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.