20 December 2009

Gospel truth a substitute for Peace and Goodwill?

Bishop of Leicester Tim Stephens recently had a First Person article in the Leicester Mercury, Tinsel is no substitute for Gospel truth, gloating over a claimed increase in sales of religious themed Christmas cards. He complains about 'creeping secularism' in general, and Ariane Sherine's 'Atheist's Guide To Christmas' in particular.

His article seemed so out of spirit with the recent Interfaith Week (in which several members of Leicester Secular Society, including our President, Allan Hayes, were involved), that I wrote a response to the Letters page. Unfortunately my first sentence was overlong, and the edited version that appeared in the newspaper (which you can see here: Bishop enjoys a privileged role) made little sense.

Here's what I actually wrote under my title, a play on his, 'Gospel truth a substitute for Peace and Goodwill?':

Tim Stephens must be glad that Interfaith Week is well behind us now, with its themes of social cohesion and understanding between people of all faiths and none, leaving him once again free to attack non-religious people who number among their ranks some of the most active in defending good community relations against the divisive cancer of sectarianism. (First Person, Saturday 13 December)

His title is Bishop 'of Leicester'. How a Bishop is appointed is a mystery to many - it certainly isn't through a process respecting equality of opportunity, in an organisation tearing itself apart over gender rights and an obsession with sexuality. And he didn't come to be 'of Leicester' through any election of the people of our diverse city - or even by the general membership of his congregation.

Nonetheless he enjoys enormous privileges. He is part of the senior management of the Church of England, one of the country's biggest property businesses, and one whose coffers will be filled from donations in proportion to the numbers persuaded of the importance of the Nativity story enough to put their bums on church pews a few times over the festive season. Our unwritten constitution even guarantees him a seat in the national legislature.

Let's return to our goodwill and cheer this festive season, and look forward to a future time when people with a genuine spirit of peace in their hearts are our favoured opinion makers!

Merry Christmas to you all - 'War is over if you want it' (John Lennon)

Frank Friedmann

17 December 2009

Trafigura’s gag on the BBC

BBC Newsnight ran a feature on alleged dumping of toxic waste in Cote d’Ivoire – now Trafigura and their lawyers Carter Ruck are pursuing a libel case against the BBC over the news story aired in May 2009 using our arcane libel laws that restrict our freedom of speech.

You can see it here:-


and read more here

21 November 2009

Sniping Bishop

This Bishop of Leicester has been sniping at secularists in a letter in the Leicester Mercury (19/11/09 "Faith and the Planet") .

I have sent in a response that appears below.

Dear Sir,

In a letter in the Leicester Mercury (19/11/09 "Faith and the Planet") the Bishop of Leicester was critical of Roger Helmer's somewhat eccentric views on climate change. However he also took the opportunity to make two cheap shot assertions about secularists and those without faith.

"That is why climate change so clearly reveals the gap
between a religious world-view and secular capitalism".

Why "secular" capitalism? Surely protestant capitalism would be nearer the truth? Is not the Church of England a strong supporter of capitalism (as are many other religious sects) with c.£4bn invested in various stocks and shares? Despite its campaigning against the effects of climate change, I understand that the Church of England's two largest equity investments are in Shell and BP, while it also retains a £22m investment in Nestle.

Ironically, Leicester Secular Society lacks the resources to partake in such capitalism, even if it wanted to.

"That is why without faith in God the risk of human beings
destroying their own habitat is very high".

This depends on what "faith" and how you interpret it.
I have no doubt that many people of "faith" care about the environment, as do most with none. Atheists can't rely on a god being out there to rescue them from the results of our follies (if we pray hard enough). Consequently many of those involved in campaigning for the preservation of the environment have been "non religious" and the movement secular.

However "faith" has certainly been one of the main reasons
why the world's largest polluter has not, until recently, addressed the problem of reducing its burning of carbon based fuels. If you believe that the end of the world and the "second coming" are nigh, there is no point in taking care of the world. A large proportion of "Christian" citizens of the USA (and quite a few here) actually believe this nonsense.

Yours faithfully,

John R. Catt


The Bishop (and the Church) often attempt to claim credit for "good causes" when in fact they have been late arrivals. The Church of England launched its "Shrinking the footprint" campaign in 2006 decades after environmentalists were concerned about climate change.

