25 May 2020

An Influential Man of Leicestershire - George Fox (1624 - 1691)

(This article is based on a Zoom talk given by John Catt 19/4/20)  
George Fox was born in July 1624 in the small village of Drayton-in-the-Clay, Leicestershire (now known as Fenny Drayton).
His father was a prosperous weaver and churchwarden known as "Righteous Christer". George was taught to read and write and take religion seriously. He became an apprentice shepherd in his teens, which gave him time to study the bible, and aged 19 in 1643, he headed of London driven by a “hidden voice”. The Civil War had begun and he described himself as in a state of torment (he may have been a manic depressive).
Returning to Drayton in the Marsh after a year, he had a number of discussions with the local Anglican clergyman, who later called Fox mad and spoke against him. He continued travelling and discussing religion with clergy and any who were interested in religious thinking.
This resulted in him developing ideas such as:
  • Rituals can be ignored (baptism)
  • Anyone has the right to minister including women and children.
  • God "dwelleth in the hearts of his obedient people"
  • Religious experience is not confined to a church building -"steeple-house". Worship was valid in fields and orchards.
  • Believers could follow their own inner guide rather than rely on a strict reading of Scripture or the word of clerics.
  • No distinction between Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Trinity)
In 1647 Fox began to preach publicly and a group started to follow him around which became the Society of Friends. Some of the Friends also started advocating Fox's teachings and, as uncompromising preachers, they were violently attacked in some places.
Religion was in flux with many rival denominations/sects meeting during Civil War (1642–1651) including the Congregationalists, the Baptists, Calvinists, Calvinistic Presbyterians, Lutherans, Catholics, Anglicans, Unitarians, the Ranters, the Fifth Monarchists, the Seekers and the Muggletonians.
Between 1650 and 1660 many new groups of “Friends” were established around England, particularly following Fox's "Vision" on Pendle Hill (1652)and his “conversion” of local groups of “Seekers” and his alliance with the Fells who were fundamental in the organisation of the movement.
Fox and the Friends were subject to prosecution as they
  • didn't hesitate to complain about judge's decisions considered morally wrong;
  • campaigned against the paying of tithes;
  • asserted that the established church was unnecessary;
  • refused to swear oaths (particularly of allegiance) or take up arms;
  • refused to use or acknowledge titles, take hats off in court or doff hats or bow to those who considered themselves socially superior such as the aristrocracy.
Fox was imprisoned several times:
  • Nottingham in 1649
  • Derby in 1650 - he was imprisoned for blasphemy. A judge mocked Fox's exhortation to "tremble at the word of the Lord", calling him and his followers "Quakers"
  • Carlisle 1653
  • London 1654
  • Launceston 1656
  • Lancaster 1660
  • Leicester 1662
  • Lancaster again and Scarborough 1664–1666
  • Worcester 1673–1675
Quakers were subject to various charges
  • Blasphemy;
  • Causing a disturbance;
  • Travelling without a pass;
  • Unauthorised worship;
  • Restoration, and the Quaker Act 1662 specially directed against people, who refused to take the oath of allegiance.
Fox travelled extensively, visiting Ireland (1666), America (1671), the West Indies (1677)and the Netherlands and Germany (1684), setting up new groups of Friends. George Fox died on 13th January 1691 in London.
The Society of Friends that he had founded (Quakers) would be responsible for establishing the anti-slavery movement, prison reform, demands for social justice, equal rights for women and children, consensus decision making and the promotion of a strong work ethic based on treating all involved fairly. (Quakers founded Barclays & Lloyds banks, Clark’s shoes, Cadbury, Rowntrees and Fry’s chocolate). In 1947 the Quakers became the only religion to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

