"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

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Ratzi denies infertile Catholics IVF

When is this celibate, misogynistic child abusing old man going to stop telling the rest of us what to do with our bodies? Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger using his religious mafia alias of Pope Benedict XVI, not content with insisting that every sperm is sacred, now says it isn’t sacred enough. At least not when it’s in a petri dish fertilising an ovum in vitro it isn’t.
"The human and Christian dignity of procreation, in fact, doesn't consist in a 'product,' but in its link to the conjugal act, an expression of the love of the spouses of their union, not only biological but also spiritual,"
Oh please! If a couple are committed enough to go through several, frequently expensive rounds of IVF in order to start a family of their own isn’t that an “expression of love” just as meaningful as a few minutes of copulatory gymnastics? So when infertile Catholics ignore him (which many will) and successfully raise a child are we to assume he will refuse the children baptism into his church? No, of course he won’t as that would mean being logically and morally consistent, something which the Vatican is totally incapable of.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Muslims fail to condemn the violence

Violence continues in Afghanistan in the wake of the accidental burning by US troops of copies of the Qu’ran confiscated from detainees at Bagram Air Base. In all to date some Forty Afghans and Four US soldiers have died for this putative insult to Islam, despite apologies for the mistake from the US president Barak Obama.
It is easy to claim, as many do that the actions of the Taliban over this incident is opportunist politicising and that this blatant and immoral over reaction to the destruction of some printed matter is not representative of Islam as a religion. But, the silence from the Muslim community is deafening. Unless I’ve missed it, and I’ve been looking, there has been nothing but rhetoric against the American “insensitivity” and insults to Islam, but no outright condemnation of the violent and murderous response.
So here is a challenge to all of you moderate and influential Muslims and while I’m at it to the Christians too, who also seem less than eager to point out the obvious fact that paper and ink is not equivalent to a human life: Prove that religion has morals, prove that reason can prevail over dogma and prove that if anything is sacred to you it is sentient life above symbols and artefacts.
This failure to unequivocally condemn violence in the face of such a trivial and unintentional "insult" exposes the bankruptcy of the arguments of Baroness Warsi that religion is a force for moral stability. The Baroness, herself a Muslim is in an ideal position to speak out against the injustice of the Taliban's response and vindicate her faith and religion in general against the charges of intolerance levelled against it. But I’m not holding my breath. While she is happy to rail against “militant” secularists who speak in the name of true tolerance and freedom of expression, I doubt she will have the courage to speak against her religion, even when it behaves so abominably.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Slurs on Dawkins prove the battle is won

You know you’ve won the argument when all the opposition can do is attack you personally. Or even better when all they can do is attack one of your remote slave owning ancestors and then imply you are guilty by association. Or better yet, when they make a scene over falling for a “gotcha” question on a live radio interview. Yes, I think we can safely say that Richard Dawkins’ excellent piece of research, commissioned from Ipsos Mori on the real extent of Christian belief in this country has got a few people rattled. The results available in the link above are devastating to those who would argue that Britain is to any meaningful extent a “Christian nation”. For one thing a preliminary conclusion is that only 54% of census forms were returned with Christian as a religious affiliation, down from 72% last time. We await the full census results to verify that figure but if true it is a significant decline.
But of those self-selected, self-describing Christians polled by Ipsos-Mori on behalf of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science a significant number do not know or believe in the central tenets of the faith, do not pray, and do not go to church. The question that led to Richard Dawkins’ faux pas on the today program was this one from the poll

Q23. What is the first book of the NEW Testament?
  •  Matthew 35 %
  • Genesis 19 %
  • Acts of the Apostles 3 %
  • Psalms 3 %
  • Don’t know 39 %
  • Prefer not to say 1%
 So 39% of these self selected Christians honestly knew they didn’t know and 19% can’t tell the OT from the NT.
I’m actually very surprised by this result as I would expect most people, religious or not, educated in our school system to know this, especially as it is presented as a multiple-choice question. It was therefore a pertinent point for Dawkins to make when interviewed on Radio 4’s today program.
In response co-interviewee Reverend Giles Fraser asked Dawkins to name the full title of Darwin’s Origin of Species (On The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in The Struggle for Life), which apart from or perhaps because of its irrelevence caught him off guard.
The point is, that all weekend Dawkins has been the subject of attack and attempted ridicule on totally spurious grounds because an independently commissioned scientific poll has proved something we all knew, but has been denied by interested parties; that the relevence of the Church to public life is minimal and that our constitutional religion is a sham making the case for secularism even more sound and negating the assertions of Baroness Warsi that faith and God should be central to our way of life. More interestingly the reactions from the press and the attempt to use Dawkins’ ancestral family and personal foibles to detract from the unassailable conclusions of this research prove that the intellectual battle is won. Let the culture war begin…