Similar behaviour has been exhibited regarded "City of Sanctuary". Members of LSS have been heavily involved in setting this up, with the Society providing free use of the Hall on several occasions, but, according to the C of E, it is their initiative.

If you want to frighten yourself regarding fundamentalism and the "Rapture" in the USA, just read up on the latest about Sarah Palin

18 August 2009

No Room for Doubt

One of the biggest problems facing the world is posed by religions whose followers believe that they have the one and only "answer" and that all others are condemned to hell.

Such a belief, though not in its most extreme form, is set out by Michael Brucciani in his letter to the Leicester Mercury shown below.

Constantine and the Church
Saturday, August 15, 2009, 09:30

I fear that Patrick Trigg's understanding of Catholic doctrine and history is a bit wobbly (Mailbox, August 6). The monotheistic religions do not worship the same god.

In revealing the Holy Trinity, the mystery of three divine persons in one God, Jesus Christ allows us to identify the one, true God. Those who reject Christ as God, have made for themselves a different god.

Catholics accept that Christ, as God and man, teaches the eternal truth that leads to the resurrection of the body and eternal happiness in heaven.

When the divinity of Christ was attacked by the Arian heresy, Emperor Constantine helped to arrange the Council of Nicaea in 325AD. This confirmed what had always been taught and believed by the Church. In denying the divinity of Christ, the Arians removed the foundation of all belief in the Catholic Faith. They became physically aggressive in promoting this false teaching, thereby cutting off their families from the means of salvation. As a last resort, the civil authorities, with the support of the Catholic Church, suppressed this danger to the souls of future generations and to civil order.

As for Constantine, his victory in 312AD, fought under the sign of the Christian Cross, confirmed him as Emperor of the Roman Empire. He recognised the power of God and the truth taught by the Catholic Church. He saw the civilising effects of Christianity over the pagan people. This influenced him to be magnanimous towards his enemies, a rare thing in a pagan world.

Before his death, he was baptised and so must have accepted the full teaching of the Catholic Church, including the divinity of Christ.

Michael Brucciani, Hallaton.

I have sent a response to the Mercury http://tinyurl.com/lesk8g that appears below.

Dear Sir,

I read with interest Michael Brucciani's letter (Mailbox, August 15) in which he sets out the details of one of the many schisms in early Christianity:

“When the divinity of Christ was attacked by the Arian heresy, Emperor Constantine helped to arrange the Council of Nicaea in 325AD. This confirmed what had always been taught and believed by the Church. In denying the divinity of Christ, the Arians removed the foundation of all belief in the Catholic Faith. They became physically aggressive in promoting this false teaching, thereby cutting off their families from the means of salvation. As a last resort, the civil authorities, with the support of the Catholic Church, suppressed this danger to the souls of future generations and to civil order”.

The final paragraph encapsulates the problem caused by absolutist religions whose believers have no doubts about their “faith”. If you believe that there is only one way to salvation (or to avoid hell) then anything that might cause your children not to believe threatens their eternal soul. This threat is therefore perceived by believers as much more dangerous than the threat of violence, or even death, to their children.

Consequently heresy is seen as the greatest crime that can be committed and the most barbarous forms of death penalty are reserved for it. This explains much of the religious violence that has occurred over the centuries and is still extant.

Such beliefs remain a threat to a peaceful society and trying to ensure that such absolutist religions do not gain any form of power is one of the reasons that I am a member of Leicester Secular Society.

There is further information on this topic available on the Society's blog which can be found at www.leicestersecularsociety.org.uk {this last paragraph was cut by the Mercury}.

John Catt Loughborough


This quote from Calvin defending the decision to burn Michael Servetus alive for denying the trinity and opposing infant baptism makes the point.

“Whoever shall maintain that wrong is done to heretics and blasphemers in punishing them makes himself an accomplice in their crime and guilty as they are. There is no question here of man's authority; it is God who speaks, and clear it is what law he will have kept in the church, even to the end of the world. Wherefore does he demand of us a so extreme severity, if not to show us that due honor is not paid him, so long as we set not his service above every human consideration, so that we spare not kin, nor blood of any, and forget all humanity when the matter is to combat for His glory.”

