02 October 2010

The Autistic Nature of Secular-Humanist Philosophy

This item is by Wilf Gaunt.

In Lone Frank's book 'Mindfield,' she describes how, in conversation with the (superstar) neuroeconomists Colin Camerer and George Loewenstein, they reformulated Plato's old metaphore: comparing the human mind to a chariot drawn by two horses, one representing reason, the other emotion. This is true enough they said, with the important difference that reason should be represented by a pony, and emotion by an elephant.

The book then goes on to point out that reason cannot be put into practice without the involvement of emotion: emotion being the primary driving force of our system, inherited through evolutionary time, and reason being a more recent, subordinate application. Autism can be defined as a malfunction of the connection between the reasoning part of the brain and the origins of our emotions. No matter how high the IQ of an autistic person, their attempts to apply the results of their reasoning fall apart because of the non-involvement of emotion.

It struck me, reading this, that the lack of emotion involved in the production, and attempted application of, Secular-Humanist philosophy generally, puts us firmly in the autistic category; and probably explains our inability to appeal to the statistically observed wider audience in society, which we should have working actively with us to forward our aims. As for trying to convert people from the emotional comfort zones of their religions, forget it.

When asked about his use of the current popular music of his times in his services, the founder of the Salvation Army, William Booth, famously replied: 'Why should the Devil have all the best tunes?' He obviously understood the value of raised emotional levels in putting across his message. Goebbels successfully deployed every emotional weapon at his disposal (film, music, pageant, language) to forward the Nazi message: even knowing the outcome, Hitler's speeches are still frighteningly, hypnotically persuasive. President Kennedy praised the way Churchill had mobilised the English language during WW2: he should also have stressed the emotional uplift of that language, which I well remember as a child.

Without emotion, even the best ideas are dead things; with emotion, even nonsense can become king.

Wilfred Gaunt

31 August 2010

Ideology can lead to tyranny

My letter to the Leicester Mercury (published 30/8/10) was edited so I thought I would publish the full text here:
Dear Sir,

Michael Myers (Mailbox, August 19) disputes my assertion that “Hitler came to power helped by a deal with the Vatican” and puts the blame on other parties. While I agree he is quite correct in pointing out that others were involved, I still believe it is reasonable to say that the Vatican, through its agent Baron von Papen, was one of the parties that “helped” Hitler take power in Germany. Von Papen, a papal chamberlain, was  a leading member of the Catholic Centre Party. It was largely von Papen, who persuaded President Hindenburg to put aside his scruples and approve Hitler as Chancellor. The political manoeuvring included the negotiation of  a “Reichskonkordat”  between the Vatican and Germany, guaranteeing the rights of the Catholic Church in Germany.

As to Michael's remarks on the Lateran Accord, this certainly created the Vatican State, but in recognising the State of Italy, the Vatican also gave its tacit approval to Mussolini's fascists, the Vatican also gave its tacit approval to Mussolini's fascists, allowing him to turn Italy into a fascist state.

I think some quotes will demonstrate this. Shortly after the signing of the accord, Pope Pius, in a statement referring to Mussolini, said “In all this We have been nobly seconded by the other side. Maybe We had need of a man such as Providence has given Us to meet, a man who has not the preoccupations of the Liberal school” and “By the grace of God with much patience and much labour, nobly seconded by the other side, We have been enabled to escape per medium profundum, and to conclude a concordat which, if not the best of which We can possibly conceive, is yet amongst the very best.

Mussolini said “We have recognized the pre-eminent place the Catholic Church holds in the religious life of the Italian people, which is perfectly natural in a Catholic people such as ours, and under a regime such as is the Fascist”

My original comments related to Michael Brucciani's assertion that “The last two centuries are filled with the consequences of this moral vacuum, centuries of cruelty to individuals leading to their enslavement under dictatorships or socialist cabals” and was an attempt to demonstrate that religion does not necessarily protect us from, or oppose, tyranny.

I would suggest that any immutable ideology, whether or not based on religion, is likely to be tyrannical. I strongly believe that our best hope for progress is to stand up for the rights of all (as set out in the Declaration of Human Rights) rather than allow any form of political ideology or religion to impose its rules upon us.

The text that was removed is highlighted.

My earlier letter can be found here and the original letter from Michael Brucciani can be found here.

More information on the Catholic Church and Mussolini can be found at the "Walls of Jericho" Website.

The website "Concordat Watch" provides more information on the Reichskonkordat.

24 August 2010

The price of life?

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), charged to determine whether drugs are good value for money for the NHS, has decided that the anti-bowel cancer drug avastin, also known as bevacizumab, is not worth the average cost of £21,000 per patient for an average extension of life expectancy of only six weeks. It is used only in advanced cases.

The campaign group Bowel Cancer UK has protested against the decision, arguing that the 6,500 sufferers each year have a right to any medication that might extend their lives.

However, I have to agree with NICE: £21,000 for six weeks extra life is not good value for money for the taxpayer. On the figures quoted it appears the extra cost to the taxpayer would be £136m per year.

I certainly would not expect that sort of public expenditure to keep me alive for an extra six weeks and if ever I am in the unfortunate position of suffering from bowel cancer I will refuse the drug if offered on the NHS. I or my relatives might have special reasons to want those extra weeks of life for me and might be prepared to find the money by some means but I would not expect the taxpayer to stomp it up.

The decision is riddled with questions of relativity. Suppose the equation were £100,000 for just one extra day of life? How many would argue for it then? Issues of quality of life are also relevant and no doubt NICE takes those into account too in arriving at its decisions.

This is not the sort of decision that can be taken on the basis of a principle – it has to be on the basis of common sense.

I believe there are a number of drugs that have not made it on to NICE’s list for the same reason. If all were approved on principle then NHS costs would rise significantly and drugs companies would be given licence to manufacture all sorts of exotic and expensive drugs in the sure knowledge that the NHS would have to cover the cost. Their profits would be guaranteed on the back of a rising tax bill for working people.

You are entitled to ask where I would draw the line and for the sake of argument I propose that drugs should only be approved if for a cost equivalent to the national average annual wage (circa £26,000) an extension of life of 12 months could be anticipated. No, there’s no connection, it’s just an intuitive guide to reasonableness.

Anyone contributing is, I think, obliged to state where they would draw the line.


06 August 2010

The Burka Debate

The National Secular Society weekly Newsline has asked subscribers for opinions on banning the burka. This was my response:

The Burka

Wearing the veil is regrettable. It cuts the wearer off from normal human interactions through which communication, understanding and friendship can grow. But our commitment to the freedom of the individual to do as they wish, as long as it harms nobody else, means we cannot support legislation to bar certain types of clothing. However, there are circumstances where freedom may be circumscribed owing to the need for the individual to undertake particular roles in employment or to satisfy reasonable security requirements for identification and openness. These limitations are best defined by employers, agencies and trading organisations in their particular circumstances.

The courts must be careful to ensure the veil is not recognised as a religious requirement (which could make it unchallengeable) and that the rights of others to withhold jobs, services, passage and participation from veil wearers are protected.

