06 November 2011

Occupy London

Having visited the Occupy London protest camp yesterday, I was impressed. The protestors were organised, articulate and had genuine concerns. These are not the pot smoking hippies that some of the media make out. In fact, drugs and alcohol are specifically banned on the camp - no doubt the organisers are keen to cultivate a positive media image. The protestors themselves are a disparate group of people. I met some (from the extreme end) who wanted a total destruction of the capitalist system and others who demanded more modest reforms, such as greater checks and balances in the banking system.

A common concern of the protesters is the growing inequality between the rich and poor in society. Many I spoke to were concerned about the vast sums of wealth being taken out of the real economy and hidden away in tax havens, where wealth is held by a few. Inevitably, this hording of wealth has a negative impact on the government’s ability to fund public services, like the NHS. Are the 99% of people, who rely on such services, really prepared to see significant cuts, when a Tobin style tax on the rich (whose earnings appear to increase exponentially every year), could be used to foot the bill?

The Occupy movement is a good thing because it is helping to shape the political agenda. For too long, politicians and the media have held a defeatist attitude that nothing significant can be done to tackle inequality and improve society. Some have criticised the movement for not having clear set of objectives. However, this criticism ignores the fact that this is a genuine democratic movement, where people set the agenda. Of course there are going to be differing voices from all sides, however, what is wrong with encouraging a debate?

If anyone is interested in Occupy London, they can watch a live video stream of proceeding here: www.livestream.com/occupylsx

23 October 2011

On assisted suicide

From pre-history until today we know all too well that many people have had and will continue to have their lives ended by brutal and inhuman means as the result of wars, torture by oppressive regimes and other forms of violence. Causing the deaths of others is not at all unknown to civilisation and in some societies where such deaths are not infrequent it is commonplace to say that human life is cheap.

However, in recent times using the notion of human rights that civilised societies have devised we emphasise the value of human life and this is institutionalised through laws and conventions as a means of collectively protecting ourselves as individuals from arbitrary slaughter. This is one of the foundations for our potential to live lives worth living, free of misery, terror and anxiety. Placing such a high value on human life means a decision to end it is of considerable significance for the individual and those around him or her.

Historically the Christian churches, especially the Roman Catholic Church, have participated fully in the slaughter of innocents. From the persecution of pagans in conversion campaigns to the Crusades against Muslim infidels, from the burning of ‘witches’ at the stake to the Holy Inquisition to root out heretics, from the conquistadors in south America to pogroms against the Jews in Europe, the Catholic Church has been no stranger to murder. Until recently, that is, when it has transformed itself into the defender of life at all costs. So it is that clinical abortions and assisting in the suicide of terminally ill people have recently become among the most heinous sins imaginable. It is on the latter that I want to focus in this article.

Terry Pratchett’s recent TV documentary showing an assisted suicide at the Swiss Dignitas clinic has opened up the subject of euthanasia once again. This led to a poorly argued Mercury ‘First Person’ article by the Catholic priest Leon Pereira to which I replied in the letters page. Since then a torrent of letters have appeared with most, I think, favouring the introduction of a law permitting euthanasia.

I thought it worth looking again at the arguments and came across a detailed statement by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops explaining their opposition. This was interesting. Apart from the arguments based on what might be called secular sociological and philosophical concerns they made their theological arguments (such as they are) explicit. This is helpful because for once we see the real foundation for Catholic opposition to euthanasia.

I will look at the reasoned arguments later but before I do it is worth running through these religious arguments:

· … Christian hope sees our final days as a time to prepare for our eternal destiny;

· … suicide is a grave offence against love of self, one that breaks the bonds of love and solidarity with … God;

· … to assist another’s suicide is to take part in an injustice [against God?] which can never be excused, even if it is requested;

· … life is our first gift from an infinitely loving Creator. The most fundamental element of our God given human dignity;

· … by assuming and sharing our human nature, the Son of God has more fully revealed and enhanced the sacred character of each human life;

· … palliative care allows patients to devote their attention to the unfinished business of their lives, to arrive at a sense of peace with God …;

· … as Christians we believe that even suffering itself need not be meaningless – for as Pope John Paul II showed during his final illness, suffering accepted in love can bring us closer to the mystery of Christ’s sacrifice for the salvation of others;

· … as disciples of one who is the Lord of the living we need to be messengers of the Gospel of Life.

It is my opinion that these religious arguments against euthanasia have no substance unless you are already a committed believer in the existence of the sky god so for the vast majority of rational people they can be safely ignored.

However, the bishops offer a number of more substantial secular arguments that cannot be ignored. Indeed, several are quite powerful and must be answered rationally by anyone who wants to see a reform of the law in this country to allow for assisted suicide in certain circumstances.

Personal autonomy v. protection of life?

First, the definitions used in this paper.

The relevant cases of people voluntarily making a current request for assistance to end their lives fall into three categories:

  • ‘Assisted dying’ (AD) refers to a life-ending dose of medication being prescribed to a mentally competent, terminally ill adult who then administers the medication themselves. (This is the objective of Dignity in Dying and is supported by the BHA.)
  • ‘Assisted euthanasia’ (AE) refers to life-ending medication being administered by a third party to a person with a terminal, degenerative or painful illness to cause a ‘gentle death’.

· ‘Assisted suicide’ (AS) refers to providing assistance to die to someone who wishes to die but who is not physically able to kill themselves. (They may be, though need not be, dying, terminally ill, or suffering from a degenerative or constantly painful illness.)

Earlier I dismissed the specifically Christian religious arguments against AD/AE/AS. By themselves they demonstrate how a religious ‘absolutist morality’ (i.e. unchangeable rules derived from some ancient text) clashes with the collective judgements of reasonable people about what laws should govern matters of life and death now.

A quasi-religious argument used by the bishops is to claim that AD/AE/AS supporters show a false compassion for sufferers from fatal illnesses. While the British Humanist Association (BHA) et al argue that it is compassionate to help a dying person to escape, at their request, from their misery, the bishops argue that the real meaning of compassion is to suffer alongside the victim, giving support and sharing the pain. This really is a metaphysical argument for only the individual sufferer is in a position to judge whether their life is worth living. Being able to gain ‘the moral high ground’ on who is being truly compassionate is clearly felt to be important in winning the war of words but in reality it is only when hearing the pleas of a suffering loved one to ‘help me die’ that anyone is in a position to decide which is being more compassionate – to help them do so or to say ‘No, but I’ll share your suffering’.

There is one final quasi-religious or metaphysical claim sometimes made that needs to be dealt with. This is the claim that AD/AE/AS should not be permitted because ‘life is better than no life’, or that ‘life’ is a fundamental human good. Taking this view, people who wish to die are obliged to keep living because life is a metaphysical ‘good’ regardless of the fact that the person living it is enduring daily misery or pain and seriously considers they would be ‘better off dead’.