Influence of Fox’s teachings

The teaching of George Fox that there was something ‘of God in every person’ and that all are equal was revolutionary for his day. Most religions had been hierarchical and used to support the authority of the hierarchies of the state and its established religion. While his movement attracted disapproval from some, others such as William Penn and Oliver Cromwell viewed Fox with respect. By the time of his death in 1691, the Quaker movement had 50,000 followers.
William Penn (1644 - 1718) established Pennsylvania 1682 as a Quaker commonwealth run under Quaker principles. He was the first to call for a union of the English colonies and the “Pennsylvania Frame of Government” and “Charter of Liberties” inspired much of the US Constitution. These documents limited the power of the governor and stipulated two houses for the legislature, fair trials by jury, protection of minority rights, freedom of religion and free elections. They incorporated an amendable constitution and bill of rights.
The ideas of Fox, the Society of Friends and Penn influenced both Voltaire (who spent time with Quakers during his exile in England) and Tom Paine (whose father was a Quaker). It could be said that the motto of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity was to some degree inspired by the ideas of the Quakers. The constitution of Pennsylvania and the ideas of Tom Paine were influential in the American War of Independence and the subsequent Constitution and Bill of Rights. The American revolution and Quaker ideas together with those of both Voltaire and Tom Paine influenced thinking in pre-revolutionary France.
Certainly the Quakers were fundamental to the abolition of the slave trade together with legal slavery and they were strong supporters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which very much accords with Quaker thought.
I think it fair to claim that the thinking of this Leicestershire born shepherd had a greater impact on the development of modern world than is generally appreciated.
Relevant links can be found at  http://leicestersecularsociety.org.uk/fox.php#hist

01 November 2018

Proposed new Sikh School - Letter from Anthony Matthew

Dear Editor,

It is not surprising a group of Sikh parents wish to see a large sum of public money spent on a school primarily for their children. With the shortage of school places, most parents are likely to be keen on new provision which favours them especially.

Nor is it surprising that Keith Vaz MP should support a proposal that could win him a block of votes at the next election. (First Sikh secondary school bid, 17th September) The effect though of a school primarily for the children of Sikh parents is to shelter them to a large extent from contact with children from other backgrounds. That indeed is a virtue in the eyes of community leaders because no child is born a Sikh, nor a Catholic, a Moslem, an Anglican or any religious sect, there are only children born to parents in such sects or none.

A likely way for those leaders to maintain a flock of followers is to try to prevent their children deciding against joining their sect, either by moving to another or to none at all. These attempts to minimise integration are of no benefit to the community as a whole and there is no reason why they should be subsidised by public money. Of course the same arguments apply to existing and long-established Catholic and Church of England schools. Parents have no right to determine the beliefs of their children.

Yours faithfully,

Anthony Matthew

18 September 2018

 A young Muslim claimed at a meeting that I attended that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was "racist". We exchanged emails and it turned out that "racism" was being equated with being "eurocentric". My response appears below:-

I don't think our disagreement is as profound as I thought it was when you asserted the the UDHR is "racist". As with all discussions words and differences in interpretations as to what they mean can result in people talking at cross purposes. This is a problem I encounter when discussing the existence of god(s). You need to define what you mean by god(s) before you can discuss. For example when Einstein refers to god, he means a Universe, which has no intelligence and is totally indifferent to humanity. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_and_philosophical_views_of_Albert_Einstein

To me racism is discrimination based a persons genetic make up that they cannot change - "Racism is the belief in the superiority of one race over another, which often results in discrimination and prejudice towards people based on their race or ethnicity." to quote wikipedia - although many (possibly yourself included) have in recent years begun to use  the term to describe many other forms of discrimination.

As with equating secularism with atheism, in my opinion we devalue the language and make it more difficult to discuss the issues because of this conflation of meaning. If we mean cultural imperialism, or tribalism or xenophobia or religious discrimination then I'd suggest that these are the descriptions we should use.

I'd be the first to accept that "the modern doctrine of Human Rights is Eurocentric and often inconsiderate of different perspectives". But that does not make it racist (at least by my definition).

It is not even accepted by all European political philosophies. It is after all based on asserting the  rights of the individual and limiting the powers of the group or state over the individual. Since Humanism is based on on the notion of the rational, autonomous human being, it finds the UDHR an attractive idea, although as with all human constructs it can no doubt be improved upon. Communism (which is also an atheist philosophy) does not accept the idea that the individual should have any protection from the collective will of the people and emphasises group/class solidarity. Human rights are also unacceptable to absolute monarchists, fascists and some people of religion who wish to see their beliefs imposed across the entire population of the world.