Wearing the veil may demonstrate hostility to Western traditions but it is everybody’s right to demonstrate that. When wearing the veil is forced upon women by relatives or communities the means of combating that must be through education and campaigning and clear support for Muslim women fighting for their rights.


24 June 2010

No Prayers in Leicester City Council Meetings

The decision of Leicester's Lord Mayor, Councillor Colin Hall, to dispense with prayers at the start of council meetings is eminently sensible.

Bearing in mind the vast range of religions to be found in Leicester, any prayers said will be irrelevant to the majority of councillors and in any case should not form part of the meeting of what must be a secular body.

For more on story click here.

26 May 2010

Religious Privilege in School Transport

It is entirely at the discretion of Local Education Authorities whether they pay for ‘home to faith school transport’ by providing a special subsidy to help children with parents of certain religions get to a school that inculcates their religion rather than attend their local school. Currently, 40% of all English Local Education Authorities (including Leicestershire) pay for such transport incurring a cost of more than £20M (2008/09) met by the Council Tax payer.

Ninety out of one hundred and fifty-two Local Education Authorities (i.e. 60%) do not provide such transport.

The subsidy isn’t available for all children from a religious background travelling to ‘faith’ schools, nor to those of no faith, but only to a select few, whose parents follow a privileged religion and have “chosen” to send their children to a school other than their nearest allocated one.

The scheme defies logic.

How can it be right to provide transport to sectarian ‘faith schools’ but not to other schools? The County Council should not be funding/promoting any religion.

What possible justification can there be for granting privileges to just certain religious groups, who control religious schools, and discriminating against parents/children from other religious and non-religious backgrounds. Surely such a "religious preference" is essentially discriminatory and may well contravene both UK and European Law.

Removing this funding would not only save the council money, but would be treating everybody equally regardless of personally held beliefs.

If a parent decides they want their child to be introduced to the dogma of a particular religion, which requires that child to travel to a school outside their catchment area, then the responsibility for getting them to that school should lie solely with the parent. This is the case for parents who choose an alternative community school for their children for whatever reason.

It would appear that funding of this nature is a relic of a bygone era that has no place in today’s multi-cultural, multi-faith and increasingly no-faith society.

Let there be an immediate end to it.

25 May 2010

Religious Privilege in School Transport

It is entirely at the discretion of Local Education Authorities whether they pay for ‘home to faith school transport’. That is provide a special subsidy to help children with parents of certain religions get to a school that inculcates their religion rather than attend their local school. Currently, 40% of all English Local Education Authorities (including Leicestershire) pay for such transport. This is at a total cost of £20.5M (2008/09) to the Council Tax payer.

Ninety out of one hundred and fifty-two Local Education Authorities (i.e. 60%) do not provide such transport.

The subsidy isn’t available for all children from a religious background travelling to ‘faith’ schools, nor to those of no faith, but only to a select few, whose parents follow a privileged religion and have “chosen” to send their children to a school other than their nearest allocated one.

The scheme defies logic.

How can it be right to provide transport to sectarian ‘faith schools’ but not to other schools? The County Council should not be funding/promoting and religion.

It is particularly idiosyncratic in that such transportation costs are provided predominantly for one denomination of the Christian religion, i.e. Roman Catholics. This clearly discriminates against people of other Christian denominations; other faiths and of no faith.

What possible justification can there be for granting privileges to just certain religious groups and discriminating against parents/children from other and non-religious backgrounds. Surely such a "religious preference" is essentially discriminatory and may well contravene both UK and European Law.

Removing this funding would not only save the council money, but would be treating everybody equally regardless of personally held beliefs.

If a parent decides they want their child to be introduced to the dogma of a particular religion, which requires that child to travel to a school outside their catchment area, then the responsibility for getting them to that school should lie solely with the parent. This is the case for parents who choose an alternative community school for their children for whatever reason.

It would appear that funding of this nature is a relic of a bygone era that has no place in today’s multi-cultural, multi-faith and increasingly no-faith society.

Let there be an immediate end to it.

21 May 2010

Christianity – When Did the Killing Begin?

Last night’s lecture at Secular Hall was given by Prof. Andrew Tobin of Leicester University. He’s a practising micro-biologist and also a believer in Christianity. It seems an earlier talk had prompted him to want to explain how being a scientist and being a Christian believer were entirely compatible.

As far as I’m concerned he failed in his mission – and what is more it seems he only succeeds in it in terms of his personal life by separating off his science and his religious beliefs into completely separate compartments in his psyche. Thus he seemed unable to deal with a simple question by one of the audience – ‘how, as a scientist, can you marry up your scientific method with your belief in the magic reported in the Bible – the miracles, the resurrection and ascension, the water into wine, etc?’

I’m sure that problem will be dealt with by others but something else he said got me thinking on a different tack. This was his emphasis on Christianity as a source of values and moral guidance for the way life should be lived. He spoke of the well-known doctrines of Jesus of Nazareth: love your enemies, forgive your enemies, turn the other cheek when attacked, show humility, sacrifice to save others, be humble, etc. By coincidence I had yesterday taken delivery of a book from the library which I had requested as I wanted to know more about the Council of Nicaea and how Christianity came to be adopted by the Roman Empire. It is entitled “Constantine – unconquered emperor, Christian victor”. The contrast in the title of this book and the teachings of Jesus got me wondering: how did Christianity move from being a religion of peace and love led by women (as it was) to one of martial achievement, the province of men? In other words, when did the killing begin?

We all know that Christianity’s history drips with blood. From the battles carried out by Constantine and his successors to subdue Roman and other Pagans, and force submission to the ‘holy’ Roman empire, the conversion of Pagans in Europe, through the crusades to recapture Jerusalem from another religiously motivated army (and on the way to kill thousands of other Christians in, of all places, Constantinople) onward through the conquistadors who took Christianity at the point of a bloody sword and lots of gunpowder to South America, on through the executions of ‘witches’, the Holy Inquisition, the Christian inspired pogroms against Jews in Eastern Europe and right up to the present day when Bush and Blair were self-admittedly on a crusade inspired if not ordered by their god to liberate Iraq from the anti-Christ of Sadaam Hussein. Real Christian history is a history of warfare and conquest very much in the tradition of the Old Testament, not the New. The solitary support for Jesus as an advocate of killing for conversion comes in Luke Ch.19 v.27 – “But bring here those enemies of mine, who do not want me to reign over them, and slay them before me”. (This does seem at odds with the general preaching of Jesus and Christian apologists offer explanations but it strikes me as being quite out of place even in the chapter quoted. There’s something odd about it altogether and this is the same chapter where Jesus rewards certain followers according to how much money they have made for him, rather than for the way they have conducted themselves.) The situation is greatly complicated by the general (though not universal) Christian insistence on keeping the Old Testament – the mythology of the Jews – as part of the Christian Bible. If we set aside the ambiguity injected into Christian theology by this practice my question is of great relevance: where along the way did the ‘headline’ preaching of Jesus get brushed aside in favour of the more direct approach – convert or die?

So, over to you, dear reader, when did the killing begin?