Rationalists must reject such metaphysical notions of an abstraction (life) being better than ‘no life’. ‘Life’ is a term for the processes by which living things are animated so ‘no life’ means simply the absence of those processes. It is not a state of being so even the phrase ‘I’d be better off dead’ can only mean that the person finds their life unendurable rather than the idea that there is another state of lifeless yet conscious existence which would be less unpleasant. While from a pragmatic human rights point of view we need to have a presumption underpinning law that establishes as a first principle that human life has supreme value this is not the same thing at all as saying that ‘life is better than no life’.

The secular arguments

I now want to look at the non-religious arguments put forward mainly by the Catholic Church but supported by the Anglican Church and others too. (The Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches made a joint submission to the Lords committee on Lord Joffe’s ‘Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill’ bill in 2004. That bill failed in 2006.) The Churches may be using these as a stalking horse behind which a theological motivation is hidden but we nevertheless need to deal with them as they represent, in the main, reasonable challenges to the AD/AE/AS positions.

Several of the arguments against legalising AD/AE/AS revolve around the socio-psychological effects on society and the people who might be considered potential candidates for it but who have no desire to kill themselves. It is suggested that acceptance of AD/AE/AS would have the following effects:

  • creating a class of people who believe the value of their lives has been diminished because it implies that for them a death by legal drugs is acceptable as objectively good, or even desirable;
  • by permitting AD/AE/AS for people of this class the legislature would be communicating the message that they may be better off dead;
  • that the possibility of AD/AE/AS for people of this class would lead to pressure by able bodied people that they ought to take this option rather than being a burden on society;
  • the expression of a wish to die by a member of this class would then be seen not as ‘a cry for help’ but as a reasonable response to a ‘meaningless’ life;
  • those of this class who choose to live on with their problems might be seen as selfish or irrational and encouraged to see themselves in this way;
  • all this reinforces the excessively high status our society places on being productive and independent and legitimises discrimination by the able bodied against those with disabilities and infirmities;
  • even the apparently free choice of a dying person may be subtly influenced by the biases and wishes of others, so they may act under this pressure rather than making a genuinely free decision;
  • by accepting the legalisation of AD/AE/AS society would then feel less inclined to fund decent palliative health and palliative care for the old and terminally ill;
  • permitting AD/AE/AS devalues human life across the board. It is the start of a slippery slope where all manner of people (e.g. those with learning difficulties) may be included in the ‘life not worth living’ category, who may be encouraged to commit suicide or have their lives taken.

On the face of it these are reasonable points to make. In a democratic state social norms shape laws and future norms are, in turn, shaped by law. The standard response from the pro-AD/AE/AS lobby is that the right to personal autonomy trumps all of these worries. While I believe that the dangers are exaggerated, especially as the numbers taking up the AD/AE/AS options would be small, still its proponents must acknowledge the dangers and take steps to counter them. We must be concerned that any laws passed in this area do not have significant unintended or perverse consequences.

One way of pre-empting them would be to pass ‘balancing’ laws guaranteeing the right to nursing and hospice care right up to the end of life, however it might occur. This alone would effectively sink most of the arguments listed above.

The Catholic bishops accept that many people want to die through fear of being kept alive by burdensome medical technology while experiencing intolerable pain and loss of control over bodily functions. But they counter this by arguing that a society can be judged by how it responds to those fears. (In this context, of course, it is only the Churches who do the judging.) They argue that people in that state of mind are vulnerable and need to be shown more love and care by society to assure them of their inherent worth.

No doubt all would agree with this as far as it goes, but when this human response slips over, in the bishop’s mouths, to become a veto over personal autonomy it is nothing more than a variation of the ‘life is better than no life’ argument. It dismisses the considered opinion of the sufferer, and their right to autonomy, and says implicitly ‘sorry, but you just have to soldier on for life’s sake’. It is small comfort for the sufferer to be told they have ‘inherent worth’ when all they want to do is to escape into oblivion from what they are experiencing as a pointless life of misery. Kant’s principle that we should treat others as ends in themselves, rather than as a means to an end, implies, in this case, that we should not oblige people to continue living against their better judgement because it serves the metaphysical end of revering the life process above all things, because ‘life’ is ‘sacred’.

The bishops’ next argument is that allowing doctors to assist in suicide compromises the ethical integrity of medicine as it violates the Hippocratic Oath. This is a fair point though it should be noted that graduating doctors now take a variety of ethical oaths and only 14% of them forbid euthanasia! (http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A1103798)

The oaths are a safeguard (though evidently not a complete one) against the reckless use of medical knowledge and drugs to end the lives of others. A refinement of the argument is that trust in health practitioners is paramount. If patients come to suspect that medical staff have hidden agendas, that advice or prognoses might be given on the basis that AD/AE/AS is an option then patients would increasingly distrust what they are being told.

A possible pragmatic solution to this challenge would be to permit the establishment of a charity or subscription funded body of non-medical volunteers outside the NHS who would be specially trained to administer lethal drugs under controlled circumstances, so freeing the medical profession from any conflict of objectives.

The final and most frequently wielded argument of opponents is that ruthless relatives who stand to gain an inheritance might manipulate vulnerable sick and elderly people into seeking AD/AE/AS. It is easy to see the point. There are hard-hearted people who would not hesitate for long in making it known to an infirm parent what a burden they had become and how much good their money could do if they passed from the scene a little more quickly. Only a rigorous procedure of checks and double checks can hope to minimise the danger – and these are in place in those countries where AD/AE/AS is already legal. And with AD/AE/AS not only would there be several legal requirements prior to the act but there can also be police investigations subsequent to it. Knowing the scrutiny they would attract ruthless beneficiaries are, in my opinion, as likely to arrange an ‘accident’ as they are to manipulate a vulnerable relative into choosing AD/AE/AS.

On this tack, in an interesting Lutheran Church submission (opposing euthanasia) to the Australian Commission on Social and Bioethical Questions (http://www.lca.org.au/resources/csbq/euthanasia3.pdf), the authors acknowledge the widespread support for the idea of autonomous decision making in end of life decisions but point out the evident difficulties of framing laws and procedures that cannot be abused. Examples are given of where euthanasia laws have not worked as well as intended.

Terry Pratchett believes he has the solution to the problem through the creation of tribunals to hear applications for AD/AE/AS. The tribunal panel would include a legal expert in family matters and a doctor with experience of long-term serious illnesses. The applicant would make their case and have to demonstrate that they were of sound mind and had given it proper thought, along with explanations of why the alternatives of palliative and hospice care, etc. were considered unsatisfactory.

While all the foregoing Humanist and rationalist arguments are persuasive in answering the bishops’ concerns I think they are, to a great extent, missing the point because they get emotionally dragged along by concern for the terminally ill. I now suggest an alternative approach that achieves many of the same ends but deflects much of the criticism and places the aim of personal autonomy for all at its heart.