To all fundamentalists, those who disagree with them are seen as a threat to the true faith. This remains particularly so with some Islamic sects. The fate of "non-believers" (shown below) is indicated in the Qur'an and other texts considered sacred in Islam.

  • Kafir: An unbeliever, an apostate from Islam, a person who hides, denies, or covers the truth. Throw into Hell every stubborn disbeliever [Soorah Qaaf (50), Ayah 24]
  • Murtad: Apostate , A previous muslim who no longer accepts Islam. "People who turn away from Islam and do not repent but wage war and create mischief in the land are also considered as murderers. "But if they break their oaths after making compacts and taunt you for your faith, you should fight with these ringleaders of disbelief because their oaths are not trustworthy: it may be that the sword alone will restrain them" ([Qur'an 9:12]). And in Surah Al-Nahl, "But whosoever accepts disbelief willingly, he incurs God's Wrath, and there is severe torment for all such people"([Qur'an 16:106])
If you truly believe that a terrible fate lies in store for any of your family or friends who fail to conform to "the faith", then it is easy to see why it can be seen as good to "eliminate" those of a different or no faith. Of course this is also one of the reasons that the most fervent followers of religion insist on sending their children to "faith" (sectarian) schools since they want to protect them from the dangers of doubt.

Probably the most important thing we can foster in society is doubt. If we accept we can be wrong, then it becomes almost impossible to advocate "totalitarian" government and laws, whether it be Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Communist or Fascist.

30 July 2009

Simon Singh's article on chiropractic therapy

Leicester Secular Society joins dozens of other organisations in re-publishing portions of an article by Simon Singh on the scientific status of chiropractic therapy, for which he is being sued by the British Chiropractic Association.

The article, originally published in April 2008 by The Guardian newspaper, offered criticisms against claims made by, among others, the British Chiropractic Association on some of the alleged medical benefits of chiropractic therapy. Given his critical position on the scientific status of the BCA's claims, namely that they are not supported by the evidence, Singh's article argued that the British Chiropractic Association "happily promotes bogus treatments".

Rather than mounting a robust scientific defence against these claims, the British Chiropractic Association instead personally sued Simon Singh for libel.

On 7 May this year a preliminary hearing to determine the "meaning" of the piece, prior to a full trial, ruled that Singh was accusing the BCA of deliberate dishonesty. Singh has responded that "although I feel that chiropractors are deluded and reckless, I was not suggesting that they are dishonest". The preliminary finding means that in trial, Singh's case may now rest on a semantic point which he disowns, rather than on the scientific claims against chiropractic therapy which made up the great majority of his article.

In June many leading intellecuals, scientist, comedians joined many other organisations and public figures in signing a statement headed "The law has no place in scientific disputes". Among other things the statement asserts that:

Where medical claims to cure or treat do not appear to be supported by evidence, we should be able to criticise assertions robustly and the public should have access to these views.

English libel law, though, can serve to punish this kind of scrutiny and can severely curtail the right to free speech on a matter of public interest. It is already widely recognised that the law is weighted heavily against writers: among other things, the costs are so high that few defendants can afford to make their case. The ease and success of bringing cases under the English law, including against overseas writers, has led to London being viewed as the "libel capital" of the world.


In an effort coordinated by Sense about Science, Singh's article is re-published below, in a version which has been edited of alleged "libellous" remarks and distributed to a number of other concerned organisations, magazines, newspapers, and websites.

Simon Perry, a member of Leicester Secular Society and stalwart of Skeptics in the Pub, Leicester has been in the forefront of the battle to fight back against this action.

He found the British Chiropractic Association database of 1,029 members online, containing 400 website URLs. A computer program was quickly devised to automatically identify all the chiropractors in the UK claiming to treat colic, locate their local Trading Standards office, and report them (more than 500 in total) automatically, followed up with printed letters.

Chiropractic is also a profession regulated by the General Chiropractic Council (GCC), supervised by the Health Professional Council, which is obliged to investigate all complaints. So Simon reported these chiropractors to them, pointing out that they had made claims without adequate evidence. The GCC rejected his letter, saying it only takes individual complaints. A pile of individual complaint letters were quickly generated and delivered to their door. These 1,000 complaints are now being investigated.

