28 December 2005

WAKE-UP CALL FOR SLEEPING HUMANISTS

An article by George Jellis, from our local paper, the Leicester Mercury.

It is time for people of no faith to demand that they are no longer ignored by government.

Are you one of those who does not go to church, except on special occasions? One who, if you think about religion at all, considers it a medieval relic of little relevance to the modern world? Yet, when asked "What religion are you" (as in the census), you name the religion you were brought up in? You are probably really a humanist.

There are many people like you - sleeping humanists. The truth is that the non-religious people in this country now form a third of the population. The trouble is, they are an unseen, silent mass. It is time for them to speak out.

Politicians often try to appeal to "people of all faiths or none", but often they forget the "none" because the non-religious are almost invisible to them. They do not have a "vicar" in every parish.

Their spokespeople do not stand out in fancy-dress costume. They do not speak from the grandeur of churches, temples or mosques.

The Government has increasingly been relying on self-appointed groups, who profess a medieval faith, for modern policy advice.

It is supporting more "faith-biased" schools, where religious indoctrination is inescapable, and where in some cases creationist myth is taught as a rival to evolution science.

There are also plans to follow the US in putting social welfare in the hands of religious evangelists who are more concerned with gaining converts than with dispensing aid in an unbiased manner.

Religion should certainly be taught in schools, but as part of history and world culture. Our freedoms to criticise the silly ideas of religion, or to make jokes about it, are in danger of being curtailed by legislation on the grounds that it is encouraging hatred.

We must stand up for free speech. At the same time, there is a failure to counter those religious bigots who try to censor legitimate artistic endeavour.

In short, all of these activities amount to the insidious spread and growth of unelected, retrograde theocracy. If you believe that irrational, ancient beliefs are a menace and are causing social divisions, then you should not be afraid to say what you really think, despite threats of hellfire, excommunication, ostracism, or worse.

If you feel the need for support in this, or wish to support others of like mind, join your local Secular Society or Humanist Group and work for change.

You have a duty to life, earth and humankind. Show the Government that the non-religious represent an increasingly important part of the population whose interests must not be ignored.

25 December 2005

Some Thoughts for the Day

What idiot was it said that 'those who fail to remember the past are destined to repeat it?' (Having consulted my reference books it seems it was George Santayana, whoever he was.) My conclusion over the past few days, or possiby weeks, listening to the radio, reading newspapers, watching occasional television, is that the opposite is true. Those who remember the past are destined to regurgitate it for ever, and never to do anything original.

Next year could we perhaps have a christmas without the endless carolling, without endless versions of Scrooge, without the ridiculous nativity story, and without that fat bumbler in the fluffy beard and red suit? Perhaps such a ban would result in some original work. In my search for the source of the quotation I also found a counterblast, from George Eliot: 'The happiest women, like the happiest nations, have no history.' I must read her sometime.

The biologists have been trying for some time to encourage us to celebrate Darwin Day, 12th February. It will be a particularly big day in 2009, the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. However I should imagine literary folk would prefer to celebrate Dickens Day, 7th February (but the bicentenary of Charles Dickens is not until 2012). We already celebrate Shakespeare Day, 23rd April, as England's national day, though it also claimed by the mythical St George.

In similar fashion I have advocated that secularists, and scientists and mathematicians generally, should celebrate 25th December as Newton Day, since Isaac Newton was born on christmas day 1642. (This fact, and that his father died before he was born, could well explain his fascination with biblical chronology, and perhaps much else of his personality.) Some biographies of Newton give the date of his birth as 11 days later, in January 1643, but this is because the calendar reform instituted by Pope Gregory XIII, on the advice of the astronomer Clavius, in 1582 was only adopted in England in 1752.

It may be argued that Newton, as biblical scholar and unitarian, is not a suitable person for secularists to celebrate, but his ideas on mechanics and gravitation have been the basis for the scientific worldview ever since, including the electromagnetic phenomena later formalised by James Clerk-Maxwell, and are still sound for most purposes, only superseded by the 20th century theories of relativity and quanta on much larger and smaller scales.

Like many other heroes of secularism, enlightenment and reason, he wrote before the epoch-making discoveries of Darwin, and lived at a time when the claustrophobic mediaeval religious world still cast a long dark shadow, into which, as Alexander Pope's famous verse tells, he cast much light. To return to my first thought: It is time, in the 21st century, to turn up the lights even brighter and to dispel the religious darkness for ever.

The Bishop of Leicester in his First Person column in yesterday's Leicester Mercury wrote that 'We seem to be wanting to forget who we are. We are a nation with a story shaped and symbolised by christian values, among others.' But most of the 'christian' customs that he mentions, trees, cards, and santa, are pagan or commercial ideas. And the tolerance that he so much values, is in fact a rational, secular, humanist value. The Church of England is in many respects now humanism at prayer. It is he who has forgotten what the church used to be; and still is among many of his intolerant evangelical brethren.

17 December 2005

Our New Website

The Society has a new web address and a new site to go with it:

http://www.leicestersecularsociety.org.uk

the old site will remain for the present, and there are links between the two. Note that some of the pages on the new site are still 'work in progress'.

======
Now to our quote of the week:

In The Guardian G2 on Wednesday this week there was an excellent interview by Danish journalist Martin Krasnik with American author Philip Roth, now 72. Asked if he is religious he replied: "I'm exactly the opposite of religious. I'm anti-religious. I find religious people hideous. I hate religious lies. It's all a big lie."

Unfortunately on Friday The Guardian decided to follow this up with a piece by Robert Winston, whose new TV series The Story of God makes him suddenly a pundit on religion, claiming "Philip Roth was wrong". His article reiterates a series of "big lies" unworthy of someone who is supposedly a scientist, and now a historian.

He claims both that: "Human spirituality is deeply embedded in our genes." And that: "Man is a competitive creature and the seeds of conflict are built deep into our genes." So it seems we really are in a mess! He can't have it both ways, can he?

He talks about "innate human aggression", presumably thinking of the work of Konrad Lorentz and Raymond Dart, back in the 1960s, but research has moved on since then.
Robert Sussman (1997) writes: "Not only are modern gatherer-hunters and most apes remarkably non-aggressive, but in the 1970s and 1980s studies of fossil bones and artifacts have shown that early humans were not hunters, and that weapons were a later addition to the human repertoire."

Winston says: "religious frameworks ... have contributed so much to our notions of morality". However, one of the bible principles, practiced by many parents in the past is: "Spare the rod and spoil the child". H. P. Beck cites: "The Family Research Project (Trotter, 1976) studied the effects of parental discipline among 2,000 children in Manhattan households. Punitive childrearing was found to be the fourth best predictor of problem aggressive behavior. The other top predictors involved emotional rejection by the parents." Reformers of all stripes have been fighting against such religion-endorsed immoralities for centuries.

Winston's most outrageous claim is: "Religion is not the primary cause of strife in Kashmir or the Middle East. And it was not the underlying reason for the troubles in Northern Ireland. Nor should we blame religion for the various Crusades in Europe, the vicious massacre of the Cathars by the Catholic Church on medieval France or the horrific slaughter of Jews by Bogdan Chmielnitzki in 17th century Poland. Such conflicts were far more about deprivation, or gaining political power, land or wealth than they were about God."

Without religion the problems in Kashmir, the Middle East and Northern Ireland could probably be settled amicably by negotiation within a few years. As for the Crusades and the massacre of the Cathars not being due to religion? Winston's capacity for self-delusion is unfathomable!