A different approach

Globally, around 1 million people commit suicide each year (WHO). They use all the means with which we are familiar: drowning in river or sea, jumping under trains, in front of trucks, taking poison, overdosing with prescription drugs, hanging, slashing wrists, gassing, etc. They have numerous motives from disappointment in love to financial failure, from shame or guilt to clinical depression. The one thing they all have in common, however, is that they were capable of doing the deed without assistance. They were able-bodied. They were able to exercise their personal autonomy.

While many might have been dissuaded if a friend, relative or professional had had the opportunity to intervene at the vital moment, many would still have judged, as people are free so to do, that they no longer wanted to live.

An individual may conclude their life is not worth living at any time in their lives. While able-bodied they are able to do something about it – but with some anxiety that things might not turn out as intended and they might end up permanently disabled as a result. There are also potential unintended consequences of successful suicides where they involve third parties who may be traumatised as a result: for example, the train driver who sees the face of the person moments before they die, a vision that may haunt the driver in dreams and nightmares for the rest of their life, or even make it impossible for them to continue in the same employment.

In the light of the risk of abortive attempts or third-party trauma a case can be made that anybody suicidal should be allowed access to medical assistance and drugs to make sure death occurs as desired and nobody else is traumatised in the process. One of the problems with such a view is that almost everyone would find it abhorrent that society might facilitate the suicide of otherwise healthy young people who are acutely depressed through, for example, relationship breakdown or failure in exams.

Clearly, in both types of case we would want to prevent young people acting on their impulses because older and wiser heads know that such states of mind are perfectly normal – and temporary. We can objectively judge that a person early in life and facing a deep emotional crisis has every chance of getting through it (and ‘growing’ in the process) and as such is quite different from a person late in life facing a certain decline to an unpleasant death. People with clinical depression, such as sufferers from bipolar disorder, also often take their own lives when their mental state is at its bleakest. Again, most people would judge that such cases ought not to be aided as they can be managed relatively easily by medication and counselling, giving the sufferer a quality of life they find perfectly acceptable for much of the time.

What about those relatively fit older people who feel they have just had enough? They may say their lives are not as fulfilling as when they were younger when they played sports, travelled the world freely, went to parties and dances, etc. They are often tired, have aches and pains, their teeth are deteriorating, their hair thinning, they’re unable to play with the grandchildren, cannot trek across the fells, ski or play rugby as they used to. Is it not reasonable to accept their judgement that they feel the loss of their powers so badly that they no longer feel their lives are fulfilling enough to continue? Here they are, not depressed or emotionally disturbed, perfectly rational but feeling they have already had a good innings and are now tired of life – and there’s no amount of watercolouring, Scrabble or web surfing that can change their minds! Well, the fact is that if they seriously want to die they can take their own lives as easily as any younger and fitter person. This is one key reason we do not generally feel they have a case for assisted suicide.

However, much of the campaigning for assisted dying legislation in Britain and elsewhere aims to create a class of people – those with terminal, painful or debilitating illnesses – who are entitled to assistance even though they may be perfectly capable of throwing themselves off the Severn Bridge. I think this an important point for it makes a terminal, painful or debilitating illness not just a necessary but also a sufficient qualification to be entitled to receive assistance – even though they are quite capable of taking their own lives. It seems to me that this creates a very unsatisfactory situation. What could be the justification for such legislation that makes a distinction between people with equal capacity to take their own lives? Only that we as a society might conclude that people with terminal conditions are living lives not worth living despite many of them being relatively able-bodied.

In other words, such AD/AE/AS legislation would amount to society saying ‘we disapprove of suicide by able-bodied healthy people, but having a terminal or unrelentingly painful illness entitles you to special consideration regardless of the possibility that you might be capable of taking your own life’. This creates a privilege without any rational justification.

I believe that the key question we must keep in front of us is not whether a person is terminally ill but only whether a person is unable to complete the act of suicide reliably on their own. By following this route and restricting assisted suicide (AS) only to people who are incapable of carrying it out themselves we would be effectively categorising it as a support service for a person with a significant incapacity, putting them in an equivalent position to able-bodied people. The character of the act then becomes something quite different from AD and AE. Such an approach has the significant advantage of not labelling all people with disabilities as burdens on society. It simply establishes a level playing field for all. Anybody assisting would then only have to show that their motivation was unselfish and altruistic in fulfilling a person’s wish when they were unable to fulfil it for themselves.

In conclusion, then, my position is that people have the right to autonomy, to control their own fate. Therefore, people should face no legal impediment to taking their own lives at any time. Further, that where they are incapable of doing so and have freely and unequivocally expressed a considered wish to die (possibly before becoming physically incapable of carrying it through) they should be allowed third-party assistance without fear of prosecution of those who provide it. In this way their right to autonomous decision making is ensured.

The reader will note that this position is dissimilar to the general aim of euthanasia campaigns for AD/AE only to be available to anyone with a debilitating or terminal illness. I think that approach is a mistake for some of the reasons put forward by the bishops – specifically because it gives out the message that society believes their lives are not worth living. I favour assisted dying being permissible only for those who cannot realistically take their own lives by ‘standard’ means. This would include those who have previously stated their wish to die in those circumstances but are now unable to communicate, and those with ‘locked-in syndrome’ and similar where they are able to state unequivocally a wish to die but are incapable of carrying it out without assistance. (As with the current case of Martin, 46, who has suffered a massive and almost totally incapacitating brainstem stroke.)

The effect of my position is to do no more than disability rights legislation does generally – to place people with incapacitating disabilities on an equal par with able-bodied people. This position will subsume the cases of many people with terminal illnesses and/or in constant pain but those conditions should not, in my opinion, be sufficient in themselves to qualify. Nor should they be necessary conditions. As long as a terminally ill or chronically pained person is physically able to carry through a voluntary act of suicide they will be in the same position as any other able-bodied person. To create a special class of people who have access to assisted dying or voluntary euthanasia because they are terminally ill or in constant suffering and yet who are physically able to commit suicide is to discriminate in a very real sense against all other able-bodied people who might wish to commit suicide.

Harry Perry

August 2011

08 October 2011

Church of England imposing changes on Rawlins Community College in Quorn

The letter below is my response to the details of the Church of England Inspection report relating to Rawlins Community College in Quorn. If you agree with me that the Church of England should not be allowed to take control of these schools in this way, please bring this to the attention of your MP and Councillors.

Whilst academy status may or may not be desirable, the issue I am attempting to address is the national one, where the academy legislation allows the C of E to effectively take control of the old Voluntary Controlled C of E schools (which were controlled by the local authority) and  standard community schools. See http://www.humanism.org.uk/news/view/905

Dear Mr. Orr,

Rawlins Community College - Church Inspection

I was very concerned to read about the Church of England inspection in Raw Release (7/10/11) - page 3 - and the proposed changes to the way in which the college will work.