04 May 2010

Bite the Bullet - Vote Tactically

A great deal is now being said about tactical voting in Thursday’s general election. Labour ministers have dropped several hints and even made overt calls on Labour supporters to vote tactically for the Lib-Dem candidate (in Tory/Lib-Dem marginals) in order to prevent Tory gains. So far nobody on the Lib-Dem side has reciprocated. This is a result of their determination to appear confident they can displace Labour for second place in the popular vote and thereby establish a legitimacy for their primary goal of electoral reform. Think of the coming upswell of opinion against first-past-the-post if more people vote Lib-Dem than Labour and yet they come out with only one-third of Labour’s tally of seats. This is not at all unlikely. Because of the way the three parties votes are unevenly spread through the country the Lib-Dems would not win a majority of seats even if their popular vote was significantly greater than those of the other two parties.

It also indicates the Lib-Dems’ philosophical preparedness to work with the Tories in government and their belief that if the scenario pictured above came to pass then even the Tories could be forced to agree to an electoral reform referendum as the price of putting them in power.

If Cameron eschews that option and attempts to run a minority government he will be faced with an immediate Lib-Dem demand for a referendum on electoral reform. That would be supported by Labour. If he refuses the Lib-Dems would understandably embark on a strategy of Parliamentary disruption making government very difficult indeed. Cameron will then get nothing through at all – not even an emergency budget to launch the spending cuts necessary for market confidence to be maintained. In that scenario, with markets on the slide and an urgent need for drastic cuts in public spending, it is likely that Labour and Lib-Dems would combine in a vote of no-confidence to force a new general election in the autumn – with Labour by this time under a new leader. Barring ‘events, dear boy’ all bets would then be off and Labour could get back in with an understanding with the Lib-Dems that electoral reform would be a priority.

The political situation is more fluid now than for decades past. Many people will be thinking that here at last is an opportunity to vote for the party you really would like to see make advances, the party whose policies come closest to your wishes. For readers of this blog that is likely to be an anti-Tory party whether it be Labour, Lib-Dems, Greens, one of the socialist fringe parties or independents. Yet to do so is more likely now than ever to divide the anti-Tory forces and to result in a Cameron majority government. That means tax favours for the rich, cuts to education and benefits, lots more religious schools than even Labour was planning, dropping down a gear on climate change action and the annoying prospect of having a toff at the top, the Sun gloating and Lord Ashcroft piling up even more cash to pour into the Tory coffers.

In view of all this it is more desirable now than ever that people in the anti-Tory camp bite the bullet and vote tactically for a Lib-Dem where they have the best prospect of defeating an otherwise likely Tory winner. Don’t worry, the Lib-Dems will not win a majority or even as many seats as Labour.

After electoral reform is achieved then will be the time to indulge ourselves in voting with the heart.


27 April 2010

"Don't Vote, It Only Encourages Them"

Sunday night’s debate at Secular Hall was highly entertaining if a little narrow in its range. About 25 people attended.

Ross Longhurst proposed the motion “This House Believes We Should Not Vote” and Richard Johnson opposed.

Ross took the unreconstructed Marxist-Leninist view of the socio-economic system in which we live – it is capitalism with a ruling class that calls the tune whichever party is elected to ‘govern’ and however sincere its leaders might seem to be in seeking to advance the interests of the common people. The usual litany of facts was called upon to justify the claims: the common (private) schooling of the wealthy; nepotism; interlocking directorships of companies; a media that is owned by capitalists and promotes the capitalist system; extra-parliamentary pressure being applied by bankers, industrialists, landowners, etc; concessions to working class demands only made when it benefits the long-term interests of the ruling class; etc. Thus, voting only legitimises a system that is inherently anti-working class – and on top of this you can’t trust politicians anyway as they are only in it for themselves and invariably break the promises they have made at election time. People should have nothing to do with elections.

Regrettably, Ross said nothing about any alternative strategy for changing the system and I felt the thrust of his argument was that an almost exclusively extra-parliamentary workers’ struggle is being envisaged, where the working class, at some time in the future, will realise they have been hoodwinked, stop voting en masse, and rise up to overthrow the ruling class and establish a genuine workers’ democracy with totally new socialist institutions of power. As I say, nothing was said of this in the debate, only implied.

Again from within the Marxist paradigm, Richard Johnson took a more Gramscian view – sure we have capitalism but its structures are not monolithic. The ruling class does not have a unified common interest and the struggles of people over the centuries (for the vote, among other things) has led to real advances in wellbeing for the mass of the people. It was a betrayal of the sacrifices of those who struggled for the vote in the past that anyone should now advocate not voting. Thus, voting is one element of an ongoing piecemeal struggle for advances in rights and wellbeing, sometimes taking big steps forward, sometimes being beaten back – a to and fro of democratic struggle, within and without the legislature, that will continue to produce benefits for the working class and achieve constraints on the scope for the ruling class to call the tune. Gradually, it is hoped, the hegemony of the capitalist ruling class will be replaced willy-nilly by the hegemony of the mass of the people in a slow reformist process rather than a rapid revolutionary one.

I seem to recall that among Marxists these two views are characterised as the difference between a war of frontal assault and a war of manoeuvre.

Although silent in the discussion I felt that Richard’s view is not that far removed from the pluralist conception of mainstream modern ‘bourgeois’ political theory which portrays every sectional interest within the capitalist system as being free to campaign for the advance of things it wants while recognising, or accepting, that others have the same rights to argue for their sectional interests. Theoretically, changes then result from coalitions of common interests or proceed by horse-trading.

While Ross would argue, I think, that this analysis is a mere illusion fostered by the ruling class, Richard might be less dismissive, but perhaps emphasise that it fails to bring out the inbuilt advantages of the capitalist ruling class in securing its own interests. I believe he would also say that the Left should engage with it as part of a transformational process rather than accepting it as a permanent state of affairs.

When the vote came to be taken the motion was defeated by a margin of exactly 2 to 1 and I voted with the majority.

If I had spoken I think I would probably have taken something like an ‘old Labour’ view, arguing that capitalism has many serious faults but that market mechanisms do have great advantages in terms of managing a complex economy. The problematic issues are how to control and regulate private sector markets in such a way that the interests of the mass of the people are being served by them. This probably means public control of the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy like the banks and utilities; prevention of monopoly in non-state sectors; break-up of huge conglomerates; employee participation and management schemes; co-operatives; resources managed for the long-term; massive inheritance taxes; common schooling; productive employment as the basis for citizenship and benefits; etc. All these things could be achieved through Parliament, resulting from voting for the right parties, though there would be intense battles with the ‘ruling class’ (largely those with a vested interest in the status quo) along the way.

History tells us that achieving them through extra-parliamentary uprisings is not only a fantasy in the British context but is also by no means an assured route to anything and might easily end up with a dictatorship of a less palatable kind than Marx’s ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ that Ross seems to be aiming at – and even that does not have a great track record in achieving either the material welfare of the mass of the people or the protection of their civil liberties.

Only engagement in the democratic process as it has been won so far holds out the promise of long-term progress to a more just and egalitarian future.



20 April 2010

'Morality' and brain science

This follows from the end-point of the thread on the ‘morality of war’, picking up on Sam Harris’s views about ‘morality’ having a scientifically factual grounding in ‘the maximization of human flourishing’.