When Innocent III came to the Papacy in 1198 there was a power vacuum in Europe, which he took advantage of. The Catholic Encyclopedia says: "There was scarcely a country in Europe over which Innocent III did not in some way or other assert the supremacy which he claimed for the papacy. ... Like many preceding popes, Innocent had at heart the recovery of the Holy Land, and for this end undertook the Fourth Crusade. ... Innocent was also a zealous protector of the true Faith and a strenuous opponent of heresy." The site About Atheism has: "He eliminated the Manicheans in the Papal States and then turned his eyes towards France where the Albigenses were growing in numbers and strength. Innocent called for a crusade against them in 1208 and sent Simon of Montfort to lead a campaign to eliminate the Albigenses heresy and restore Southern France to Catholic control. This led to the formal legitimization of the Inquisition in 1233 for use against suspected heresy in Europe. Innocent claimed to have been given the whole world to rule over by God, ... he saw himself not merely as the Vicar of St Peter, but as the Vicar of Christ." ... "Innocent is regarded by Roman Catholics as one of the greatest popes of the Middle Ages, and by others as one of the most harmful men ever to have lived."

Innocent gave the go-ahead for the Dominican Friars who ran the Inquisition. It was under another Innocent, VIII, that the Dominicans issued the Hammer of the Witches in 1486 which justified the persecution of many poor women.

======
On a slightly lighter note here is a link provided by Adam Tjaavk in secular newsline (noticed by our member Allan Hayes) which looks back to the 19th century to see what modern textbooks of Intelligent Design might look like.

http://tinyurl.com/dgr5x

16 December 2005

Islamophobiawatch attacks Gays and Jews

Obviously the notion of seasonal goodwill to all does not apply to those homophobic and antisemtic idiots behind the website Islamophobiawatch. To read what I'm talking about click here

This site has the scary overtones of Red Watch. The article I've linked to singles out Brett Lock of Outrage! (and also carries a photo of him) but much of the rest of it is full of the bile and hatred that one would normally associate with the BNP and other far-right groups. Indeed, I'm probably putting myself up for inclusion just by posting this, but having heard first hand comments about gays and Jews from members of so-called 'moderate' Islamic groups at this year's NUS conference I'm no longer under the illusion that Islam preaches tolerance towards either of those groups. As such I fear that this website is not actually an attempt to track instances of Islamophobia in the media, but actually to use this excuse as a thin veil behind which to hide an agenda of inciting hatred against gays, Jews, and anyone else who Allah isn't too fond of. The fact that the 'comments' option on the articles has been turned off further suggests that the site's owners aren't even the slightest bit interested in promoting dialogue and understanding. This is simply hate-mongering.

Now I'm not gay, and I'm obviously not a follower of Judaism, but I do think we should stand in solidarity with oppressed groups in our society. Defending the rights of someone who is being persecuted for their sexuality should be a no-brainer, and I can stand by the right of someone to believe in a religion (no matter how ridiculous I think religion is) because that is simply defending freedom of speech and expression - providing those same people are willing to accept that I have a right to criticise their religion just as much as they are free to criticise my freedom from it. If you must insist that race and religion can be one and the same (a nonsensical claim made by many followers of both Judaism and Islam) then I will shout from the highest hilltops that you're clearly deluded and lack even a tenuous understanding of biology, but I won't resort to verbal, literal or physical intimidation to try and burst your bubble.

Having said that I do have some Muslim friends who are happy with the race/religion distinction and who do not go round telling others that 'gays are evil' and that 'it's ok to burn down synagogues' (both of which are quotes from conversations I had with Islamic delegates at NUS conference) but it seems increasingly clear to me that these individuals are not 'moderates' under the working definition of the word.

What really concerns me is that, were it not for the hate-mongering of groups such as Islamophobiawatch, the entire left would be queueing up to stand in solidarity with Muslims against religious discrimination (and against the occupation of Iraq, but we're doing that anyway without the zealots) but to do so now would go against the concept of solidarity itself. Now if you're prepared to abandon that concept then there's a party that has sold out the last remnants of its socialist principles in order to court the votes of homophobic and anti-semitic individuals within the Muslim community, as well as anti-abortionists of all faiths. It goes under the somewhat ironic name of Respect and is backed by the Socialist Workers' Party. Now a brief warning to those now thinking 'I didn't know that's what they're up to, next time I see someone selling the Socialist Worker I'll go and have a chat with them'. I'm not saying don't do it, in fact quite the opposite, but be prepared, it's not very pleasant to be publicly branded as a racist or 'part of the Zionist conspiracy', which seems the de facto response from SWP/Respect members to this line of questioning (and that's if you're lucky).

In conclusion, it's time for a bit of honesty and frank discussion. If the real moderate face of Islam has a problem living in a society that accepts gays and Jews as equals then I have a major problem with living with those who share those views (and this applies to Christians, Jews, Hindus, atheists, and anyone else whose beliefs, or lack of them, support bigotry and intolerance). If you, like me, want a future where society treats everyone equally regardless of race, religion, gender or sexuality then now is the time to ask some hard questions and expose those groups who claim to share the same vision but in reality promote discrimination and hate. We've managed it with the BNP and we'll do the same with the rest of the facists - and those groups will find that hiding behind the religious and racial hatred laws isn't an option, or that verbal or written intimidation and threatening behaviour will get them anywhere either. Join me. Join Leicester Secular Society, the National Secular Society, Workers' Liberty, or one of the many other groups who share the only consistent position on this issue. It's time to stand up.

15 December 2005

Nativity Story Drops in the Ratings

"For generations, the Nativity was the greatest story ever told. But today's children regard The Snowman by Raymond Briggs as their favourite tale for Christmas, a new survey shows."

Read the entire article at the Independent:

http://tinyurl.com/84xmb

14 December 2005

Christmas Charity

Booksellers, freethought booksellers included, make about 50% of their sales in the last quarter of the year. This keeps them going through the long hot dry desert of, well, February to October, enabling them to eat, pay the rent and keep jobs going.

Like every other trader, we need to bring ourselves to people's attention, and remind our loyal customers that we're still here. How best to do this, at this seasonal time of year?

We've given in and organised a series of late night "Christmas Charity Evenings", where, essentially, people can shop for presents, and feel virtuous about it, knowing that 10% of all sales are being donated to two local charities.

Last year, we had "Not the Xmas Party" a rollicking good affair attended by all our friends and MCed by the incomparable Arnie G. They say the Devil has all the best songs, but it looks to me as if the Christians have helped themselves to all the best festivals. We could refer to the "Winter Solstice, "Winter Festival", "Yuletide" and other such terms. But everyone knows we are talking about Christmas. Or, if they don't, they just look confused, and the point of bringing ourselves to their attention is lost.

Now charity, there's another problem word, with its paternalistic undertones. But it does the job: people like the added value of contributing to a cause they support. They support us, keeping bread on the table for another year, and we share the surpluses with others.

I've got a year to come up with some alternative words that signal the intent and purpose and everyone immediately knows what I'm talking about, without the irony of colluding with the very things I'm opposed to.

If you're untroubled by these dilemmas (or even if you are but would find it a relief to be among likeminded people), you might like to join us. More information at www.frontlinebooks.co.uk.
Ethical Business - Is There Such a Thing?

The short answer is: I don't know. However, having spent years working in the voluntary and publicly funded sector, I now think there is far more chance of achieving things I want to see happen through running my own business.

I guess business is like most things: it's a tool, a method of organising, a way of doing things. It can be used for good purposes and bad purposes (although who decides what's "good and what's "bad"?), the same as the Internet and the telephone.

It's also occurred to me, having spent five years providing business start-up services to other people, that running your own small business is probably the closest we can get to self-reliance and mutual aid in this overwhelmingly establishment-controlled society.

08 December 2005

Corporate Censorship

Ok, let's make this clear from the outset, I am in a VERY bad mood right now. The sort of bad mood that is invariably generated by prolonged exposure to my department. I need a holiday, a change of city, and a change of PhD (anyone looking for a bright young PhD student with a broad background in environmental science and environmental impact of technology who is currently feeling undervalued and generally being shat upon from multiple orifices please contact me). I could also do with a laugh, especially as Space Cadets failed to deliver last night.

