30 December 2006

What Powers the Zeitgeist?

In chapter 7 of The God Delusion Richard Dawkins considers "the changing moral Zeitgeist". He maintains: "...there is a consensus about what we do as a matter of fact consider right and wrong: a consensus that prevails surprisingly widely. ... With notable exceptions ... most people pay lip service to the same broad liberal consensus of ethical principles." He calls this "somewhat mysterious consensus" the Zeitgeist.

However, after considering examples of changes in the Zeitgeist, such as attitudes to racism, sexual mores, votes for women, and so on, he says: "Where, then, have these concerted and steady changes in social consciousness come from? The onus is not on me to answer. For my purposes it is sufficient that they certainly have not come from religion." He then conjectures briefly about "changing meme frequencies" and "the driving role of individual leaders", but concludes: "It is beyond my amateur psychology and sociology to go any further ..."

This is a pity, but one can perhaps understand that he does not want to intrude onto the territory of other scientists. However, the rest of us are free to speculate.

When I first read these passages I felt somewhat offended, as a member of a long-established Secular organisation, and familiar with the struggles of our own and sister organisations, at the failure to give due recognistion to the efforts of all the many progressive campaigners who in my view were the primary, concrete causes of improvements in society. From Tom Paine and the campaigns for the Rights of Man (and of Woman), through the campaigners for free speech, for proper parliamentary representation, for wider availability of education and so on and on. The Zeitgeist does not just move on of its own accord. It is the cooperative work of thousands.

Besides these concrete causes there is also the abstract cause, which is reason, science, logic, enlightenment, the advancement of knowledge. In short the gradual triumph of the rational over the irrational.

12 December 2006

Moving On - A Christmas Address

The following is an account of a Christmas Address at the Gilroes Memorial Service given by our member Eleanor Davidson who is a Humanist Celebrant.

The Memorial Service happens each year, in memory of those who have died. It's in the form of a carol concert with addresses and bible readings by clergy. This year there were five Christian clergy taking part plus Eleanor as Humanist Celebrant. Eleanor's address was totally different to the other messages! Mince pies
and refreshments were available. There were Christmas trees on which to hang a message for a deceased loved one, and donations were to Rainbow's Children's Hospice.

Moving On

It was deep in December. The blue-black sky hung low, laden with silent, twinkling diamonds and the far-off slither of moon shone coldly down upon the young family’s exhausted footsteps as they trudged despairingly through that crisp and even blanket of frosted ground.

The man pulled up the grubby collar of his inadequate jacket and his young wife wrapped the knitted shawl more tightly across her swollen belly as the first virginal snowflakes began to dance around the couple’s undernourished shoulders.

Mary knew she couldn’t hold on much longer. It was nearly midnight on the 24th December and the baby was almost ready to make his appearance in the world. They reached their rusting white van and Joe gently helped his young wife back inside. The van’s cold, plastic covered seats received their exhausted bodies and, instead of the nervous excitement they should have been experiencing on the advent of their first-born, they were crippled by anxiety.

That afternoon they had parked-up their van and trailer in a remote lay-by; Joe’s parents set up camp behind them – his mother and sisters eager to prepare Mary for the birth.

The kettles were boiling, the girls singing, Joe’s mother Anne was busily giving the bedroom one last clean whilst her son sat carving wooden farmyard animals for the new arrival. Suddenly they all froze as a loud rapping on the trailer door shattered the domestic scene. The door was flung unceremoniously open by the uniformed intruder. ‘You can’t stop here!’ the policeman shouted. ‘But it’s Christmas,’ retorted Joe’s father ‘what about the season of goodwill?’ Anne approached the policeman and begged him to let them stay ‘Our first grandson is due at any moment.’ ‘Well,’ replied the authority ‘he’d better get born in some place else. Move on. Go. Shift.’

They moved on for miles until eventually, just as dusk was falling, they reached an idle building site, its ground rutted and stiffly unwelcoming. There was no sign of human activity – it was obvious that work would not start here until Spring softened the earth.

The family started to settle in, they lit a small fire to ease the pain of that December wind that howls through the heart of you. Then the sweet smile on Mary’s gentle face petrified as she looked up from the dancing flames at the well-rounded man who now stood in front of her. His leather-gloved hand reached into the warmth of his thick woollen coat and he waved a piece of paper at her. ‘I’m from the Parish Council,’ he began pompously ‘and we don’t want your sort here. You’ll lower the price of property in our village. Move on, 250 yards into the next field. That’s beyond our boundary, then we’ll have no obligation to provide for you. Move on! Shift!’

And so now, just before midnight they climbed back into their Transits. ‘Look, Mary!’ said Joe ‘We’ll follow that bright star, just like in the Christmas story.’ Mary nodded softly, just desperate to lie down in peace and bring her son into the world.

The star led them to a field, just off a dual carriageway. They parked at the back of a blackthorn hedge. The boy child’s first cry as he greeted the world was softened by the now thickly falling snow. Inquisitive cattle in the field ambled over, their heads held low against the cold. An idyllic scene; until one light shone brighter even than the Evening Star. The farmer, flanked by two heavies held his torch against the trailer window. These were no eastern kings bearing gifts for the newborn babe, instead the order was to shift. Go! Move on!

And so the child’s life commences, already marked by racism and prejudice.


It is asserted that in today’s society there is no place for racism. Over the last few decades huge strides have been taken to stamp out such discrimination.

But these attitudes are very much alive and unquestioningly accepted by the wider community when it comes to feelings about gypsy and traveller people and the homeless. Astonishingly, even their children are subjected to this incredible abuse.

We know little about their culture and our ignorance produces our fear and prejudice. These children subjected to discrimination and stress find themselves marginalised and their general health and wellbeing is seriously affected. It isn’t surprising that they grow up distrustful and wary of authority – inclined to follow their own rules.

Surely, a child is a child is a child… We should question ourselves when we use terms such as a gypsy or traveller children – they are simply children.


Maria Montessori famously stated:

A child is the only point on which there converges from everyone a feeling of love and gentleness. People’s souls soften and sweeten when one speaks of children. The whole of mankind shares in the deep emotions which they awaken. The child is a well-spring of love.

The happiness and wellbeing or pain and misery of any child should affect each one of us as if it were our own flesh and blood. Children are our future.

The children of gypsies and travellers are victimised and bullied at school. Although many of them attend school and college, and a growing proportion are going on to university degrees, too high a percentage are dropping out of education because of the intolerance of the wider community.

This poem [slightly adapted by Eleanor] written by Hope Gaskin, a young girl who has experienced the type of treatment children should never be exposed to – especially at school. It evokes the hurt and bewilderment facing these youngsters:

"Why do they hate me mum?
What have I done?
Nothing, my baby,
You've done nothing wrong.

Then why do they hate me?
And call me names?
Don't worry, my baby
Its their little games

I don't like their games, mum
I don't want to play
I know that baby,
But what can I say?

Keep me at home, mum,
Don't send me to school
I have to, my baby
Its one of their rules.

When will they stop, mum,
When will they like me?
When they open their hearts
And their minds, you'll be free.

Never, you mean mum
Yes, baby, that's right
Go to sleep now, my baby
Sweet dreams, and good night."


I leave you with words adapted from the educationalist Dorothy Law Nolte:

If children live with tolerance
they learn to be patient;
If they live with encouragement
they learn confidence;
If children live with praise
they learn to appreciate;
If they live with fairness
they learn judgement
If children live with acceptance and friendship
they learn to give love to the world.

Music: Enoch Kent and The Exiles – Moving On Song from Ewan MacColl’s Radio Ballad – The Travelling People. (For another extract see: Moving on track 17.

04 December 2006

Evolution of Religion?

It seems that the Darwinian language of the theory of evolution is beginning to percolate into the thinking of religious leaders. The Archbishop of Canterbury (21 November) gave a speech about 'Benedict [the original Saint, not the present Pope] and the Future of Europe' in which he said: "... there is undoubtedly a spectrum of understanding from the ideologically secular liberal through to the most inflexible Muslim primitivist ..." and he refers to "these diversities". Further: "To pursue the metaphor of an ecology for a moment, we are speaking of commitment to human and cultural ‘biodiversity’." And: "A modern or postmodern society is unlikely, for good or ill, to be overtly committed to a single ideology; ..."

In his 'Thought for the Day' on BBC Radio 4 this morning (4 December)
Clifford Longley
picked up on this in terms of the Pope's visit to Turkey, saying, of the Archbishop: "The variety of religious faith in human society was analogous to bio-diversity among living things, he argued. We don't necessarily understand how it works, but we mess with it at our peril. And biodiversity offers a rich treasure house of resources, if we only discover how to understand and use them. Above all biodiversity implies respect and care, not the wanton imposition of uniformity come what may. And the same is true of cultural and religious pluralism."
Longley argues: "religion itself might yet have the answer to the problem that religion so starkly presents. That problem, in a nutshell, is the notion of a clash of civilisations."