First of all, I think I should make clear that I am a member of both the British Humanist Association ( www.humanism.org.uk ) and Leicester Secular Society ( www.lsec.org.uk ) and I do not subscribe to any religion. My elder daughter attends Rawlins and, before reading the proposals in the report,  my family had expected that my younger daughter would also eventually attend Rawlins.

Over the last few years my daughter has received a good comprehensive education at Rawlins and has "thrived and flourished" in the inclusive and diverse Rawlins community, to the extent that she is now able to apply for a place at Oxford University. The strengths of the college are recognised in the report. There are without doubt areas for improvement, but I fail to see that these are addressed in the "Church Inspection" report.

Rawlins has always been a Church of England Voluntary Controlled School and the system has worked well over the years, with the school following the former C of E ethos of promoting and working for a cohesive and just community without discrimination on any basis, treating all as equal and not making any special provision for Anglicanism. It would appear that the Church of England is now taking advantage of the
Academies Act 2010 which gives the Church complete control over their curriculum (so long as it is ‘broad and balanced’), and also enables them to employ non-qualified teachers. This could not happen when the school was voluntary controlled. As I understand it, the move to a "Church Academy" will also enable Rawlins, if it so chooses in the future, to discriminate by religion in its admissions.

The recent consultation, that I was aware of, was on a change to academy status, not to a Church of England Academy, although the latter would appear to be the major change to school life. The most I seem to have read on the subject was in Raw Release 226 of  9 September ( http://www.rawlinscollege.org.uk/files/rawrelease/raw_release_226.pdf) which indicated that the school would "work with the Diocese of Leicester to explore exactly how being a C of E school can help our students". To me the reports proposals appear to be more about how the school can help the C of E gain more adherents, rather than help Rawlins students.  Whilst Thomas Rawlins was certainly a Christian, as I understand it, he was a nonconformist, and would not have welcomed the wholesale takeover by the Anglican church.

The report lists three areas for "Focus for development" which I list below :
  • Raise awareness of the college's Christian status with students, parents and community to ensure all are engaged in developing its distinctive church ethos
  • Introduce more opportunities for students and staff to participate in acts of worship so that they can experience periods of quietness and reflection
  • Develop links with the Diocesan Board of Education, other church schools and specialists who can provide advice and support
With regard to raising awareness of the Christian (or perhaps more correctly Church of England) status of the school, I see no particular benefit in this for the pupils although there may be some for the Church. I am not aware that there has been any demand from students, parents or the community for a greater involvement by the C of E. In fact I doubt if the majority of any of these groups have an appetite for being more closely associated with the Church of England,  a vocal proportion of whose adherents appear to be misogynists and homophobes, promoting a rather intolerant ethos.

As for introducing more opportunities for participation in acts of worship, again I'm unaware that this is an issue with any meaningful number of students  or staff at the college. I hope the Church is not going to advocate non-inclusive assemblies with ostentatious ceremony and that it will concentrate on periods of "quietness and reflection", as found within the Christian Quaker tradition. This would probably be in line with the thinking of Thomas Rawlins and  appropriate in the Leicestershire context. The Society of Friends was founded by George Fox, born in Fenny Drayton, Leicestershire in 1624.

Whilst linking with other sectarian schools may be useful, I would suggest that links with local schools, regardless of religious affiliation, are more important.

The report then goes on to say :

"The college is now in a position to celebrate and promote explicitly its Christian values and foundation, and has identified its desire to do this at this point of time. Current documentation does not contain any references to the fact that Rawlins is a church school and there are no Christian symbols or displays around the school".

I would suggest that the lack of Christian branding is completely appropriate for a fully inclusive school. As soon as you start making it apparent that one section of the school community is regarded as being favoured, others are bound to feel uncomfortable. The current situation is beneficial for all, although certainly not optimal in terms of Church of England marketing.

The next section of great concern to me is:

"Previously, the leadership team and governors have not perceived Rawlins as a distinctively Christian college. The current principal and governing body are now clear that the college needs to reflect its Christian values more explicitly following the long-standing ambiguity about it Church of England status. .."

Whilst this is not explicit in the above, I understand that the Church of England's policy on its schools is still that of the Dearing Report of 2001 which can be found at http://www.churchofengland.org/media/1118777/way%20ahead%20-%20whole.pdf . This includes the following objective:
  • Nourish those of the faith;
  • Encourage those of other faiths;
  • Challenge those who have no faith.
I fail to see why only those of "no faith" should be challenged. I am a great advocate of critical thinking. I believe that this is one of the most important elements of any education and that schools should encourage their students to challenge, in an appropriate way, all faiths and beliefs (or none), including their own.  I would welcome your assurance that the stance advocated in this document will not be part of the college's policy in reflecting "its Christian values".

The final paragraph contains the following:

" Staff said 'we are very proud of the students for their contributions and enthusiasm for the activities and roles that are presented to them.' Parents are delighted with the standards and values that are demonstrated by the college. Many were not aware of the college's church foundation but welcome the move to promote the Church of England status more prominently."

Bearing in mind these comments were about the school without any great involvement by the C of E , what is advocated in the report that will directly benefit the school? As I read it, it appears to be more about what the college can do for the Church of England, rather than what the Church of England can do for the college.

I believe these matters should be of interest to the wider community, so I am copying this letter widely and will be posting most of its content to a blog on the Leicester Secular Society website at http://secsoc.blogspot.com/2011/10/church-of-england-imposing-changes-on.html .

Yours sincerely,

John Catt

01 July 2011

Shaikh Raed Salah and racism

Shaikh Raed Salah heads the Northern branch of The Islamic Movement in Israel. As a secularist, I am of course concerned about his party’s intended policy to create an Islamic state in the region. However, I am also concerned about the current Israeli Jewish state and its discrimination against Palestinian Arabs. As secularists, we should point out the advantages of supporting a secular state, one which would fairly represent and protect both groups.

Whether we dislike some of his views or not, the fact is that Salah is head of a legitimate political party, which has renounced terrorism. Simply disliking the man’s views should not automatically be a reason to bar him from entering the UK. One does not have to agree with someone to allow them the right to speak. The man himself appears to have spent much of his time standing up for the rights of Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel who face daily discrimination. He has also spoken up for the millions of refugees, who wish to return to the land which was once theirs.

The allegations of anti-Semitism made against Salah are weak and ones he refutes. It should be noted that he has never been convicted of anti-Semitism in Israel, despite the original allegations having been made several years go. The group Jews for Justice has spoken up in his defence.