What makes someone laugh depends on their personal tastes, and those tastes vary dramatically from person to person and from time to time. Right now something 'unfortunate' happening to one of the numerous members of my department who seem to be conspiring to piss me off would have me in stitches, but no doubt given sufficient time away from this place I'd feel otherwise. Conversely, in several years time I may be sufficiently removed in time and space to look back on my years here and laugh at them for the complete f**king joke that they seem to be, but not so right now when I'm trying to turn the complete sum of my efforts into something vaguely worth being an example of the highest examinable qualification it is possible to achieve in the UK. I can only hope there is something sufficiently dark and amusing on TV tonight (I'm thinking Keri from Space Cadets suffering from an imploded head due to the vast amount of vacuum it blatantly encloses - but that's just me).

Yet there are some people out there who seem to think they have the right to censor things that other people find funny just because it offends their way of thinking, and some corporations so scared of the backlash from those people that they are willing to remove certain 'offending' products from their shelves. Obviously these are highly selective decisions, and ones which take no account of the number of people registering their complaints. If the same decision-making criteria were applied to every decision over whether or not to sell a product then Asda would've ceased selling ridiculously low-priced sweatshop-made school uniforms years ago, and Esso would've gone into voluntary receivership even before the Exxon Valdez disaster.

By now you've probably guessed where I'm going with this, but just for the minority let me state that there are, in some cases, reasons for censoring material that goes as far as to incite violence. I may think Roy Chubby Brown is a racist, sexist, homophobic, and completely unfunny idiot who's only chance of ever getting laid was to become famous, but he's not actually inciting violence and some half-brained f**kwit out there might get a little lift out of watching his material. After all, even half-brained f**kwits need a break once in a while - if only to give their key workers a break (or whatever the latest term is for the poor under-valued saints who work for social services).

So to get to the point, what have Woolworth's and Sainsbury's got in common? You've guessed it, they've both withdrawn copies of Jerry Springer the Opera from their shelves due to pressure from the Christian right.

Before discussing the show itself let's briefly go back to the numbers game. JSTO brought in one of the highest audience figures for any show shown on BBC2 at 10 on a Saturday evening outside of the peak holiday seasons (no doubt boosted by the number of people, myself included, who tuned in to see what the homophobic facists behind Christian Voice were complaining about). Add to that the numbers of people queueing up to attend the West End production as well as those who will attend the UK tour and we're talking significant numbers here. The sort of numbers that might lead any normal retail chain to think that stocking the DVD would be a good purchasing decision. Indeed the sort of numbers that would completely overwhelm the 45,000 odd complaints to the BBC, many of which were clearly from people who hadn't even seen the show. Case closed.

Back to the show itself. Was it funny? And was it offensive (and if so was is offensive enough to be banned)?

I started this post with the statement that what someone finds funny is dependent on personal tastes. Well in my case (as you might've guessed by the Space Cadets comments) I do find the Jerry Springer Show funny - although having lived in the US I also find it scarily more representative of the general US population than I'd like to think. Anyone who puts themselves up for what everyone knows will lead to public ridicule either deserves everything they get and more, or genuinely needs treatment for mental illness. The latter is not meant harshly, I actually cope with a form of mental illness myself and know how woefully inadequate our mental health services are and how badly stigmatised sufferers of mental illnesses are by many members of our 'society'. I also find jokes about religion (and non-religion) funny, but even more so when they manage to be clever in the process.

JSTO ticks all of these three boxes for me. It makes clever, and quite scathing, observations of the talk-show business, with the Springer Show as the ultimate low point that is so cynical of the reasons for its own existence it doesn't even need the additional satire added in the first half of the production. And yes, I also found the religious jokes highly amusing and clever in the process. Obviously many of those 45,000 moaners seem to have missed bits of the bible that are joked about or lack a decent understanding of Christianity - a comment echoed in the Guardian following the screening by none other than a high-ranking member of the Christian faith. It is also silly to the point of absurdity, something that many scriptwriters strive for but never achieve. The Devil's Chorus (altogether now! 'He's a c**t! He's a c**nt! He's a c**ting, c**ting c**t!') may be memorable for its limited diction, but it's also memorable for being one of the most absurdly funny moments in an absurdly funny production. Some of us liked it - get over it.

On to the 'offensive' stuff. At this point it's probably worth making a few things clear to the sheep that complained (and those who didn't but have already drawn the same conclusion) without seeing the evidence:

1) The religious bits you're having hissy-fits about are almost entirely in the second half, and the second half is a DREAM SEQUENCE. Dream sequences are exactly that - not real, and not supposed to be real. Didn't you get that?

2) The guy who plays Jesus IS NOT wearing a nappy when he appears as Jesus. Not that that should matter (sadly it obviously does to some) but if you check you'll realise that the actor undergoes both a change of character and of clothing during the interval (ok, the clothing change isn't too obvious, but it does happen).

3) So what if Jesus admits to being 'a little bit gay'? How do we know for sure he wasn't? I mean, if one of the few bits of evidence we have that suggests he expressed a preference one way or the other (the evidence that suggests he bonked Mary Magdalene) is rejected by elements of the Christian church then it doesn't leave us with much to go on does it? The only reason the likes of Christian Voice complained about this are because they are openly homophobic bigots. Visit their website and you'll see what I'm talking about, they make every effort to publicise their prejudice. I could, of course, add that having Jesus being played by a black guy might also lead to prejudice from those same people.

4) Finally, the swearing. We're all aware by now that the figures quoted by Christian Voice were inflated by mutiplying every use of a swear word by the number of cast members singing or saying it at the same time. Working this out entailed only the most basic logic - the same logic that is currently being applied to the alleged discrepency between the number of members of Respect and the amount of money it claimed to have amassed from its membership fees in the lead up to the general election (but that's for another day and another blog). Each half of the show was prefaced by an excruciatingly long statement about both the content of the show and the use of strong language. As for the 'blasphemous' swearing - well it's not the fault of atheists that it's so common is it? Don't blame us for being unwillingly culturally indoctrinated into the use of language that comes from the bible. If it's ok to utter 'oh, God!' as an expression of shock or surprise, then given that language is an evolving medium (sod it, might as well get the creationists going whilst I'm at it) then it's just a matter of small incremental steps in use from 'oh, God!' to 'bloody hell!' to 'Jesus H. F**king Christ!'. Just ask a linguist.

Furthermore, we're talking about something that was put on after the watershed, well-publicised, and well-received by those who'd been to watch it in London. Whilst I personally object to the censorship of any programme due to 'excessive use of strong language', over-use invariably comes across as a purile and half-arsed attempt to turn something that wasn't going to be very funny in the first place into something even less funny. But this all depends on context, and when it works it really works, and in this case I thought it was spot on. Just try imagining finding South Park funny without the playground language. If this isn't your thing then you know where the remote is - turn over or turn off.

If JSTO is justifiably offensive for any of these four reasons, or any other, then I'm concerned. If any of them justify the banning or censoring of the show then the right to freedom of speech is in grave danger. The fact that two national retailers obviously think they are is either worrying evidence of the influence of the religious right on business and/or evidence that they are seeking to grow their consumer bases amongst a small-minded group of people who seem to have conveniently forgotten that their ideological predecessors were once in the vanguard of the defence of freedom of speech. And as the Cooperative Bank recognised (after discovering that Christian Voice had somehow managed to open an account with them) supporting the religious right, in the UK at least, is not a good marketing strategy. Need I say I can only hope this shows in the Xmas profit margins of said retailers.

Finally, a double thank you (I wrote directly to both at the time). Thank you BBC2 for defending the right to freedom of speech and offering me the opportunity to watch a form of art (opera) that I wouldn't go and buy tickets for. And thank you to Christian Voice for kicking up such a fuss that I was persuaded to miss a night out clubbing to watch something I didn't actually think was going to be any good. I can only hope that the publicity surrounding the decisions of two of our most prominent retailers not to stock the DVD will actually lead to even more people watching it.

