31 December 2007

Signing Off

Since I have retired as web-editor for Leicester Secular Society I am also handing the admin duties on this blog to my successor Frank Friedmann. This is just a token entry for December 2007. I may open a blog of my own devoted to my wider interests.
It's been a worthwhile exercise, though I would have preferred to get much more response from readers. I wish Leicester Secularist and the Society all the best for the new year. TTFN.

19 November 2007

With New Humanist on our side ...

The leading article in the Nov/Dec issue of New Humanist, illustrated with a Rowson cartoon, which also features on the cover, is an attack on fellow humanist Richard Dawkins (a "distinguished supporter" of BHA) and fellow "new atheist" Christopher Hitchens , by another humanist, Richard Norman, who is a former Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Kent, and is a member of the Humanist Philosophers' Group:

http://newhumanist.org.uk/1623

There is also a discussion on their blog about the offensiveness or otherwise of the cartoon:

http://blog.newhumanist.org.uk/2007/11/new-humanist-cartoon-controversy.html

In a comment on the blog I wrote: "The issue here in my view is not the cartoon but the article by Richard Norman that it illustrated. It is an attack on one humanist figure (Dawkins) for being a humanist by another (Norman) who wants to pussy-foot round the poor religionists in case we upset them too much. There is far too much of this in thehumanist movement. We should be attacking the enemy, not our supporters."

Another commenter claimed that I hadn't read the article. To demonstrate that I have, I give here my detailed objections to it. Quotes are in italic.

He begins by claiming that "the 'New Atheism' is not really new" and "we need to beware of fighting old battles in a world which has moved on". The world has indeed moved on, scientific knowledge has moved on, and that is why a new atheism is needed - there are new battles (of ideas) to be fought.

He cites "islamist-inspired terrorism" and "resurgence of creationism" as immediate causes, of the new atheism, but of course there are many equally obnoxious but less headline-catching revivals of religious influence. He claims that "it would be foolish to let our attitudes to all religions and all religious believers be coloured by a small set of specific outrages". True, but that's not what we are doing. We are recognising the danger inherent in treating religious belief with a respect it does not merit.

He thinks that "In some parts of the US it takes courage to come out as an atheist. But ... in Britain today, for most of us, it’s a doddle". Well it may be a doddle for a Professor of Moral Philosophy in Kent, but it is not for many muslims in Leicester. But the issue is not just coming out as an atheist - it is making the little steps that lead to that result - such as learning to think for yourself, or getting up the courage to question and to express divergent views. This applies as much to many Church of England parishioners as to muslim women.

He then writes of Dawkins and Hitchens "over-generalising about religion and about religious believers", saying that "In the 'religion' that Dawkins and Hitchens relentlessly attack I simply do not recognise the many good, sensitive, intelligent and sometimes wonderful religious people I know". Well if Norman wants to redefine 'religion' to mean such activities as meditation, cultivating oneness with nature, philosophising about the origin of the universe, and agonising over the moral issues in the world he can do so, but this is not the religion, based on faith and wish-fulfilment, that is being attacked by the new atheists. If these are the only religionists he knows, he should get out more!

Norman claims that "For Dawkins the problem is that all religious believers are committed to faith rather than reason." and later that "He thinks that the real divide is between science and religion". This is not so. Everyone is capable of reason, it is needed to cope with everyday life. Religious people are not totally irrational - but the faith component in their thought is delusional. I like to use the phrase that their minds are 'god-befogged'.

After trying to redefine 'religion' Norman's next approach is to redefine 'faith'. He says: "In some cases faith is no more or less than a set of overarching beliefs with which people make sense of the world." So, why not call it 'belief' then, or a 'world-view' if that's what it is? He continues: "All religions are faiths" (in his new sense) "...and so is humanism, though most of us would prefer not to use the word because of its other connotations." So, why use it then! Humanism is a belief or worldview. OK. He concludes: "There’s no necessary opposition between faith in this sense and reason." True enough, but no-one except Norman is using it 'in this sense'!

He tries another tack: "But faith can also refer to our readiness to accept beliefs on grounds which are not conclusive. This covers a range of cases, from a hunch which you think will be confirmed, to a well-founded expectation based on past experience." and: "It’s a perfectly legitimate sense of the word – a belief backed by previous experience, for which further confirmation is sought." Well then, why not call it a 'hunch' or a 'hypothesis' in these cases?

He claims: "there are plenty of religious believers who would say that they have faith in this sense." OK, so they have a hunch or a hypothesis - so what - the question is where do they go from there? But he continues: "They can’t prove that there’s a god, so their commitment goes beyond the evidence, but it’s not unsupported." But if it's not unsupported (which means it is supported) then that means they must think they have evidence of some kind - presumably personal experience. If their commitment goes beyond the evidence then it's faith (in the original sense) - if they have evidence or think they have then its a hunch or hypothesis.