The fact that religions evolve was evident in the testimony of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his interview with John 'Humphrys in Search of God' (14 November) who put forward the picture of God having 'evolved' from the fierce and fearsome Yahweh, smiter of nations and performer of miracles, via the Abraham and Isaac sacrifice story "... the revolutionary moment at which God says I do not demand human sacrifices, I am not the god of the Greeks, of the Romans, of the Aztecs, I am the god that holds that life is holy, you must learn to cherish your children." Until, in modern times "... we do not live in the age of God the strategic intervener."

A student Meg Folcarelli (2004) asks: "Will religions disappear leaving only the materials and traditions as Dennett seems to suggest they will, or will they evolve, and change to meet our modern world." and the quotes Karen Armstrong's 'History of God': "for 4,000 years it [the idea of God] has constantly adapted to meet the demands of the present, but in our own century, more and more people have found that it no longer works for them, and when religious ideas cease to be effective they fade away".

A biologist Ben Cullen in an article on 'Parasite Ecology and the Evolution of Religion' (1995?) wrote: "Many religions are being vertically transmitted or family dependent, and we would therefore expect them to evolve toward symbiosis or at least benignness. As Dawkins has remarked, it is an extraordinary fact that if we adhere to a faith at all, it is overwhelmingly likely to be the same as that of our parents. This simple fact ought to ensure that if a religion which followed this pattern of transmission ruthlessly exploited its congregation, it would eventually plunge both itself and its people into extinction."

In a video interview with Robert Wright the theologian Keith Ward considers that the evolution of religion is "toward inwardness and self-transformation" (but somehow considers Hindus to be monotheists!).

Even Islam is said to be evolving, in Morocco.

Whether religion may have some evolutionary advantage over science is considered by Adrian Barnett (1999): "I read once that you need to study maths for about fifteen years before you can really get to grips with quantum mechanics. Who has the time for that, when crops have to be harvested? When physicists start talking about ten-dimensional vibrating strings and membranes, virtual particles and entangled photons, 'God did it' is so much easier for the majority of people to deal with."

The Bahai Faith thinks it has the problem licked already: "In reality, there is only one religion, the religion of God. This one religion is continually evolving, and each particular religious system represents a stage in the evolution of the whole. The Bahá'í Faith represents the current stage in the evolution of religion."

Another religion that claims the future is The Church of Reality, which "is an Open Source Religion" with "an evolving doctrine" that "may well be the next stage in the evolution of religion."

All this is being thrashed out, the IHEU reports, at a 'Workshop on the Future of Religion and Humanism' to be held following an International Conference on the Evolution of Religion at the Makaha Resort, near Honolulu, Hawaii on Wednesday, 10 January, 2007.

Finally, I note that the idea is not new. The Positivist Frederic Harrison wrote a book on 'Positive Evolution of Religion' as long ago as 1913.

29 November 2006

Iona Community and Thought for the Day

Our member Frank Friedmann was impressed by the Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4 for 1st November, given by John Bell of the Iona Community. The 'Thought' was about the inequity of green taxes, though it did not spell out how 'rationing' or 'limits' on consumption of petrol and alcohol might be implemented in practice.

This led Frank to write to the Iona Community, which is an ecumenical group, for their views on humanism.

Frank wrote: The substance of John Bell's 'Thought for the day' (BBC Radio4 1/11/06) made a lot of sense to me, an atheist, and I suspect that most fellow members of Leicester Secular Society (not all of whom are atheists) would agree with much of it. I also respect that John, unlike other TFTD speakers, does not 'have a go' at secularism which is denied a platform on the programme. In fact I was so impressed with the humanity of John's talk that I would like to understand better what you are about. I wonder if you would mind responding to a few questions?

He received the following replies from Kathy Galloway, the Leader of the Iona Community.

I'm glad you liked John's Thought for the Day. I'll try to answer your questions below. I'm also attaching a statement by the Council of the Community on our spirituality and practice, which hopefully will answer your questions in a bit more detail. I don't always find common parlance language very helpful. I consider myself, for example, to be a secular Christian and a humanist, influenced by the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I find the constant vicious sniping of some Christian and atheist commentators (and some of these are extraordinarily disrespectful and uninformed; I am sure you will know the frustration of being condemned for beliefs that you don't actually hold) at each other unhelpful at best and intellectually dishonest at worst, since I think we share a very large degree of common ground. The convictions of the Iona Community place an emphasis on searching out common ground, and considering how best to live respectfully with difference (since if we can't do that, we are all lost anyway!)

Does the Iona community have a policy of respect for those who have high moral standards but base this on their humanity rather than their religion? We have a policy of respect for everyone, regardless of their religion or beliefs or nationality, etc. Naturally we recognise that high moral standards are found among people of all religious beliefs and none. In your website you stress your ecumenical emphasis and Inter-religious relations. Do you also foster relations with atheists, secularists, humanists (or whatever you may want to call us)?

We work in partnership with, and are affiliated to many non-religious and humanist organisations as well as religious ones; usually in connection with our justice and peace commitment. These would include such groups as CND, Stop the War Coalition, Action for Southern Africa, UNA, WDM, Scottish Civic Forum, Poverty Alliance, Scottish Palestinian Forum, Positive Action in Housing, etc.

Finally, secular viewpoints are excluded from many forums where it is assumed that only the religious have anything worthwhile to say - such as TFTD and Chaplaincy teams in hospitals, universities, prisons, etc. Would you support the participation of non-religious people in these areas?

I personally don't see any reason why humanists should not be able to have a 'Thought for the Day' (though we have not discussed this, so it couldn't be said to be Iona Community policy!) A chaplaincy role is essentially a pastoral one-if people in hospitals, etc, request the pastoral and spiritual support of non-religious organisations, and qualified people are available, then I see no reason why this should not also be available. I guess that some people might feel that the non-religious counselling and support services that are already available in hospitals, prisons, universities, etc, already serve that function, so this would depend on being able to present humanism as a positive additional value (which I actually believe it is).

Please note that I am writing personally, not as a spokesperson for the Society, but if you are agreeable I would like to share your response with others possibly via our unofficial blog.

I'm also writing personally, apart from those views contained in the attached statement. I'm happy to have my response shared.

Frank comments: It occurred to me that attacking the BBC over its policy of not allowing atheist, rationalist or freethinker speakers on Thought for the Day has proved fruitless, but I dare say quite a few of the religious speakers might, like Kathryn Galloway here, support an end to the religious exclusivity in the programme.

21 November 2006

An Open Letter to Theos

No, I'm not writing to God, just to those who consider themselves his representatives on Earth, namely the organisers of the new "think-tank"
Theos. According to their FAQs they represent both protestants and catholics, both evangelicals and liberals, which seems to me to be an impossible task. Their formation has apparently been stimulated in response to the recent upsurge of anti-theist books, in particular those by Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. At any rate their first Debate is about "The God Delusion". I wrote to them as follows:

Dear Theos organisers,

You don't seem to have given any indication of what subjects you will be debating in future after the current one on "The God Delusion". Nor do you seem to make clear anywhere what line you will take on many controversial issues.

May I ask you pencil in somewhere the following important issues for debate: 1. creationism and evolution; 2. the rights of women; 3. homosexual love. I could list others but these come to mind as probably the three most in need of elucidation.

Since you claim to represent both catholocs and protestants, evangelicals and liberals (if that is the correct term rather than 'mainstream') I find it difficult to see how you can have any consistent views on these issues without alienating a large fraction of your constituency.

Yours sincerely

George Jelliss

(member of Leicester Secular Society)

It seems to me that all they can do is to open up debates on these subjects and let people express their views, but I can't see how they can arrive at any consensus without forsaking part of their supposed constituency.

17 November 2006

Secularism, Capitalism and Socialism

Some of our members have been arguing about the political implications of Secularism. Specifically, whether it leans more towards socialist ideals than capitalist free competition. There's a highly optimistic piece in the latest New Scientist (18 November issue) which may help to resolve the argument.

The article, by Geoffrey Miller, is one of a number of short articles by scientists who have been asked to forecast the next 50 years. Some of the other articles also relate to evolutionary psychology.

Applied evolutionary psychology should revolutionise life in three ways by 2056. First, Darwinian critiques of runaway consumer capitalism should undermine the social and sexual appeal of conspicuous consumption. Absurdly wasteful display will become less popular once people comprehend its origins in sexual selection, and its pathetic unreliability as a signal of individual merit or virtue.