See you for the live show when it comes to Leicester in February!

Keith

(And if anyone out there thinks my comments here should be censored then you can f**k right off too!).

05 December 2005

The Sunday 4th December meeting, the last for this year, was one of our 'Headstrong' discussions. This time we had visitors: Tony M. Robinson of the Humanist Party came up from London and Mike Lake of the new Derby and Derbyshire Secular Society came down from Derby. My hope was that we could concentrate on 'Activism' issues, but as usual the talk wandered over a whole range of topics, from representation on SACREs to demonstrating in support of the production of 'Jerry Springer the Opera' at De Montfort Hall.

At one point there was some dispute about what is and what is not 'Religion'. One speaker maintained that Buddhism is not a religion because it does not involve belief in a god or gods. However, this seems a mistaken idea about Buddhism. They have a concept of 'Brahma' which means 'Great One' which is very like a god to me, though probably of an impersonal nature. Brahma is also the supreme creator god in Hinduism.

I'd started to prepare a set of posters, which I set out on a table in the hall and in the window display, covering such topics as 'Wake Up, Sleeping Humanists', 'What is Wrong with Religion', and 'How Do We Know What We Know', as a means of trying to get our message across better. I would welcome suggestions for other posters. See my 'Omega Therapy' page.

I would like to set up an Omega Course complementary to the christian Alpha Course with the purpose of bringing humanist ways of thinking to people who may be confused or unclear about them (like me quite often) and of helping people move away from a religious upbringing. Perhaps this could begin in a small way as a discussion group meeting at Secular Hall midweek.

30 November 2005

Lord May takes a parting shot at fundamentalism

Tomorrow sees the retirement of Lord May of Oxford from his post as President of the Royal Society, but his valedictory speech contains a few choice words for those who think their beliefs carry more weight than scientific evidence and opinion. The speech, entitled 'Threats to Tomorrow's World' contains the lines,

"Fundamentalism doesn't necessarily derive from sacred texts. It's where a belief trumps a fact and refuses to confront the facts.
All ideas should be open to questioning, and the merit of ideas should be assessed on the strength of evidence that supports them and not on the credentials or affiliations of the individuals proposing them. It is not a recipe for a comfortable life, but it is demonstrably a powerful engine for understanding how the world actually works and for applying this understanding."

Now there are some who would argue that even engaging in debate with fundamentalist clap-trap gives them more of a platform than they deserve, and to a certain extent I agree with that argument. However, as Lord May rightly recognises, fundamentalism is becoming increasingly significant in both national and global decision-making and is eroding respect for science in every community it touches. It's easy to claim that the UK is (still) a secular nation and that we have nothing to fear, but the facts prove otherwise. We still have an education system where the vast majority of schools have a religious bias, and a government bent on developing more faith schools to serve the demands of non-Christian religious parents. More worrying are the likes of the Vardy academies that teach creationism as a 'real' alternative to evolution and the growth of home-schooling programmes such as Accelerated Christian Education. At the head of this we have a Prime Minister who is not afraid to mix his religion with his role as a leader, and an Education Secretary who has never denied being a member of the ultra-Catholic Opus Dei. Although we should count ourselves lucky that, unlike the US, the majority of our population still think evolution is the best way to explain how we got ourselves into this mess of an existence in the first place.

It is precisely because of what has happened in the US that it is more important than ever that scientists and atheists speak out, for silence will be seen as acceptance.

Now Lord May and I may not agree completely on nuclear power, but we certainly agree on climate change, and as an environmental scientist and a science educator I get somewhat annoyed when religious groups stick their noses into the debate. The neocon view that some god gave us the world for us to exploit doesn't sound very Christian to me, but then there are numerous passages in the bible that support that view, and this is one of the main reasons I first started to reject Christianity as a teenager. It might be worth asking our Global Village Idiot if, as he claims, his god approves of the illegal invasion of Iraq, then why doesn't he think that hurricane Katrina was a message from on-high sent to tell Americans that they've been screwing with our planet too much and for too long (but, of course, Katrina was sent to punish the people of New Orleans for not executing anyone in a same-sex relationship).

Here's the crux of it. Belief, and the actions resulting from it, requires no evidence but a bit of 'sacred' text. Scientists, on the other hand, have to spend their entire lives relentlessly studying evidence from which to draw conclusions, and then have them peer-reviewed before they even have a chance of becoming knowledge. In Bush's case he doesn't even need a bible on which to base his misguided beliefs. Now whether the voice in his head was the result of mild schizophrenia, megalomania, whisperings from Dick and Karl, or just a complete lack of scientific understanding and good old common sense is open to debate (I suspect a combination of all four) but he's also profoundly deaf to the warnings of the scientific community and environmentalists.

I've just returned from the Youth Summit on Climate Change in Berne, Switzerland, where it was made clear that, in today's world at least, scientists can no longer hide in their labs and offices and assume that somewhere further up the chain of command someone is taking them seriously and implementing their advice. I've known this for a long time due to having a masters degree in science policy, so it was refreshing to hear that many others recognise this too. It's time to start bursting a few bubbles, and those bubbles can be found in every university in the country, including here at De Montfort University. Pins at the ready everyone!

Sadly Lord May's successor will be Prof Sir Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and a fantasist who looks set to take a much softer view on these issues than his predecessor. So it is with some degree of hope that I applaud Lord May for stating that he intends to stay around, and hopefully have more freedom to criticise the government and religious groups now he no longer has the constraints of office to deal with. Go get 'em (your Lordship)!


Can humanity rise to godhood?

This is on a slightly different note but I'm throwing it in as it came to mind.

Science fiction has long played with the concept that humans may one day rise to a level of sentience many would describe, or equate to, that of a god. The TV series Babylon 5 did a brilliant job of exploring this idea under the none-too-subtle guise of 'going over the rim of the universe' but for the literary-minded I have to recommend Stephen Baxter's new book 'Transcendent' - which coincidentally also contains an excellent discussion on solutions to climate change, the dangers of warming methane hydrate deposits, and how to deal with greenhouse gas emissions.

The book is the third (and, I'm guessing, last) in his Destiny's Children series that began with the highly-rated Coalescent, and if you're planning on reading it for the plot as well as the ideas then you do need to read Coalescent and Exultant first. Fans of traditional sci-fi will appreciate Exultant as a good old far-future yarn, but otherwise it is definitely the weakest of the three. Religion plays a strong role in the plot of Transcendent (as it does in Coalescent) but Baxter takes a unique angle on it (anything more would be a spolier) so it'd be interesting to hear what other atheists make of it. Personally I was very impressed.

28 November 2005

Blatherer of the Week

I've just been listening to Robert Winston on Start The Week (BBC Radio 4) blathering on about 'spirituality' and 'soul' and 'the transcendental' (as if these are meaningful terms) in advertising his new series The Story of God on BBC1 TV beginning on 4th December. At one point he seems to take a Sea of Faith type of position, that 'God' means very different things to different people, and its all in the mind, and that polytheism is just as good as monotheism. Then he mentions that some people are more susceptible to religiosity than others due to the actions of the serotonin 'reward' system in their brains, which is a materalist position. Then he cites the 'dark matter' problem as being a reason for physicists to get religion, when it's either just a form of matter that we cannot detect or an error in our understanding of gravitation.

It seems to me that an explanation for a lot of religion is that it is made up of erroneous theories that people have guessed at for explaining natural phenomena, and just refuse to give up despite all evidence to the contrary. They want to continue believing in these things for emotional reasons of wish-fulfilment. It would be nice if people we love didn't really die but somehow lived on. It would be nice if injustices didn't really happen, but someone up there 'made it all right' in the end. It would be nice if there was a benevolent plan behind the randomness and struggle for survival. And so on.

At least Grayson Perry on the same programme talked a bit more sense. That it is difficult to be fundamentalist about compromise or about nonbelief.