A few paraphrased quotes from Harris:

“That science can’t tell us about human values is an illusion. Values are a certain type of fact. Separation between science and human values is a dangerous illusion. Science can tell us how the world ought to be. Why no ethical obligations to rocks? – because they cannot suffer. We have concerns about other living things because they can suffer. All versions of human morality are reducible to a concern with conscious experience. Even religion that focuses on the life-after-death experience is similarly concerned. Failed states can be improved. We know there are right and wrong answers to how to move along the continuum – would adding cholera to the water help things? No. Would blaming things on the ‘evil eye’ help? No. Experience is realised in the brain. Personality is the product of the brain. Culture changes us by changing the brain. Mind science has a way in to conscious experience. A moral landscape. States of human wellbeing that we rarely access. Maybe some are mystical or spiritual. Can’t guarantee that science can map this space. If questions affect human wellbeing then they do have answers and maybe we can find the scientific answers to them. Just admitting this would affect the way we work together in the future. How have we convinced ourselves that every ‘moral’ point of view is worth considering? There are right and wrong answers to questions of human flourishing and morality relates to that fact.”

I go along with placing ‘human flourishing’ high up on the list of considerations in matters of choice of public policy but, unfortunately, brain science does not provide all the answers, or all the answers that we might be happy with, for identifying exactly what that means in practice. Sam Harris deals with the issue of the burkha as an example of where he feels a concern with human flourishing is quite clearly contradicted by a particular cultural practice – and where, consequently, he believes the obligatory wearing of the veil worthy of moral condemnation. The host, at the end of the talk, puts a different slant on things and it is worth exploring one eventuality that could be consequenct on Sam Harris's opinion that brain science will soon allow us to see what the brain is actually doing in different circumstances as a guide to what is best for human welfare.

I do not want to start a re-run of the debate about the burkha so please don’t go there for I am only using this as an illustration of the difficulties with laying down universals on the basis of alleged discoveries of brain science. The typical western view currently is that the burkha is a bad thing for women, ie is not a ‘morally’ good thing to do to women because it inhibits their freedom to participate in society, have 'normal' human interactions with others, etc., and marks them out as subordinates to males who are the ones that enforce the practice.

But what if brain science discovers that in fact men are more significantly sexually aroused by the sight of a woman's face and flesh unshrouded than we in the West are currently aware? Those eyes, lips, noses (only one, hopefully!), smooth shiny hair, arms, legs, the sway of hips, curve of buttocks etc.? And suppose brain science shows that this is a major contributory factor in the number of rapes and murders of women because many men find this sexual arousal very difficult to manage within the bounds of acceptable behaviour? The alleged universal concern for human welfare, Harris’s assumed scientific basis for ‘morality’, would then scientifically dictate that men must not be allowed to see women's faces or other exposed flesh or the shape of their bodies, except when unavoidable. This could be achieved by men being forced to wear blinkers or sleep masks, true, but these could probably in turn be scientifically proven to be even worse for human welfare owing to the fall in economic wellbeing, accidents, etc. that followed. So, let us say that it is possible that the burkha could be scientifically shown to be the best solution to adopt to minimise human harm and maximise human flourishing. Therefore, women should be ‘morally’ obliged, nay forced, to wear it, for the good of the human race as a whole.

At the very least this would require a rewriting of the Universal Declaration and some fundamental rethinking of practices right across modern western democracies: equal employment rights, segregation of the sexes, etc., etc. In fact the UK would have to be a lot more like Saudi Arabia than most of us would care to contemplate. The negative consequences might even lead the majority of women to accept that a certain level of rapes and murders would be an acceptable price to pay for the liberties most of them wish to enjoy – much like a certain number of road deaths is widely considered an acceptable price for the liberty of driving cars.

What I believe I am showing here is that the idea that brain science (or any other method) of establishing universal ‘moral’ rules/values is in itself inadequate to prescribe what we should do in terms of public policy – the writing of rules and laws. (And remember, alleged ‘moral’ concerns are a common precursor to the writing of laws.) What we do, and what we can only do in a pluralist democratic state, is consider matters in a practical way and arrive at conclusions on the basis of majority judgements as a result of an interplay and struggle between sectional interests, economic wellbeing of different groups, rights, freedoms, values etc, etc. Introducing some ‘universal’ ground rules like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights can only set out a majority view (as shown by the Islamic Conference’s attempts to rewrite them) but there will always be differences of opinion on how best to achieve the ends – even after discounting the delusionary notions of religious believers who have been convinced that only certain rules of conduct can prevent a person’s soul from being condemned to eternal torment in ‘the hellfire’ (views also derived from a concern with human wellbeing, albeit wellbeing in the afterlife).

So, contra Sam Harris, even were brain science to identify that certain practices reduce individual human flourishing in terms of physical and mental health this would by no means lead directly to rules or laws that all would accept for public and state enforcement as self-evidently ‘moral’. This example may do no more than illustrate the conventional rule in moral philosophy that you cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ without introducing an additional (value-laden) term into the argument.

More generally I have a beef with the current vogue for evolutionary psychologists to claim they have discovered the basis for ‘morality’ in the altruistic behaviours of certain species in certain circumstances. These ‘discoveries’ show that many humans have some natural tendency to care for each other and promote each others’ welfare which is a little in tension with the original Darwinian view that the key to natural selection is the chance suitability of an individual’s traits to reproduction in their given environment (later known as the way in which better adapted genes are passed on to future generations replacing less well-adapted genes). The discoveries indicate that selection can work at the level of the species not just at the level of the individual. From this, it is argued, we have the basis for a naturalistic ‘morality’ - humans caring for each other as part of a human nature. That is, these altruistic traits are said to underpin human progress and the evolution of social concerns that manifest in ‘moral codes’ placing human welfare at the apex of human social objectives. It is therefore assumed that being altruistic is the fundamental ‘moral’ imperative.

But altruism is not ‘morality’. Not only is it all too rare, or at best balanced by as many hostile self-centred traits as altruistic ones, but neither does it provide the basis for anything at all. It is just altruism. While altruism may be one ingredient in the mix of biological drives, aspirations and sectional interests etc. that produce ways of living it is not the be-all and end-all of the process.

We invent ‘morality’. By ‘we’ I mean the succession of human generations living in different places, in different circumstances, with different traditions and different power structures. In my humble opinion what we now call ‘morality’ began hundreds of thousands of years ago, possibly millions, as sets of behaviours that were established in early human clans. These, in turn, probably emerged from semi-instinctive behaviours like the pre-eminence of the alpha male or alpha female. Behaviours that paralleled what goes on today in other species like lions, meerkats, chimpanzees, etc. (These behaviours have obvious Darwinian origins in that that the genes of aggressive, jealous, physically larger males are more likely to be passed on to offspring as they frighten other males off from the available females.) Individuals who transgress the behavioural conventions of the species or clan are physically punished, killed or banished from the group. This has been observed frequently. When there is a kill to devour there is a pecking order, etc. These practices evolved to function as social rules. As time passed the brain grew larger and language developed, the position of the alpha male gradually became overtaken by collectives of elders, or the close kinsmen of the alpha male, though even now an alpha male occasionally pops up who is able to gain considerable power to lay down social rules through brute force. In the era of kingship this was the norm across the world.