This Guardian "Comment is Free" article "An intrepid, ragged band of bloggers" tells more of the story.

Beware the spinal trap

Some practitioners claim it is a cure-all, but the research suggests chiropractic therapy has mixed results – and can even be lethal, says Simon Singh.

You might be surprised to know that the founder of chiropractic therapy, Daniel David Palmer, wrote that “99% of all diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae”. In the 1860s, Palmer began to develop his theory that the spine was involved in almost every illness because the spinal cord connects the brain to the rest of the body. Therefore any misalignment could cause a problem in distant parts of the body.

In fact, Palmer’s first chiropractic intervention supposedly cured a man who had been profoundly deaf for 17 years. His second treatment was equally strange, because he claimed that he treated a patient with heart trouble by correcting a displaced vertebra.

You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact some still possess quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything, including helping treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying – even though there is not a jot of evidence.

I can confidently label these assertions as utter nonsense because I have co-authored a book about alternative medicine with the world’s first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst. He learned chiropractic techniques himself and used them as a doctor. This is when he began to see the need for some critical evaluation. Among other projects, he examined the evidence from 70 trials exploring the benefits of chiropractic therapy in conditions unrelated to the back. He found no evidence to suggest that chiropractors could treat any such conditions.

But what about chiropractic in the context of treating back problems? Manipulating the spine can cure some problems, but results are mixed. To be fair, conventional approaches, such as physiotherapy, also struggle to treat back problems with any consistency. Nevertheless, conventional therapy is still preferable because of the serious dangers associated with chiropractic.

In 2001, a systematic review of five studies revealed that roughly half of all chiropractic patients experience temporary adverse effects, such as pain, numbness, stiffness, dizziness and headaches. These are relatively minor effects, but the frequency is very high, and this has to be weighed against the limited benefit offered by chiropractors.

More worryingly, the hallmark technique of the chiropractor, known as high-velocity, low-amplitude thrust, carries much more significant risks. This involves pushing joints beyond their natural range of motion by applying a short, sharp force. Although this is a safe procedure for most patients, others can suffer dislocations and fractures.

Worse still, manipulation of the neck can damage the vertebral arteries, which supply blood to the brain. So-called vertebral dissection can ultimately cut off the blood supply, which in turn can lead to a stroke and even death. Because there is usually a delay between the vertebral dissection and the blockage of blood to the brain, the link between chiropractic and strokes went unnoticed for many years. Recently, however, it has been possible to identify cases where spinal manipulation has certainly been the cause of vertebral dissection.

Laurie Mathiason was a 20-year-old Canadian waitress who visited a chiropractor 21 times between 1997 and 1998 to relieve her low-back pain. On her penultimate visit she complained of stiffness in her neck. That evening she began dropping plates at the restaurant, so she returned to the chiropractor. As the chiropractor manipulated her neck, Mathiason began to cry, her eyes started to roll, she foamed at the mouth and her body began to convulse. She was rushed to hospital, slipped into a coma and died three days later. At the inquest, the coroner declared: “Laurie died of a ruptured vertebral artery, which occurred in association with a chiropractic manipulation of the neck.”

This case is not unique. In Canada alone there have been several other women who have died after receiving chiropractic therapy, and Edzard Ernst has identified about 700 cases of serious complications among the medical literature. This should be a major concern for health officials, particularly as under-reporting will mean that the actual number of cases is much higher.
If spinal manipulation were a drug with such serious adverse effects and so little demonstrable benefit, then it would almost certainly have been taken off the market.

Simon Singh is a science writer in London and the co-author, with Edzard Ernst, of Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial. This is an edited version of an article published in The Guardian for which Singh is being personally sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association.

19 July 2009

Another Bishop Annoys

I listened to the Sunday Programme on Radio 4 today (I think I must be a repressed masochist) and was annoyed by a wimpish interview with the Bishop of Exeter who spouted a lot of nonsense that went unchallenged.

Would John Humphries let a politician off the hook with no questioning of illogical claims?

He had been invited on as he was one of the principal opponents, in the Lords debate, to Lord Faulkner's attempt to remove the threat of prosecution for assisting in suicide when people accompany friends or relations abroad, who wish to end their lives, where assisted suicide is legal.