Some humanists have tried to adopt the term 'spiritual' to try to give it a humanist slant. In fact the way many people use it it just means 'being human' or having humanity or empathy. But the trouble is that it has too many other associations -- with spirits, ghosts, seances and so on. Have you met any person whom you could truly describe as 'spiritual' as opposed to 'humane', or 'artistic' or 'feeling' and so on? It seems to me to be a term used by the religious to distinguish themselves as somehow better than the rest of humanity, a form of hypocrisy.

26 November 2005

Most annoying article of the month

This article by a certain Nicholas Buxton in The Guardian, Face to Faith column, Saturday November 19, 2005, I found so totally annoying that I just had to respond to it line by line:

It is a secularist article of faith to maintain that religion will soon be eliminated as a by-product of "progress".
* We can live in hope, and a report by the Church of England itself suggests it may not be long for this world, but there is no sign of religions in general succumbing.
Since there is no reason to suppose that life has some overarching meaning, the notion of a benevolent God who intervenes in history on our behalf is basically nonsense and should be abandoned.
* Agreed
Atheists complain that religion proposes unprovable accounts of life and death. But this is uninteresting.
* I would say they weave fantasies around life and death, such as tales of life after death, reincarnation, karma, ghosts, resurrection and judgemnt, etc, etc.
Death is obviously a fact, but how we make sense of that fact is not the sort of question that could be subject to "proof" any more than a painting could be judged "wrong".
* It depends what you mean by "making sense of". Religions generally seem to want to deny the finality of death, and offer various alternative scenarios of life after death.
Insights into human nature derived from the plays of Shakespeare may be equally "unprovable", but that doesn't mean they're not meaningful, useful or true.
* I'm sure there are insights into human nature derived from Shakespeare's writings in a perfectly 'provable' or at least 'arguable' manner. In fact a number of secularists have written extensively about Shakespeare's works, G. W. Foote and J. M. Robertson among them.
The atheist's first mistake, then, like the fundamentalists they often object to, is that they completely miss the point. Faith has nothing to do with certainty: it is not a set of closed answers, but rather a series of open questions with which to engage.
* Well this may be so for Mr Buxton, but it is not so for most religious believers.
As it happens, I acknowledge the possibility that the universe may be meaningless and human life pointless. But this leads me to draw quite the opposite conclusion regarding religion. Rather than rejecting it - on the basis that it must be manifestly untrue for claiming that, in spite of all appearances to the contrary, life does in fact have a meaning and a purpose after all - I recognise that life's potential for meaninglessness requires us to give it a meaning it would not otherwise have.
* Well, this is the standard secularist position. It is up to each of us to try to give meaning to our lives.
This is the function of religion.
* This is just redefining 'religion' to mean what I would call 'philosophy'.
Indeed, even at a mundane everyday level, everything we do is done for a supposed reason, and fits into a story about what we are doing and why we are doing it.
* Well, I for one don't always have a clear reason for everything I do. That would make me a sort of automaton. It's part of the human condition to be often in a state of uncertainty.
In short, we cannot just "do" or "be", like sheep wandering aimlessly across a field with no sense of where they are going or why.
* I quite like just doing or being sometimes. "What is life if full of care, We have no time to stand and stare".
To be self-aware is to be intentional, it is to attribute significance to our actions; and that implies explanation, the notion of a reason or a purpose to account for the experience of that awareness.
* I would say that being intentional is more than just being self-aware. It is being in control and directing our actions, having a conscious purpose or plan worked out.
The alternative is nihilism. If we truly believed that life was meaningless, we would have no reason to get up in the morning
* Probably true, we would have no reason to do, or not to do, anything.
- ultimately, the most rational thing to do would be to jump over the edge of a cliff.
* That doesn't follow at all! The rational thing to do, if we felt the need of it, would be to try to find a meaning or purpose, or a substitute for it.
In other words, religion is our way of making sense out of nonsense, necessary precisely because life, in and of itself, may well be meaningless. To be religious is simply our way of expressing what it means to be human; we could no more cease being religious than cease being artistic or political.
* This again is redefining 'religious', this time as 'being human'. On the contrary, my impression is that religion is our way of making nonsense out of sense!
The second mistake secularists make is that they fail to acknowledge the foundational assumptions - "dogmas" by any other name - underpinning their own worldview.
* Secularism of itself is not a complete 'worldview'. It is a framework within which many different world-views can exist.
As John Gray has argued in Heresies, many secular ideologies, such as Marxism and liberal humanism, are essentially theological narratives in structure and function, though arguably less coherent. Marxist notions of historical inevitability, or the assumption that democracy is a universal norm, are just forms of Christian soteriology dressed in secular clothing.
* I had to look up 'soteriology'. Apparently it is theology-speak for the 'doctrine of salvation'. Marxists will have to speak for themselves, but in my experience humanists favour democracy not as a matter of principle but because democratic forms of government (and there are many forms) have been shown, on the whole, to work better than others.
When it comes to ethics, secularists are forced to assert that we behave morally and responsibly because it is "human nature" to do so.
* Here again he is telling secularists what they think, and very few are as naive as this! There are many serious ethical problems that require hard thought, but just being kind to people we meet when possible is a useful rule for deciding many ethical questions of everyday life, and most humans who have had an untraumatic upbringing probably do this instinctively.
But what do they mean by human nature? This abstract notion is no different from a religious absolute, and performs exactly the same role in the sentences in which it is used as "God" does in the sentences in which He features.
* What is the difficulty in defining 'human nature'? Isn't it what is studied in medicine, psychology, anthropology, and such sciences?
Secularism has a more worrying implication, however. Without religion's insight that human beings are essentially flawed, we lose all checks on our hubristic pride, and risk making a false god of our own scientific genius, even though there is no evidence to support the belief that society advances in tandem with science.
* No secularist I know would claim to be perfect. In fact "to be human is to err". But equally no secularist would subscribe to the notion that human beings are "essentially flawed" either, unless it be that we are somehow excessively gullible to religion and charismatic leaders.
While I don't deny the reality of religiously motivated violence, the fact is that for much of the last century, atheist regimes pursuing enlightenment ideals inflicted massive suffering on their own people.
* For secularists, 'enlightenment ideals' are exemplified by Tom Paine's Rights of Man, and very few of these were practiced by the 'atheist regimes' in communist Russia and China. What Stalin and Mao, and Pol Pot in Cambodia, pursued was totalitarian control. They may have been anti-theist, but they were also anti-humanist. The Nazis in Germany were certainly not atheists, most were overtly christians, with for some an attraction for the type of paganism represented by the Norse gods. The 'ideals' behind Nazi Germany were ones of 'racial purity' and territorial expansion, hardly enlightened.
Perhaps we'd actually be better off if we were all a bit more, rather than less, religious.
* Well if being religious just means being philosophical and being human, that is probably true, but it isn't what most religions mean in practice.

I find that Ophelia Benson has also done a demolition job on it in Butterflies and Wheels.

21 November 2005

Sunday's (20th November) lecture at Secular Hall, about Climate Change, was given by Bettina Atkinson and colleagues from Leicester Friends of the Earth and attracted a good attendance. Their main purpose was to publicise a 'BigAsk' campaign, which involves asking your MP to support the law on control of CO2 emissions.

http://www.foe.co.uk/campaigns/climate/big_ask/faqs/index.html

The FoE is in favour of wind and wave power and other renewables. Today however the government chief scientist Dr King is saying Britain should consider a new generation of nuclear power stations.

On Monday evening I went to the local Interfaith Fellowship, only to find that the talk was beng given by LSS member Allan Hayes. He talked about the last novel The Island written by Aldous Huxley shortly before his death. The story is about a utopian community on a tropical island, involving various experiments in social engineering, and a hybrid religion based on Hinduism, Buddhism and drug use. The problem with all such science fictional utopian schemes in my view is that they treat everyone the same, whereas diversity is essential for future progress.

