29 November 2008

The success of the “Atheist Bus” Campaign prompted the Bishop of Leicester to ask in his column in the Leicester Mercury “do we really want to live in a world that is Godless?” (presumably his particular C. of E. brand of god) and “leave society at the mercy of human values and decisions”.

This provided an opportunity for LSS members and others to suggest that “God's law” isn't quite as beneficent as the Bishop indicated.

Harry Perry responded:

Bishop Tim Stevens (Mercury, November 1) asks a good question: “Does society truly want to be Godless?”

He says society must choose between living under God's law or "at the mercy of human values and decisions". I couldn't have put it better myself.

God's law tells the Jews of Israel that they can steal Palestine from the Palestinians, by force. The-Bible-obsessed Christians of America show their agreement by providing the finance and weaponry to carry it out.

It is God's law that tells Muslims they must stone women adulterers to death, regardless they had been forced into loveless marriages under God's own sharia law in the first place.

It was God's Bible that allowed Christians to enslave millions of Africans to work in sugar plantations in the Americas. Likewise, the Dutch Reformed Church found in the Christian Bible complete justification for Apartheid.

Women in devout Muslim countries have their throats cut for showing their faces in public – sanctified by the Qu'ran. It is God's law that tells Indian Muslims to blow up Hindus because they are idol worshippers.

Abortion is forbidden to Catholics by their God, regardless that the pregnancy results from rape. God's law forbids Catholics from using condoms to prevent Aids. God's law tells Afghan Muslims they can shoot dead a young British charity worker because she is a Christian.

I could go on, but I think this makes the point. What can secularism offer in the place of God's laws?

Yes, I'm afraid we can only offer man-made laws – created through a free democratic process and based on the values of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

So, I pose the same question as the Bishop: do you want to live at the mercy of God's laws or those created by human values and decisions?

You choose.

George Jelliss took a different tack:

The Bishop is being mischievous in interpreting the atheist bus slogan as asking people to "stop worrying" about their mortgages.

Clearly it is aimed at all the unnecessary worrying that God-belief engenders. Worries over whether enjoyment of pleasure is "sinful". Worries over what might happen in some mythical afterlife.

The slogan is not "enjoy life" but "enjoy your life" because it's the only one you have. Enjoyment comes from achieving things, not from mere self-indulgence.

As for trying to "airbrush God from public life", it is hardly possible to remove something that was never in the picture in the first place!

Dave Leighton found another perspective:

I have to offer an answer to Bishop Tim Stevens' question "do we really want to live in a world which is godless?" and answer it from an "ordinary Joe" perspective.

Yes, the Godless world is so much better being based upon a reasoned set of arguments and a challengeable position, than outright prejudice based upon unquestioning opinion of any faith.

I do not understand the issue about leaving society to the "mercy of human values". Surely that is what is great and beautiful about the human race – our capacity for goodness and thought, irrespective of God, especially in Leicester!

How can any major religious leader claim the right to decide what the nature of life will look like without deeply questioning what right they have to determine this?

I love living in Leicester, one of the most integrated societies in the world, what a statement of fairness and rationalism. How can one of our "faith leaders" make such crass statements about a set of views that may challenge his own. I am personally looking forward to the time when the
views of Richard Dawkins are actually challenged rationally, not just with the bias of one religion.

And of course we can rely on Wilf to put things in perspective.

Wilfred Gaunt

The original objective of secularism, as defined by Holyoake in the Victorian period, was the separation of Church and state.

This was to give people the freedom to follow their own faiths or none without state interference (on the United States' model) and to campaign against the intrusion of puritanical fanaticism into the laws governing the normal daily progress of people's lives.

Among other things, Sunday trading (shopping) was banned, as was the playing of games on Sunday. As a child, I had to put my toys away on Saturday night, and could only bring them out again on Monday.

Much medical and scientific research has been resisted in the House of Lords, purely on the basis of scriptural interpretation: not on the basis of need or democratic representation.

Naturally, the main campaigners for secular governance on this basis have been non-believers, and it has pleased the religious propagandists to therefore equate state secularism with no-god atheism.

They have almost succeeded in the nefarious miracle of convincing people that the secular ideals of freedom of thought, speech, and religion are anti-God.

My own copy for a bus advert would read: "Only a secular government gives you the freedom to follow your own faith."

Bill Hill from Birstall made another point:

Is the Bishop of Leicester really concerned that the atheists are getting some publicity (Mercury, November 1) or is he just peeved because we are paying for it?

To relate the current financial crises to believing in God is missing the point – many people are convinced that there is no God.