The next part of his argument goes into philosophising in the light of modern cosmological theories about the origin of the universe, using such arguments as 'fine tuning'. But this is not the type of personal God that most religionists believe in.

Speaking of Swinburne's argument that divine creation is the 'simplest' explanation he says: "The argument fails. But it is still an argument. As so often, deciding whether an argument succeeds is a matter of judgement – of faith ... But a mistaken argument is still an argument, still an appeal to reason and evidence." For a Professor of Moral Philosophy this seems to me a very wobbly bit of reasoning. I can provide a pretty good argument to show that 1 = 0, but it is a mistaken argument because it involves division by zero. But according to Norman it is still reasonable to believe it if we have faith enough!

Of Hitchens he says: "He has no difficulty compiling an appalling catalogue of all the terrible things done in the name of religion." But this is not what Hitchens does. He lists terrible things caused by faith-biased belief, not merely done 'in the name of' religion. "And the length of the list demonstrates, for Hitchens, that religion poisons everything." Indeed it does.

Having thus misrepresented Hitchens, Norman asks: "What about all the good things done in the name of religion?" and accuses Hitchens of circular reasoning. "If they’re really good, that just shows that they’re not really religious." Norman's error here is that not all things done 'in the name of' a cause are motivated by the tenets of the cause. Most things done by most people most of the time are rational things motiviated by a clear-sighted understanding of the facts.

Finally, he argues that Humanists should be prepared to cooperate with others who share the same values, even if for religious reasons. But Dawkins and Hitchens already do this, and have not argued against it. There is no inconsistency in this. Being honest with people, pointing out that their faith is nonsensical to us, and that some of their attitudes are as a result, objectionable to us, is not intolerance. On the contrary, pretending that they don't offend us is hypocrisy.

He concludes: "if religion is so contradictory, that’s probably because human beings are a deeply contradictory species". Well, if that's the case perhaps we humanists should devote more effort to sorting out our contradictions rather than tolerating them.

07 November 2007

His Holiness goes Holistic.

I've just come back from a lecture given by the Bishop of London at Leicester University on the subject of "Climate Change and the God Delusion", so thought I'd write up my impressions while still clear in my mind. The lecture was due to start at 5:30 but the Bishop didn't arrive until about an hour later (meanwhile I took a little walk to get some fresh air). The delay was due to his chauffeur-driven car being held up in traffic on the way from London (a measure of his commitment to fighting climate change?).

The Bishop's use of "The God Delusion" in the title was a bit of a fraud since he did not address any points in Dawkins' book, merely throwing out the customary jibe about "fundamentalist atheists". He has however evidently read the book, since he made use of some of the ideas in it for his own purposes, as indicated below.

The lecture was the inaugural one of a series which are to be concerned with "theological thinking on contemporary topics". The Bishop referred to the Church of England as having a "non-sectarian gene" in its DNA. He cited the sociologist Max Weber in terms of the compartmentalisation of religion and science - their "mutual irrelevance", which brought a laugh. He didn't mention Gould's "non-overlapping magisteria" (dealt with in TGD) which is the same idea. However he cited this view because he thinks a more "holistic" approach is now needed. So evidently he does believe in the reality of an interventionist god in some form.

Another notion he took from TGD is that of "raising of consciousness". This was partly in terms of the need to convert knowledge into awareness in the climate change debate. In this he is right of course. However, he attacked humanism as being a philosophy in which humans see themselves as little gods. We have shrunk "god" to being an idea in our minds. I suppose the message is that we need to recognise the danger that our "rapacious self-interest" (a quote from Jonathan Porritt) can have on the planet if we don't control it. But I'm sure humanists agree with this. We just seek rational solutions to the problem rather than theological ones.

He quoted Matthew Arnold's famous poem "Dover Beach" about the sea of faith receding, and suggested that the receding tide was a warning of a coming tsunami of faith! (This was based on evidence of church attendances in London.) It occurred to me that if there was a coming tsunami it could well be one of Islam, which might not be what he is hoping for. He spoke of Britain being both a secular and a christian country (but didn't also call it islamic).

He spoke of there being a new credulity about - and of cults of unreason. In this I think we can agree with him. He cited an example of astrology. In the brief Q&A session at the end I asked if he included Young-Earth Creationism and Jehovah's Witnesses among these cults of unreason (thinking of their anti-science stances) but his reply was something about millenialism and catholic doctrine, which rather struck me dumb, due to its being a complete nonsequitur.

There was some theology that probably went over my head. Something about christians reverencing matter, which seemed very different to anything I learnt in RI years ago. He made some puzzling quotes at the end, one from Philip Pullman's trilogy, about "spirits", and another from a mediaeval writer which mentioned "demons". Presumably he thinks such beings real. Perhaps it will be possible to see a written version of the lecture to get a better idea of what this was about.