There is an excellent Darwin exhibition being held at the American Museum of Natural History, with a good associated website, although I've found it slow to operate.

http://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/darwin/

Allan suggested at the meeting that the Museum has had difficulty in obtaining corporate sponsors in the US, because of fear of being boycotted by affluent Creationists.

An interesting link circulated by Allan on Saturday was to this article in which a Muslim gives support to the freedom or religion to be found in a secular society:

http://www.aawsat.com/english/news.asp?section=2&id=2716

There is a meeting at Secular Hall on Friday 23rd November, 7.30pm, with three speakers from Venezuela, and from the Morning Star which is celebrating its 75th Anniversary.

18 November 2005

Another assortment of web links today. First, a welcome to another new secular group, the Balcombe Freethinkers in West Sussex:

http://www.balcombefreethinkers.org.uk/

Next, a marvellously satirical blog from 'Dark Syde', who explains 'What it's like to be an Atheist', among the Santaists!

http://www.dailykos.com/story/2005/11/15/12016/649

One of the main news stories is the split in the worldwide Anglican Church over homosexuality. The main movers are the Nigerian archbishop, Peter Akinola, and the Archbishop of the West Indies, Drexel Gomez. Perhaps they should rejoin the Roman Catholic church.

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2-1876059,00.html

http://www.kstatecollegian.com/article.php?a=8018

http://tinyurl.com/doz68

Another news item is the OLPC proposal to provide 'one laptop per child' for $100 each. The batteries can be recharged by hand-winding. However, one report I've seen claims that religious organisation has offered to sponsor it and, of course, preload it with the bible.


http://www.adnki.com/index_2Level.php?cat=Trends&loid=8.0.229499796&par=0


There has been a longish discussion on BBC News 'Have Your Say' on the subject 'Is faith important in British Society?'

http://tinyurl.com/cqyrn

Joke of the Week, just in from Bruce Pitt in the NSS Newsline:
'I do get the 2 Rowans confused. As I understand it one of them is comedian who dresses up in period costume and talks nonsense, and the other is opposed to a new law that that says I can’t say what I just said about the first one. Have I got it right?'

14 November 2005

Sunday's meeting (13th November) was the Annual General Meeting of the Society and was well attended. Plans for refurbishment of the Secular Hall over the next few years, with help from the Heritage Lottery Fund, seem to be on track. This also fits into plans for the general redevelopment of the 'cultural area' around the Hall. Our member Allan Hayes reported on these developments on behalf of the Building Committee.

The President Lyn Hurst and Vice-President Michael Gerard were re-elected, and most of the existing committee re-appointed, but I decided to retire from it (though I will be carrying on maintaining the website), and Chris Williams, who used to be active with the Leicester Radical Alliance, has agreed to join the committee.

It was agreed after a good presentation by Eleanor Davidson, and a debate to which most members present contributed, that our literature (i.e. the programme of lectures) will add details about secular weddings, affirmations and naming ceremonies as well as funerals. It was made clear that the types of humanist ceremonies we have in mind are in no manner religious, and are tailored to individual requirements. Such ceremonies will not, as yet , take place in the Hall itself.

12 November 2005

I sent the following message to committee members of Leicester Secular Society. The same invitation is open to any members:

Now that I've, more or less. got the hang of it I'm proposing to open up the "Leicester Secularist" Blog to allow other members of the Society to post messages or links to interesting sites, etc. Would those interested in being part of the "Team" please let me know and I will put you on the list and send you instructions for posting messages.

You can post something once a month, or weekly, or more often - you will just need to check that someone else hasn't posted it already. At the moment I will be the only one able to edit the posts, but this could probably be widened once we see how it goes.

I've just posted a message (date 11 November), the previous one being 31 October. However I often find that it doesn't appear on the blog until the next day, or else it appears in the "archive" section but not on the main page. This can be a bit frustrating but seems to be the way the system works.

So far my message of 11 November hasn't appeared! Perhaps this new message will push it along a bit. So far I've had one response (from Shani Lee of Frontline Books) and sent her an official invitation to sign in.

11 November 2005

Sorry for the break in communications. My telephone line was out of order for several days. Also I've been a bit 'down' myself.

Our meeting last Sunday was a general discussion, since the advertised lecturer was unable to come. The talk on Palestine is postponed to next season.

Here are some links to items I've found of interest recently:

* About that courageous lady Ayaan Hirsi Ali:
http://tinyurl.com/bazq8

* "The Suicide Bombers Among Us" by Theodore Dalrymple. "The two forms of jihad, the inner and the outer, the greater and the lesser, thus coalesce in one apocalyptic action. By means of suicide bombing, the bombers overcome moral impurities and religious doubts within themselves and, supposedly, strike an external blow for the propagation of the faith."
http://www.city-journal.org/html/15_4_suicide_bombers.html

* The furore over the Danish cartoons of Mohammed. One of the cartoonists is auctioning his picture in aid of the earthquake appeal. I wonder what the reaction might be if we put a cartoon of Mohammed in the Secular Hall window?:
http://www.mediawatchwatch.org.uk/?p=285

* Joseph Atwill's theory that the Gospel of Matthew is Roman propaganda:
http://www.caesarsmessiah.com/summary.html

* Another secular blogger, Kate Smurthwaite of "cruellablog"!
http://cruellablog.blogspot.com/

31 October 2005

It's a long time since I've been to the British Museum in London. It seems they now have a permanent "Enlightenment" exhibition in the former King's Library. (Last time I was there it was fenced off for alterations.) There's an online tour:

http://www.thebritishmuseum.ac.uk/enlightenment/en_tours.htm

I'll definitely go there next time I'm in London. Oddly I found this link on the Internet Infidels discussion forum, an American site!

Modern America seems to have lost sight of the principles of its founding fathers like Tom Paine and Thomas Jefferson, whose views on religion were far more radical than any present-day politician seems prepared to express.

27 October 2005

For anyone who wants to follow the fascinating goings-on at the "Intelligent Design" trial in Pennsylvania, this seems to be a good blog to go to:

http://aclupa.blogspot.com/

ACLU is the American Civil Liberties Union which is supporting the families that brought the case. Judgment is due in November. If the case is lost watch out for a big push by the christian fundamentalists to get it into every school.

The New Scientist (Editorial, in issue dated 29 October) notes that almost everyone involved (on both sides) is devoutly christian, those bringing the prosecution see no conflict between natural selection and their religion.

If only the Church of England would make a statement of this type! I've tried to get a declaration from them but the view given to me is that evolution by natural selection is still a matter of scientific controversy (which it is not). Yet they are willing to make a declaration in support those who maintain that global climate change is due to human activities (where there is still genuine scientific controversy).

26 October 2005

John Hoffman, a member of the Society, and a former Professor at Leicester University, has donated the following books to our Library:

* John Baynton; Aims and Means, The Bodley Head, London, 1964
* H. Fagan; The Commoners of England, Part I, Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1958
* Philip S. Foner; The Case of Joe Hill, International Publishers, New York, 1975
* Bill Freund; The African Worker, Cambridge University Press 1988
* Paul Kennedy; African Capitalism: The Struggle for Ascendancy, Cambridge Unversity Press, 1988
* Sam Kushner; Long Road to Delano: A Century of Farmworkers' Struggle, International Publishers, New York, 1976
* Hyman Lumer; Poverty: Its Roots & Its Future, International Publishers, New York, 1965

* Albert Luthuli, Kenneth Kaunda, D. K. Chisiza, Tom J. Mboya, Julius K. Nyerere; Africa's Freedom, Unwin Books, 1964
* Eddie Madunagu; Problems of Socialism: The Nigerian Challenge, Zed Books, London, 1982

* Woodford McClellan; Revolutionary Exiles: The Russians in the First International and the Paris Commune, Frank Cass and Co, London, 1979
* E. Wayne Nafziger; Inequality in Africa: Political Elites, Proletariat, Peasants and the Poor, Cambridge University Press, 1988
* Nzongola-Ntalaja; Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Africa, Zed Books, London, 1987
* Carl von Ossietzky; The Stolen Republic: Selected Writings (ed Bruno Frei), Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1971

* D. N. Pritt; Unrepentant Aggressors: An Examination of West German Policies, Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1969
* Wiliam Graham Sumner; Folkways (FP 1906), Mentor Books, New York, 1960

* Weerth, Georg; A Young Revolutionary in Nineteenth Century England: Selected Writings (ed Ingrid and Peter Kuczynski), Seven Seas Publishers, Berlin, 1971
* Jack Woddis; Africa: The Way Ahead, Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1963

These are now included in the Library catalogue, which appears on our website.