What really riles me, is that the religious seem to believe that atheists have a lack of moral judgement and are, therefore, inferior.

If he truly believes that adverts on buses will help us to have a "sense of solidarity" or, that we believe "in nothing" he really is desperate.

Atheists are people who have the capacity to think that the universe is, well, universal; and certainly not created in six days by a mythical being!

More to the point, I cannot see the justice in having unelected representatives of the Church of England attempting to rule us from Westminster. Atheists not only want to "airbrush God from public life" but, where it really counts, from Parliament.

The Bishop should encourage a level playing field, revelling in atheists having similar access to advertising – just as God does!

Perhaps a start could be made in the Mercury?

Allan Hayes summed it all up:

When 8,000 people give £116,000 to put notices on London buses that "there probably is no God..." it is surely better to recognise that there is a serious issue we need to talk about rather than escalate the matter into confrontation by painting the bogy of a godless world round the corner, as Bishop Tim did (Mercury, November 1).

Many people in Leicester will agree with the notice, including some in the Bishop's own Church. The question that needs to be asked is: "How do we live well together, enriched by our diversity, rather than divided by it?"

It is encouraging that religious bodies like the Church of England, the Methodist Church, the Salvation Army and the think-tank Ekklesia have welcomed the proposed bus-side message as a healthy encouragement for dialogue, but we must not get fixated on differences over God – creating
goodwill and trust is better.

Leicester Secular Society has, for more than 150 years, provided a forum for people with different views. It has always encouraged dialogue and will continue to do this.

So what do you think?

11 October 2008

Could you be a Blogger for Leicester Secular Society?

The Society for some years has had a blog on the internet.

George Jelliss retired from running it some time ago and since then it has sunk into disuse. Nonetheless secularism remains a live issue, and secular points of view on many issues don't reach the media enough.

If you are sufficiently opinionated to write regular provocative pieces for it, please get in touch via blog @ leicestersecularsociety . org . uk (close spaces) to discuss how you might become a contributor (we could do with several) - or take up the role of Blogmeister.

04 April 2008

Ken Ham at Parklands, 3 April

A group of members of the Society turned out to leaflet Ken Ham's creationist lecture at Parklands, Oadby.

Here is Pennie's report

Well folks, Ken Ham has been to Leicester and is now on his way to pollute the minds of the faithful in London.

When we first arrived at the Parklands Leisure Centre, we went to check out the room to find it was set up for about five hundred people (I would say about 250 to 300 actually attended). I had printed 120 leaflets, plus 20 each of additional “pages” of the booklet I am working on, printed as individual flyers (I was very, very sorry I hadn’t printed more to go inside the leaflets) and George had printed a few more. There were eight or nine of us handing out the leaflets and most people took them. In fact it appears that we gave out all but five!

Most people were friendly, a couple were a little hostile, some were genuinely interested. The handing-out-of-the-leaflets and the discussions which took place went without incident and only one woman told me she would pray for me. I’ll let her out of the boot of my car tomorrow morning – in time for her to go to church.

We were invited into the talk and some of us did take up the offer, going in when almost everyone else had taken their seats.

It was a few firsts for me. The first creationist talk I had been to, though I have watched some on YouTube. The first “lecture” I have ever been to where there was no Q & A at the end, and it was the first talk or lecture I have ever been to which aroused almost every emotion in the space of an hour and a half.

I laughed a little (not at the bits that Ken Ham and a smattering of the audience thought were funny). I felt angry (mainly at his tactics), irritated (that there were so many gullible people), deeply depressed (seeing the number of children in the audience) and, fleetingly, deep sympathy for Ken Ham. Yes, that is right. I’ve had this feeling before watching him on YouTube. It only lasts for a second, but it was there. For that moment, I saw him as a young boy in short grey trousers, drumming his heels on the floor and screwing up his little face and shouting, “’Tis true, ‘tis true. It is, it is, it is!”(OK, I have an interesting imagination!)

The feeling disappeared as he explained to the audience that “Creation Science” is just like “Secular science” (to him, “Secular” = “atheist” = “all that is bad, wrong and immoral”) except that creationists start with the Bible, and scientists, rather than as they claim, starting with the EVIDENCE, start with their own suppositions, hopes and prejudices - and human (presumably sinful, atheist and immoral) thought. Of course, he didn’t explain that this is why scientists have peer review (which extends, in its rawest form, to Q & A after a talk, Mr. Ham. Q & A that everyone can hear the answers to, not a clandestine little meeting with a few people who come up afterwards!)