There are a lot of double standards in the media's coverage. Journalists who write column inches about Salah’s supposed racism, are often guilty of turning a blind eye to the well documented racist policies pursued by Israel's government. These policies work towards creating a purely Jewish state at the expense of other groups. When did you last read Daily Mail journalists getting angry about house demolitions in East Jerusalem? Perhaps journalistic double standards are to be expected, however. Journalists who cross the line and criticise Israel are frequently vilified and labelled as “anti-Semitic” - a standard way to silence critics.

The reality is that Palestinians face systematic discrimination. House evictions continue. Figures released by the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) show that 304 adults and children have been displaced or affected by house demolitions in the West Bank and East Jerusalem this year alone. A series of walls and apartheid style roads, checkpoints and roadblocks now exist, restricting movement and isolating areas. Whilst Palestinian Arabs continue to be deprived of their homes, land and basic human rights, Jewish settlement expansion continues. Thousands of new homes are expected to be built on occupied land in the coming years. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that 38% of the West Bank is now taken up with Israeli infrastructure.

The British media have been busy criticising Salah, however, they have done far less to criticise the racist policies of apartheid which the Israeli government is pursuing. Unless the media expose Zionist racism for what it is, the Palestinian campaign for freedom and democracy will suffer.

05 March 2011

God on the Buses - thoughts on the Census Campaign

I posted the following as a comment following a Leicester Mercury article about our Census Campaign and the ads we have placed on 6 Leicester buses. My comment appeared on the Mercury web page briefly but was then removed wiithout explanation.

We members of Leicester Secular Society had quite a debate before settling on the 'For God's Sake' wording for our bus ad campaign, and like other advertisers we plumped for something that would provoke interest and controversy. We're not wealthy like the major religions, and need to use our limited campaign funds effectively. I think the discussion [following the article on the Leicester Mercury website - see above] shows we were right. We're a pretty diverse group of opinionated people however, and I dare say we still have some members who wince whenever they see our ad on the buses.

But I'd like to address two issues that the debate so far hasn't touched. First, the effect of religion being an OPTIONAL question on the census form. On the whole, non-religious people will tend to skip the question, while adherents to any of the religion will tick the appropriate box. When the results from the census are analysed, this could lead to an inflated view of the importance of religion in this country. To minimise this, I urge people who practise no religion (regardless of their personal feelings about our slogan) to say so on the form, rather than skip the question.

The other issue is in the illegitimate use made of the census data to support policy. A high aggregate result for religions will be used to justify many things from sectarian schools to hiving off social services to religious charities to the continued presence ex-officio of the bishops in the Lords.

But religious people have diverse views on these matters. Elections and referenda are the democratic way to approach such things, not censuses.

03 March 2011

Youth of Gaza Appeal

The voice of the young people of Gaza is rarely heard. Their opportunities for interaction with the outside world are few. Their statement below is offered as a token of solidarity against the crushing effects of two diametrically opposed religious manias: Zionism and Islamic fundamentalism.

"Fuck Israel. Fuck Hamas. Fuck Fatah. Fuck UN. Fuck UNRWA. Fuck USA! We, the youth in Gaza, are so fed up with Israel, Hamas, Fatah, the occupation, the violations of human rights and the indifference of the international community! We want to scream and break this wall of silence, injustice and indifference like the Israeli F16’s breaking the wall of sound; scream with all the power in our souls in order to release this immense frustration that consumes us because of this fucking situation we live in; we are like lice between two nails living a nightmare inside a nightmare, no room for hope, no space for freedom. We are sick of being caught in this political struggle; sick of coal dark nights with airplanes circling above our homes; sick of innocent farmers getting shot in the buffer zone because they are taking care of their lands; sick of bearded guys walking around with their guns abusing their power, beating up or incarcerating young people demonstrating for what they believe in; sick of the wall of shame that separates us from the rest of our country and keeps us imprisoned in a stamp-sized piece of land; sick of being portrayed as terrorists, homemade fanatics with explosives in our pockets and evil in our eyes; sick of the indifference we meet from the international community, the so-called experts in expressing concerns and drafting resolutions but cowards in enforcing anything they agree on; we are sick and tired of living a shitty life, being kept in jail by Israel, beaten up by Hamas and completely ignored by the rest of the world.

There is a revolution growing inside of us, an immense dissatisfaction and frustration that will destroy us unless we find a way of canalizing this energy into something that can challenge the status quo and give us some kind of hope. The final drop that made our hearts tremble with frustration and hopelessness happened 30th November, when Hamas’ officers came to Sharek Youth Forum, a leading youth organization (www.sharek.ps) with their guns, lies and aggressiveness, throwing everybody outside, incarcerating some and prohibiting Sharek from working. A few days later, demonstrators in front of Sharek were beaten and some incarcerated. We are really living a nightmare inside a nightmare. It is difficult to find words for the pressure we are under. We barely survived the Operation Cast Lead, where Israel very effectively bombed the shit out of us, destroying thousands of homes and even more lives and dreams. They did not get rid of Hamas, as they intended, but they sure scared us forever and distributed post traumatic stress syndrome to everybody, as there was nowhere to run.

We are youth with heavy hearts. We carry in ourselves a heaviness so immense that it makes it difficult to us to enjoy the sunset. How to enjoy it when dark clouds paint the horizon and bleak memories run past our eyes every time we close them? We smile in order to hide the pain. We laugh in order to forget the war. We hope in order not to commit suicide here and now. During the war we got the unmistakable feeling that Israel wanted to erase us from the face of the earth. During the last years Hamas has been doing all they can to control our thoughts, behaviour and aspirations. We are a generation of young people used to face missiles, carrying what seems to be a impossible mission of living a normal and healthy life, and only barely tolerated by a massive organization that has spread in our society as a malicious cancer disease, causing mayhem and effectively killing all living cells, thoughts and dreams on its way as well as paralyzing people with its terror regime. Not to mention the prison we live in, a prison sustained by a so-called democratic country.

History is repeating itself in its most cruel way and nobody seems to care. We are scared. Here in Gaza we are scared of being incarcerated, interrogated, hit, tortured, bombed, killed. We are afraid of living, because every single step we take has to be considered and well-thought, there are limitations everywhere, we cannot move as we want, say what we want, do what we want, sometimes we even cant think what we want because the occupation has occupied our brains and hearts so terrible that it hurts and it makes us want to shed endless tears of frustration and rage!

We do not want to hate, we do not want to feel all of this feelings, we do not want to be victims anymore. ENOUGH! Enough pain, enough tears, enough suffering, enough control, limitations, unjust justifications, terror, torture, excuses, bombings, sleepless nights, dead civilians, black memories, bleak future, heart aching present, disturbed politics, fanatic politicians, religious bullshit, enough incarceration! WE SAY STOP! This is not the future we want!

We want three things. We want to be free. We want to be able to live a normal life. We want peace. Is that too much to ask? We are a peace movement consistent of young people in Gaza and supporters elsewhere that will not rest until the truth about Gaza is known by everybody in this whole world and in such a degree that no more silent consent or loud indifference will be accepted.