He argued that the main motive for people wanting to commit assisted suicide was the loss of dignity, which he defined as an inability to contribute to life and society together with total dependency on others.

The Bishop then pointed out that this applied to babies. The analogy is ridiculous. The prospect for a baby is that it will grow and mature into an adult who can enjoy and contribute to life as an independent being. Babies are also intellectually undeveloped and so unaware of their situation and relatively easy to support.

The prospect for an adult with a terminal illness, or of advanced old age, is for a boring, uncomfortable and possibly painful life, while being fully aware of their situation and rationally wanting to put an end to it. Also a dependent adult is a much more difficult body to service and while a baby doesn't have any problem with someone changing their nappy, a mature adult does.

He then went on about how the right to life was innate and God given. "If life has no objective value why should any of us care for one another"?

How daft can you get. We look after each other on a reciprocal basis under the golden rule. Hence it is sensible that if a "compos mentis" adult, together with those who normally support him or her, have concluded that life is no longer worth living, then there can be no objection to ending that life.

To put this in perspective, a couple of theologians were discussing the "Just War" later in the programme and concluded that killing women and children as "collateral damage" could be justified so long as it is proportionate. So it would seem that it is perfectly OK to kill healthy people when it is convenient to the state, but not to allow people in poor health, who are already dying, to shorten their lives a little.

This Bishop then stated that psychologists had identified 5 stages that individuals go through when they know they have a terminal illness.

  • denial
  • anger
  • bargaining
  • depression
  • acceptance
He said that most people want to end their lives at the "depression" stage and advocated their passing through this to achieve "acceptance", presumably for the good of their soul. As a Humanist, who doesn't believe he has an eternal soul, I'm quite happy to skip the "acceptance" bit and what right has he to tell anyone when they can jump off this mortal coil?

For more on the Church and its position on assisted suicide see this letter from The Rev’d Canon Eric MacDonald to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

12 July 2009

Bishop Tim guilty of gross distortion

Bishop Tim (Leicester Mercury -First Person 11 July 2009) used his column to traduce Camp Quest, Richard Dawkins, A.C. Grayling and all the "God Free" under this headline:

Anti-religious campaign close to intolerance
The Bishop of Leicester notes the latest idea in Richard Dawkins' drive against God - an Atheist Summer Camp
The full article can be read here.

The Bishop misrepresents almost everyone and everything he mentions in this piece and it would not be an exaggeration to describe it as a gross distortion.

Several months ago Bendy-buses in London began to appear
with the slogan "There's probably no God". The atheist posters were the idea of the British Humanist Association and were supported by prominent atheist Professor Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion.

In fact the Atheist Bus campaign was the idea of and created by comedy writer Ariane Sherine and launched on 21 October 2008, with official support from the British Humanist Association and Richard Dawkins.

This week, as schools close for the long summer break, the campaign to persuade the public that God does not exist took a step further forward when Prof Dawkins launched Britain's first summer camp for young atheists. The camp is called Camp Quest UK, and is for children aged for eight to 17. The motto of the camp is: "It's beyond belief."

Professor Dawkins had nothing to do with the launch of Camp Quest as he pointed out in this letter to the Sunday Times http://richarddawkins.net/article,4006,UPDATED-Therell-be-no-tent-for...

The Editor
The Sunday Times
London

Sir

The duplicity of Lois Rogers' title, "Dawkins Sets up Kids' Camp to Groom Atheists" (Sunday Times, June 28th), is exceeded only by its Jesuitical opening line, "Give Richard Dawkins a child for a week's summer camp and he will try to give you an atheist for life." I had nothing to do with the setting up of Camp Quest, and it is not, in any sense whatever, inspired by me, or influenced by me. The British version, run by Samantha Stein with no help from me, follows the admirable American model founded some years ago by Edwin and Helen Kagin, of Kentucky.

Lois Rogers asked me for a quotation, and she thanked me warmly for the following: "Camp Quest encourages children to think for themselves, sceptically and rationally. There is no indoctrination, just encouragement to be open-minded, while having fun." Isn't that about as far from Jesuitical grooming as you could imagine? One of my dominant motivations, passionately expressed in The God Delusion, is an abhorrence of childhood indoctrination, of atheism just as much as of religion. It is in this spirit that the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science has made very modest contributions to Camp Quest.