23 October 2005

I'm getting a bit fed up with the way this Blogspot works (or doesn't!). The message I posted on Saturday 22nd has not yet appeared although it is recorded as "published". There seems to be a delay of up to a day every time. This message is just an extra one to see if it will move the system on a bit. Our meeting today (Sunday 23rd) is a "Headstrong" evening of general discussion on topics raised by those present.

22 October 2005

A welcome to the Derby & Derbyshire Secular Society.

http://www.dryfire.com/ddss/

Our new neighbours just to the North. Does this represent the resurgence of Secularism in response to the newly perceived dangers of religious fundamentalism?

A little booklet called Common Sense has just been produced by our member Wilfred Gaunt. In it he writes: "If our culture is not to slide back into a new dark age of bigotry and intolerance, then the secularists within our community must come together, organise, and demand that the voice of reason is heard, and acknowledged."

During the week, thinking of ways we can be more effective politically, I've been looking into the Humanist Party, and to correspond with their London spokesperson.

http://www.humanistparty.org.uk/

The people at the BHA are not keen on them, some seem to regard them as a sort of "cult", but the evidence I've seen for this is slight. Apart from their ideas being rather vague and utopian it is difficult to see why other Humanists would object to them. They are in process of reorganisation and perhaps might be guided in our direction. For more details see the discussion I have initiated, as jeepyjay, on the Brights forum.

http://www.the-brights.net/forums/

Last Sunday's lecture, on the US Marines, was not of much secular relevance, but this week is one of our "Headstrong" open discussion meetings, where anyone can bring a subject for debate.

15 October 2005

Religious Nonsense of the Week

It is time exorcism was exorcised! How can the Vatican be allowed to get away with these sorts of crude practices? Aren't they contrary to medical ethics?

http://tinyurl.com/d3nov

Priests queue up to qualify as exorcists - by Richard Owen - "A decline in faith among the young is leading to an increase in demand for rites to ‘drive out the Devil’." --- "About 120 priests and theologians gathered in Rome yesterday, anxious to learn the increasingly demanded rite of exorcism. "There is no doubt that the Devil is intervening more in the life of man these days," they were told."

I was going to post this item on FreethoughtFilter, but it seems to be offline for updating, so I'm using it as the first of a hopefully weekly choice of choice religious nonsense.

13 October 2005

The Sunday 9th October meeting was given over to a sort of party celebrating two years since Frontline Books took over from Little Thorn Books in the bookshop associated with Secular Hall. Wines and nibbles were provided, as well as subdued lighting, cafe-style tables and a book display. Shani Lee gave some brief comments about Radical Fiction, but we ended up with a round-table discussion on secular topics, though we were unsuccessful in getting the youngest people present to join in to any extent.

There has been some difficulty in getting this blog to publish properly; it only seems to appear the next day. Perhaps it will work better if I post something each day. This will mean widening the scope to general issues and personal opinions rather than just to Secular Society news. I've been posting news items on Freethought Filter which is well worth a visit:

http://www.freethoughtfilter.com/b/

This was set up by Tom Morris.

06 October 2005

The Sunday lecture by Colin Hyde of the East Midlands Oral History Project combined a talk with extracts from recordings. One of these was of Mrs Louie Croxtall whose reminiscences of Secular Hall were also reproduced in part in the Newsletter that I published in 2003. She became a member in 1930, at age 16, and as a teenager had actually lived in the Hall where her father was the caretaker. The Society has typed transcripts of these interviews, or they can be heard (on headphones) at the Record Office in Wigston.

From Alan Hayes I learn as follows:
BBC [television] were at the Hall on Monday. They filmed short interviews with Michael, Lyn, Keith, Caroline, Satish and myself, and a group discussion, inside the Hall. Michael was also filmed outside with the Hall as background. They also filmed various aspects of the Hall, including, I believe, dancers in the dance academy and children practising marshal arts [in the basement]. In all they seem to have been at the Hall from about noon until mid-evening. All that will, with luck, give about five minutes in a one-hour programme about humanism/secularism going out to schools early next year.

I, and other members no doubt, would have liked to have been told about this event in advance (such as at the Sunday meeting) rather than four days later. Surely we can manage better organisation and publicity than this?

My own efforts this week were devoted to putting F. J. Gould's 1900 History of Leicester Secular Society on our website. The text was kindly provided on CD by Mr R. W. Morrell who produced the edition published by the Freethought History Research Group in 2004.

29 September 2005

Our new season of programmes starts this week. Until Friday there is an exhibition on display (9.30am - 4.30pm approximately, except Thursday morning) of photographs and maps, with accompanying text, telling the story of the epic march of some 400 and more of the Leicester unemployed to London and back in 1905. Many of the photographs are hand-coloured as was the practice at that time, before colour photography was developed. Members will have seen some of these before from Ned Newitt's talk given in June on the exact 100th anniversary. There are also photos of his previous exhibition in October 2004 on Leicester's Radical and Working Class History among the past talks pages. This new display has been put together with help from the Records Office at Wigston. I hope to include a photograph shortly.

Ned Newitt's site: The Labour Movement in Leicester from 1883:
http://mysite.wanadoo-members.co.uk/leicester_labhis/index.html

The Record Office:
http://tinyurl.com/a8bd4

The first lecture in the new series, on Sunday 2nd October at the usual time of 6.30pm will be given by Colin Hyde, Director of the Leicester Oral History Project, and will include voices from the past that may be familiar to many older members.

East Midlands Oral History Archive:
http://www.le.ac.uk/emoha

21 September 2005

Thanks to Shani Lee of Frontline Books there is now a version of the programme for September - December on the LSS website. This is a provisional version and may be revised once the printed version comes out. The first meeting 27-30 September, is another showing of Ned Newitt's fascinating collection of historical material, with emphasis on the 1905 March to London.

There is now a link at the top of the home page, leading to this blog. I've also revised the layout of past talks; there is now a separate page for each year, accessible via the Programme page.

Having started off with a post a day we will probably settle down to a more sensible one or two per week. There is a facility on Blogspot to allow other people to post to the blog by joining as a Team member. Members of Leicester Secular Society who think they may have regular news items, and would like to post themselves, can apply to me to be included in the team (or I may contact you direct). You would not have the facility of editing the posts after they were published. That would remain with me or any other Admin member appointed. Alternatively, send me your news item and I will publish it. Write to the email address at the bottom of the LSS home page.

17 September 2005

The winter programme of events at Secular Hall is expected any minute, from our Secretary Michael Gerard, but all I know at present is that it begins with an Exhibition at the end of September.

Meanwhile I've been doing some research on the history of the Society. We have some microfilms made in 1981 based on material in Leicester Record Office, which I've started to view on the reader in the Central Reference Library. The first Reel contains F. J. Gould's History of Leicester Secular Society written in 1900 (part of which is reproduced on our website), and G. J. Holyoake's eulogy written on Josiah Gimson's death in 1883. Then there are some copies of LSS Minute Books 1852 to 1902.