Second, studies of human happiness informed by evolution will reveal ever more clearly the importance of "social capital" - neighbourliness, close-knit communities, local family support, and integration between kids, adults and the elderly. This will, I hope, lead to revolutionary changes in urban planning, leading to a New Urbanist revival of mixed-use landscapes. Enlightened citizens will demand to live in village-type spaces rather than alienating suburbs of single-family isolation and unbearable commutes.

Third, evolutionary moral psychology will reveal the social conditions under which human moral virtues flourish. The US will follow the UK in realising that religion is not a prerequisite for ordinary human decency. Thus, science will kill religion - not by reason challenging faith, but by offering a more practical, universal and rewarding moral framework for human interaction. A naturalistic moral philosophy will replace the rotting fictions of theological ethics. In these three ways, applied evolutionary psychology will help Enlightenment humanism fulfil its long-stalled potential to make us all brighter, wiser, happier and kinder.

These ideas follow on from two recent posts here about ethics and mind. I see that Richard Dawkins is among the panel next Thursday on Melvin Bragg's "In Our Time" programme (Radio 4) where the subject is "Altruism".

12 November 2006

Remembrance Without Religion

I've been thinking, along with the
daylight atheist what would replace religion if atheists ever manage to get rid of it? These thoughts came to me after watching (on television) the remembrance day ceremonies at the cenotaph this morning and in the Albert Hall yesterday evening. It occurred to me that these ceremonies are essentially secular. It is only when the bishops come out to say their little piece, and in the wording of some of the hymns and verses, that the supernatural or theological comes into the picture.

The remembrance day ceremonies essentially provide encouragement for people whose lives are bound up in service to the state, as represented by the monarchy, or to society. That is service to all of us in providing protection, safety, security so that we can carry on our peaceful secular activities. The ceremonies provide assurance that lives lost in this dangerous work are appreciated by society as a whole, and also that the authorities deserve continued service.

It seems to me that very little value would be lost from these ceremonies if the religious aspects were removed. We are adult enough to know that the dead live on only in our remembrance, and don't need fairytales of an afterlife in a heaven.

31 October 2006

Towards a Science of Ethics

This post was stimulated by an email from Ollie Killngback:

I'm away on holiday in Texas at the moment ... From my privileged position on the buckle of the Bible Belt (Irving Texas, where I am in order to watch a crucial game for the Cowboys on Monday night) I found the following item in the Dallas Morning News which I thought might be of interest to students of Christian ethics ...

It's from the 2006 Josephson Institute Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth. 94% of teens surveyed said "trust and honesty are essential" in the workplace. 89% said "being a good person is more important than getting rich." However, 59% overall and almost 66.67% of boys said that, in business, successful people have to do whatever they can to get ahead, even if that means cheating.

Somehow I can't make the sums add up.

My response to this was:

Surely the explanation is obvious. When they answered the first two questions they were practising the ethics they advocate in the other answer!

Here's a link to the Josephson Institute report.

Coincidentally I've been reading George H. Smith Atheism: The Case Against God (which is in our LSS Library). It has a short section on ethics. He writes: "I shall defend the thesis that ethics, while a branch of philosophy, is also a kind of science, specifically, the science of human values."

He bases his approach on that of Ayn Rand in her 'Objectivist' writings, quoting her as saying: "The first question is not: What particular code of values should man accept? The first question is: Does man need values at all - and why?" also: "It is only the concept of Life that makes the concept of Value possible. It is only to a living entity that things can be good or bad."

Many philosophers (for example the early 20th century logical positivists) have denied any meaning to value judgments, other than expressing personal opinions. However, Smith points out that many sciences other than ethics employ 'ought' judgments, medicine and architecture for example. He distinguishes between descriptive sciences which are concerned with "pure" facts and theories and normative sciences which "are concerned with those facts and theories as they apply to human goals.

An example of a normative judgment is: 'A doctor ought to do X if he wants to cure his patient.' A few quotes: A normative science is only as good as the facts on which it rests. Ethics deals with the facts of value as they apply to human action and the achievement of human goals. A rational morality is based on standards; a religious morality on rules. In rational morality there can be no 'ought' divorced from purpose. Ethics enables man to project the long-range consequences of his actions, and to evaluate the desirability of specific actions in terms of their effect on long-range goals.

[This is topical in view of the current fever of activity over the politics of global warming and climate change: definitely a long-term problem.]

To continue: "... a valid science of human values must be rooted in the nature of man as a biological and psychological organism." What conclusions the science of ethics comes to must thus depend on what are the true facts of human psychology. To this end he often quotes another follower of Ayn Rand (who fell out with her however): Nathaniel Branden: The Psychology of Self-Esteem. However in Psychology Today's Loose-screw awards his ideas are classed as "the most over-rated". However he is also listed among those influential in the development of Cognitive Psychology, which seems to be the modern most scientific approach.

25 October 2006

The War of Faith and Reason

There is a rule on internet discussion boards, sometimes called Godwin's Law, that the argument has irretrievably broken down once an analogy with the second world war is brought in, as signalled usually by the name of Hitler. This has now happened in the arguments against creationism and religion.

The philosopher Michael Ruse seems to have been the one to first bring in the analogy, but it has been amplified by Richard Dawkins in his new book The God Delusion, where he accuses those evolutionists who wish to concentrate their attack on the creationists as being of the "Chamberlain School", whereas those who think that this is only a battle and the real war is the much wider one between reason and superstition constitute the "Churchill School". He doesn't actually use the name of Churchill in this way in his book but he does do so in his blog on the huffington post. I fear this is a strategic mistake.

Analogy is a dangerous method of reasoning. It is favoured in Islamic Law for a start! It is a form of rhetoric, and it is seldom scientific. Ruse's original ruse was to compare the non-creationist religionists with communists, with the idea that we need to have an alliance with them against the creationist "nazis". This is a plausible analogy, but Dawkins' version of it just doesn't work. Chamberlain tried to appease the nazis, not the communists. The real Churchillian strategy is war against the fundamentalists and cold war against religion.

The fight against creationism in the science classroom is a fight on an extremely narrow front. The creationists at "Lies in Pseudoscience" are analogous to shock troops. The religious "nasties" come from a much wider constituency. For instance those opposed to stem cell research, or to the use of condoms against the spread of AIDs, or to abortion on any grounds, are not just evangelicals, but include many mainstream religionists.

The BCSE (British Centre for Science Education) is trying to concentrate on the battle against creationists, specificaly in the science classroom. In so doing their policy is to try to keep the ordinary christians on-side by deliberately avoiding arguments with them (for instance, arguments that "faith is contrary to reason" - I've had a message on that deleted from their discussion forum).

There are indeed prominent anti-creationists who are religious believers, notably Kenneth Miller who was one of the principal witnesses (for the evolutionists) at the Dover trial.

Miller's view of God is not very clear to me (or to him it seems), but in the
concluding section of his book Darwin's God (this section is available on
his website) he writes: "As more than one scientist has said, the truly remarkable thing about the world is that it actually does make sense. The parts fit, the molecules interact, the darn thing works. To people of faith, what evolution says is that nature is complete. Their God fashioned a material world in which truly free and independent beings could evolve. He got it right the very first time."

This is a version of the anthropic argument: that the design parameters of the
universe seem to have been set so that human beings could evolve. Dawkins follows the Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, and others in accepting the "multiple universes" explanation of the anthropic principle, though many rationalists (myself included) would say that this is just as bad as the theological explanation, since it badly violates Ockham's Razor (especially if there are an infinity of universes!). I prefer to think that the universe is the way it is either because that is the
only way it can be, or because it has evolved to be that way, as Lee Smolin
plausibly conjectured in The Life of the Cosmos.

I find it difficult to understand how an evolutionist like Miller can retain belief in a god of this type, who must have been a complex entity to have conceived the creation, so where did this god come from in the first place? Was it the product of an earlier evolution? And is it still about, to interfere in the progress of its creation? Miller doesn't say what he believes in this regard.

Miller defines God vaguely as "truth, love and knowledge" (how can abstract qualities like this be a creator?) and says that "True knowledge comes only from a combination of faith and reason." He says that "What science cannot do is assign either meaning or purpose to the world it explores." Implying that "faith" can do so. "In biological terms, evolution is the only way a Creator could have made us the creatures we are - free beings in a world of authentic and meaningful moral and spiritual choices" and: "Evolution explains our biology, but it does not tell us what is good, or right, or moral." This is what he sees "faith" as telling us.

But none of this explains what exactly "faith" is and why it should be any better in finding purpose and moral guidance in life and the universe than reason does. It is important for the "moderate religionists", like Miller, and like Michael Roberts and others at Ekklesia for instance, to explain how they reconcile faith and reason, as they claim to be able to do, and not just avoid the argument.