By the way. Sorry I've been away for a while. This was partly for technical reasons (access to the blog) and partly because I was hoping to find someone in LSS to take over the blog, since I'm retiring as web-editor in December. However, I may be able to continue here, though with less frequency.

29 August 2007

The Religionisation of Journalism

This companion and contrast to my last piece has been prompted by the decision of the editor (or it maybe the deputy editor playing the fool while the chief is away since this is the silly season) of Leicester Mercury to offer a weekly column to the local Bishop to regale us with his views on anything he chooses. Is this what passes for professional journalism these days?

In days past journalists were capable of providing us with plenty of views of their own devising based on their observations of society and their interviews with its denizens. Now whenever there is any emotive or moraly challenging event they turn first to the local vicar for his judgment. Why should "faith" in the existence of mysterious beings behind the workings of the universe gives them greater insight than people who have studied the problems in a rational manner?

At least the editor has published three letters (one from myself) condemning his decision, and hoping that it is not too late to rescind it. The editors original Opinion piece is, somewhat bizarrely, on the this is leicestershire site in the News/Opinion section under the heading "Time to Stop Illegal Tipping"!

The Bishop's piece can be found by doing a search, but is not otherwise readily findable on the site. Our three letters are of course in the Letters section. The letters are usually only retained on the site for a short while, but I will reproduce them on the Leicester Secular Society Diary page to keep them current.

The two quotes from the Bishop's article that I focused on in my response are:

"Across the County, the Church of England sponsors and supports nearly 100 primary and secondary schools in order to provide a Christian upbringing for each generation."

"Faith cannot be confined to the personal and private sphere - it has to do with public truth and with how human society is ordered and managed."


In the first he is openly expressing the evangelising purposes of the Church of England in involving itself in education (as was made so clear in the 2001 Dearing report "The Way Ahead").

In the second he is showing how religious bodies cannot be trusted to carry out secular functions in an objective manner, without bringing in their own subjective fantasies, to which they give the name "faith". As I say in my leter: Public policies must be based strictly on the facts of the case, and not on "faith" in some supernatural intervention or doctrinaire outdated religious notions.

19 August 2007

The Politicisation of Religion

Is it paranoid of me to think that this is the greatest threat to the world and to continuation of the scientific enlightenment into the next millennium?

Last Sunday there was a massive demonstration/rally in Indonesia calling for a Grand Caliphate of all Muslim countries based on Islamic law.

This project is openly proclaimed by Hizb-ut-Tahrir in Britain.

Equally on the American side there are the Dominionists who claim that America is or should be a Christian country, for instance: Christianity is Americas True Faith by Al Bedrosian.

This is despite the fact that the founding fathers were definitely not Christians.

This thesis is expounded in a new book, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America by Chris Hedges who is himself a Christian writer. For an account of his views see here also.

Some of the links here came from an alarming discussion on the BCSE forum. The British Centre for Science Education is concerned principally to campaign against the teaching of creationism in our schools. This is just one aspect of the politicisation of religion.

28 July 2007

Western Culture? There's No Such Thing.

Don Cupitt came to Secular Hall on Thursday (26th July) to speak on "The Meaning of the West: Secular versus Religious Interpretations". He maintains that "'Western Culture' is ... the most powerful and dynamic cultural tradition that has yet appeared among human beings". He is right to put 'Western Culture' in inverted commas here, because there is no such thing. The term 'Western Culture' is a label used by those who want to polarise the development of ideas into an Us and Them, East versus West battle. We must be careful not to fall into this trap.

What is in reality "the most powerful and dynamic cultural tradition that has yet appeared among human beings"? The answer is the culture of reason and of human-based rational ethics and of scientific method. And this is not 'Western Culture' it is Rational Culture, it is Humanist Culture, it is Scientific Culture, it is Enlightenment Culture, and most of all it is World Culture. Contributions to this Culture have been made by all the peoples of the Earth. It is a heritage open to all the peoples of the Earth. Its opposite is not 'Eastern Culture', its enemy is all forms of irrationality, ignorance, incoherence, obfuscation and superstition.

Unfortunately Don Cupitt's thesis, as expressed to us at Secular Hall, is to hijack this World Culture in the name of the ghost of Christianity. In order to do this he has to play down or even to deny that Eastern Cultures have made or are even capable of making contributions that count. The Chinese, Indian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Arab, and other Pre-Christian contributions to science, to logic, to democracy, to philosophy, to ethics, to the whole world of ideas for him do not count. His thesis is that only Christianity is responsible for modern humanitarianism, self-examination, critical thinking and progressive reform. What nonsense! To speak plainly, besides being self-delusion, this verges on being Racist.

