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.

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