This is the Gazan youth’s manifesto for change!

We will start by destroying the occupation that surrounds ourselves, we will break free from this mental incarceration and regain our dignity and self respect. We will carry our heads high even though we will face resistance. We will work day and night in order to change these miserable conditions we are living under. We will build dreams where we meet walls.

We only hope that you – yes, you reading this statement right now! – can support us. In order to find out how, please write on our wall or contact us directly:freegazayouth[at]hotmail.com

We want to be free, we want to live, we want peace.



06 February 2011

The fallibility of religion

Our President Emma Chung responded to a letter in the Leicester Mercury fromDr Clive Marsh, Director of Learning and Teaching at the Institute of Lifelong Learning, University of Leicester (www2.le.ac.uk/departments/lifelong-learning)
who stated:
Behind the headlines created by Baroness Warsi's talk at the University of Leicester recently was a basic concern which many, religious or not, might agree with: the need for a better understanding of religion in society.
It is widely accepted by people across the political spectrum, and with widely differing views about religion, that you don't really understand British culture without grasping religion's place within it.
Even if you think religion's a bad influence, and the Church should be kept well apart from the state, it is vital to know something about Britain's Christian past, and about the many different religions which feature in British society.
But how do we develop our knowledge of faith traditions? Where do we discuss openly and honestly the role that religions play in society? In Leicester, we have ample opportunity for informal interaction with people of many faiths and none. We just need to talk to neighbours, or with those with whom we work or spend our leisure time. This is the benefit of living in a "multi-cultural" society, though it's rightly been said that "multi-cultural" often means in practice that we live alongside those of different cultures and faiths. "Inter-culturalism" should be what we aim for, where there is genuine interaction between people.
We might, though, want something more formal. We have in Leicester two faith-based training institutions (the Markfield Institute of Higher Education and the St Philip's Centre) both of which offer courses open to the public to assist in the development of the understanding of religion. The work of Leicester Council of Faiths is also well-known.
But where might the "faith-suspicious" meet the "faith-based" in a constructive, respectful way? Two days before Baroness Warsi's speech I attended "Skeptics in the Pub" which meets monthly at Square Bar in the centre of Leicester. I didn't find the discussion quite as rational and evidence-based as the group might like to think. But I'd love to see the people there meeting up with the many religious people I know to have a serious conversation. It would help the literacy of all.
A university is not a "neutral" space, despite its own quest for scientific methods which are as objective as possible. But it is a place where this longed-for conversation might happen. It is not to be claimed by any single religious group. The Institute of Lifelong Learning's part-time Certificate in the Study of Religion could entice people to study at university level for the first time. And by studying religion, those of any faith or none could understand themselves and their society better, and gain useful critical skills at the same time.
 Emma responded with this letter:
I agree with Dr Marsh that a better understanding of religion and its place in British society is desperately needed (First Person, January 27) – particularly the influence of religion within the wider historical and social context.
British history is heavily steeped in religious conflict, and British culture is brimming with antiquated notions of religious morality, especially in attitudes to women and sexuality. It seems to me that religious groups tend to embrace inter-cultural initiatives while conveniently overlooking the negative impact of organised religion on history and wider society.
It can be uncomfortable for people of faith to acknowledge the atrocities and fallibility of religion, but I feel this is a necessary step in finding better solutions for a peaceful society.
If we promote "religious literacy" this not only needs to involve gaining an understanding of other religions, we also need to encourage faith communities to understand their own religions better, and foster a "social literacy" that encourages religious groups to accept some responsibility for the influence of religion on communities as a whole. All too often, arguments supporting better interactions between faiths are marshalled to promote understanding of other faith groups rather than a critical analysis of one's own faith, or faith in general.
The long history of rationalist free thought in the UK and Leicester shows that it is possible to reconcile a rational dialogue and healthy scepticism of religion, while embracing discussion with faith-based groups, and actively supporting freedom of religion and belief.
Leicester Secular Society and its long-standing lecture programme on religion, science and philosophy is a local and national institution which more than stands the test of time alongside the religionist "training institutions" that are mentioned in Dr Marsh's article.
Her letter produced a "prayer" from Harry:

Amen to that Emma. It would also be good if people took a little more trouble to find out what secularism really is and how a secular state would protect the rights of all people whether religious or not. One thing that always seems to be missing from 'inter-faith' and 'cross-cultural understanding' initiatives is the huge number of people who are non-religious. In Leicester they are the biggest group of people after Christians yet you would never know it to read the Mercury or listen to politicians who seem always so keen to get the religious vote. Prayers for this or that at churches get reported but never the proceedings of the Secular Society!
Keith then intervened:
It can be equally uncomfortable for secularists to acknowledge the atrocities and fallibilities of their own atheistic faith. We all believe something - and those with an atheistic worldview have been directly responsible for many, MANY times more deaths than can possibly be attributed to any other faith. Hitler justified his murder of the millions of 'undeserving' Jews, Poles and disabled, on the Darwinian 'logic' of 'survival of the fittest'. He named his 'better solution for a peaceful society' the 'Ultimate Solution'. Pol Pot and others have acted similarly. Not much of a recommendation for secularist atheism!
 I then responded:
I'd point out that atheists are simply people who don't believe in any god(s). That's it. There is no doctrine of "atheism".

Atheists can be secularists, humanists, communists, fascists, socialists, non theist christians, stamp collectors, humanitarians, train spotters etc.etc. The label tell you nothing apart from a lack of belief in the supernatural.

Hitler was not an atheist. He was officially a catholic and unofficially a nutter who appears to have believed in some aryan spirits.

Stalin and Pol Pot were communists who happened to be atheists. It was communist ideology that led them to do what they did.

Some secular atheists had a hand in the universal declaration of human rights. But that was not because they were atheists, but because they were human beings who wanted to try and improve the human condition.

This provoked these posts:
Keith, London:
That's exactly it, John. Your faith, as you yourself say, is that there are 'no gods'. Whether you deny it or not, that 'faith' inevitably and unavoidably has an impact upon your worldview, and therefore directly influences your behaviours. In exactly the same way, my own belief in a supreme God inevitably impacts and influences my behaviour. Like it or not I must acknowledge, for example, that I am accountable to a higher authority for the way that I use the life he has given me. The atheist mind that chooses to reject God is entirely free from these restraints, which is exactly why Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot have been free to create a world of their own choosing. This is the world of Darwin - the survival of the fittest. If you don't like where it takes you, then think again.
Peter Wigston:
"Stalin and Pol Pot were communists who happened to be atheists."

This argument does not stand up when you consider that Stalin forced all of USSR to abandon all religion in public, closing or demolishing the churches.

This indicates he was primarily an atheist who adopted communism.