With further social evolution and the accumulation of knowledge more widely across societies kingship practices were widely overtaken by other forms of rule making. Priestly castes, prophets, economically dominant classes, etc., were able to influence or establish new rules of social conduct that suited them or were the brainchild of particular individuals, sometimes on no more than a whim – eg that certain foods are not to be eaten, or certain parts of the body not exposed, or certain sexual relationships forbidden, or dead bodies disposed of with certain rituals.

In more recent times, with the development of representative institutions, political parties, pressure groups, organized religions, etc, almost anyone can establish a new rule, eg that blood sports are ‘immoral’ and should be abolished by the adoption of new legally enforced rules.

So what we have now is a huge, turbulent and chaotic ‘marketplace’ of ideas about human behavior with numerous individuals and groups, power-centres, trade bodies, churches, parties, pressure groups, etc, clamouring to get their opinions enshrined in law. The inspiration for the ideas promoted sometimes hark back to earlier times, to practices that have been and gone in human history, or are taken from alien cultures, or they claim to be expressions of natural urges of human nature. Others refer to their conscience and ‘natural’ emotional reactions.

And more often than not the proponents of new rules or the re-establishment of old rules claim that their proposals are ‘moral’ when current practice is ‘immoral’. Owing to the confusion around the origins and meaning of the terms these claims often cause others to stop and think because they seem to have some additional persuasive power, not dependent solely on the practical pros and cons of the proposal. It is possible, for example, that animal rights campaigners (who believe it is ‘immoral’ to farm meat) at some time in the future will succeed in making vegetarianism the rule and anyone caught eating meat will be punished for perpetrating an evil act.

But it is all illusion. There is no abstract right and wrong or good and evil. No scientific guide, no read-across from brain activity to rules that people are willing to make themselves subject to. Indeed, as soon as a new rule is established you can guarantee that others, who don’t like it (for whatever reason) will start to campaign against it as it is, in their eyes, ‘immoral’.

Hence my aversion to using the term ‘morality’ in any other than a sociological sense and I hope you never catch me making an argument for or against any practice on the basis that it is ‘moral’ or ‘immoral’.

My argument is a species of cultural relativism as far as the derivation of rules is concerned but I am not one of those who go that step further and say that anything goes, that rules produced from different cultures all have equivalent status and equal value. Far from it, for I argue myself that only the rules emerging victorious from vigorous debate of options, taking into account consequences, gains and losses, etc, etc, have what it takes to become respected ways of managing a society. This does not mean I will humbly submit to anything that emerges, however, for I too may feel something goes against the grain of my worldview, my ‘conscience’ or my personal interest. But I will not say it is ‘immoral’.

Harry Perry

April 2010

25 March 2010

Good Schools for Everyone

Last week the Leicester Mercury carried a letter from a parent about the difficulty of getting a Hindu child into a Roman Catholic state school. See Faith-school failings .

Today the Mercury publishes an edited version of my response. I don't of course dispute the editorial prerogative, and the gist is little changed, but the mood is somewhat emasculated. Here's what I sent in under the title

Good Schools for Everyone

It is a very sorry state of affairs when parents like Sabhash Varambhia (Mailbox, 20 March) cannot find a good local school for their children. Mr Varambhia thought the ethos of any so-called ‘faith school’ would be better than a secular one – but found the ethos of English Martyrs (RC) school to be ‘we look after our own – Hindus need not apply’. How starkly does the point need to be made that religious schools are by their very nature sectarian and divisive? Isn’t it time that we did away with the concept of ‘bad schools’? We’re told of the importance of choice, but exactly which parents are the ones who set out to choose a school with the intention of having it fail to give their children a good education?

All schools should be good schools but we’ll never get there by disproportionately favouring some over others as happens at present – that way the gap can only get wider and the pressure for parents to try and out-compete others by more and more extreme religious attendance (or more corrupt forms of cheating) can only become more irresistible. Is this the ethos for a harmonious society?

We would all like our children to be polite and considerate, and also creative and ambitious – to have all the opportunities to grow in their individual ways, to achieve what they can for themselves and society, and to play their part in making the future a better one for their next generations. While some religions may claim these principles as their own, they are in fact human values and do not depend on ‘holy’ teachings. We need really good schools for everyone, not just a handful for a self-perpetuating pushy minority.

If you'd like to compare, this version was printed: Good, bad – it's devisive (sic).

08 March 2010

The Morality of War

Yes, well, you may or may not know already that I don’t have much time for the word ‘morality’ on account of it being an all-things-to-all-men (and women) concept that is just wheeled out in an attempt to reinforce an argument that lacks any other grounds of persuasion. I’ve even done it myself at times - under pressure! But because of its ubiquity it has become fairly meaningless. There isn’t even enough agreement as to whether it refers to consensual codes of rules or just individual innate gut feelings to make it worthwhile using in debate.
Last night at Secular Hall a member of the audience (in responding to the talk about artificial intelligence [AI]) referenced drone weaponry – unmanned aircraft, tanks, machine gun posts, etc. and asked whether the developers of AI ever concerned themselves with the morality of such applications. I pointed out that there was no step change involved here – these weapons were actually controlled by humans but they were based many miles from the scene – out of harm’s way. But it was just a further development of remote control and remote killing. (I might have added that even when machines have been developed that can be given a mission ‘e.g. capture the Golden Gate Bridge’ and then left to work out how to do it all by themselves it will still only be a further form of remote control, not artificial intelligence, won’t it?)
‘Democratic’ imperial powers like the US, Britain and Israel are developing remotely controlled weaponry so that their governments can engage in wars to expand their spheres of influence without fear that a rising casualty list will pull the rug from under their feet at the next election.
In reality, attempts to do maximum harm to an enemy while minimising one’s own casualties must go back before recorded history even began. At one time, one can guess, early human clans fought each other over bits of turf by engaging in hand-to-hand combat, using fists and clubs, but well within range of opponents equipped with just the same sort of kit. In considering the history of warfare one might perhaps see this as a golden age when men were men, where there was an honesty and authenticity about it – seeing the whites of the other man’s eyes before attempting to knock him senseless. It is an aspect of martial relations, perhaps, that still continues in the boxing ring, governed by Queensbury Rules that ensure no underhand tactics are used.
But this ‘golden age’ must have ended the first time someone threw a rock at the enemy from a higher and possibly hidden vantage point. Or when spears developed for killing animals at a distance were turned to killing opposing tribesmen at a distance.
I very much doubt whether, at the time, victorious tribal elders sat around the campfire after a battle debating whether such tactics were ethical. So while I abhor the further development of weapons that enable powerful and wealthy governments to impose their will on poor and weak nations without any real risk to their own position, I have to say that I think the so-called ‘moral’ questions are irrelevant.