In a historical introduction, written by Edward Royle of the University of York, there is an account of the Leicester Secular Hall Company. This was set up in 1873 to raise funds to build the Hall, by issuing 1000 shares at £5 each. Half of these were bought by Gimson, 60 by John Sladen and 40 by Michael Wright; these were the main shareholders. The Gimson family later bought more shares as they came on the market. The Company was legally separate from the Society but with overlapping membership. The Company let the Hall to the Society.

The Leicester Rationalist Trust was set up in 1907 (see further details on our website), and the Hall was sold by the Company to the Trust, on behalf of the Society, for £2500 in 1923. At that time Sydney Gimson was president of the Society. In his will (he died 1938) he left £300 to the Rationalist Trust. Sydney Gimson also left a typescript Random Recollections, which is apparently at the LCRO. Thanks to our member Dave Ray I've been able to read a photocopy of Part I of this which covers the period up to 1900. It is rather chatty and drops the names of everyone of any significance who was involved in that era. (I will try to put some extracts on the website.)

One of the names that I'd not come across before, now largely forgotten, is that of Auberon Herbert, at one time a Nottingham MP and advocate of "Individualism" or "Voluntaryism". He died in 1906 (the same year as Holyoake), and Gimson seems to have thought very highly of his ideas. Tom Barclay in his Memoirs and Medleys mentions him, saying: "We annihilated all the arguments of Teetotallers, Co-operators, Malthusians and Individualists like Auberon Herbert and W. H. Mallock." Speaking at Secular Hall in those days must have been a frustrating occupation -- it still can be!

13 September 2005

I went to the meeting of the 'Leicester Campaign to Stop the War', with Manzoor Moghal, of the Muslim forum, and Akram Hawwash, from Palestine, as speakers. There were 18 people in attendance in all, including myself and the speakers. Alas very little was said about what can be done now, rather than raking over old history.

At the end I was able to ask Mr Moghal if he could say why there were (as far as I could tell) no Muslims in the audience, when the speakers were Muslim and the topic so obviously of interest to the Muslim community, and seems to have been well publicised. We had the same problem when Ziauddin Sardar spoke to Leicester Secular Society on 'Islam and Secularism' last January. (Dr Mukadam of the Islamic Academy was the only other Muslim evident.)

Mr Moghal spoke of Muslims having the duty of prayer five times a day, and of family duties. This may be so, but is surely not sufficient. I pointed out that when I took part in a debate at a Leicester University Ideological Society (a Muslim student organisation), two years ago, at a similar time in the evening, the lecture hall was packed out.

My conclusion is that Muslims will only attend meetings organised, or approved, by Muslim organisations. This failure of Muslims to participate in the wider society is a serious problem.

12 September 2005

A Report on the 'Law, Religion and Secularism' Conference

This is a necessarily short note on a four-hour conference. Suleiman Nagdi spoke of the difficulties of meeting the requirements of Muslim customs particularly in the case of deaths in hospital, where burial within 24 hours may not be possible, due to post mortem delays. He also indicated that autopsy procedures might be seen as violation of modesty. In the question and answer session he indicated that the views of Muslims on transplants were divided; those from the Indian subcontinent tending to be against, and most other areas in favour.

By far the most impressive talk was given by Peter Veitch, Consultant Transplant Surgeon, on his experience with kidney patients. He made quite clear the ethical dilemmas faced by such surgeons. He would never in practice use a kidney from a deceased patient without permission of the coroner and the patient's family, even if the patient had signed a donor card. Jean McHale described the legal position as regards the opt-in or opt-out alternatives; in various countries the patient's family may have no say. Deborah Baker described the practical problems of race relations in the Leicester hospitals, such as providing an interpreter when 85 different languages are spoken in the city.

In the second half of the programme, Ibrahim Mogra (bearded and turbaned but very young looking and speaking excellent English) supported the proposals to introduce a law against incitement to hatred on religious grounds, and the idea of extending the blasphemy laws to protect other religions. He also seemed to indicate that he would like these laws to cover cases of ridicule, since no-one likes to have their cherished views laughed at, even secularists. (As a secularist I'm all for being ridiculed by anyone. It's good for us.)

Andrew Copson presented the Humanist case very well, though I thought he was unnecessarily apologetic in thanking the organisers for inviting a humanist speaker. He emphasised the role of human rights legislation, and there being no privileged position for any belief system, to resolve conflicts in a multicultural society. Mr Sandhu spoke as a Sikh, and about such activities as the introduction of prayer rooms in hospitals (and at police HQ!), and in setting Home Office guidelines on forced marriage. I found the final speech, by Hazel Baird on the work of the Commission for Racial Equality, almost impossible to follow, since it seemed to be entirely composed of vague generalities and platitudes, like a PR brochure.

Chris Eyre, the Deputy Chief Constable, spoke only in the final question and answer session. There was a session at the end of each part. One speaker, originally from Kenya, expressed the view that he would not be willing to make kidney donation on religious grounds. A Somali speaker, new to Leicester, sought clarification of the powers of the coroner. Secular views were well articulated and given a fair hearing. I made the mistake of sitting next to Tom Morris who, after a long trip to get to the conference, made good contributions in both sessions. (I hope he will pass on his impressions in comments to this post.) There was also a good exchange between Andrew Wyngate for the Church of England and Allan Hayes for Humanism. (Again I hope one or both will provide comments.)

11 September 2005

Activities at Secular Hall

A lot more happens at Secular Hall than just the meetings of the Secular Society, which are held in the Library on the ground floor. The much larger ballroom upstairs is used by the ABC Dance company and occasionally by the Society for specially large meetings. The basement is occupied by Leicester Martial Arts. A bookshop has been a feature of the building since it was opened in 1881, and part of the frontage is now occupied by Frontline Books.

The Library and the adjacent Members' Room are available for hire, and are well used by numerous different groups. Bookings for these rooms are now made through Frontline Books: http://www.frontlinebooks.co.uk/. There are some restrictions on who can hire the rooms. Obviously, for instance, we do not permit them to be used for religious services. There are higher rates for hire by commercial companies than for social groups.

There is a Public Meeting scheduled for this Tuesday, 13th September, 7:30pm organised by the Leicester Campaign to Stop the War (which war is not stated!) at which named speakers are Manzoor Moghal (Chairman of the Muslim Forum) and Akram Hawwash (from Palestine). The Secular Society held a discussion prior to the invasion of Iraq, at the time of the big demonstrations in London, and the views of members expressed then warned of just the disastrous outcomes that we have seen. The question now is, can the US, British and other forces be withdrawn leaving a reasonably stable situation, or is such a situation unattainable?

10 September 2005

I've been thinking of starting up a weblog for a while, but didn't want it just to be a place to impose my own views on the world, or to chat inconsequentially about anything that came to mind, since my mind is anything but orderly and disciplined. One of my favourite sayings is from Lewis Carroll: "never do anything without a porpoise". The purpose of this blog is therefore to provide a News Service related to Leicester Secular Society, whose website I set up and maintain at: http://homepages.stayfree.co.uk/lss/index.htm.

By reporting activities of the Society and other relevant events I hope it will be possible to stimulate greater interest, especially among younger people. Someone recently said to me that the Society is seen as a club for grumpy old men! Unfortunately I fear that there is some truth in this observation. That was one of the stimuli that led me to set up this site. We regularly attract younger people to look into our meetings, but the trouble is they tend to come one at a time, see few people of their own age, and unless they already have a commitment to the reforms and ideas for which the Society stands, have little incentive to return.

The immediate event that triggered my action in opening this blog was an email I received from an enquirer, that brought to our notice a conference on "Law, Religion and Secularism" organised by the University of Leicester, but which the organisers had not seen fit to tell us about, although they had informed all the local faith groups, and had got a speaker from the British Humanist Association. For details see here: http://www.le.ac.uk/law/lrsconference/. One of my next posts will be a report on that meeting. (I understand Hanne Stinson is not able to come, so the BHA will be represented by Andrew Copson.)