I'd be the first to admit that if we introduce modern medicines and technology to tribes that have managed to survive in remote areas, we will undoubtedly destroy their culture, which saddens me. However do we have a right to say that certain populations should not have the benefits of modern medicines/technology because this would change their way of life and culture? If we did this surely we would be treating them like animals in a zoo.  Intervention may be a form of imperialism/colonialism, but I'd have difficulty in not advocating for it.

All cultures evolve over time and change is inevitable. Unfortunately many people have a "golden conception" of a certain period in their culture and want to maintain it regardless of other changes in the world. I think Brexit is very much a symptom of this.

I watched most of the YouTube video and would agree with much of the article about Human Rights being Eurocentric, since most of its history stems from the evolution of thought in Europe and in particular the English speaking world. As with all human constructs its history is an amalgam of many things. Some of the ideas can be traced back to the Magna Carter and the Bill of Rights. Others to religious ideas evolving from the Enlightenment. Indeed I would maintain that a Leicestershire man, George Fox https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Fox , who founded the Society of Friends (the Quakers) can claim some credit (or blame :-) ).  As with many other religious figures he had a revelation on Pendle Hill http://www.strecorsoc.org/gfox/ch06.html . His idea that god dwells in everyone led to Quakers being amongst the earliest advocates of equality and founders of the anti-slavery movement. http://abolition.e2bn.org/people_21.html .

He also inspired William Penn https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Penn who founded Pennsylvania and established a constitution much of which was a foundation for the US constitution after the declaration of independence. That document was also contributed to by Tom Pain https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Paine (whose father was a Quaker) of whom it has been said " His ideas reflected Enlightenment-era ideals of transnational human rights."

To quote from /The_modern_doctrine_of_Human_Rights_is_Eurocentric_in_character_and_has_limited_application_in_the_developing_world.

"All four regional documents have some similarities but they also have their differences. It is interesting to note that the Draft Arab Charter and the African Charter of Human and Peoples Rights are not all that radically different from the UDHR. If one was to convincingly argue that the modern documents of human rights were Eurocentric in character then I suspect one would have expected a greater difference between the doctrines!"

Out of interest would you be happy for the  UDHR to be declared void and all the associated equality/anti discrimination legislation in this country revoked?

Also, looking at the UDHR http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/ (which represents an aspiration rather than a guarantee) which right would you wish to surrender? And what would be the implications?

If we take Article 18 by way of example

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

You might object to the right to freedom to change religion or belief. However if you abolish this you also end up abolishing the right to teach and practice your religion. So the right to attempt to convert someone to your religion would also be lost.

You may find this article of interest - http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/religionglobalsociety/2018/06/islam-and-human-rights-clash-or-compatibility/ .

24 December 2017

Statement from Mo Abbas, President of Leicester Secular Society in response to the Archbishop of Canterbury's recent assertion.

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s claim “ for schools that are not of a religious character, confidence in any personal sense of ultimate values has diminished” is not only wrong, but also worrying.

The claim that a moral system cannot be found without a religious framework needs evidence to support it. One might even argue that practices and beliefs based on religion ( at least some of them) can be considered immoral. 

One of the main functions of religion is the social function where it helps members of that religion to develop social identity and in-group solidarity and favouritism. However, what we know from social psychology is that this process leads to a bias towards members of other religions (out-group members) and even prejudice. In certain circumstances, this could lead to violence. 

Even if this was not intended, faith schools contribute to the development of this in-group / out-group bias. In that sense, it can contribute to division within the community as a whole and the creation of different moral systems which very often clash. 

The answer to these ‘competing narratives’ that the Archbishop refers to in his statement does not lie with faith schools. In fact, faith schools make these competing narratives worse. The answer is to create a value system where everybody , religious or non-religious, is treated equally and fairly. This is the essence of secularism and this is why Leicester Secular Society will always call for an inclusive education system.

