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.