This is the challenge for the future of religious or spiritual belief. It must make its peace with science and reason. If there is genuine meaningful content in religion (and I'm sure there is) it must be put onto a rational foundation, and not separate itself off from reason behind the "nomic" wall of non-overlapping magisteria. Perhaps the true religion is the science of love.

19 October 2006

Pale Blue Dot from Beyond Saturn

Our member Ollie Killngback sends the following great contribution:

This link is to a photograph taken recently by the Cassini spacecraft currently orbiting Saturn. It's amazingly lit, as the Sun is hidden by the giant planet but it's rings catch the light.

Just above the main rings to the left there is a single light dot, just a pixel or two on your screen. Everything that has ever happened to the human race happened on that dot. It's Earth.

This perspective is the kind of thing that makes it impossible for me both to do anything but marvel at the wonder of the Universe, and also to be incredulous that anyone can think that anything that happens on that dot matters. From this view of our planet the idea that what we wear (as some religions think) or what we eat (as some others do) or how we copulate (as some others do) is of any importance to anyone except the persons involved is patently ridiculous. That we have ostracised, imprisoned, tortured and even killed people (in great numbers) on behalf of such beliefs (and look like continuing to do so for decades to come) is obscene.

Ollie K

06 October 2006


Two recent news items have triggered off some slight thoughts on psychology.

First there was Dr Bruce Hood, of the University of Bristol, speaking at the
British Association festival in Norwich, who challenged the assumption that belief in the supernatural was spread by religions in gullible minds. "Rather, religions may simply capitalise on a natural bias to assume the existence of supernatural forces" he said. "It is pointless trying to get people to abandon their belief systems because they operate at such a fundamental level that no amount of rational evidence or counter evidence is going to be taken on board to get people to abandon these ideas."

The story was reported as "religion will never die" in both the
Telegraph and the Times.

On his claim that people "recoil from artefacts linked to evil as if they are pervaded by a physical essence", it seems to me that this is a projection of his own received religious thinking. I say that the old idea of "association of ideas" is an adequate explanation, and the recoil a rational one, since it helps to keep ideas in our minds apart, distinct, and in useful order.

Second there was Richard Dawkins's interview with Jeremy Paxman in which he expressed his bafflement at how some scientists could be christian believers. He thought they must somehow be able to keep their science and religion in different compartments.

I wonder instead if the problem is that they do not keep their science and religion in different compartments. Many religious thinkers, and some secular ones, place a lot of emphasis on "integrity" or "integration" or "oneness" or "wholeness" and so on. But logical thinking depends on splitting things up into clearly separate parts. One result of this desire for "unity" is the profusion of paradoxical statements that issue from the mouths of mystics. One classic is the Zen notion of "the sound of one hand clapping".

Mary Midgley in a review in the New Scientist of Dawkins' new book The God Delusion cites the scientist Freeman Dyson describing himself as "one of the multitude of Christians who do not care much for the doctrine of the Trinity or the historical truth of the gospels". But what then is a "Christian"? The term becomes meaningless. She says, referring also to statements by Einstein: "Dawkins declares flatly that they cannot mean what they say." I think they do mean what they say, but it has no meaning, it just expresses a euphoric feeling of paradoxical oneness.

Stephen J. Gould famously advocated that religion and science are "non-overlapping magisteria" (NOMA). But this would considerably reduce the scope of religion by barring it from many areas in which it traditionally treads. And future scientific developments, for instance in neuroscience, are likely to delimit its domain much further. It is in any case unclear where the boundaries between religion, ethics and philosophy lie. Much that used to be the domain of philosophy is now science.

23 September 2006

Lying for the Cause

A common theme can be detected in a number of recent headline stories. The willingness of people to lie to protect or promote the causes with which they are identified, disregarding the over-riding categorical imperative of the objective truth. There is also a welcome trend, exemplified by the Office of National Statistics, the Royal Society, and Richard Dawkins, for the guardians of truth to begin biting back at the purveyors of untruth and unreason. Let us hope that this is not just a few isolated instances but the start of a sustained campaign.

We are familiar with the spin put on things by politicians. Tony Blair (known to many as Bliar for his far worse
past porkies) jumped the gun on the employment statistics. He forecast that the figures would show a 'very welcome' fall in the number of people claiming unemployment benefit. The figures, showed that unemployment rose to 1.7 million in three months. He was properly slapped down by his own statisticians. His counterpart in Hungary actually admitted to outright lying to win his last election, and sparked outraged riots.

We are also familiar with the way that spokespersons for large companies are willing to bend the truth for the sake of retaining their well-paid jobs. Even that quiet corner of the establishment, The Royal Society, has been sufficiently outraged to issue a complaint to Exxon-Mobil to stop its funding of climate change denial.

The Iranian President Ahmadinejad has again denied the Holocaust. Representatives of the Vatican have been propagating lies about Aids. Of course the religions are past-masters of lying for God, and lying for Allah.

The creationists are especially accomplished at lying for Jesus. They even have the effrontery to set up a site with the title Truth in Science!

Richard Dawkins in his interview with the Paxman on Newsnight last night (22nd September) about his new book The God Delusion, spoke of his devotion to truth, by which of course he meant not his personal views but objective scientific truth obtained by examining the evidence and applying unbiased logical reasoning and scientific method.

He has now set up the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. In his introductory video he says: "The enlightenment is under threat. So is reason. So is truth. So is science, especially in the schools of America. I am one of those scientists who feels that it is no longer enough just to get on and do science. We have to devote a significant proportion of our time and resources to defending it from deliberate attack from organized ignorance. We even have to go out on the attack ourselves, for the sake of reason and sanity."

Secularism and Science are fortuunately causes in which no lying is called for, in fact quite the opposite, devotion to the truth.

15 September 2006

Cricket & Religion

The day after our Open Day, 11th September, was of course the fifth anniversary of the hijacking of the planes that were flown into the World Trade Center 'twin towers'. This anniversary was marked in Leicester, rather oddly, by a cricket match played between the local Clergy and Imams.

As reported in the Leicester Mercury, the Imams won.

The Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Rev Tim Stevens, who was seventh into
bat for the clergy said: "The great thing is that this game of cricket is building
friendships. It's so important to understanding between the faiths." From which it would seem that the secular pursuit of cricket has a unifying ability that helps to counter the divisiveness of religions.

There are some indeed, like Mohammad Ali Syed who see cricket as a form of religion. Another writer who has faith in cricket says: "To my mind, the beauty of cricket was that it was its own religion." Another commentator, in troutmag sagely observes: "It is safe to assume that without the improving influence of cricket, the Church of England would long ago have ceased to exist."

On a less frivolous note it occurred to me to wonder, as others have before, how far the decision to invade Afghanistan was affected by the spectacular nature of the collapse of the buildings, and consequent loss of life. What if they had been strong enough to withstand the impacts? Of course there were other terrorist attacks around the world, but it is natural to wonder how far our human decision making is dependent on reaction to emotive symbolism, rather than on considered reasoning.

Very often we have to wait for disasters to occur before any action is taken, even though experts warn long in advance that something needs to be done. The current under-reported situation in Darfur is a case of this kind. It seems that continued reports of inhumanity, attrition and claims of genocide are not sufficently spectacular to motivate the international community to action. It must also be said that the history behind it all is, as usual, complicated.

06 September 2006

Secular Hall Open Day

Allan Hayes has had the following article about Secular Hall published in the Leicester Mercury on 5th September.

This year is the 155th anniversary of a Leicester organisation that has done perhaps more than any other in the city to create a society in which all can live together as full members without discrimination by race, belief or social status. Without its work and that of similar groups across the country, we would today be a less tolerant society, less welcoming of newcomers and less able to live together as equals.

When Leicester Secular Society was founded in 1851, few men - and no women - had the vote.

Those who did not belong to the established church suffered serious discrimination, people were sent to prison for criticising Christianity, elected MPs could not take their seats without swearing a religious oath, tithes still had to be paid to the church and contraception was not openly available.

The society fought to address these inequities, and, on the whole, succeeded.

People are now much more accepted, and participate more as fellow human beings whatever their social status or beliefs, and the open debate essential to a democratic society is less impaired.

In 1881, the society completed its present home, the Secular Hall, in Humberstone Gate. This is now a recognised national heritage asset, a grade II listed building and home of the oldest secular society in the world (a Leicester first).

It is a lively community asset, providing for a dance school, martial arts academy and bookshop, and is a central meeting place for numerous organisations.

The principles of the society are as important now as in 1851. It promotes them with debates and lectures by leading local and national figures on a wide range of topics, by the work of individual members in youth activities, religious education, conflict resolution and other areas, and by providing non-religious ceremonies for weddings, births and funerals. A recent first in the country has been the appointment of one of our members to the Hospital Chaplaincy team.