One can understand Don Cupitt's motivation. Having devoted a life to trying to save the religion of Christianity in which he was brought up and thoroughly immersed and enmeshed, and having sought to bring about the modernisation of Christianity, he now finds it impossible to let go, to just let it fade away and die. There must have been some purpose in it he despairingly thinks. He actually says in the handout circulated at the meeting that "the decline of the religion was also the beginning of Christianity's extraordinarily successful afterlife as modern Western Culture"! Sorry Don: The truth is that Cristianity is Dead, it was killed by the Scientific Enlightenment, and there is no Life after Death.

10 July 2007

No Ex-Muslims in Leicester?

The following is a message I sent to Leicester Mercury on 28 June, using their website form. Since I got a blank screen for reply I sent it again by email on the 30th June. It has not been published.

Dear Editor,

In view of the large Muslim population in Leicester, I'm surprised that you do not seem to have given any coverage to the setting up of the "Council of ex-Muslims of Britain". [This was set up by Mariam Namazie, Secularist of the Year in 2005, who spoke about Humanism at Leicester's Secular Hall in February this year.]

Many Islamic states still threaten people with death under Sharia law if they leave Islam.

Telegraph News Item

Your recent defence of free speech by support for the knighthood to Salman Rushdie is admirable. But one wonders how many people in the Muslim community are afraid to express their doubts about religion in view of the many threats against infidels that one reads in the Quran.

Not all local Muslims are regular attenders at the Mosques. In fact I notice that the large Mosque on the corner of Conduit Street appears to be in a state of neglect in view of the uncleared weeds and rubbish accumulating around it.

23 June 2007

Response to a Response

There was a petition on the No.10 website that asked:

"We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to ban within government-funded schools the promotion or practice of any particular faith or religion."

The Government has sent this response to all people who signed the petition:

http://www.number-10.gov.uk:80/output/Page12064.asp

There doesn't seem to be any allowance for people to reply to the government response, so I'll do so here.

The Government remains committed to a diverse range of schools for parents to choose from, including schools with a religious character or "faith schools" as they are commonly known.

Why should this be a government 'commitment'? Is the government also committed to setting up Marxist or Wiccan schools for those who want the choice?

Religious Education (RE) in all schools, including faith schools, is aimed at developing pupils' knowledge, understanding and awareness of the major religions represented in the country. It encourages respect for those holding different beliefs and helps promote pupils' moral, cultural and mental development.

This was not opposed by the petition. Learning about religion is not "promoting or practicing" a religion. A large proportion of people in the country do not hold religious views at all. So I presume "RE" lessons will also encourage respect for atheistic and humanist viewpoints? Wouldn't it be better therefore to call it, say, "Cultural Education"?

The Churches have a long history of providing education in this country and have confirmed their commitment to community cohesion.

I take it you, Mrs Government, are referring here to the situation in Northern Ireland? A great history of community cohesion they have there!

Faith schools have an excellent record in providing high-quality education and serving disadvantaged communities and are some of the most ethnically and socially diverse in the country.

So do community schools that are not faith-biased. Why have schools that work under this handicap?

Many parents who are not members of a particular faith value the structured environment provided by schools with a religious character.

So are you saying that community schools do not provide a "structured environment" for their pupils? Any good school will do so.

The Government response is all waffle and no substance.

19 May 2007

Defending Freethought

Since we at Leicester Secular Society, according to our badge, promote Freethought Secularism I thought we ought to post a response to this attack: freethinking ruins all things. Although it is from an obviously hostile website, devoted to defending 'Christendom' against 'Jihad and Liberalism', it was recently featured on the Richard Dawkins site, because of its attack on the book God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens.

The first false claim is that:

The atheists and freethinkers say they want openmindedness, but their minds are plainly shut off to the fountains of wisdom of thousands of years because the wisdom contained in scriptures and hymns--from which virtually all great Western art and literature derive and to which all of it pays often unwitting tribute--is expressed in an idiom and attributed to a source that they reject out of hand.

In The God Delusion, at the end of Chapter 9, Richard Dawkins lists a whole series of phrases from the Bible that have become a part of the English language and are often quoted idiomatically without realising their origin. The difference of course is that freethinkers recognise the "source" as being human and not supernatural, and that the sentiments provide a stimulus to thought and expression, not a rigid dogma or unquestionable wisdom. This is not "narrowness of spirit", indeed it is a spirited response to part of our literary heritage.

