The “big society” will have to start small, and we will have to be led by the nose for a while. So closing the libraries, and the advice bureaus is not a good move until we all get the “big” idea for ourselves.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Church plans to teach "creationism" in Free School

It was inevitable that sooner or later some religious organisation would confirm my fears over the coalition’s Free School project. Here it is in the form of the Everyday Champions Church, based in Newark, Nottinghamshire, who have made an application to open a free school in which evolution will be taught “as a theory”.
Although their Pastor Gareth Morgan says...
'Creationism will be embodied as a belief at the Everyday Champions Academy but will not be taught in the sciences.
their website says
'values of the Christian faith will be the foundation of the school philosophy…We believe that the Bible is God's Word. It is accurate, authoritative and applicable to our every day lives.'
In which case it is difficult to see how the science will not be undermined by other areas of the curriculum.
I probably need not point out (but I will) that the very fact that they say evolution will be taught “as a theory” already shows a total lack of understanding about the scientific method. A theory in science is the highest status any explanation of the universe achieves. There is no graduation to “fact” or “law”, because science always allows for new evidence to modify a given theory. It is just as sensible to talk about a theory of gravity as it is about a theory of evolution.
Besides, the “theory” in The Theory of Evolution, following Darwin, is not a theory about whether life evolves, but how it does it.
The failure of the Everyday Champions Church to understand such fundemental scientific concepts should automatically disqualify them from being allowed anywhere near children's education.
Micheal Gove has consistently made assurances that children will be protected from extremist views in Free Schools and the best way he can demonstrate this is to quickly and publicly refuse this application, if only to dissuade other purveyors of neolithic superstitions from attempting the same.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

On political correctness

Invariably when stories like this or this one get aired, charges of “political correctness gone mad” are levied, as though the “right” of people to discriminate on gender or racial grounds is something that needs defending. This is unfortunate because it is undoubtedly true that excessive concern to be politically correct does lead to bad legislation and petty rules of social behaviour, which can be positively damaging to the cause of equality in our society.
In instances like the above, in which people running a business or providing a professional service have refused (in these cases on religious grounds) to serve members of the GLBT community it is not runaway political correctness to apply anti-discrimination laws and censure them. If you operate in a public space it is a sign of civilised behaviour to treat everyone who shares that space equally and to expect that others will do the same. When people are prevented from accessing services or transacting business on the grounds of race or gender it causes them genuine harm, financially, emotionally and in some circumstances, physically. It infringes their freedom to fully participate in wider society. This does not impinge on anyone’s right to hold sexist, racist or “otherist” opinions and should not restrict their right to voice them appropriately, it only restricts the ability to cause harm to others on the basis of such opinions. Charges of political correctness under these conditions are inappropriate and unhelpful.
But political correctness does exist and we need to be aware of it, especially when it is dressed up as protecting equality, but is in fact restricting public discourse.
One of the most pernicious forms of political correctness is the prohibition of certain types of language and particular words on the grounds that “it may offend” a certain subset of society. For example we have got to a point practically all over the English speaking world where the word “nigger” cannot be used in any context whatsoever, even if obliquely referencing the word itself. Recently BBC Radio 4’s PM program was discussing a new edition of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn in which the word “Nigger” which appears over two hundred times has been redacted. Now to my mind the Bowdlerising of a classic novel in this way is of itself the worst kind of political correctness, but what made the radio discussion even more infuriating was the constant use of the euphemistic “N-word” instead of saying “Nigger”, which we all knew was the subject matter. Now both the redaction and the PM programme are attempting to avoid insulting the black community, but although there are ways of using the word that certainly would be insulting, this kind of usage isn’t; or at least shouldn’t be. In fact by sanitising the word, or removing it from context we are doing two things. One is that we are assuming a lack of reason and intelligence among black people that would cause them to be offended by such abstract usage; the other is that we are in danger of forgetting why its derogatory use is genuinely and quite understandably offensive.
I can make similar arguments about the use of “the C-word” or “the F-word” in contexts where adults should be able to discuss the language without fear of offending the vicar’s wife. We recently had the embarrassing spectacle of James Naughtie apologising profusely on air for accidentally saying “Jeremy Cunt” instead of “Jeremy Hunt” when referring to the coalition culture secretary on the Today Programme. Bearing in mind he wasn’t apologising for any possible insult to Mr Hunt, only that he had used an inappropriate word.
The other overly politically correct uses of language, as typically indulged in by town councils and public bodies, are when otherwise innocuous phrases are twisted out of context to cause some imagined offence to someone. I heard from a stand-up comedian recently about this gem from Tunbridge Wells Council who tried to ban the use of “Brainstorm” in favour of “Thought Shower” to avoid offending epileptics.
Similarly I find attempts to substitute “Christmas” with “Holiday” pointless and pathetic. Christmas is not a holiday I celebrate in a religious sense and neither do Muslims, Jews or Jedi but to deny that the majority of the country, Christian or otherwise, don’t relate to “Happy Christmas” as a greeting or on a council banner is ludicrous.
So as not to get carried away with overly politically correct language however, there are some substitutions with which I agree and don’t in my opinion constitute over reaction. For example substituting “Chair” or “Chairperson” for “Chairman” is entirely warranted as anything that implies a role is gender restricted is undesirable. “Access cover” instead of “Manhole cover” is also fine in my book (and sounds less like a butt plug).
The concept of political correctness is a useful one. In the somewhat disparaging way the term is used today it can be a way of pointing to excesses that limit free speech and confine our intellectual space. However it will cease to be useful if it is applied to laws and societal norms that are genuinely protecting minorities from discrimination, rather than just protecting them from imagined offence.