My husband, who confessed to being quite taken aback by it all, told me it was not what he had expected. Having gone to help and support me, feeling strongly about keeping creation and ID in the RE classes and out of science lessons but feeling much less strongly than I do about the role of religion in damaging our society, he expected the talk to be a sermon, with Ken Ham preaching. “That wasn’t a sermon”, he said afterwards, “it was a pseudo-science lecture, distorted and dishonest.” Now he understands why I have been getting involved in this!

There were a few interesting things. After God, the name that came up most in the talk was … “Richard Dawkins”. Clearly an object of fear. He asked why someone (Richard) would spend so much time and energy hating something he claims not to believe in. Mr. Ham, you have, as always, missed the point. We don’t “hate God”, as you say, we don’t believe he exists, what we are opposing (and some people probably do “hate”) is the power and control the BELIEF in God, and the church, has over people. Still, some of the audience giggled at this side-slapping humour… but not many.

He did a plug for “Expelled” and said that Richard was one of the stars – he didn’t mention PZ Myers. It did make me smile when he asked the audience who had heard of the film. I believe I am right in saying six hands went up … you guessed it, five atheist scumbags sitting at the back and one at the front!!! He advised people to go to see it … but then seemed to hesitate … “go to your local theatre and ASK them to SHOW it”, he said!

He told a couple of tales (I use the word advisedly) about conversations he had had with Eugenie Scott. Interestingly, he told the audience one question he had asked her – I don’t remember the question but it was, from their point of view, a good one. He DIDN’T TELL THEM WHAT HER ANSWER WAS. It was not the only time that I had to sit on my hands – I so wanted to ask, “and what did she say?” I could imagine her answer but will never know!

Of course, he brought up abiogenesis and said that scientists don’t know how life came from non-life – as if “da magic-man, he done it” is a sane explanation and “we don’t know (yet)” proves that da magic man DID do it.

Having said all this, I didn’t feel that the audience was as sympathetic to him as I had expected. Not one person (NOT ONE) clapped at the end of the first, and major, part of his talk (I don’t know if they did at the very end or, if they did, how “prompted” they were to do so). We also laughed at the fact that, whereas an open, honest talk or a lecture would end with fifteen minutes of Q & A, Ken Ham’s talk ended with fifteen minutes of marketing!

Then came the awkward bit! As people went out to get a coffee or buy DVDs and books, we loitered. A young chap came up to me, where I was chatting with someone from the Leicester Secular Society.

“What did you think of that?” he asked, and I sensed a slight scepticism. For some reason, I thought he was “one of us” and I shook my head in disbelief and said (and I paraphrase), “Well, what I find utterly incredible is that there could be a single person in this room who is so ill-informed or gullible that they could be taken in by this guy and yet they clearly are. I find it scary.” To which he replied, “Do you think they are all just stupid?” “No,” I said, “I think there must be a very deep emotional need that is filled by this stuff and people like Ken Ham need it to be true SO badly, they can’t see outside that need. I mean, for God’s sake, the guy has built a museum to try to convince himself it is true!” It was only then that I realised that this chap had not asked what we thought because he was sceptical of Ken Ham, but because he wondered what answers we had to such a convincing argument and was sceptical of our ability to counter it! Oh dear!

The guy from LSS and I talked to this chap for a while. He explained that, if it were not for the authority of God, he would probably behave immorally. This, of course, tells one much about the person uttering this statement. We parted company at the point where he agreed that the Bible had “evolved”, which is why we no longer stone to death sons who disrespect their parents or people who wear cotton-polyester mix. Still, if belief in God stops people like him from going out raping and pillaging, we should accept that some good comes from faith.

Five of us couldn’t stomach the second part. Daniel, who stayed, deserves a medal. He joined us later and said that the people handing out leaflets (Ken Ham had mentioned us a few times in the first bit too) had been called “scientologists” … can we sue?

One other time he mentioned us was a classic. He said that some people, like the ones giving out leaflets out front, claim that they are trying to get creationism into schools. This is not true. He then went on to explain that he thought other people should be doing that like the school boards and so on! I DID laugh at that.

All in all, I’m pleased we did the leaflets. They looked professional and some people DID read them. As my husband said … “If it saves one child …”!

13 February 2008

Let's have Faith in a Defender of Reason

The following is the text of an email I sent to The World at One following the broadcast of their interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury:


We have struggled for centuries to achieve the freedoms we have in this country, and internationally. Any recognition of Sharia law, even in a small way, would be a retrograde step, based as it is on unreformed mediaevalism.