Friday, 17 February 2012

This time the EHRC get it right

Trevor Phillips of the the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has been speaking at a debate in London on diverse societies and has weighed in on the right side of the argument against allowing religious privilage in respect of the equality laws in this country. This is ecouraging because as I pointed out back in July 2011 the EHRC is also capable of some very muddy and confused thinking about this issue. However I won’t rehearse these arguments again as I’ve posted a lot on this subject recently but Phillips’ main point is this:
“You can’t say because we decide we’re different then we need a different set of laws […] To me there’s nothing different in principle with a Catholic adoption agency, or indeed Methodist adoption agency, saying the rules in our community are different and therefore the law shouldn’t apply to us. Why not then say sharia can be applied to different parts of the country? It doesn’t work.”
Which seems fair enough to me. The reference to sharia has resulted in a number of puerile (and one or two racist) comments in the Telegraph about how we are a “Christian nation” so Christians can get a free shout but Muslims shouldn’t; but the fact is that no religion should. Even if it were true that people in this country generally accepted that modern society is built on Christian principles that is not a case for religious majoritarianism. We also have well established democratic systems in place which gives elected governments the mandate to enact laws on our behalf. If there really is a religious majority in this country who want our equality laws to be less equal, they must field candidates on that manifesto and vote for them at the ballot box. In the meantime, and until such time as they have convinced enough people to vote the same way they are as obliged as the rest of us to respect the laws as they stand.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

There is nothing "militant" about secularism

In their own small understated and typically British way the culture wars have been skirmishing around the U.K in the last few days. Following the ruling on Bideford Town Council which concluded that prayers on its meeting agenda were not lawful under section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972 there has been a flurry of media discussion about whether or not we are a “Christian nation”, and if so is that heritage under attack from “militant” secularism. Baroness Warsi, has today warned that religion is being ”marginalised” in our country
My fear today is that a militant secularisation is taking hold of our societies. We see it in any number of things: when signs of religion cannot be displayed or worn in government buildings; when states won’t fund faith schools; and where religion is sidelined, marginalised and downgraded in the public sphere.
And this on a day when we are apparently “celebrating” thirty years of diplomatic relations with the Vatican, by sending a delegation of ministers to Rome with Baroness Warsi at their head. I’ll leave you ponder the irony of that. But the Baroness then goes on, stealing rhetoric from the American religious right
For me, one of the most worrying aspects about this militant secularisation is that at its core and in its instincts it is deeply intolerant. It demonstrates similar traits to totalitarian regimes – denying people the right to a religious identity because they were frightened of the concept of multiple identities.
This is of course what those of us of a philosophical bent call “bollocks”. There is nothing in the secular movement that is intolerant or totalitatarian. Nobody is suggesting that individuals have to hide their faith or deny their religious identity. The only argument is whether our institutions have the right to presume religiosity, and worse a particular brand of religiosity on behalf of the citizens of this country. Secular institutions are the state’s guarantee of religious freedom as well as freedom from religion and ensure that religious majoritarianism does not marginalise minority faiths and other world views. Secularism is the route by which deontological and theological morality can be questioned and if found wanting discarded in favour of usually more tolerant and inclusive ideas.
I am particularly amused by the idea that secularists should be frightened by the concept of “multiple identities” when it is religion that that is typically tribal, misogynistic and homophobic. Baroness Warsi is a Muslim but arguing vehemently for recognition of Britain’s Christian heritage and prepared to stand “side by side” with the Pope in fighting for faith. This seems very laudable and inclusive but it is hard to escape the irony that many with whom she shares her faith are in fact the worst kind of totalitarians, demanding death for blasphemers and apostates and seeing Christians as the enemy. It is often the case that religions call a truce between themselves when faced with what they see as the common foe of secularism, but miss the point that it is only in a secular democracy that all faiths have the luxury of coexistence and freedom of conscience within the law to practice their beliefs unmolested by the ruling theocracy.
Secularism is not a militant or extreme ideology; secularism is the moderate position, the centre ground that presumes we all have the right to faith or lack of it according to our worldview without the state promoting one ideology over the other. Religious people and their spokespersons are free to argue their respective corners on the political moral landscape we share, there is nothing in the secular agenda that prevents or stifles this fundemental right to freedom of expression. Secularism is not in any sense a state imposed atheism and those arguing against it are being at best disengenuous when they imply that it is.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Feminists divided by a common language

WARNING: This post references language that some may find offensive.