Lois Rogers' traducing of both Camp Quest and me is, alas, par for the course for religiously motivated journalists. Fortunately, I am not the litigious type, but an apology would be nice.

Richard Dawkins

Oxford

The aim of Camp Quest UK is to rival the many traditional faith-based breaks and holiday clubs run by the uniformed organisations and faith groups over the summer. The biggest organiser of children's camps is the Scout Association which has 500,000 members, who collectively spend two million nights camping out each year. All new Scouts - whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim or from another religious background - are required to pledge to do their "duty" to their god or faith.

What the Bishop fails to make clear is that children not prepared to take an oath to "god and king/queen" cannot be become scouts unless they take the oft proffered advice of some of the leaders and pretend that it doesn't matter even though this automatically involves breaking two scout laws:

1. A Scout is to be trusted.
7. A Scout has self-respect and respect for others.

Also Camp Quest is not a uniformed organisation.

Is he suggesting that no provision is made for children who are not prepared to take an oath to a god when they are probably still too young to make any final decision as to his/her/its existence?

The stated purposes of Camp Quest are:

  • Promote a sense of belonging to a large freethought community among the youth participants
  • Encourage critical thinking in young people to enable them to draw their own conclusions
  • Promote respect for others with different viewpoints, values, and beliefs
  • Provide a safe and fun environment for personal and social development

For more details you can visit the website of Camp Quest.

What can the Bishop find so objectionable in this? The camp welcomes all children from any background. More details here.

Indeed the official Church of England policy for its "faith" schools as set out in the Dearing Report is to:

Nourish those of the faith;
Encourage those of other faiths;
Challenge those who have no faith.

At least Camp Quest aims to encourage critical thinking in all its children, not challenge only those who haven't fallen into line.

The camp is part of a wider campaign, backed by Dawkins and Professor AC Grayling, the philosopher and writer, designed to challenge Christian societies, collective worship and religious education. However, leading religious leaders, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, are becoming concerned about the intolerance being shown by Dawkins and his supporters towards faith communities.

Perhaps the Bishop would like to be more specific about the intolerance shown by Dawkins, or is he protesting because religious privilege is being challenged? None of the people he mentions are suggesting the the right to religious worship be restricted nor that religious ideas be repressed. What they do advocate however is challenging daft ideas and beliefs. Is this intolerance?

Alongside churches and chapels, Leicester's skyline includes temples, mosques and synagogues. Tolerance is one of the key values which has enabled this skyline to flourish and help communities to live together in harmony.

This Bishop omitted to mention Leicester Secular Hall, which is the home of the oldest Secular Society in the world (formed in 1851) and has shared the skyline with churches and synagogues for considerably longer than with mosques and temples.

This harmony was very much in evidence earlier this week when 40 faith leaders of the city and county gathered together at Bishop's Lodge to share food and conversation about many aspects of our city and country life.

It is notable that the Bishop is inclusive of all who share a belief in the supernatural. Presumably this is so that they can avoid having anyone around to point at the elephant in the room in that what they believe is mutually exclusive at the fundamental level.

Indeed recently he claimed credit for his Church in taking the lead on "City of Sanctuary" when in fact much of the leading role has been played by members of Leicester Secular Society who have had free use of Secular Hall.

A C Grayling writes that an intolerant person is "one who wishes others to live as he thinks they ought and who seeks to impose his practices and beliefs upon them". It could be argues that Camp Quest is seeking to do just that. Grayling also writes that tolerance is "a rare and important virtue". At least this is something on which we can both agree!

The Bishop may agree that tolerance is a "rare and important virtue" but Church of England has little to boast about. Secular Hall was built so that free thinkers could have a meeting place in the 19th century. The Church made sure through strong arm tactics that no landlord would provide the Society with a meeting place. Members of the Secular Society have always stood for toleration, free speech and freedom of and from religion. However toleration of religion does not mean that you cannot express a profound dislike and contempt for some religious dogma. "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend your right to say it" is the mantra of the free thinker.