The next paragraph begins quite well:

Freethinkers supposedly want "the pursuit of ideas for their own sake," but no one pursues ideas simply for their own sake, but in order to understand, to act or to believe, or to have some combination of these. Men pursue ideas so that they may understand the world, and they seek to understand the world to have wisdom. Men desire wisdom in order to live well, and part of living well is to pursue and know the Good, and the Good is that which fulfills human nature and causes it to flourish. The desire to know is a natural desire, one implanted in us as part of our created being;

Apart from the capitalisation of "Good" and the next to last word "created" this is all very reasonable. We cannot always be sure of what the good is before we have investigated the ideas and their consequences. And a freethinker would say of course that our desire to know is part of our EVOLVED being - it is one of the instincts that is important for our survival, and one that is distinctly human.

A final quote:

The typical freethinker believes that he is at home with uncertainty, and that it is the religious man who is in dire need of certainty, but the opposite is quite obviously true: the freethinker cannot really stand to have loose ends, puzzles or paradoxes. If this, then that is impossible, the freethinker says. The religious man not only assumes that paradox will occur, but he takes the paucity of reason to explain paradox as an indirect confirmation that there are realities that not even reason, as estimable and valuable as it is, can penetrate or comprehend.

This confuses uncertainty with vagueness or nonsense or self-contradiction. Personally I enjoy puzzles, especially if they are solvable, and paradoxes if they provoke thought, and there are many loose ends in science, tying them up or exploring where they lead is a stimulus to many researchers at the frontiers of our knowledge, but "believing six impossible things" to start with does not lead to enlightenment.

23 April 2007

An Open Letter to Archbishop Sentamu

Dear Archbishop,

I would like to take up two points from your recent speech in the House of Lords.

(1)

I find the conclusion you draw from your story about "the four atheist inmates" quite absurd. You say: "... all the inmates were offered the chance to go to worship. The four young men with no religion declined the offer, ... The prison officer, not wanting the four men to remain locked up in their cells, asked them to clean the toilets ..."

Clearly the four unbelievers were being punished for their irreligion by being made to clean the loos. The proper equivalent to them going to the chapel would be for them to be allowed to go to the library to study, or to the garden for quiet contemplation.

"The following Sunday, our four non-religious young men took up the offer to go to worship. The prison officer was puzzled why they had opted in this week. ..."

OH NO HE WASN'T! He was putting on the old Mackay. [Mackay (played by Fulton Mackay) was the chief prison warder, known for his sarcastic comments, in the TV comedy series "Porridge".]

"The four replied, “Sir, we didn’t like the ‘No Religion’ place of worship”. Crudely as they put it, those four young men were saying in their naivety that we are all essentially religious."

I'm sorry, but it is YOU Archbishop who is being naive here! This reply by the four unbelievers was a witty response, worthy of Godber. [Godber (played by Richard Beckinsale) was the young often cheeky convict in "Porridge".] The idea of the conveniences being "a place of worship" is a clever JOKE.

(2)

The other, more serious, point concerns dogmatism:

"For me, religion is a narrative we all inhabit that makes sense to us of what would otherwise be nonsense. ... let us be clear: dogmatic assumptions also underline non-religious world views—"

I am happy to accept your implication that religious views are dogmatic! You then list:

"Marxism, Darwinism, Freudianism, capitalism, secularism, humanism and so on. Those are clear dogmatic positions."

Here there is no space to defend all of these, but at least "Darwinism" (the theory of evolution of species by means of natural selection) is most certainly NOT A DOGMA. It is a scientific theory based on a multitude of evidence. It has withstood nearly 150 years of rigorous scientific examination and is now far more strongly established than when Darwin proposed it in 1859.

I and my colleagues would be most obliged if you, and other prelates of the Church of England, would make a clear statement of your position on the scientific theory of evolution. There are many evangelical churches that have quite explicitly come out in support of the completely unscientific obscurantist ideas known as "Young-Earth Creationism". It would be very helpful if the Church of England distanced itself very strongly from these irresponsible and ignorant ideas.

Yours sincerely

George Jelliss

(a member of Leicester Secular Society)

P.S. I will be publishing this email as an "open letter" on our blog, the Leicester Secularist.

Link to the text cited: ''The place of people who profess no religion in Society'' - Archbishop of York's speech in House of Lords, 19 April 2007.

05 April 2007

Fact and Fiction, Conscience and Prejudice

I've recently sent two letters to the Leicester Mercury that were not published. The advantage of having a blog is that I can publish them here.

26 March
Dear Editor,

Surely it shows a serious lack of judgment to devote a large part of your "World View" page of international news to the goings on in Coronation Street? You do realise, I hope, that this is Fiction? You give more space to it than the Real murder of Bob Woolmer in the next column! On what basis does the TV story rate greater importance than the servicemen kidnapped by Iran?

(Although the above letter wasn't published I received a typewritten letter in response from the Deputy Editor, Richard Bettsworth, trying to justify the decision, but I remain unmoved. This is just dumbing down in action. There are other pages in the paper for entertainment news.)