02 March 2010

Casualties of War

While not being a pacifist I generally support anti-war movements and scrutinise very carefully any plans emerging from our government to go to war over this or that issue. I was on the million plus march against the invasion of Iraq - and I think we made our point over the Taliban's accommodation of Al Quaida in Afghanistan some years ago. It's time to withdraw. While dragging Afghan society into the 20th century (sic) might be a laudable objective the fact is that we won't succeed in doing it. The baggage is too great and the very presence of foreign troops is almost the only reason why the Taliban continues to thrive. As in Iran, the domestic struggle for progress is far more likely to succeed than is foreign occupation. The long-planned invasion of Iran will simply make the forces of religious conservatism and intolerance stronger than ever.

But one aspect of the anti-war campaign strikes me as more than a little odd. This is the concentration on the level of British casualties.

Now don't get me wrong. The death of each soldier is a tragedy and, at least from a personal perspective, surviving as a badly disabled and severely disfigured person even worse. The parents and relatives of those killed are deserving of our immense sympathy - as are those of the war victims we cause.

But it has to be said that the lads and lasses who voluntarily join up know full well what they are getting into. It is not a matter of having no other employment choice. How frequently do we hear from grieving parents that their boy died doing what he loved doing? That he always wanted to be a soldier, that he couldn't wait to see 'action'?

In interviews with front line troops it is also common to hear the comment that they can't wait to get into battle, that it is the waiting around that is so boring. Whether they have got the ideas from violent video games, are following a family tradition or acting out a macho youth ideal, it would be patronising to infer that they don't know what they are doing.

Yes, they are sad to lose comrades, but they knew that would be the price, if not their own life then a mate for whom they felt great affection.

A few, I know, have joined up in recent years to give the Islamists a taste of their own medicine. These few feel duty bound to respond to 9/11 and 7/7 in just that way. But it is only a few - and in my view it is also misguided as it merely adds to the rationale used by the Islamists in recruiting new members to counter the 'invasion of Muslim lands by the infidel'.

In terms of campaigning for British withdrawal I appreciate that rising casualties is one of the best grounds on which to convince people that they should vote for a party that holds out the possibility of early withdrawal. But my feeling is that the soldiers on the ground won't actually vote that way at all. War has become their raison d'etre.

26 February 2010

Assisted Suicide - A Step Forward

The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), Keir Starmer, has done what he was instructed to do by the House of Lords – he has issued guidance to clarify the circumstances under which the DPP will seek to prosecute anyone who chooses to assist in the suicide of another.
While both sides in the debate have criticised the statement it is, in my view, a big step forward toward a law that will legalise assisting in the suicide of a loved one who no longer wishes to live but who is incapable of taking their own life. While not changing the law – it is still illegal to assist – the clarification recognises the change in public mood that makes it unlikely to secure convictions in certain circumstances – and thus a waste of public money to prosecute. It is now only a matter of time before Parliament accepts the inevitable and legislates accordingly, possibly along the lines of the tribunals advocated by Terry Pratchett.
The guidance makes it unlikely that someone will be prosecuted if the following conditions apply:
· They acted wholly out of compassion for the person they assisted
· The deceased had a clear and settled determination to die
In deference to disability campaigning groups the DPP included no reference to non-prosecution based on any physical or mental ailment of the deceased as this may have appeared discriminatory. In reality it will be only severely disabled people who will not be able to take their own lives without assistance but this did not need to be spelled out.
Why should this be an issue on which non-religious people have a special view? Well it isn’t really, the only reason why the non-religious might take a particular interest in it is that the churches have campaigned against any change in the law on the basis of real or imagined religious dogma. This was exemplified in the last ‘First Person’ column of the Bishop of Leicester, Tim Stevens, in the Leicester Mercury, 20th January 2010. Tim Stevens is now the most senior of the Anglican Church’s 26 placemen in the House of Lords so this is the policy of the Church of England.
Refreshingly, the Bishop made no reference to religious dogma but only said that ‘the law must recognise the absolute value of every human life’. Insofar as this phrase restates the underlying secular value adopted for the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (‘Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world’) I can have no quibble with it, but if the Bishop is trying to smuggle in some other notion then I most certainly do.
As noted before on this blog, Christianity, in common with a number of other religions, has not got an unblemished record in respect of the value of individual lives. Indeed, it has only got where it is today by having no regard at all for the lives of those who opposed it, be they ancient British Pagans, South American Aztecs or Muslim infidels in ‘the holy land’. It is not even clear to me that the New Testament, or any other monotheistic holy book (Torah or Koran), makes any unequivocal statement along the lines suggested by the Bishop. If they do I’d like to hear about it as my impression of the two latter examples, especially, is one of legitimising the unremitting taking of the lives of opponents of the religion in question.
Christianity has a history of parasitism on the ideas and practices of others. That’s why we have Christmas at the time of the Pagan festivities for the Winter solstice instead of some time in October when it is estimated Jesus of Nazareth was (possibly) born. It may well be that now the notion of human rights is embedded in modern culture the Christian churches want to claim it as their own. It isn’t.

24 February 2010

Saying Sorry

The current vogue for apologies for historic ‘wrongs’ is carried another step forward today with the Prime Minister’s apology for the policy of former governments and local authorities, right up to the 1960s, to ship certain babies and children off to Australia. Hitherto I had believed they had committed some sin like allowing themselves to be born out of wedlock or being so careless as to be orphaned, but ‘Bill’, interviewed on Today this morning, seemed to be saying they were just picked randomly. This can’t be so, can it? Someone would have said something, wouldn’t they?

Anyway, many of the thousands of kids transported in this way ended up as farm labourers in the Auzzie outback or, even worse, suffering the tender care of religious institutions like the Christian Brothers. Christianity, as we all know, is founded on the principle of an all encompassing love, on compassion and care, on forgiveness of those who trespass against you and of turning the other cheek when struck. Oh, were it so. Apart from the ludicrous mumbo-jumbo of the theology (the Trinity, the Creation, miracles, the Olympian gymnastic symbolism of this or that act by the founder, etc. [ref. Life of Brian]) we have the stark truth that throughout its history it has failed to deliver what it says on the tin. The betrayal of the gullible by the hypocrisy of the clergy continues right up to the present day as we see from the worldwide examples of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests and by British Army chaplains getting the chaps together for a prayer before they go off to kill people. But that is not my main concern today. It is apologies.

I’m sure much has been written already on the idea that governments, or nations, should apologise to the victims of earlier regime’s offences – for slavery, for the treatment of POWs, for genocides (real, alleged and denied), etc. I can see that it would be some sort of comfort to the victims, and often their descendants, that a historic ‘wrong’ had been recognised by the descendants of the perpetrators. It would be amusing, wouldn’t it, for the average Brit to hear Sarkozy apologising for the Norman invasion, and especially to hear Berlusconi apologising for the Roma invasion, sorry, I meant Roman. An apology might also represent an admission of guilt and, therefore, the basis for a compo lawsuit. There could be money for us in this, so don’t knock it too quickly!

But doesn’t it require a perverse idea of the concept of apologising for the descendant of a victim to demand an apology from the descendant of a perpetrator? This is the stuff of blood feuds in some remote island rather than of modern rationality, isn’t it? Even the Irish, that most grudge-bearing of nations, have come to realise that it’s just plain silly to carry on revenge-killing the other lot when you know full well that they are just going to come back and revenge-kill some of your lot.