18 August 2016

Safe Space v Freedom of Expression

The Society had two related talks in July. The first, where we once again welcomed Maryam Namizie to the Hall on Sunday 17th July 2016, was entitled “Apostasy, Blasphemy and Resistance to Islam” and provided an update on her campaigning for Iran Solidarity, One Law for All and the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain. The second was given by Robbie Travers, a 20-year-old law student and commentator for the Gatestone Institute (a non-partisan, not-for-profit international policy council and think tank, dedicated to educating the public about what the mainstream media fails to report in promoting human rights and in particular freedom of expression). Both speakers highlighted the current threats to freedom of expression in the UK.

Maryam has been experiencing limitations being placed on her freedom to set out her point of view with the recent advocacy for “safe spaces” at universities. She expressed concern that particularly in some universities many “liberals” and “socialists” now seem to regard anything that might be derogatory about religion, in particular Islam, as unacceptable. She has been labelled as a “race traitor” and “Islamaphobe”.

In December 2015 she gave a talk about blasphemy at the Goldsmiths University in London, sponsored by the university's Atheist, Secularist and Humanist society. During her talk, members of the university's Islamic Society caused a disruption by heckling, switching off her presentation and behaving in an intimidatory way. In response to the incident, the university's Feminist Society released a statement expressing support for the Islamic Society, and condemning the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society for inviting "known islamophobes" to speak at the university.

Maryam emphasised that while the beliefs of individuals must be protected, organised religions were often ideologies that could result in fascist societies if allowed to take power, and must be open to criticism and mockery. She was adamant that religions must accept that apostasy and blasphemy are permitted behaviours and, while they may not be welcome, must be tolerated.

Both Maryam and Robbie emphasised the need for Muslims to be able to challenge the ultra orthodox conservative interpretations of Islam and that those who supported progressive political views needed to support groups such as One Law for All, the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain and British Muslims for Secular Democracy. However both highlighted the fact that people they might normally have regarded as “Progressive” and of the “Left” more often supported Islamists, who advocate death for apostasy, adultery and homosexuality, rather than oppose them.

Robbie highlighted that this was a problem particularly with the younger generation and was particularly well demonstrated by the concept of “safe space”. The term was originally introduced to indicate that a teacher, educational institution or student body does not tolerate anti-LGBT violence, harassment or hate speech, thereby creating a safe place for all LGBT students. However this became extended to refer to the protection of any individuals who felt marginalized on a university campus from being exposed to views that they would find upsetting. Such a rule makes robust free expression impossible.

Some students involved in political discourse now refuse to listen to or engage with people of opposing points of view on the basis that it violates their entitlement to “safe space”. Some also argue that only LGBT people can be regarded as qualified to discuss LGBT issues and only “black” people are qualified to discuss racism etc. Robbie believes that such ideas lead to “group think” and stereotyping.

Robbie put forward the hypothesis that young people are rebelling against the equalities and human rights agendas pursued by the post war generation. Instead they are advocating rights for groups that they feel have been discriminated against in the past. This means that not all groups (and hence people) have the same rights. He highlighted the issue of female genital mutilation (FGM). This was now being labelled as female genital circumcision and regarded as a norm for some Islamic groups. As such some of these “avant garde” groups maintain that it should be regarded as acceptable. Hence one young lady, who had suffered FGM and opposed the practice, was told to shut up and branded a “race traitor” by a group of student “feminists”.

It was suggested that the current student generation has grown up in an era when there was no longer a folk memory of the horrors of the World Wars. Many students no longer appreciate how essential it is to avoid stereotyping and that everyone must be entitled to their human rights as individuals, together with equality before the law. Robbie suggested that the older generation, including our membership, needed to try and engage with the younger generation through social media, even if they felt uncomfortable with it, as advocates for liberty and human rights.

11 July 2016

Kinky Sex, Education & Human Rights

John Pendal
John Pendal gave a very entertaining and thought-provoking talk on Sunday 10th July 2016.