Social responsibility, dialogue and robust argument have always characterised the society's activities. Currently, we are engaged in opposing faith schools and creationism at the same time as organising a series of meetings with a Christian group, and developing contacts with other faiths.

The society is working hard to bring the hall's facilities up to modern standards. A study has estimated that this will cost about £2 million. We are seeking financial support and have been greatly encouraged by the appreciation shown of the importance of the building and the society.

You can see for yourself by coming to our open day at 75 Humberstone Gate, Leicester, LE1 1WB this Sunday, from 10am to 6pm, followed at 6.30pm by a talk about the building's architect.

26 August 2006

Creationism and Evolution in Leicester again

Ken Ham of "Answers in Genesis" is in Leicester again on 1st September, at the Students Union building on Leicester University campus. While the creationists should be allowed free speech, they could easily hire a church hall or leisure centre (as they did last year). By allowing such an anti-science event on the University site it seems to me the LUSU is undermining the University's educational and scientific reputation. At the same time it allows the creationists and IDers to use the University's name to add weight to their claims to be scientific.

Some members of Leicester Secular Society, I should add, don't agree with me on this, but say we are committed to freedom of religious worship and to free speech, so long as we get to put the other side of the story. And we are getting to put the other side in a constructive way, as in conjunction with Leicester University, we will be welcoming the geneticist Professor Steve Jones, on 7th November. The title of his talk will be the same as that he presented to the Royal Society earlier this year: Why Creationism is Wrong and Evolution is Right.

The need for continued vigilance against the encroachment of creationist ignorance is emphasised by an Opinionpanel Research survey conducted in July this year which found that more than 30% of UK university students believe in creationism or intelligent design. This is the starting point of an article by A.C.Grayling in the Guardian: Reason Lost, which has atracted extensive comments.

I quote a comment (though I know some of our members will also disgree with this) by Laurence Boyce: "... I think that the problem lies firmly with 'faith,' and with our beloved religious leaders who habitually pollute our rational discourse with their unjustifiable demand that we should 'respect' their ridiculous, contradictory, and unfalsifiable belief systems. The creationists are right! The entire basis of Christian theology - the fall and the redemption - simply gets blown away by Darwinism. Viewed in this light, nice mainstream 'moderate' religion is merely the blood supply feeding the cancer of so-called religious extremism.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the world creationists continue their little encroachments on the road to a new dark age:

The NY Times reports that evolutionary biology has vanished from the list of acceptable fields of study for recipients of a federal education grant.

Christians in Kenya are pressurising the country’s national museum to hide their world famous collection of hominid bones that provide evidence of human evolution. Bishop Adoyo said all Kenya’s churches would join the campaign to force the museum to change its focus when it re-opens after refurbishment next year.

Finally, the Pope has retired his official astronomer, Father George Coyne, after a series of public clashes with other cardinals over the theory of evolution. The NSS points out that this comes only weeks before the Vatican hosts a seminar to examine the impact of Darwin’s theory on the Church’s teaching of Creation.

On the positive side: It is reported that geneticists have identified the brain genes that gave us chumps a head start on the chimps.

19 August 2006

LSS Website Redesigned

The absence of activity on this blog is partly due to the traditional inactivity at this time of the year, but mainly because I've been busy with redesigning the Leicester Secular Society website. This was partly prompted by a half-day course I was persuaded to attend about accessibility of websites to disabled users, run by something called the ICT Hub. This led me to think about using "cascading style sheets" (CSS), well one style sheet anyway, and to avoid using the html "tables" facility to structure the layout. The result is a more consistent appearance of the pages, and I hope a better colour scheme that is easier on the eyes, and more readable.

The site is now, apart from the section on Islam which needs updating, completely in the new style. The main changes that will be noticed are that there is no longer a single "sitemap", instead access to the pages is via the green buttons on the left of the home page which lead to partial sitemaps covering narrower subject areas, principally Secularism, History, Science and Religion.

I've taken the opportunity to add some new content. In particular in the biographical section material from Sydney Gimson's Random Recollections of Leicester Secular Society written in 1932 have been added to the pages on Gimson, Morris, Holyoake, Foote, and others (and there is much more to be added in due course). His memoir helps to update the history of the Society for the prewar years (he died in 1938). We are lacking in records for the postwar period, when the Society seems to have suffered a decline, though this may only be apparent due to lack of detail. If anyone has knowledge or recollections of that period I would be glad of information.

Another item to draw attention to are the plans for regeneration of the Hall (accessed at the bottom of the page on development plans). Keith Baker, who is on the "Vision" subcommittee, has been able to provide images of the floor plans of the building, showing the renovations proposed, such as a lift, a glassing over of the atrium and a conversion of the balcony in the ballroom to new rooms for use of the Society (if I've read the plans aright).

Don't forget our Open Day on the 10th of September.

29 July 2006

The Postmodern Vicar

On Thursday 20th we had a Vicar come to Secular Hall to speak on Faith, Fear and Fundamentalism. Tony Windross, Vicar of St Peter's Sheringham and author of The Thoughtful Guide to Faith. The following is a summary of some responses by people present at the meeting.

George Jelliss (editor of this blog) tried to make a few notes, but found it increasingly frustrating to understand anything the speaker was saying!

Mr Windross suggested that our LSS should stand for "Lifelong Seeking Significance". He spoke much about "religion" without defining what this meant, although it was in some way like art and literature and music and dealt with the most profound questions, though he didn't say what those were. According to him "truth" is the slippiest of all philosophical concepts. He seemed to distinguish between scientific and religious truth.

He seemed to think that religious truth was to be found in "christian stories", though when I asked him, after the meeting, if the story of "the fall" was one of these he said not. So which ones he decides to believe and which to reject and on what criteria I know not.

I also asked him what the last line of the blurb of his book meant: "... what we may or may not believe must never be allowed to get in the way of faith", which to me makes no sense. He responded that it meant one didn't have to believe in such things as the virgin birth to call yourself a christian and attend his church. (If I've got this all wrong perhaps he will enlighten us further, but it's not my understanding of "faith".) I ended up as one of those who received what he had to say with what he himself described as "puzzled bemusement".

Allan Hayes, who invited Mr Windross to speak to us writes: "The significance of Tony Windross, is that he is representative of many questioning C of E Vicars." In the discussion of the WWII holocaust he said, in effect, "that it was wrong because it was inhuman, not because God said it was wrong nor because of any other supernatural reason. This is the secular/humanist position."

Allan maintains: "We need to engage with people who are searching and put forward our own contributions." He cites: Richard Holloway, former Bishop of Edinburgh, in the preface to his book Looking in the Distance who says: "In short, there is a rich and diverse range of human spiritualities in the world, and countless people follow them without references to religion or any necessary sense of God. I have written this book for that great company, because I now find myself within it."

Allan also says: "Many of us will know personally clergymen who do not believe in God or life after death." He cites statistics from a 2002 Christian Research Survey: 18% of clergy do not believe 'without question' in God the Father, and 34% do not believe without question the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He also cites: Lloyd Geering author of Christianity without God, and the recent report: Making Sense of Generation Y: the world view of 15-25 year olds, by Sara Savage et al. In the foreword John Sentamu, Archbishop of York writes "The research described in this book suggests that young people are happy with life as it is, that they have no felt need for a 'transcendant something else', and that they regard the Church as boring and irrelevant."

Oliver Killingback, a non-member and former priest, wrote that he'd like to
take up some of Tony Windross's ideas with him. He writes:

"Tony conceded that he was using the 1662 liturgy as a form of mantra.
That's maybe alright for him, but I'd strongly suspect that others
present were using the words to mean what they think they mean, as a
confirmation and restatement of their beliefs about the world."

"For myself, when I was a priest I found the Eucharist deeply meaningful.
I have sought for and failed to find an adequate ritual ever since. But
I found that I could not keep saying, even as a mantra, words I believed
to be untrue. I'd love to know how he copes with that. If I wanted a
mantra I'd sooner use OM PANI MANI SUM (or whatever it is) which serves
the purpose while being, to me at least, meaningless. How do you say
the creed, and lead other people to say the creed knowing that at least
some of them take it at face value, when you consider yourself that the
plain meaning of the words is untrue?"