On PM [or on their website] it was later reported that the Leicester Imam, Ibrahim Mogra, of the Muslim Council of Britain, said: "We're looking at a very small aspect of Sharia for Muslim families when they choose to be governed with regards to their marriage, divorce, inheritance, custody of children and so forth."

That doesn't sound "very small" to me! It sounds like the whole swathe of family law.

Sharia family law is very much formulated to the benefit of men, and it would be very difficult for a Muslim woman to go against the wishes of her family and freely choose to be judged under English law rather than Sharia.

Women in Islamic communities are already very restricted in what they are able to do. I would like to see some way in which they could be given more freedom. This can only come about by increased participation by Muslims in English society, rather than their self-imposed separatism.

This latest nonsense from Rowan Williams gives more impetus to the need to disestablish the Church of England, and make this country truly secular. Let's make our Monarch a "Defender of Reason" instead of Faith.


A later thought: I don't think the Archbishop is as daft as he looks. He has an ulterior motive. The Sharia Law thing is just a frightener. What he really wants, as he has made explicit in his address to the Synod, is for the law to include special allowances for Christian "conscience" (i.e. prejudice).


Andrew Copson of the BHA has now posted an excellent piece on the Guardian's "Comment is Free" pages: The Archbishop Adapts to Survive. Appropriately titled for Darwin Day, 12th February.

03 January 2008

We Are a Force of Nature

Having just signed out, I am now signing in again, since I have found I have something to say in response to this article by Sam Harris:

Mother Nature is not our Friend

I posted this as a response on the Richard Dawkins . net site, but think it bears repetition here:

There are so many points in this article where I find myself disagreeing with Sam Harris.

His first and prime error of logic is that he doesn't define "Nature" and in fact uses the term in two senses, inclusive and exclusive of humans. I take the view that humans are part of nature.

In his first paragraph he talks about "the wisdom of nature" and about "real boundaries between the natural and the artificial", but the artificial, that which is made by humans, is itself part of nature.

He cites destructive events like asteroid strikes as being acts of nature, which they are, but so would be attempts by humans to deflect them.

He says that we are tempted to think that "we, as homo sapiens, have arrived at some well-defined position in the natural order"; surely we have, this is a perfectly respectable conclusion.

He says that "There was, for instance, no first member of the human species", well that can only mean that he is using a definition of "human species" that is very indefinite. It is perfectly reasonable to draw a line somewhere and say lets call people from this stage on "humans" and those before "prehumans" and to specify what the essential characteristics of humans are, in case there should be a change in future.

He says "Life is a continuous flux". This is very old and outdated philosophy. My understanding is that life is discontinuous. Genetic changes take place by digital mutations. Nowhere is it continuous.

He says "Nothing in the natural order demands that our descendants resemble us in any particular way." In that case, by definition, they will not be "humans" - we could perhaps call them "transhumans".

He asks: "Will this be a good thing?" The answer to that is obvious, for humans it will not be a good thing. For transhumans it will be a good thing.

He asks "What is the alternative to us taking charge of our biological destiny." against which he counterposes: "Might we be better off just leaving things to the wisdom of Nature?" This is a false dichotomy. We can choose to deefend our humanity against being changed to something non-human. It is just a question of deciding what we consider to be truly human features, or the best human features, that we want to preserve.

His classifying himself as "disabled" because he cannot reason mathematics like Einstein, compose music like Bach, or play golf like Woods, is just perversion of language (I presume for humorous effect).

He says: "Considering humanity as a whole, there is nothing about natural selection that suggests our optimal design. We are probably not even optimized for the Paleolithic, much less for life in the 21st century. And yet, we are now acquiring the tools that will enable us to attempt our own optimization." This assumes mistakenly that there is such a thing as "optimal" for being adapted to all environments. Our optimality resides in being "adaptable" to many different environments by employing such things as space suits, diving suits, fur coats, bikinis, etc.

He claims "Many people think this project" [I think he means genetic modification of humans] "is fraught with risk. But is it riskier than doing nothing? There may be current threats to civilization that we cannot even perceive, much less resolve, at our current level of intelligence. Could any rational strategy be more dangerous than following the whims of Nature?" Here once again he divorces us humans from nature. We are a force of nature ourselves. We are a force of nature that is in many respects out of control. We ned to gain greater self-control, for instance in population growth.

He concludes: "Mother Nature is not now, nor has she ever been, looking out for us." But we are part of nature, and we are capable of looking out for us. We should be looking out for us humans in as rational and scientific and careful a way as possible. We should also be looking out for the rest of nature, of which we are a part, and on which we depend, since we are the only part of nature capable of so doing.