But the leaders of Religion need to combat the increasingly selfish nature of society if they are to be taken seriously.
My response was:
Re. Stalin (extracts from Wikipedia).
At ten, he began attending church school where the Georgian children were forced to speak Russian. 

At sixteen, he received a scholarship to a Georgian Orthodox seminary, where he rebelled against the imperialist and religious order. Though he performed well there, he was expelled in 1899 after missing his final exams. The seminary's records suggest he was unable to pay his tuition fees.
Shortly after leaving the seminary, Stalin discovered the writings of Vladimir Lenin and decided to become a Marxist revolutionary, eventually joining Lenin's Bolsheviks in 1903.

Communism is anti-religious, seeing religions as rival ideologies. Hence the need to restrict and oppose religion.

Atheism is not a ideology, it is simply the lack of belief in supernatural beings. It has no creed and requires no kind of behaviour either good or bad.

"With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion. " Steven Weinberg

Launch of Census Bus Campaign

The Society with the support of Skeptics in the pub recently announced the launch of this campaign and achieved good coverage in the Leicester Mercury.

The article began:
People who claim to be Christian when they do not practise the religion are creating a "misleading" picture of Britain, it has been claimed.
Leicester Secular Society is calling for non-believers to tick the 'no religion' box on this year's census.
The society says that during the 2001 census, many people felt compelled to answer 'Christian' when it came to their religious belief, either out of habit or because they felt they ought to.
But it says that doing so leads to inaccurate figures, which are then used to justify policies that "do not reflect the real demographics of our society".
 The piece attracted 45 comments, but unfortunately many concentrated on accusing the Society of targeting Christianity and ignoring Islam.

Kulgan began:  
I wonder what would be said if the Leicester Secular Society said 'People are Muslim but do not practice Islam should tick No Religion'?
 and subsequently said:
My comment is on the fact that Leicester Secular Society have taken the easy option of targetting Christians because they know the uproar they would cause if they had said the same against Muslims? Whether that is right or wrong is another issue.

Leicester Secular Society who purport to promote equality seem to targetting one particular religion. Religionism, or the true colours of LSS coming to the fore?
Matt made an observation:
Look, it's common sense. It's implausible that 7 out 10 people in this country can be genuine christians, I can hardly think of a handful out of the 100's possibly 1000's of people I have met over the years that have any religious beliefs at all. The majority of those people were white so it's common-sense to make the assumption that the census is painting a hugely distorted picture of the religious make up of this country.

Ned put the Society's viewpoint:
According to the 2010 British Social Attitudes Survey, those who profess no-religion as an identity have risen from 31% to 43% between 1983 and 2008. Yet the 2001 census data suggests that this figure is only 14.8%. The Census also concluded that there were more Jedis than Jews. This the reason for the Secular Society campaign.

The Society is NOT singling out Christians, since there are plenty other people who might identify themselves as Muslims or Hindhus without really being believers. Religion is a belief and you cannot really still be a Christian/Hindhu/Muslim/Jew if you cease to believe.
hmmm then intervened:
Kulgan has a point. Isn't it about time these particular secularists are had for religious discrimination? That will wipe the smile off their faces, and their enjoyment in convincing people that there is no god, but not offering any alternative. 
I responded:
Not sure how Leicester Secular Society http://www.lsec.org.uk could be "had" for religious discrimination. The talks at the Hall include people from all backgrounds. Tomorrow (3/2/11) Dilwar Hussain, Head of the Policy Research Centre at the Islamic Foundation, Markfield, Leicestershire (http://www.islamic-foundation.org.uk/User/Home.aspx) will be giving a talk on "British Secularism and Religion".

I think it is also incorrect to accuse the members of Leicester Secular Society of only ever targeting Christianity for criticism. Take a look at the letter "Islam: A lifestyle choice" http://www.thisisleicestershire.co.uk/letters/Islam-lifestyle-choice/article-3158705-detail/article.html. However, based on the census, Christianity is be far the largest religious group and it is the established religion. Removing religious privilege is at the core of secularism and so an established church will always be something that the Society opposes.

As to "any alternative", this is what it says on the membership application form:
I then listed the Principal Aims of Leicester Secular Society.

This provoked hmmm to say:
What utter lies!!! If you truly believe that there is no god.. faith etc why go around widely publisiing utter crap on adverts etc. You just excel in making people miserable and giving them no hope. And yes you do focus on christianity as you see it as weak and unable to answer back. Its cowardly that you don't pick on those who get offended much more easily in a city like Leicester. the trouble is as christians they are told to turn the other cheek, so they wouldn't say anything back and extremist secularists like you portray yourself here as get away with it.
I responded:
Please specify where I have lied.

hmmm, leicester also said:
"If you truly believe that there is no god.. faith etc why go around widely publisiing utter crap on adverts etc. You just excel in making people miserable and giving them no hope".

I would suggest that religion in general far excels secularism in "making people miserable". Going around worrying about whether or not you are going to end up in hell is not a good way of feeling joyful. I believe this is a particular problem with the Muslim population as well as the more literalist interpretations of Christianity.

hmmm, leicester also said:
"And yes you do focus on christianity as you see it as weak and unable to answer back".

Christianity "weak and unable to answer back"? Please pull the other one. For a start you are answering back (and I would strongly defend your right to do so). Lets see - 26 Bishops in the House of Lords, a free column for the Bishop in the Mercury each week, "Thought for the Day" every morning on Radio 4, in most state schools a Christian form of worship every day is prescribed by law, predominant religion in Religious Education syllabus, 70% of the population being believers  (according the the last census). I could go on.

05 February 2011

Baroness Warsi Controversy

The speech by Baroness Warsi at Leicester University provoked several letters from members of the Society and comments in the Letters area of the Mercury.

The first comment published was from Harry Perry "Some Muslims are extremists" on 26 January. His main point was made at the beginning of the letter:

You report (Mercury, January 21) Baroness Warsi saying that making a distinction between "moderate" and "extremist" Muslims fosters prejudice against Muslims as a whole.

This is surely nonsense. We make these same distinctions in respect of all political and religious groups. For example, her own government has just barred the American Christian pastor Terry Jones from Britain because he holds "extremist" views!
Click here for the full letter.

The only comment this raised was "Excellent letter".

The next letter "Confrontation will not create a better society" from Allan Hayes  on 28 January began:
I came away from last week's speech by Baroness Warsi deeply disturbed: I am even more disturbed after reading her speech to the College of Bishops (http://bit.ly/ fA9lTT). Islamophobia, bigotry and ignorance are certainly to be combated by us all, on that there can be no disagreement, and we all recognise the good work done by religious charities – it is her views on the wider issue of religion and society and her lack of recognition of the good work done by others that concern me.
We have a dynamic and effective politician who is giving the impression to the religious, particularly Muslims, that religion is under attack from the non-religious; and to the non-religious that government is pushing religion on them. This is not helping anyone.
 Click here for full letter.