Oliver also points out that "... the Norwich Diocese web site ... has a 'What we believe' section. What the diocese to which he owes canonical obedience says it
believes is about as far as you can get from what Tony believes. He, as
a member of the clergy, is included in the diocesan 'We' - but he
repudiates it. As a member of the diocesan clergy he took certain oaths
which include references to mission. There is no doubt about what is
meant by the church by 'Preaching the Gospel'. He clearly cannot
fulfill the obligations the church believes he has accepted. Claiming
to do so by reinterpreting the oaths to suit himself (which may not be
what he is doing, but in that case, what is he doing?) is at least
casuistry of a poor kind and in my view it is dishonest. Anglicanism is
founded on beliefs, even if historically it has tolerated and embraced a
fairly wide range of beliefs. Tony's beliefs are not those the church
proclaims. I know I could not accept the church's pay in that
circumstance. It seemed to me to be dishonest. I'd like to know how he
deals with that."

"One member present objected quite strongly (I felt aggressively) to
Tony's offering. For myself I wondered what the real content and
purpose were. It is self-evident that thinking people are losing ground
to the thoughtless, and that something needs to be done about it. It
did not need a long lecture to show that, only a glance at the papers or
the Internet. Only this morning there was on the radio an item about
Texan believers ... trying to exercise influence over US policy towards Israel because they imagine that it is a sign of the dawn of Armageddon. It is frightening that the former Senate Majority Leader should be associated with such a cult."

"The equivalent is happening (only worse and more so) in Iran. Religion may
be about to lead us into a nuclear holocaust and some Christians think
this is a good thing because God will then remake heaven and earth. How
can anyone want to bear the same label as these people? Yes, thoughtful
people must do something, but it seems to me that this involves a lot of
education and a lot of forceful opposition to what is going on. Pretending that one has a version of religion that avoids all these problems if only everyone would convert to it is not the answer."

"Lastly I wondered how Bertrand Russell would have felt about being quoted at length in such a context."

Lyn Hurst, LSS President, writes:

"I think Tony Windross did care about a person's right of free thought, since
he mentioned it so often. But as he is in an organisation that requires blind
faith of its followers, he has put himself in a catch 22, something I think he is
struggling to come to terms with in his own head. As I said at the meeting,
he wasn't trying to convince the audience, he was trying to convince himself !!."

19 July 2006

A Summer Idyll

While the sun beams down benevolently on my very small, rather neglected and overgrown, garden I've been spending an idyllic time watching the Bees and the Butterflies on the Buddleia.

So far I've observed five different varieties of butterfly: small white, small tortoiseshell, red admiral, peacock and comma. I don't think I'd seen a comma before, though apparently they are common in the midlands. When closed up it looks just like a dead leaf. All things are bright and beautiful in Darwin's domain.

Meanwhile in the civised world of men of faith we find nature red in tooth and claw. The centre of God's world, according to the Mappa Mundi, has erupted in its worst exchanges of violence for some time.

Massimo Pigliucci offers a trite solution: the US should threaten to withdraw its financial support from Israel. But didn't this little spat of trouble all begin just when the US (and Europe) withdrew their financial support from the newly democratically elected Hamas in Palestine?

OK, so they wouldn't, overnight, change their stance and recognise the right of existence of Israel, but wouldn't a little support for their good social programme have helped to put them in a better frame of mind?

The domino theory of international politics comes to mind. Which will be the next domino to fall? Syria, then Iran? Back to the garden for a bit of peace I think.

12 July 2006

Purposeless Violence?

More pointless bombings killing ordinary people going about their everyday business. This time in Mumbai. How do the people who do this think their actions are going to promote their cause, whatever it is? Can it just be mindless nihilism? Certainly there can be no justification of such acts in moral terms. Nor in any sensible religious terms. Nor even in purely pragmatic terms.

A report in Progressive.Org magazine leads:

Mumbai bomb blasts sickening. A basic rule for any insurgent movement worth its name: Do not kill civilians by the dozen with bombs set to maximize pain and destruction. ... Not only does this violate every norm of human decency, it also takes you much further away from your political goals. ... What do the perpetrators hope to achieve by this? (Here, one has to assume that the bomb manufacturers had goals other than a nihilistic orgy of violence or to set off religious rioting.)

The same article suggests that there is "alienation" of the Muslims in Kashmnir who seek its independence or union with Pakistan, due to the past actions of the Indian police and forces. But can this just lead to such blind despair that it leads people to strike back by dealing out death at random?

The purpose of life, from a non-religious point of view, is to try to do something constructive with your life, and not something purely destructive. It is only justifiable to destroy something if you have something better ready to take its place. And there can seldom be any justification for destroying living beings still full of potential life unless they threaten your own survival.

Does anyone yet really understand the mind-set of the people who carry out these acts? Shouldn't such understanding be one of our society's priority aims? There must be a solution.

30 June 2006

Does Muslim Dress lead to Rickets?

Three stories in the Leicester Mercury over the last two days highlight the rise of rickets among people of South Asian origin. Dr Peter Swift, consultant paediatrician at Leicester Royal Infirmary said they are seeing one or two cases a month of children with severe bone deformities, and that "substantial numbers" of children have infantile and adolescent rickets. "I think there's still tremendous ignorance in Leicester about this very serious problem," he says.

The disorder, largely eradicated in the 1970s but prevalent in Victorian times, is largely caused by vitamin D deficiency, mainly because of a lack of sunlight. 90% of vitamin D is made in the body from sunlight and 10% comes from food, such as oily fish, fortified margarine, evaporated milk, eggs and fortified cereal.

The same problem has been recognised in Bradford, where every child under two will be offered free vitamin D to tackle the problem at a cost of £50,000. "The evidence is that something like 50% of Asian women in pregnancy are vitamin deficient." Many Muslim women are at higher risk, because traditional Islamic dress codes prevent their skin from getting enough sunlight.

Abdulkarim Gheewala of the Leicestershire Federation of Muslim Organisations said: "We always encourage women that they should be getting out for a walk and get enough sunshine ... When the dress becomes an issue ... it must be approached in a very sensitive way."

Imam Ibrahim Mogra says "I think it's important for Muslim women to get their fair share of sunshine and there is no reason why they should not do that in the confines of their own homes. You can enjoy the sunshine in your garden."

27 June 2006

Creationism at Leicester University?

The Times Higher Education Supplement reports that it is becoming necessary for Universities to teach counter-creationism in their biology courses.


Creationism - the belief that the biblical story of creation is scientific fact - is beginning to make inroads into the science curricula of UK universities, The Times Higher can reveal.

Leeds University plans to incorporate one or two compulsory lectures on creationism and intelligent design into its second-year course for zoology and genetics undergraduates next Christmas.

At Leicester University, academics already devote part of a lecture for third-year genetics undergraduates to creationism and intelligent design.

In both cases, lecturers intend to present the controversial theories as fallacies irreconcilable with scientific evidence. But that these alternatives to evolution have been proposed for formal discussion has sparked concern among the UK science community.

We at LSS have heard from a contact at Leicester University that this situatioon has come about because some students have answered exam questions with creationist answers and the university wants to make very clear that they are unacceptable and will be given no marks. This is presumably happening because of comparatively larger intakes of students from evangelical Christian and Muslim families, who have acquired creationist teachings from their preachers and imams, or at overseas madrassas (religious schools). Hence the need to counter the effect of this religious brainwashing.

On the wider question of faith schools generally, Lyn Hurst (LSS President) draws atention to the views expressed by Ken Loach at the end of this interview about his controversial new film:


His socialist hopes remain unabashed, even though he knows the socialist republic in an undivided Ireland won't arrive soon. "One thing that the British could do if they are serious about governing Northern Ireland is abolish sectarian schools," says Loach when we discuss Ireland's future. "But Blair keeps putting money into faith schools. How mad is that!" As he speaks, there is, behind those crypto-Trotskyist glasses, a glint betokening political ardour. You don't get that much in Britain any more. It is a good thing to see.

There is an excellent new site just set up to coordinate the campaign against academies:


There is a discussion forum included.

10 June 2006

Creationism, Islam and Education

In this lovely summer weather it's nice to take a break to get away from serious matters and enjoy the weather, but meanwhile the world carries on its chaotic way. This week I have a miscellany of loosely connected topics.

On Sunday 11th I will be holding a discussion at Secular Hall on Countering Creationism. This wil take the form of a display of creationist literature (often very well printed in full colour) and point out the misrepresentations and even lies in it, and how it is often difficult to counter their claims without having specialised knowledge.

In this connection
Judge Jones
, from the Dover 'Intelligent Design' trial, has been speaking about how he has needed police protection.

On another local note, the Leicester Muslim Academy is now under way.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, having been disgracefully forced out of the Netherlands to the US has a new book out The Virgin Cage. In the
Preface she speaks of the need for an Islamic Reformation. She writes: "I am amazed that Muslims are not more offended by the invocation of Allah and "God is great" for murder than by cartoons. Why do Muslims not fly into flights of rage when people who go to help Iraqis are kidnapped, tortured, and beheaded in the name of Islam? Political cartoons that point up problems with an extremist religion are used to manipulate people into violence instead of reflection and debate. Freedom of expression for Muslims is a one-way street; Muslims can criticize the West, but the West cannot criticize the practices of Islam."