Yes, there have been terrible injustices committed by this or that nation (or its leaders) against others. Yes, the perpetrators have often gained economically as a result and their descendants may still enjoy the inherited benefits of coming out on top, but this just points to the need to adopt policies in the present day that will work, in time, to ameliorate or reverse the consequences of the historic offences. Doesn’t it?

So when is an apology appropriate? We all know the answer – it is when YOU have wronged someone else, or harmed them in some way, and they have suffered as a result. If you knock a pint out of some bloke’s hand in the pub it is not only right that you apologise, it also makes good sense.(!) You have caused him a loss directly and it would be right for you to buy him a replacement pint. If an incompetent or negligent surgeon cuts your wrong leg off then you would expect an apology from him and compensation for your loss from the surgeon (or his employer or insurer). On the macro level one might also expect an apology from Tony Blair to the relatives of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed as a result of his and Bush’s crusade against their leader. It is current. It makes sense. But when it is generations later, by people completely disconnected from the events, then it makes no sense.

In relation to the deportation of kids to Australia the chief executive of Barnardo’s childrens homes has taken just this line. He says it’s his job to try to do whatever he can to make amends for Barnardo’s past bit-part in the tragedy. I think he’s right. And so it seems do the media, for they could have headlined his position as ‘Barnardo’s boss refuses to say sorry’ but instead they have put him up in a favourable light as compared to the – today he’s a wimp not a bully – Gordon Brown.

Homeopathy: Should efficacy be a separate question?

Taking part in the 10:23 "Homeopathy: There's nothing in it" campaign on 30th January was an interesting experience. The publicity stunt certainly generated debate and several people I've talked to since had no idea that homeopathy was not a herbal remedy. If the event did nothing more than inform people of that, then it was useful - and I am sure many homeopaths would applaud the spreading of accurate information. After all, they wouldn't want their customers to be misled, would they?
However, the vast majority of homeopathy supporters seem happy for these "medicines" to be marketed because, they say, they can work, even if only as a placebo, and they do no direct harm. Homeopathy used by practitioners who believe they are able to treat serious psychological/behavioural problems that require professional intervention or those who think they can prevent or treat malaria, AIDS or other deadly diseases are often overlooked by these proponents - "That's not MY homeopathy!" they cry.
It is interesting that these homeopathy supporters often change their stance when they are asked a simple question:
"Would you support a company marketing something as "Aspirin Tablets" which contained, statistically, zero aspirin, even though these tablets would also work as a placebo and, as sugar pills, would do no more direct harm than the homeopathic remedies you support?"
Of course, they recognise that this would be a scam and that any company marketing such a tablet would probably be investigated by a variety of official organisations bent on putting an end to the deception. Certainly, I suspect there would be an outcry if such a product were being sold by leading pharmacies or being prescribed on the NHS.
30C homeopathic pillules can be marketed legally as, for example, "30C Belladonna", when an entire 84 pillule container is unlikely to contain a single molecule of that ingredient. This gives it a legitimacy beyond anything that its promotion by high street stores can do.
There are those who point out that the labels on homeopathic remedies do not claim they contain any "active ingredients". Indeed, the actual ingredients may just be stated as being "sucrose and lactose". However, the label as a whole could still be misleading since a "Belladonna" pillule may contain no more belladonna than one from the container labelled "Arnica" - so why label them as one or the other?
For those who had a chuckle at our "overdose" and recognised the paradox - that taking more of the pills we were, in homeopathic terms, reducing our intake, please be reassured.... most of us swilled the sweeties....er....sorry... medicines down with copious amounts of water (or "homeopathic vodka" as someone joked). In this way, according to homeopathic "theory", it would seem we were increasing the potency to balance the "overdose" out.... of course, we didn't shake it first to "potentize" it... that must be where we went wrong!
Personally, I am glad I consider "similars", "infinitesimals", the "memory of water" and claims that these can have any affect on my health as completely ridiculous. If I didn't think it were nonsense, I might be very reluctant to drink any water at all considering it might "remember" all the bladders and sewerage systems it has been through!

23 February 2010

Sex Education and Religion

Today's headlines focus on the matter noted in yesterday's post - that the government has watered down its own bill on future personal sex and relationship education by caving in to pressure from the religious schools lobby. The bill does advance the cause of good sex and relationship education by establishing for the first time certain requirements on all state schools to address issues of sex and relationships. However, the requirement to give sex education in a way that encourages the acceptance of sexual diversity and with information about abortion and contraception has now been qualified by an amendment that allows religious (faith) schools to teach such matters in accordance with their own religious ethos.
A discussion between John Humphries and Ed Balls, Schools Secretary, on his amendment this morning brought out the problems. For example, a Catholic school (which already separates out and identifies its pupils as different from others, as believers in the 'one true faith') will be able to say that homosexuality exists but that it is considered a sin for which offenders will go to Hell; that abortion is available but that any girl who has one will be committing a sin and will go to Hell; that contraception prevents unwanted pregnancies (ref. previous point!) but that anyone that uses a condom will be committing a sin and will ...
Where does such an approach leave the teenager seeking an understanding of how best to conduct their sexual lives? When the sermon in school assembly tells the student that sex is bad and the sex education curriculum is pictured by teachers as an externally imposed requirement that they don't agree with? Confused, that's where.
The furore exposes, once again, that the whole attempt to revive religion through massive public funding of religious schooling is fraught with dysfunctionality and conflicts. Creationism v. evolution; diversity v. homophobia; sex education v. backstreet abortions; birth control v. overpopulation; healthy sexual activity v. guilt; STIs v. condoms; scientific method v. mythology; etc., etc.
Religious schools should not be funded from the public purse. Let the religious pay from their own pockets to indoctrinate their children in all the nonsense in which they specialise. Better still, make it a legal obligation that all children must attend open community schools that concentrate on education, not indoctrination.

