"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.
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.