On education more generally, the humanist philosopher Stephen Law has brought out a book on The War for Children's Minds, touching on the whole question of education and the dangers of the government's faith-biased schools project.

23 May 2006

The Secular Hall Bookshop, now and then

The bookshop that occupies part of the frontage of Secular Hall, now trading as Frontline Books, is one of fifteen Independent bookshops featured in The Guardian (G2 section) on Monday this week (22nd May). The online text is

There has been a bookshop associated with Secular Hall since it was opened in 1881, and even before that the bookseller who operated it at that time, William Henry Holyoak, (born: Sileby Jan 27, 1818, died: 1907) sold radical books at several other addresses in Leicester as far back as 1846.

Ned Newitt, local Labour historian, recently sent me the following poem by WHH that he found in The Leicester Reasoner dated 1876.

Let us lift up our voices in song
And rejoice in the freedom we’ve won
From the maze and the story
Of God and his glory
As taught by the priest to the young

The mists of life’s morning have faded
And we see with a vision more clear
That a man need not wait
For a blessed estate
If he works with a will whilst he’s here

There’s no help in a Heaven above
‘Tis a fable, a guile and a snare
And he who would tell
Of the terrors of Hell
Is a cheat, so let him beware.

Of deceiving his Brothers for gain
For of all crimes this is the worst
And he that is found
Living on this said ground
Ought not to complain if he’s cursed

Then we’ll work and we’ll strive to improve
The lot of each one of our band
For the life of today
Will be children to pay
A reward for the work of our hand

Let us all seek to aid one another
As onward we pass on life’s way
No nobler plan
Can be told you by man
That will lend to make brighter the day

It is reported in The Guardian that six independent bookshops went out of business in one week recently. Let's hope the bookshop can continue and thrive, aided by the regeneration of the area and of Secular Hall.

13 May 2006

Bishop of Leicester opposes Assisted Suicide Bill

Yet another prominent religionist has decided that his god wants to dictate our rights and freedoms. The Bishop of Leicester's letter to the Mercury is available here . This is my response:

Due to his misguided beliefs the Bishop of Leicester has come out against a Bill that would finally grant people the right to die with dignity at a time and in a manner of their choosing. In doing so he has helped condemn large numbers of people to years of avoidable physical and psychological pain. Whilst he is justifiably concerned that some people may be pressured into hastening their own demise, he conveniently ignores the evidence from places such as Oregon and Switzerland, which shows that allowing assisted suicide does not lead to people choosing to die early because they feel they’ve become burdens.

Why is a 27 year old atheist supporting assisted suicide when to atheists this life is the only one we’ve got? Let me explain. In my family we have a history of late onset mental disorders, including Alzheimer’s, which studies suggest is hereditary. I also have an extreme fear of all things medical which has caused numerous panic attacks and two nervous breakdowns – in short, I really don’t like hospitals. I’ve seen Alzheimer’s first hand, my grandfather died of it several years ago. Like other disorders such as dementia it kills its victims over a long period of progressive mental deterioration and sufferers require 24 hour care in their final years, yet they are also obviously conscious of what’s going on around them until near the end. If I ever come down with the disease, or any other terminal illness, then I want the right to be spared what for me would be hell on Earth. A simple Living Will would make this clear, but they need to be made legally binding to ensure they can be enacted, and anyone asked to assist some in their wishes should not have to fear being prosecuted for performing a final and immensely difficult act of love and kindness.

I don’t believe in a god, but I’m not afraid of death. No fictional deity has determined when I’m going to die, or that I have no right to influence when I go. If I’m wrong then she and I can have that debate once I’ve recovered from the shock of waking up in an afterlife! What Lord Joffe, myself, and many others want is the right to choose not to suffer, and that those we may ask to assist us in exercising that right are protected from prosecution.

I thought the alleviation of suffering was a Christian virtue?


12 May 2006

Ann Atkins at it again

Below is an email our member Frank Friedmann sent to the BBC, concerning Ann Atkins' latest "Thought for the Day", and their response.


-- To BBC --

Dear Sir,

Ann Atkins used the programme on 9 May 2006 today to launch an attack on Rationalists.

That she can do so shows up the lack of natural justice in the policy of denying atheists access to the programme - they can be collectively slandered and misrepresented but have no right of reply.

I notice that speakers on the programme do not use it as a platform from which to condemn the adherents of other religions - I don’t know if this is out of respect or because they are constrained by editorial rules, but it does emphasise the injustice in the censorship of atheism.

Were you to change the policy, might I put forward my wife, Eleanor Davidson, as a candidate? She has just become the country’s first Humanist member of a hospital chaplaincy team (See First Person article in Leicester Mercury 29 April 2006). [See also the 2nd of April message on this blog.]

Returning to Ann Atkins’s argument. According to her, the fact that strong men gave up their lives to save weak women on the Titanic violates a ‘rationalist’ principle that the strong are genetically constrained to outdo the weak in the struggle for survival.

I believe she meant this as an argument against Darwin’s concept of Survival of the Fittest or its refinement put forward by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, but she misrepresents the theory -- a common tactic in such attacks. I have never come across a rationalist who would argue that humans are automata rigidly controlled in this way by their genes, but even so it is quite clear that the altruistic behaviour of the men on the Titanic is consistent with these theories. In the millions of years over which almost all of our biological evolution took place, most of the members of a group of people in one place confronted by a disaster would have been closely related members of a family or tribal group in which the paternity of children might have been uncertain. In these circumstances, saving children and women who might be pregnant could well be the best strategy to ensure the survival of ones own genes into the future.

The BBC cannot deserve a reputation as a reliable source until the censorship of atheism is ended.

Yours sincerely,
Frank Friedmann

-- Reply from BBC --

Thank you for your e-mail addressed to 'Thought For The Day'.

I understand you feel there is evidence of censorship of atheism on 'Thought For The Day' and the BBC in general.

I can assure you that the BBC is prevented by the terms of its licence from expressing an opinion of its own on any matter of public policy (other than broadcasting), and it is committed to approaching controversial matters impartially. That does not mean, however that we should merely provide a platform for others to express their views without those views being tested on behalf of our audiences. We seek rather to ensure that, over a period, all sides of any public debate are explored and explained, so that our viewers and listeners may be the better informed in coming to their own judgement of events.

It is a principle of BBC journalism that, whatever personal views you may hold - and everybody is entitled to have personal views in their private lives - you leave them at the door when you come to work. There are well-tried checks in the system.

We do find that viewers' opinions are an invaluable source of feedback. Please be assured that I have fully registered your comments on our daily audience log. This internal document will be made available to the 'Thought For The Day' production team and Senior BBC Management.

Thank you again for taking the time to contact the BBC.


Gary Sullivan
BBC Information

Frank Friedmann

09 May 2006

Religion in Schools Prospectus

A few months ago we published a welcome to the new Derby Secular Society. Mike Lake's latest initiative is to try to get local schools to adopt his wording of a statement for their parents' prospectus as here:


He writes that he wants it to look as reasonable and unobjectionable as possible to any thinking person. "However, it is obvious that it is a major threat to the religious because it spells out very clearly what parents rights are and it clearly divorces moral and civic education from religion."

This proposal will be discussed at the next meeting in Derby at the MultiFaith Centre at 7.00pm on Wednesday 17th May.

Perhaps we at Leicester, and secularists elsewhere, should join in this initiative.

27 April 2006

Positive Secularism: Negating the Negative

Secularists and Atheists are often accused of being 'merely' negative, as if the reduction of church power, or the removal of religious superstition would not in themselves be positive advances. Secularism is about the negation of negatives. Secularism is about the sweeping away of the cobwebs of medieval mysticism to allow the light of reason to glow with its full radiance of enlightenment.

A common argument is that atheism, the removal of belief in supernatural guidance, must mean the loss of any sense of moral judgement. But this overlooks the fact that ethics, the science that asks: What is it best for us to do? -- to solve any one of a series of problems -- is not dependent on any supernatural belief. In fact it requires us to have detailed knowledge of the way the world works, including ourselves. It is a difficult science, probably the most difficult, because it asks us to take account of everything, a super-ecology.

People of all sorts have had ethical beliefs and have behaved in a moral way without having religious beliefs. The 'golden rule' do-as-you-would-be-done-by is a humanist principle that existed long before it was claimed to be a 'christian' idea. The religious, and their church organisations, have been allowed for too long to get away with the idea that they are the sole source of ethical guidance. Too often they are merely the guardians of outmoded customs and attitudes, Often these attitudes can now be seen, in the light of improved human knowledge, to be unethical.

