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.