I have this very bad habit of not being able to leave certain issues alone when reading other people's blogs. One of the subjects I really should avoid commenting on is sexist language, because I seem to hold an opinion which I see as being quite reasonable but apparently raises the ire of a certain species of feminist. This disturbs me because I consider myself a feminist and I find very little to disagree with in most of the assumptions of the movement. However I am suspicious of the assertion that the use of certain words is automatically sexist regardless of context and intention, mainly because creating taboos in language even for good sociopolitical reasons is something that should not be done lightly. So a couple of days ago, Jen McCreight at Blag Hag posted this "bingo card" of apologetics for using the word "cunt" which many argue is an intrinsically sexist word. My contribution and the immediate responses are as follows...
February 7, 2012 at 2:59 PM

Context is important, and words do not always mean what you think they mean or even what the speaker intended them to mean even if they meant what they thought they said. Semantic arguments for or against; cunt, bitch, fag , nigger, wop, kike, wally, etc are probably flawed and futile. Righteous indignation over the application of these words to individuals is perfectly justified and should be condemned unequivocally, but I’m not convinced that language is really the battleground we should be fighting on. Penn of course is being a douche when he uses cunt in that context, and in that context it is sexist, as is my use of the insult “douche” (arguably, unless you can think of another derivation) but cunt, like bitch and prick and knob have deviated from their gender affiliations and in many contexts mean something else. The word “gay” is currently undergoing the same transformation and while it is obvious and reprehensible that its de novo translation as “pathetic” or “disappointing” has homophobic roots, it does not necessarily have that intention in the throat of every teen that uses it. “Gay” once had no gender, “bitch” was on a par with doe or hen or vixen as a descriptive but not derogatory gender term. Language changes, and these days rapidly so it doesn’t seem productive to me to angst over particular words unless they are obviously and intentionally being used slanderously.

Reply Antonov An-225 says: February 7, 2012 at 3:09 PM

Thanks ever so much for telling us ladies not to worry our pretty little heads about this.

Reply Ms. Daisy Cutter, Feral Fembeast says: February 7, 2012 at 3:55 PM

I’d like to second Antonov An-225 in thanking you for mansplaining language to our teensy widdle ladybrains, which obviously are too emotional to understand when we are or aren’t being slurred. Whatever would we do without all-knowing dudes like you to tell us how to do feminism and not to “angst” over things that don’t bother your privileged self?
I had a little follow up whinge about the "mansplaining"comment but that is not the point of this post. You see I was so taken aback that what seemed to me to be a relatively benign and almost self evident comment should get that kind of reaction that I looked a bit more closely at the argument and realised where I had gone wrong. You see I still think my point is generally valid, but it is culturally relative to an extent of which I was completely naive and unaware. The middle square on the bingo card reads "England" which I took to mean that the word "cunt" is used so ubiquitously in the UK that it has become essentially meaningless, or at any rate divorced from its anatomical root to render it gender neutral. Now I believe this is true, in fact I would say that "cunt" and its less contentious stablemate "twat" are used completely non-cognitively in Britain and most people who use and hear the word in its abusive context frequently would struggle to make the connection to vaginas without being prompted. My error was assuming that this is also true in the US which, it transpires, is not the case.
The Blag Hag post was a follow up to one about the magician Penn Jilette who had called a woman a cunt in a tweet. At the time this struck me as slightly odd as here in the UK it would be very rare to insult a woman using that word and extremely outrageous. However in the US it is in fact the norm, it's a deliberate derogatory aimed primarily at women, or when used of a man intended to feminise him with sexist implications of inferiority. This is so far away from the British use or abuse of the word it's tantamount to being a different language. In fact in Britain the use is almost exclusively masculine and (I suspect) that due to its hard phonetic edge feels wrong when applied to a woman.
I am not sure to what extent this translates across to other gender words. "Bitch" seems to have become extremely plastic in the way it can be used, in gender negative, gender positive and gender neutral contexts, but on balance I think its association with perceived female traits makes its use sexist on both sides of the pond, at least if not used with caution. However it is worth being aware of the potential cultural divide in perceptions of sexism in profane language. These words are by definition used out of context in linguistic environments which will cause them to deviate wildly from their original meanings, so while I stand by my comment despite the reaction, I will concede that those arguing for the obvious sexism in "cunt" are absolutely correct within American culture and unless or until it acquires the same guttural meaningless it has acquired here should not be used by any American who considers themselves a feminist. Needless to say, it's not one of my favourite words under any circumstances, but it is useful to have the odd heavy weapon in your arsenal of available expletives. You just have to be careful what country you drop it on.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Open letter to the offended faithful