29 March
Dear Editor,

Francisca Martinez (Mailbox 27 March) like many other people who have spoken against the Sexual Orientation Regulations, including the Archbishop of York, confuses "conscience" with "prejudice". Many people with religious convictions, including bishops, were supporters of slavery. Wilberforce and his colleagues were moved to reform because they became aware of the true facts about the conditions of the slave trade. Conscience based on outdated ideas is just prejudice.

Francisca asks what William Wilberforce would make of it all. If his views have not changed he would undoubtedly be appalled, since he was the Mary Whitehouse of his day, having founded a "Society for the Suppression of Vice", However, what he interpreted as "Vice" to others often meant free speech, and led to persecution of people such as Tom Paine, who called for the "Rights of Man", and Richard Carlile whose "What is Love?" promoted sexual education.

But times have moved on and society is now more enlightened. Thanks to reformers like Wilberforce, Paine and Carlile.

(I thought this was a balanced view, not too much anti-Wilberforce, after all his work against slavery was praise-worthy, despite the less worthy effects of his evangelicalism.)

17 March 2007

Muslims Afraid to Speak Out?

Several years ago when I wrote in the Leicester Mercury concerning the wearing of the burqa, there was quite a lot of reaction, including letters from Muslim women. My most recent letter, (24 January) quoting the views of Taslima Nasrin on the need for women to cast off purdah, found no response at all. This lack of participation by the local Muslim community is very worrying for our democracy. It suggests that people are afraid to express their views.

Two important meetings of Muslim reformers have taken place over the past two weeks. On 4-5 March a 'Secular Islam Summit', took place in Florida. Its aim was to counter the reactionary voices which have been speaking on behalf of Muslims, to foster solidarity for societal growth in Middle Eastern and South Asian countries, and to seek reformation in Islam. There were more than twenty speakers from across these areas. They advocated reform of education and promotion of human rights, maintaining that these values do not belong to the West or the East but are the common moral heritage of humankind. They see no colonialism, racism, or "islamophobia" in submitting practices to criticism or condemnation when they violate human reason or rights.

Ibn Warraq called for full separation between religion and state in the Muslim world. Irshad Manji advocated 'Ijtihad', that is independent reading of Islamic texts, to counter the narrow interpretations of extremists. She invites non-Muslims to take part in the debate alongside reformist Muslims. Tawfiq Hakim noted that Islamism is a political ideology that pretends be a religious doctrine. Walid Phares urged the abandonment of concepts from early Islamic history, 1300 years ago, as incompatible with modern international law. He also warned that the West has paid too much attention to apologists for jihadism instead of liberal Muslims. Attempts by hard-liners to silence these reformers have often received more attention than the ideas and sufferings of the reformers themselves.

The second meeting referred to was 'Islam, Women's Rights and the Veil' on 8th March at the University of London Union. It featured a group of exceptionally courageous women who are standing up for their rights against a controlling and often violent religious establishment.

Maryam Namazie, argued not just against the wearing of the veil but calling for it to be banned. She likened it to a chastity belt or footbinding, representing female enslavement. Taslima Nasrin, has suffered persecution from the religious authorities in Bangladesh, from which she is now a refugee. Mina Ahadi from Iran highlighted the difficulty of renouncing the Islamic faith, which she said is misogynist and tyrannical. Apostasy can carry the death penalty in a number of countries including Iran, Saudi-Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan and Mauritania. Other speakers were Sonia Eggerickx, president of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, and Ann Harrison from Amnesty International who gave a summary of the legal situation of women in Iran and the terrible injustices they have to endure.

Sources:

Video of Secular Islam Summit participants.

Article including Statement of the Summit.

AINA report

NSS report on the London meeting.

I submitted the above article for consideration to Leicester Mercury last Sunday, but have had no response, so present it here.

20 February 2007

Richard Carlile remembered

I've just put a page about Richard Carlile among the short biographies on our website. His name has come to mind since he was one of the many victims of the so-called "Society for the Suppression of Vice" founded by the sainted William Wilberforce, whose involvement in the abolition of the slave trade, 200 years ago, is widely celebrated (e.g. 'In Our Time' on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday 22nd), though his other less laudable activities, on behalf of evangelical christianity, tend to be forgotten.

The Society began with King George III's 1787 Royal Proclamation 'For the Encouragement of Piety and Virtue, and for the Preventing and Punishing of Vice, Profaneness and Immorality', which Wilberforce suggested, and followed by setting up the Proclamation Society, which became the SSV in 1802.

An interesting publication on the history of these issues is Making English Morals: Voluntary Association And Moral Reform In England, 1787-1886 by M. J. D. Roberts.
"... the allure of Jacobin ideas raised fears of godlessness. This was the spur to a revival of efforts of metropolitan and provincial elites, manifested for example in the Society for the Suppression of Vice, to support tougher application of the law as a bulwark against indiscipline."