06 April 2009

Is Free Speech Already a Thing of the Past?

Are we fighting to keep alive something that is already in its death throes when we stand up for free speech?

It seems that voicing any criticism of values or beliefs, rather than being seen as an opportunity to engage in discussion, education and even social progression, is seen as oppression, intolerance and “disrespect” of the person expressing their opinions. Nowhere do we see this more than in the criticism of religion and nowhere do we see hypocrisy raising its ugly head more.

The idea of “love the sinner, hate the sin” is one that, in a somewhat altered form, I will applaud. A child who is confident of their parents’ love will value their approval. Behaviour that is frowned upon is likely to be changed and avoided in the future. The value of disapproval (parental, peer and societal) has been responsible for many changes in the moral zeitgeist. Disapproval of drunk driving has certainly paid dividends, the same seems to be working with smoking, and was doing so long before the recent smoking laws. Peer pressure is actually seen as the most effective form of “discipline” for certain age groups.

This being the case, “peer pressure” in the form of free speech can be very dangerous to beliefs or behaviours that cannot be adequately defended.

Free speech allows someone to criticise, for example, the genital mutilation of children. In defence of it, the Rabbis and Mullahs refer to their own religious and cultural beliefs (not beliefs held by the young children whose genitals they are attacking, in spite of any plans for future indoctrination) with the occasional mention of a reduction of the spread of STDs in the case of male circumcision - though the same “defence” cannot be used to justify female genital mutilation (FGM). If there is open discussion about genital mutilation, there is a chance that, like smoking and driving whilst drunk, the zeitgeist may slowly turn away from these barbaric practices and the choice to have sensitive areas of the body removed would be left until adulthood when an informed decision could be made by the person whose body is being violated. Of course, if the people promoting these grotesque practices can get laws passed against the “defamation of religion” and then use those laws to claim that any criticism of circumcision and FGM is an “offence”, then well over half their battle has been won for them.

The silencing of dissent would have kept slaves in chains and denied women the vote, both of which had Scriptural links, so the application of a law preventing protestation in the future could deny all sorts of rights and freedoms to those who need the support of others to claim them.

The UN resolution (details in the links below) is a gross violation not only of the UN’s mandate, but also of the concept of “defamation”. In spite of being dropped from the Durban II conference following objections from an increasing number of western nations, on 26th March, The U.N. Human Rights Council adopted the non-binding text, proposed by Pakistan on behalf of Islamic states, with a vote of 23 states in favour, 11 against and 13 abstentions. Once we start down this treacherous road and criticism of any practice that can be linked to religious belief could be silenced by law, where does it stop? In Africa, children sometimes have metal stakes driven into their heads in order to “release the demons”, is that the future that awaits us if resolutions like this one are ever passed?

UN resolution: http://www.undemocracy.com/A-RES-62-154.pdf
Article by Christopher Hitchens: http://www.slate.com/id/2212662/
Pat Condell video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8bzTA_D5NpU&feature=channel_page
Downing Street Petition: http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/UNreligion/#detail
Report on 26th March “Human Rights” vote: http://digg.com/d1nLXx

21 March 2009

The Polarization of Science and Faith?

I wondered about the wisdom of posting two articles linked to creationism in a very short time, but decided to go ahead because it is somewhat relevant to a recent talk at the Secular Hall. Following the visit made by Professor Michael Reiss, a conversation sparked by that event and a debate about religion (but not creationism) between Dinesh D’Souza and Christopher Hitchens on YouTube, a thought entered my head that just wouldn’t go away. Why is it that the “evilutionist” scientists who actively and vociferously speak out against the nonsense of creationism and ID are almost universally atheists? The Christian biologists, like Dr. Kenneth Miller, who actually take a stand, seem to number in single figures.

To a non-believer, the Holy Books are just books; books written by primitive human beings. In general, they seem to have been written by not-very-nice human beings judging by the atrocities and bigotry they appear to have revelled in. They are books which are historically and scientifically inaccurate (demonstrably wrong in many instances) and they are certainly morally reprehensible with just a few notable exceptions – most of which pre-date the scripture if one looks into the history of other cultures.