Dear Believer
I would like to start by clearing up what may be a misconception among theists about the secular movement. In the main, we are not deliberately going out of our way to cause offence to individuals of any given faith, nor are we wantonly disrespectful of your right to believe in the tenets and sacred icons of your religion.
We understand that you feel uncomfortable when the doctrines of your holy books are questioned and that it annoys you when the errors in your inerrant scriptures are pointed out. We also know that you are offended when your prophets and your saviours are caricatured and in some cases even when represented at all. Also we know how you feel when the truths you find self-evident are not only dismissed but also satirised by those whose views differ from your own and we empathise with the frustration and anger that can be borne of seeing your own righteous view of the world ignored.
The secularists, humanists and atheists of the world acknowledge and understand all of this because we experience it too. We feel uncomfortable when evidence is ignored in favour of dogma and annoyed when Neolithic and medieval mores are maintained at the expense of equality. We too are offended when our spokespeople and luminaries are reviled as racist for condemning cultural practises that oppress minorities. We feel frustration and anger that progress in realising fundamental individual human rights for everyone is impeded by calls from religious leaders for their faith’s communitarian “rights” to be respected at the expense of the rights of individuals.
So if we are so aware of the offence we can cause to some of you religious people why do we continue to criticise and satirise your beliefs in public? In part it is because you have made those beliefs central to the public discourse on both a political and social level. You are using scripture and religious tradition to justify opposition to social reforms that will allow marginalised individuals access to the benefits of institutions previously closed to them. You are using putative offences against supernatural beings as an argument against voluntary euthanasia and in some parts of the world to deny legally sanctioned sexual health care for women. You are also appealing to communitarian rights to exempt your institutions from complying with democratically sanctioned social legislation where they conflict with your doctrine. Some secularists find all of this very offensive.
Consequently, we who hold opposing views on these vexed and pressing issues are forced to address your arguments. If you only argue from evidence, or political conviction we can stay on that agenda, but if you insist on using your faith in a supernatural supreme being of whatever tradition please don’t be surprised if we meet you on that turf too. If you see your beliefs as sacred, and you expect to be offended if they are challenged or ridiculed, as all beliefs will be in the cut and thrust of debate, leave them out of the argument. If your worldview is such that your faith is central to the debate, then fine, but accept that you will be offended.
But, you may say, is it necessary to be offensive when challenging religious justifications? To which the answer is yes, if all the normally accepted tools of rhetoric are being deemed by you to be offensive. In any other sphere of debate, pointing out that an argument is absurd, that it lacks supporting evidence, that its sources are unreliable and its proponent’s motives suspect are all reasonable tactics of discourse. Publications of a particular political view may even lampoon the significant individuals in the debate by publishing a satirical cartoon or two, so by citing your prophets and your messiahs, you are exposing them to the same treatment and it is unreasonable of you to try to prevent the use of these legitimate tools by special pleading.
So, this is part of the reason you will continue to find that secularists are treading on your religious sensibilities. But there is also another one: Some of you think that we must all hold sacred, all that you hold sacred.
Those of us arguing for secularism will not accept this and in any event in a democratic pluralistic society it is impossible to accommodate everyone’s religious foibles without seriously compromising freedom of expression. By all means if you want to believe that pork or shellfish is unfit to eat, that a cracker is sometimes more than an accompaniment for cheese, or that drawing representations of certain seventh century Arab chieftains is forbidden, then fine! Go ahead. But, don’t expect me to do the same and don’t threaten me with violence if I spend my lunch break eating prawns and bacon off a communion wafer while reading Jesus and Mo. Because if you do I will oppose you in the only civilised way possible, which is to do more of it, and this time with deliberate intent to offend until you realise that being offended or not is your choice, but being shielded from offence is not anyone’s right. Freedom of expression is incompatible with freedom from offence and we sacrifice the former at our peril because if you actually lived in a society that protected religion from dissent, there’s no guarantee it would be your religion that was so protected.

Yours Truly

Steve Bowen
AKA Atheist MC