Another useful source is: Jonathan Bayes (PDF). "His own personal impact on nineteenth-century society, I would suggest, was greater in his campaign for the reformation of manners. In the battle against slavery Wilberforce was one of a team of people united in the cause. He was not the prime mover, nor the chief visionary; neither was his the greatest intellect in the anti-slavery lobby. The reason why it is the name of William Wilberforce which is remembered in this connection today, rather than those of Charles Middleton, James Ramsay, Thomas Clarkson, Granville Sharp, James Stephen, Thomas Wilson, William Smith, Zachary Macaulay, Henry Brougham, Henry Petty or Fowell Buxton, is that, of this tight-knit circle, Wilberforce was the man with the public voice and the contacts in places of power. He certainly did not carry on the fight alone. The victory of the abolitionists was the result of committed and effective team-work. As regards his second objective, however, Wilberforce did bring about a change in the mood of the nation which, it is arguable, can be traced directly and solely to him."

See also a series of six articles by Adam Hochschild.

About Carlile there is: On Freemasonry "The young man was Richard Carlile, who, shortly after this incident, was to achieve national notoriety as a champion of freedom of speech and thought, a pioneer of the freedom of the press, a fierce opponent of the monarchy and supporter of republicanism, a militant atheist, and an advocate of such social novelties as vegetarianism and birth control. Indeed, Carlile can be seen as the forefather of many aspects of modern political protest. As a recent commentator Joss Marsh has put it, 'the Chartists' jailhouse refusals, the suffragettes' hunger strikes, the self-starvations and blanket rebellions of IRA terrorists and internees: all alike look back to Richard Carlile.' "

This site remarks on the role of the SSV in enforcing the stamp duty on newspapers: "Pressure to abolish stamp duty grew. It came not only from the radical press but also from the "responsible" papers who realised that once it had gone they would be able to compete on more than equal terms. The more perceptive politicians also saw the value in abolition. In 1834 Lord Brougham, the Lord Chancellor, argued that it was no longer a question of whether people should be allowed to read or not, but what they should read. He said: "The only question to answer ... is how they shall read in the best manner; how they shall be instructed politically and have political habits formed the most safe for the constitution of the country." In 1836 stamp duty was reduced to ld and in 1855 it was abolished."

Three other sites with more amusing observations are: Royalty Theatre and Saucy and Cheeky.

The Obscene Publications Act was introduced in September 1857. "The Act was also used to forbid the distribution of information about contraception and physiology to the working classes."

The SSV was still in operation in the 1770s: "This society has been the means of suppressing the circulation of several low and vicious periodicals. Within the last two years it has also been the means of bringing to punishment, by imprisonment, hard labour, and fines, upwards of forty of the most notorious dealers, and within a few years has seized and destroyed the following enormous mass of corrupting matters :—140,213 obscene prints, pictures, and photographs; 21,772 books and pamphlets; five tons of letterpress in sheets, besides large quantities of infidel and blasphemous publications; 17,060 sheets of obscene songs, catalogues, circulars, and handbills ; 5,712 cards, snuff-boxes, and vile articles; 844 engraved copper and steel plates ; 480 lithographic stones ; 146 wood blocks ; 11 printing presses, with type and apparatus; 81 cwt. of type, including the stereotype of several works of the vilest description." My underlining.

The SSV was merged with the National Vigilance Association in August 1885.

Although slavery is supposedly abolished, there is atill an Anti-Slavery Organisation active in 2007.

08 February 2007

An invitation

560 million and 50 year Birthday for Leicester's oldest celebrity

Dr Mark A. Purnell of the Department of Geology at the University of Leicester has kindly invited us to the Annual Saturday Seminar to be held at the University on 10 March.

LEICESTER'S FOSSIL CELEBRITY: CHARNIA AND THE EVOLUTION OF EARLY LIFE

Tickets for the seminar and reception are £20.00 with a buffet lunch or £15.00 without - full details and application for tickets here).

Organised by Leicester Literary and Philosophical Society Section C (Geology) in conjunction with the Department of Geology, University of Leicester, & Leicester Museums and Galleries

The reception will formally open an exhibition of local and international Ediacaran fossils called 'Charni@ 50' and will launch a new BGS map of the geology of Charnwood. The public exhibition opens 11 March - 15 April 2007.

27 January 2007

Secular Facts and Arguments 1

This is the first of a series of occasional postings aimed at helping secularists and humanists to counter misrepresentations and misperceptions and build the political, social and moral case for secularism and humanism.

We are winning the argument but we still need to convert this into political pressure and action.
In Leicester we prevented a second Church of England academy.
But in addition to preventing we need to project the idea of a better way, a secular way, forward that all can share in.