This letter attracted a few snide remarks such as:
" She could have mentioned how we came together against the English Defence League."

Over half the EDL arrests where Leicester people, hard to believe the whole of Leicester is against the EDL. How many of our Muslim friends live in Braunstone for example?
 However, the letter that really got readers going came from Lyn Hurst on 29 January with the title "Islam: A lifestyle choice"
Here is a secular view of what Tory peer Baroness Warsi said on your front page (Leicester, January 21).
It was simply a demand that Islam is above criticism. She claims "prejudice against Muslims in Britain is at an all time high", but offered no evidence to support this claim, unless you count the e-mail she received as an example of prejudice against Muslims.
But the e-mail was nothing more than a concise sentence typical of hard political debate, that used a play on halal, which is indeed a Muslim custom/superstition hated by many, especially animal rights folk, that seemed a fair way to have a dig at her to me.
This is the e-mail: "Instead of bleating like some halal lamb being led to the slaughter, how about ending the knee bending to Islam at every opportunity."
This is mild indeed compared to the messages sent from Islamists to their critics.
She goes on to confuse race with religion. She tries to draw a similarity between racism to the Jews and criticism of Islam, but she is wrong; criticism of Islam is equal to criticism of Zionism – criticism of an ideology. Does Warsi think Zionism above criticism?
Opposition to Islamic aims, as to how we should all lead our lives are not racist, but ideological, as they are with any political creed we may oppose.
When asked whether she still faces regular discrimination, she said: "On the basis of my race? Less so. On the basis of my religion? More so". So Baroness don't be a Muslim, give it up! It's not compulsory. Here in Leicester it's a free choice, unlike being Jewish or Asian. If Warsi is attacked for being Asian, that is racist and she must be defended from that, but when she is criticized for freely following a lifestyle ideology many of us disagree with, she must expect hard arguments against that choice.
Especially as someone who has excepted an unelected, privileged, and well paid role in the Government on the Tory side!
She states that anti-Islamic sentiment is bigotry, so she can call those of us who are critical of Islam bigots, but we must, in her words, "be urged to be more careful about what they say about religion".
Why? She must extend the same freedom of speech to those of us who disagree with her, as she received on the front page of the Mercury.

This provoked 17 comments including a rant from a suhail ahmad.

Harry Perry and I attempted to deal with his points.

Harry's post contained:

1. Lyn Hurst ceased being President of Leicester Secular Society four years ago. The current President is Ms Emma Chung.
2. The questioning of halal and kosher meat is only a religious one in so far as religious people have obtained exemptions from animal welfare law to practice it. Secularists oppose religious exemptions to laws that should apply to all. Thus it is not anti-religious bigotry that leads secularists to question it but the exemptions.

I attempted to deal with his posts point by point.

SA"However, you have not referred to christianity as 'superstitious customs'. Oh no, instead you reserve this derogatory title only for Islam and its' adherents".

Lyn was only addressing the issue of Islam. I'm pretty certain that if you checked out his record he has in the past described all religions based on the supernatural as "superstitious custom". I am certainly happy to bracket them all together.

SA "To deny halal meat to muslims is a persecution of their basic human rights".

First of all there are different versions of halal meat. Some of them meet the regulations. Secondly why is the denial of halal meat a persecution of human rights? If you don't want to eat the meat available you can be a vegetarian or vegan - many so choose.

SA "What authority do you have to impose your heretical belief systems upon another individual?"

So secularism is heresy? Where did Lyn seek to impose any belief system on Muslims or anybody else? As far as I can see he is suggesting that all should be subject to law and that we should have freedom of speech to criticise the ideas and beliefs of others (subject to the restrictions of law which prevents incitement to violence and hatred of other citizens).

SA "You have also foolishly claimed that Islam is just a lifestyle choice. By your idiotic argument, the same could be said of christianity, judaism and any other religion and of it's adherents."

First of all I'm sure Lyn would class all religions (along with Humanism etc.) as lifestyle choices.

I have been told by many Muslims that in their version of the religion "There is no compulsion in religion" is what they believe. In which case Islam, along with other religions is a lifestyle choice.

SA "For the record, Islam is not a lifestyle choice (unlike choosing to be a atheist/secularist like you, a vegetarian, teetotal, an alcoholic or even a drug addict)".

If it is not a lifestyle choice, what is it? Or are you saying the your version of Islam prescribes death for apostates so there is no real choice?

SA "However, muslims have never claimed race discrimination. We have always stipulated religious disrmination (which actually became an article of British law since 2007 or 2008 because this was an area of basic human rights completely ignored by the race discrimination act).

Religious discrimination is defined as preventing an individual from practising any aspect of their faith".

Religious discrimination is certainly not so defined. Otherwise I could claim to follow the Aztec religion and go in for Human Sacrifice.

Wikipedia has a reasonable description: "Religious discrimination is valuing or treating a person or group differently because of what they do or do not believe" .

SA "What Mr. Hurst and other people like him are trying to achieve, is the incremental prohibition of facilities that are available to muslims in order to practice their faith. First they will want to outlaw halal meat. Then they will want to outlaw headscarves. Next, they will want to outlaw places of worship (ie - masjids)."

Mr. Hurst is a member of Leicester Secular Society (see www.lsec.org.uk ). This is what members sign up to:

Practical Humanity.
Our efforts should be devoted to elimination of human misery, injustice, poverty and ignorance in the world as it is here and now.
We oppose teachings that divert people away from realities, into inactive fatalism, supernatural worship, or superstitious ritual.

Free Speech.
People should be allowed to express and publish their views, however controversial, without fear of persecution, prosecution or physical harm, so long as they allow others the same freedom.
We advocate separation of church and state, withdrawal of special privileges of religious organisations, and secularisation of church schools.

Rational Argument.
Anyone should be prepared to submit their views to vigorous argument, questioning their assumptions and testing their conclusions.
We refuse to believe or act on anything without evidence, just because some authority says so.

Working Together.
Moral values like kindness, loyalty and honesty derive from the need of people to live together in a peaceful and constructive manner.
We oppose bigotry and coercion based on factors such as beliefs, racial and ethnic origins, disability, sex, age, sexuality or lifestyle.

What we oppose is religious privilege, which is what SA appears to be asking for.

SA"The vast majority of muslims are peaceful, law abiding citizens and we only ask that we be allowed to live our lives in peace and without the fear of being attacked. The vast majority of muslims, including myself, would never impose my belief or lifestyle upon a person of a different faith, although we do welcome with open arms inter-religious dialogue, as it helps to strenghten community ties between people of different ethnic and religious heritage. "

At last something sensible with which I can agree.You can substitute atheist, christian, agnostic, jew, hindu, secularist etc for muslim and it would still hold true for nearly all such people.

Perhaps there is hope for us all after all.