It is very clear to everyone except those who do it, that most theists cherry-pick their Holy books. In some cases, this is because they haven’t actually read the book they declare is the word of God and which guides and supports them as they negotiate the rollercoaster of life. In others, they have read it but simply declare most of it to be allegorical. Maybe this is the problem.

Professor Reiss and others declare that they accept evolution. They accept that we evolved from early self-replicating molecules and that all living things are related. They do not believe that Adam and Eve were created as depicted in Genesis. Why not? Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God, was born of a virgin and died on the cross to rise three days later and be physically transported into the sky. Why?

Both stories are in the Bible. They are both claimed as the word of God – because the Bible says it is the word of God. So is this why Christian evolutionary scientists do not oppose creationists, leaving it, largely, to their atheist colleagues? Is it because they know that they are wishy-washy in their beliefs and that they would find it hard to defend this against someone who really, really believes?

But they have an additional problem that comes at them from the science “side”. In order to defend science, one has to accept that there is no evidence for magic in this world of ours. No unicorns, no Tooth Fairy, no Santa Claus, no miracles.

So, faced with the prospect of standing up for science but admitting a belief in magic (Jesus’s miracles, virgin births, people raised from the dead, etc.) because an ancient book says it happened, and arguing against the belief in magic – from the same book - involving complex organisms being "poofed" into existence, talking snakes, global floods and a pair of naked mole rats somehow finding their way to Noah’s big boat, perhaps it is just too daunting for these educated people? Is the cognitive dissonance too great? Do they know they are caught between a rock and a hard place? Best to keep quiet perhaps?

They are doing…. and the silence is deafening.

17 March 2009

Creationism: Why It Has No Place In Science Classes

Creationism: Is it ignorance or dishonesty?

Preachers who seek to teach Creationism as science are mistaken, or worse.

There was a time when everyone believed Earth was flat. Philosophers and mathematicians found this belief to be flawed. Initially, they were ridiculed or feared. Then, a few took notice, now everyone finds the evidence that the earth is spherical to be overwhelming. It took hundreds of years.

We fly to distant parts of the world, see images from space and accept time differences in various countries, all of which reassures us of the truth of claims that Earth is not flat. Could it all be a conspiracy by scientists to deceive the gullible masses? This seems unlikely, as knowledge of the shape of the earth underpins so much of what our understanding of the modern world is built upon.

There was a time when people believed that the creation stories in scriptures were historical fact. Scientists have found this belief to be flawed. Initially, they were ridiculed or feared. Then, a few took notice and now people find the evidence for both an ancient Earth and for evolution to be overwhelming. That the understanding of evolution underpins so much of what modern medicine and biology is built upon is, for most people, ample evidence that these scientists are right.

However, Creationists still deny the evidence for evolution. Why would they want to distort scientific understanding in order to support their doctrine? Is it ignorance or dishonesty?

Don’t they understand basic science? Is this why they fail to recognise that what they preach is not science and why it should not be taught in schools as science? When they claim evolution is “only a theory”, they appear not to understand what a ‘scientific theory’ is. A ‘scientific theory’ has a different meaning from the word ‘theory’ in general use and does not mean ‘conjecture’ or a ‘hunch’, as Creationist preachers imply. A scientific theory is a body of evidence that explains facts. It is a fact that people fall ill, the Germ Theory of Disease explains this. Gravity is a fact, the Theories of Gravity explain the fact of gravity. It is a fact that living things change over time (evolve) the Theory of Evolution explains how. They clearly don’t know this – or are they deliberately trying to mislead? To teach an ‘alternative theory’ in science, it would be necessary to have an alternative scientific theory to teach.

Do they know, in spite of feeling qualified to lecture on the subject, that their references are sometimes 150 years out of date and many of the ‘gaps’ they speak of have been filled for decades? Have Creationist preachers highlighted, for example, the discovery of tiktaalik rosae in 2004 (Google it. It is fascinating!) or have they denied its existence or played down its significance?

Should we give them the benefit of the doubt, assume their opposition to the Theory of Evolution is based on ignorance and place the blame firmly on our education system? They do not attempt to discredit Germ Theory with the same passion, even though it contradicts Biblical teachings of the causes of disease, so is it dishonesty that drives them? If their faith allows them to be dishonest, doesn’t that pose another question?