John is a gay comedian and an advocate for sexual liberty. He grew up in a religious family that was part of a strict Baptist Church which could not accept that homosexuality was anything more than a life choice. When he declared that he was gay, but intended to remain celibate, he was still expelled from the Church.

He gradually moved into the Gay community and found he had a propensity for leather, becoming involved in that scene. He won the Mr Hoist title in 2003, the prize being that he was sponsored to enter the 25th annual International Mr Leather contest in Chicago in May 2003, which he also won. It turns out that the contest is about finding the person most able to act as an ambassador for those who like to indulge in leather. John took the year off work travelling to events full time from July 2003 to June 2004, covering 100,000 miles and visiting 28 cities in the US, Europe and Canada, while raising money for charities.

John emphasised that the sado/masochistic (S/M) scene was very much based on consent and he felt that this was an area that was not sufficiently covered in what most schools teach within sex education. He put great emphasis on the need for everyone to understand that consent is always provisional, can be revoked at any time and must always be respected. Many people (including just about all who produce pornography) seem to regard initial consent as sufficient. This is something we need to change.

The point was made that S/M sex is just a part of the spectrum of what, in the final analysis, is rather weird human behaviour. He pointed out that much of this behaviour either produces an endorphins rush (such as that experienced from strong physical exercise such as running, cycling or swimming) or an adrenalin rush caused by undertaking what are perceived as high risk behaviours, such as riding on a roller coaster or bungee jumping. Why do we regard slightly weird sex as being unacceptable while accepting running or bungee jumping as being perfectly normal? Why can indulging in sex outside the normal range of behaviours be considered a mental illness when other equally strange hobbies are not?

John also highlighted how the law discriminates against those who wish to indulge in unorthodox sex. In the early 1990's sixteen gay men were prosecuted for private, consensual S/M play under the "Offences Against the Person Act 1861" (R v. Brown). None had required medical treatment and all believed that they were innocent as they had consented throughout. However, the judge decided that "sexual pleasure" was not a good enough reason for people to be able to consent to an assault, and so he wouldn't allow consent as a defence. Consequently the men pleaded guilty and were sentenced to up to four and a half years in prison.

The police investigation was called "Operation Spanner" and a defence fund was set up and trustees appointed to what became the Spanner Trust. An appeal resulted in reduced sentences but the convictions were not overturned. The convictions were upheld by both the House of Lords and the European Court of Human Rights. The trust now has the task of trying to change the law.

Currently it is illegal in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to engage in any activities for sexual pleasure which result in an injury other than "transient or trifling". Even a love-bite is technically illegal. This means that S/M players are still at risk of arrest and prosecution. It restricts S/M education (increasing the danger that people will injure themselves during play) while making it difficult for S/M players to get medical attention if there is a problem. It also enhances the prejudices against those in the S/M community, driving the scene underground and making it harder for essential safety information (such as the difference between S/M and abuse) to be disseminated widely. S/M activities can also be used against people in custody court cases, or lead to blackmail or the loss of jobs.

In addition, bad laws spread from country to country. The Spanner verdict has been quoted in trials in at least three other countries as an example of where a government can over-rule your right to consent. In America it was quoted during the Texas sodomy trial as evidence that it was acceptable for a government to stop people having the kind of sex they wanted - even if the sex was private, consensual and caused no harm.

Currently the law appears to be anomalous. In the court cases seen to date there have been three different types of verdicts:

  • For S/M play within a heterosexual married couple, only the male (active) partner was prosecuted and he was acquitted. The judge said that a man branding a woman with a knife was "acceptable behaviour within marriage".
  • For S/M play between an unmarried heterosexual couple, only the male (active) partner was prosecuted and he was found guilty.
  • For S/M play between gay men both the active and passive participants were prosecuted and ALL were found guilty. The passive players were prosecuted for "aiding and abetting an assault against themselves"!

John hopes that the Spanner Trust will be able to use the 1998 Human Rights Act to pursue a claim in the High Court that the Spanner decision (R v Brown) is contrary to the Human Rights Act, thereby forcing a change in the law. To do that they will need claimants (people willing to come forward and say they are at risk of prosecution) and money.