Apathy is the big problem.

Support http://petitions.pm.gov.uk/endfaithschools/

Allan Hayes


(1)Religion not a basis for most (http://www.humanism.org.uk/site/cms/newsarticleview.asp?article=2288)
(http://tinyurl.com/y2yejj )
In this poll:

62% chose ‘Human nature by itself gives us an understanding of what is right and wrong’, against 27% who said ‘People need religious teachings in order to understand what is right and wrong’.

62% said ‘scientific & other evidence provides the best way to understand the universe’ against 22% who felt ‘religious beliefs are needed for a complete understanding of the universe’.

65% said that what is right and wrong ‘depends on the effects on people and the consequences for society and the world’. The rest split almost equally between two profoundly un-Humanist views: 15% said right and wrong were ‘basically just a matter of personal preference’ and 13% said what was right and wrong was ‘unchanging and should never be challenged’.

This supports the call for a radical reform of religious education in schools.

(2) Under representation of non-religious
20% of children in Leicester state schools are listed as having no religion (this is probably a gross underestimate). Seven years ago British Humanist was asked to provide help in meeting their needs, I am the third humanist representative on the Leicester Standing Advisory council on Religious Education, but I am hampered by being allowed to be only a co-opted non-voting member, and there is a move afoot to stop me from participating in some important
discussions.



(3) Government pays too much attention to religious groups and leaders (http://www.humanism.org.uk/site/cms/newsarticleview.asp?article=2287)
The poll mentioned in (1) yielded the following ranking by percentage voting for each choice of the group that the government pays too much attention to.
Leaders of other countries 44 Religious groups and leaders 42 Newspaper headlines 35 Big Business 34 The Royal Family 20 Trade Unions 17 Ordinary people 3 None of these 9.


(4) Heads against faith schools(http://education.guardian.co.uk/newschools/story/0,,1963587,00.html)
A recent ICM poll of head teachers found:
47% felt there should be either fewer or no faith schools, while 32% felt there should be no change. Only 9% agreed with the government's policy of increasing the number of faith schools.
Only 25% believe the presence of schools with a religious character creates more religious tolerance in society; 18% reckon they make no difference, while 45% think they actively contribute to less tolerance.

(5) Faith schools not better
(http://cee.lse.ac.uk/cee%20dps/ceedp72.pdf)An LSE study, Faith Primary Schools: Better Schools or Better Pupils?Stephen Gibbons, Olmo Silva, November 2006 is the only the latest showing that any advantage in performance of faith schools is very small and is due to the difference in student intake.
But government praise and support might lead to damaging gaps developing as parents exercise their choice.

(6) Religion does more harm than good (23 Dec 2006)
http://www.guardian.co.uk/religion/Story/0,,1978045,00.html
This ICM poll found that 82% see religion as a cause of division and tension between people: only 16% disagree. A clear majority, 63% say that they are not religious

(7) Faith schools, numbers, funding, discrimination, purpose
One third of our state schools are controlled by either the Church of England (one quarter) or the Catholic Church. Church schools are not gifts from the churches: until last year all the running costs, salaries and wages, and at least 90% of building costs were paid for out of taxes, now, the 2006 Education Act allows the state to pay all building costs.
Faith schools promote their own religions and can discriminate on religious grounds in the admission of children and in the hiring, promoting and firing of staff.

Government policy is to encourage more faith schools: we are heading for half our schools being faith schools.

(8) £9,000,000 to Church of England for building conservation over next three yearshttp://www.opsi.gov.uk/SI/si2006/uksi_20061008_en.pdf
Compare this with the effort LSS has to put in to get money for the regeneration of Secular Hall.

19 January 2007

Burn The Burqa

Taslima Nasrin, the Bangladeshi writer, who currently lives in exile in Calcutta, India, calls for Muslim women to Burn the Burqa, and to do away with all other forms of purdah. Perhaps the Muslim women of Leicester could take a lead in bringing about this modernising and liberating reform.

The article was published in Outlook India on 22 January. Taslima writes (page 2 of article):

Irrespective of which book says it, which person advises, whoever commands, women should not have purdah. No veil, no chador, no hijab, no burqa, no headscarf. Women should not use any of these things because all these are instruments of disrespect. These are symbols of women's oppression. Through them, women are told that they are but the property of men, objects for their use. These coverings are used to keep women passive and submissive. Women are told to wear them so that they cannot exist with their self-respect, honour, confidence, separate identity, own opinion and ideals intact.


When I first moved to Leicester seven years ago the sight of women covered from head to foot in black, even covering their faces, seemed shocking and incomprehensible to me. I have now become accustomed to it, seeing it every day, but still see it as a way of effacing these people from view, as if they are of no account. It's not even as if it was an aesthetic custom, why does it always have to be the most depressing black?