22 February 2010

An orgasm a day

Last night’s talk at Secular Hall was an unusual one – all about sexual pleasure. Well, not exactly, but about how one city’s health authority, Sheffield’s, pioneered work on promoting health education about the benefits of sexual pleasure for young people, amongst all the other dire warnings about the dangers of sex.
Steve Slack talked about the pamphlet that led to a furore last summer (I must have been out of the country), with headlines in the papers like ‘an orgasm a day on the NHS’, or similar.
He was right about one thing, that outside of explicitly pornographic material very few people are comfortable talking about sexual pleasure – despite it being the main reason most of us take part in sex and without which one has to wonder whether there would be a human race at all.
Even in the world of humour, where comedians make frequent references to issues around sex, to much laughter, the humour always seems to rely on either straightforward smut or daring allusions to what we all know goes on in the bedroom, or back of a car, or public toilets.
It is perfectly understandable why secularists are more open to this kind of discussion than other folk for it is our bĂȘte noir, religion, and the conservation of ancient ideas and values that it always carries, that creates many of the problems around free and open debate about sex. And not just debate around sex but also the practice of sex and the celebration of sexual pleasure. Religions like Catholicism and Islam, in particular, have a very great deal to answer for in their never-ending efforts to suppress the free expression of sexuality. This suppression of natural human instincts, with strict rules about who can do what to whom, and how, backed by the threat of eternal punishment for breaking them, leads to the sickening, and widespread, hypocrisy of ‘celibate’ Catholic priests engaging in the sexual abuse of young children and the legitimation of paeodophilia offered by the 55-year-old prophet Mohammed’s marriage, and sexual relations, with the 9-year-old girl, Ayesha, who became his second wife. In a number of Muslim countries it is still considered normal for old men to marry children in just the same way, while religious strictures on sex only being permissible within marriage is circumvented by men (only) being allowed to have several wives and the practice of 24-hour ‘marriages’ to allow prostitution to flourish.
The guilt experienced by many people brought up in strictly religious families with their enjoyment of sex is a staple of both comedy and tragedy on the stage. The cult classic film ‘The Wicker Man’ exemplifies this as well as any doctoral thesis, with a Scottish Presbyterian policeman going to a remote Scottish island to investigate the ‘disappearance’ of a child. Soon after his arrival he discovers that the islanders are devotees of the ancient Pagan affirmation of the joy of sex and its fundamental role (for them) in promoting the well-being of their community. Too late he discovers that he has been lured to the island to form the centrepiece of a sacrificial rite intended to restore fertility to the island’s crops.
One aspect of the debate missing from the talk was the question of promiscuity. Sex education, its opponents assert, promotes promiscuity and should therefore be limited or conducted under religious control – this is a concession the religious schools lobby has just won from the government in an amendment to the legislation on personal health education going through Parliament at the moment. Steve Slack, said he was unsure what the word ‘promiscuity’ meant. In fact there is a perfectly adequate definition in any dictionary, along the lines of ‘having frequent and diverse sexual relationships, especially transient ones’. For many people, and not just those of religious persuasions, such behaviour does raise questions. I leave out here all mention of ‘morality’ as this is one of the most overworked and abused words in the language, especially by the religious. So what issues might atheists have with promiscuity? We tend to look at consequences of behaviour before passing judgement and while promiscuity may deliver on the important health benefits of regular orgasms it also tends to create problems that cause a lot of harm in its wake. The spread of sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies, the devaluation of intimate human relationships, the sexual objectification of others, and, not least, the trail of broken hearts, must all be brought into the equation. While sex education may attempt to deal with some of them its attempts are not universally successful, especially on the ‘soft’ side of human emotions and when dealing with young people whose behaviour is more often driven by riotous hormones, or social pressure, than coolly rational thought.
On balance, then, my conclusion is that sex education must deal with all aspects of sexual activity and that the consequences of promiscuity need to be discussed thoroughly, perhaps getting young people to reflect for themselves on the potentially negative consequences of unrestricted sexual activity, as well as on the positive benefits of regular orgasms.

21 February 2010

Origins of Scepticism

Last night's final episode in the History of Christianity series on BBC2 was entitled 'God in the Dock' and focussed on scepticism - i.e. doubts about God and the Bible as a historical document. Unfortunately, however, Diarmaid MacCulloch, the narrator, looked no further back in time than Baruch de Spinoza, the notionally Jewish philosopher who wrote in 17th century Amsterdam. Spinoza's scepticism concluded with the notion that Nature itself was God. MacCulloch then reported on the rise of scepticism since that time, incuding the whole Enlightenment and the growth of atheism through the achievements of science and the industrial revolution up to our own time when, under the impact of atheism and rationalism, the Christian church is riven with factions taking different positions on the nature of their god and the status of biblical writings. Like all religions it must be prone to factionalism because its fundamental ideas are built on sand and one interpretation is as good as another.

A little thought and research reveals that scepticism has much deeper roots and may well have been around right through human history, ever since the times when some thinkers first suggested that there were unseen forces at work behind natural phenomena, forces that they called gods or spirits. Why else would there be such emphasis in each of the 'holy' books on condemning unbelievers and insisting that the god of this or that holy book was real and the only god that people should believe in and worship? Only the existence of doubters would make such threats necessary.

In fact, the questionning of the existence of gods and ideas of atheism are known in recorded history as far back as ancient Greece. Wherever, in fact, that humans put any serious thought into devising satisfactory and convincing explanations of the natural world that don't rely on empty words or phrases to cover up ignorance and fear.

17 February 2010

Intellectual Honour

Frederick J Gould was Secretary and Organiser at Leicester Secular Hall from 1899 until 1908. He was a prolific writer of books, newspaper, magazine and journal articles for children and adults. The following snippet is from his Stepping-Stones to Agnosticism (no date):

We do not wantonly doubt. We make no boast of the failure of our vision to penetrate the secrets of infinity. Forced by the imperious necessities of reason to renounce the popular faith, we regret our severance from time-honoured churches and their hallowed associations. We would fain enter and join the assembly. But the price of entrance is one that intellectual honour and moral dignity forbid us to pay.

16 February 2010

Mercy Killing

I just happened to catch that part of the programme last night where Ray Gosling confesses that he suffocated his lover in his hospital bed many years ago because they had an understanding on this matter and the chap was in pain and suffering from terminal AIDS. The doctor either didn't suspect anything or turned a blind eye out of a similar kind of compassion. I was in a similar situation some 15 or 20 years ago when my aged favourite aunt was bedridden in a nursing home, profoundly deaf and blind and suffering from dementia. She called out continuously for her mum (long since dead) and also shouted frequently that she wanted to die. She was a prisoner in her own now useless body and the sensory deprivation had literally driven her mad. I considered seriously the option of suffocation when other visitors were out of the room but did not do it. At the time I was a single parent with two young children to care for and this responsibility stayed my hand - a spell of imprisonment for me would have damaged their lives irreparably.

But if I had not had that responsibility I wish I would have had the courage to see it through in what must surely be one of the most humane impulses anyone can have - to put a loved one out of their misery even at the risk of heavy punishment. I hope Ray Gosling has nothing more to worry about than a serious interrogation by the police.

15 February 2010

Valentine Innovation

Wasn't it good to see everyone getting active on Valentines this year? I've not known so much fuss made of it before. Radio Leicester and East Mids BBC TV had features and Leicester Secular Society had a love poetry evening hosted by the 'Book Doctor', Alison Dunne, and member Bobba Cass. St Catherine's Church in Burbage had thirty couples renewing their vows 'with the help of God'. Atheists don't have God's support for their loving so they have to muddle through alone, but apparently none the worse for it. My atheist better half and I stayed in for a romantic meal before watching a rather unsettling film, 'The Comfort of Strangers', about a couple who went to Venice to revive their flagging relationship. It looked as though the plan was doomed to failure until they were befriended by a couple with very dark ulterior motives. The experience did bring them closer together, however, but only one return ticket was needed by the end of the film!
The churches try to maintain a monopoly on life's rituals but it is doubtful if they'll be able to pull it off over Valentines. But they do seem to have cornered the market in memorials for soldiers killed in our foreign wars. Inevitably, with around one quarter of our population having no religion, there must have been many non-believing soldiers buried and remembered with Christian rites. It's about time something was done about this so that atheist soldiers get the kind of memorial of which they might approve.