15 December 2015

Christianity under attack - Mercury Mailbox

Stephen A Warden, Leicestershire chairman of the Society of St George had the following letter published in the Leicester Mercury on 14th December 2015.

The National Secular Society is making a deal of noise about another report, by the former judge Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, that is expected to recommend state schools should cease holding Christian assemblies so atheist children are not offended.

Other faiths will be allowed to continue to hold religious assemblies should they wish.

We Christians are pretty well hardened to the annual relentless calls from atheists and secular societies to curtail any and all religious content in public life.

However, to single out English Christians would be against all that is English, fair and just. That would turn us toward those dark days when Christian expression resulted in state punishments.

England has been a Christian nation since the late 7th century and has introduced Christ to so many countries that it would unthinkable we would even consider turning our backs on the world's largest faith.

If Christianity was driven out of all schools, public meetings, state and public ceremonies it would not result in a religion-free society, it would create a void for one of the other faiths to fill.

I cannot say all Christians have been good but one thing I am sure of is a future England without the moral guidance, ethical voice, advocacy for the powerless and sanctuary of peace and calm the Christian church provides would increase the probability our children being subjects on an island where materialism, self interest and moral bankruptcy was the norm.

I posted the following comment that unfortunately did not format well when uploaded to the Leicester Mercury website - 

Stephen A Warden (SAW) said "The National Secular Society is making a deal of noise about another report, by the former judge Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, that is expected to recommend state schools should cease holding Christian assemblies so atheist children are not offended."

Mr. Warden should follow the news a little more closely. Elizebeth Butler-Sloss is a practising Anglican and the report has been published. It can be read at https://corablivingwithdifference.files.wordpress.com/2015/12/living-with-difference-community-diversity-and-the-common-good.pdf

SAW "Other faiths will be allowed to continue to hold religious assemblies should they wish."

This is completely false. The actual recommendation on page 8 is:

"All pupils in state-funded schools should have a statutory entitlement to a curriculum about religion, philosophy and ethics that is relevant to today’s society, and the broad framework of such a curriculum should be nationally agreed. The legal requirement for schools to hold acts of collective worship should be repealed, and replaced by a requirement to hold inclusive times for reflection."

SAW said "We Christians are pretty well hardened to the annual relentless calls from atheists and secular societies to curtail any and all religious content in public life."

I would suggest that just about all atheists and secular societies are "for an inclusive and plural society free from religious privilege, prejudice and discrimination" - to quote the strapline of Leicester Secular Society. http://www.lsec.org.uk

Christians are welcome to proclaim the message at the clock tower or other public space. What they are not entitled to are privileges that are not granted to other organisations.

SAW: "If Christianity was driven out of all schools, public meetings, state and public ceremonies it would not result in a religion-free society, it would create a void for one of the other faiths to fill."

No one is suggesting a religion-free society. To quote from the report:

"In such a society all:

• feel a positive part of an ongoing national story – what it means to be British is not fixed and final, for people in the past understood the concept differently from the way it is seen today and all must be able to participate in shaping its meaning for the future

• are treated with equal respect and concern by the law, the state and public authorities

• know that their culture, religion and beliefs are embraced as part of a continuing process of
mutual enrichment, and that their contributions to the texture of the nation’s common life are valued

• are free to express and practise their beliefs, religious or otherwise, providing they do not
constrict the rights and freedoms of others"

SAW: "I cannot say all Christians have been good but one thing I am sure of is a future England without the moral guidance, ethical voice, advocacy for the powerless and sanctuary of peace and calm the Christian church provides would increase the probability our children being subjects on an island where materialism, self interest and moral bankruptcy was the norm."

Not sure where this idea comes from. If you look around the world the most civilised societies such as Norway, Sweden, the Netherland and Japan have the lowest levels of religious belief. See http://moses.creighton.edu/JRS/2005/2005-11.pdf and http://infidels.org/library/modern/nontheism/atheism/more-moral.html .

I may be a mere Humanist, but isn't the ninth commandment "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour"?