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.