One has only to look back over history of the last 200 years to find reforms, like abolition of slavery, votes and education for all, equal treatment of women, freedom of the press, legalisation of homosexuality, and so on that were opposed by the church, and still are by many, although now accepted by the more enlightened church leaders, who often rewrite their history to claim reformers as their own.

In Melvin Bragg's programme 'In Our Time' this week he held a discussion about the Great Exhibition of 1851. The Crystal Palace was regarded as a sort of secular cathedral to exhibit the scientific and technical advances of the age, and to celebrate 'Progress'. Today 'progress' seems to be a somewhat tarnished word, probably because various ideas that were touted as progressive have proved to be the opposite.

Looking back to that more innocent time however, one cannot but admire the confidence with which the Victorian engineers and industrialists acted and achieved notable results. Of course the modern dominant industries are different, we are into an age of information and biology rather than energy and mechanics, but isn't it time to begin once again to adopt more positive attitudes towards progress, and to take firmer, more confident action in its pursuit?

18 April 2006

A Secular Easter Message

Since Easter messages have been put out from the Vatican and from Lambeth Palace it occurred to me that we also ought to put forward a message from Secular Hall appropriate for this time of year, the Spring Equinox. It seems the common element in the messages has been the relationship between science and religion.

In the Pope's message he invokes science to understand the 'resurrection':

"If we may borrow the language of the theory of evolution, it is the greatest 'mutation,' absolutely the most crucial leap into a totally new dimension that there has ever been in the long history of life and its development: a leap into a completely new order which does concern us, and concerns the whole of history."

It struck me that this idea harks back to those of Teilhard de Chardin who, in the 1950s, tried to combine catholicism and evolution. At the time his ideas were criticised by the church authorities, but perhaps he is coming back into favour. 'Bobsie' on the Brights forums located this link: Ratzinger on Teilhard. He could even end up as a saint!

The Archbishop was more concerned with the historical truth of the resurrection. Combining a comment about obsession with 'The da Vinci Code' with the recently rediscovered 'Gospel according to Judas': Archbishop's message or here.

The Bishop of Oxford wrote that science adds to his faith but atheists lack logic: Bishop Harries Atheists. There are many comments attached to that article in which atheists give a strong account of themselves by tearing the Bishop's 'logic' to pieces.

So, what should be the Secularists' message for this hopeful time of year? We are happy to see the religions beginning to try to take account of the findings of science and adjust the interpretation of their teachings accordingly, so that only the extremists among them are still prepared to fight against the power of scientific evidence. We would also like to see more recognition of science within Islam, which once many centuries ago controlled countries that led the world in science.

But we still find it difficult to understand the religious idea of 'logic'! Perhaps we just have to accept that religious thought is an 'alien' way of thinking (using the term in the science fictional sense). If rationalists are sometimes accused of being too-logical 'Vulcans' what alien race(s) do the Pope, the Archbishop and the Bishop come from? If we are to live in peaceful coexistencve with these alien minds, perhaps we just have to learn to tolerate the moderate ones and learn to be diplomatic about their curious ways of thought.

There are some who think that perhaps some eventual agreement can be reached through the processes of science, applied to our understanding of religious thought, as in two new books: Lewis Wolpert's Six Impossible Things and Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell. These are hopeful that applying the developing ideas of 'evolutionary psychology' and 'memes' may lead somewhere.

Personally I remain sceptical of these new approaches. For me religion is already sufficiently explained in terms of wish fulfillment and the inertia of old ideas. When someone we love dies we ask "wouldn't it be nice if they went on living somewhere other than just in our memories". When we can't work out the best line of action we think "wouldn't it be nice if there was some benevolent father figure up there somewhere who has everything planned out for us". It's a natural way of thought. Why do we need any more elaborate explanations?

(George Jelliss)

10 April 2006

Religions of Peace and Kindness?

I've been collecting news stories over the past week or two all relating to the sort of behaviour encouraged, and indeed laid down as law, by various forms of religious belief. (Thanks to secular newsline, the Brights, and other sources.)

First there was the appearance of Dr Wafa Sultan in webcasts on Memri TV:


Times on line reported more about this under the heading 'Women at War with the Mullahs'


Dr Wafa Sultan is a psychologist who lives in Los Angeles. She appeared on Al-Jazeera, the Arabic television network, last summer and has been receiving death threats. During that and a second broadcast in February Dr Sultan, who was brought up as a Muslim in Syria, denounced the teachings and practice of Islam as “barbaric” and “medieval”.

Here is comment in the form of a Wafa Sultan Cartoon


Other Muslim women under threat include: Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born Dutch politician, who has strongly criticised Islamic attitudes towards women and the widespread practice of female circumcision in Muslim North Africa. Irshad Manji, a Canadian of Pakistani descent, whose book The Trouble with Islam Today cites aggression towards women and anti-semitism. Amina Wadud, an African-American convert to Islam, who has infuriated traditional Muslims by leading Friday prayer in New York, a role traditionally taken only by male imams. Mukhtar Mai, the Pakistani village woman gang-raped in 2002 as reprisal for alleged misbehaviour by her 14-year-old brother. Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian lawyer who was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 2003 for her defence of the rights of women and children in Iran. Death threats against these women are commonplace.

Then there was the case of Abdul Rahman in Afghanistan:

http://tinyurl.com/kuvgn (Reuters)
http://tinyurl.com/o6cvf (Yahoo News)

He was arrested last month after his family went to the police and accused him of converting from Islam to Christianity. He has gone on trial for rejecting Islam - an offence punishable by death under Shariah law. More from Khajeel times on 'Trial by Faith':


and more from the BBC on this case


"The Prophet Muhammad has said several times that those who convert from Islam should be killed if they refuse to come back," says Ansarullah Mawlafizada, the trial judge. "Islam is a religion of peace, tolerance, kindness and integrity. That is why we have told him if he regrets what he did, then we will forgive him," he told the BBC News website.

Another case of persecution is of Halabjayee, the author of a book on Sex, Sharia and Women in the History of Islam.


"I wanted to prove how oppressed women are in Islam and that they have no rights." The Islamic League of Kurdistan has issued a "conditional" fatwa to kill Halabjayee if he does not repent and apologize. He says: "a couple of weeks ago in Halabja, the mullahs and scholars said if I go to them and apologize they will give me 80 lashes and then refer me to the fatwa committee to decide if I am to be beheaded. They might forgive me, they might not." As a result he went into hiding with his pregnant wife and three children and has fled to Sweden.

And some more stories:

Persecutions in 'moderate' Indonesia


Worshippers Kill Man for Destroying Hindu Statue


Well-known Apostates of Islam, and others are featured on this site:


There are also many Ex-Christians who discuss their problems here:


So it's well worth talking to believers. Some do eventually see sense!

Just to show that calling for violence is not absent from Christianity either. This 1998 article relates to the Chalcedon foundation:


'So it isn't murder as long as it is for religious reasons.'

National Catholic Reporter says: US Catholics approve of torture:


Finally, on 'Cultural Relativism': Butterflies and wheels has a lot of links to topics related to this general problem.


And Andrew Anthony in today's (Sunday) Observer asks if you are a Universalist or Relativist?


"This new frontline of contemporary debate runs across issues as diverse as race, faith, multiculturalism, feminism, gay rights, freedom of speech and foreign policy. In each instance, the argument eventually comes down to whether you have a universalist or relativist view of the world."

"Let's start with cannibalism, slavery and ritual human sacrifice. Do you think that they are a) unspeakable acts of barbarity? or b) vibrant expressions of a distinctive cultural heritage?"

02 April 2006

The First Humanist Chaplain?

Eleanor Davidson, a member of Leicester Secular Society, believes she is the country's first humanist to become a recognised member of a hospital chaplaincy team---she certainly is a first for Leicestershire. On the LSS website Eleanor, an accredited humanist celebrant, explains the need for such a service, how she came to be appointed, how she views the role, and what still remains to be done:


As an example of the prejudice against which she has had to struggle, when she joined the team, one member even asked 'do you have any morals---seeing as you're an atheist?'!

Eleanor comments that the chaplaincy project is her attempt to bring secularism into the mainstream of community life---in a practical way---and to promote equality for secularism, in an area where faith representatives have an unjustifiable monopoly.

She also asks people to send suggestions for items for inclusion in an anthology of secular works---poetry, songs, prose, pictures, cartoons---suitable for a hospital bedside book.

The editor of this blog, George Jelliss, has experimentally made 'Secular Hall' itself a member of the blog 'team'. This will be a way for members of the Society to post messages to the blog without actually becoming members of the blog team themselves.

If you have something you would like to see posted email secsoc@ntlworld.com, or one of the email addresses on the LSS home page.