06 February 2011

The fallibility of religion

Our President Emma Chung responded to a letter in the Leicester Mercury fromDr Clive Marsh, Director of Learning and Teaching at the Institute of Lifelong Learning, University of Leicester (www2.le.ac.uk/departments/lifelong-learning)
who stated:
Behind the headlines created by Baroness Warsi's talk at the University of Leicester recently was a basic concern which many, religious or not, might agree with: the need for a better understanding of religion in society.
It is widely accepted by people across the political spectrum, and with widely differing views about religion, that you don't really understand British culture without grasping religion's place within it.
Even if you think religion's a bad influence, and the Church should be kept well apart from the state, it is vital to know something about Britain's Christian past, and about the many different religions which feature in British society.
But how do we develop our knowledge of faith traditions? Where do we discuss openly and honestly the role that religions play in society? In Leicester, we have ample opportunity for informal interaction with people of many faiths and none. We just need to talk to neighbours, or with those with whom we work or spend our leisure time. This is the benefit of living in a "multi-cultural" society, though it's rightly been said that "multi-cultural" often means in practice that we live alongside those of different cultures and faiths. "Inter-culturalism" should be what we aim for, where there is genuine interaction between people.
We might, though, want something more formal. We have in Leicester two faith-based training institutions (the Markfield Institute of Higher Education and the St Philip's Centre) both of which offer courses open to the public to assist in the development of the understanding of religion. The work of Leicester Council of Faiths is also well-known.
But where might the "faith-suspicious" meet the "faith-based" in a constructive, respectful way? Two days before Baroness Warsi's speech I attended "Skeptics in the Pub" which meets monthly at Square Bar in the centre of Leicester. I didn't find the discussion quite as rational and evidence-based as the group might like to think. But I'd love to see the people there meeting up with the many religious people I know to have a serious conversation. It would help the literacy of all.
A university is not a "neutral" space, despite its own quest for scientific methods which are as objective as possible. But it is a place where this longed-for conversation might happen. It is not to be claimed by any single religious group. The Institute of Lifelong Learning's part-time Certificate in the Study of Religion could entice people to study at university level for the first time. And by studying religion, those of any faith or none could understand themselves and their society better, and gain useful critical skills at the same time.
 Emma responded with this letter:
I agree with Dr Marsh that a better understanding of religion and its place in British society is desperately needed (First Person, January 27) – particularly the influence of religion within the wider historical and social context.
British history is heavily steeped in religious conflict, and British culture is brimming with antiquated notions of religious morality, especially in attitudes to women and sexuality. It seems to me that religious groups tend to embrace inter-cultural initiatives while conveniently overlooking the negative impact of organised religion on history and wider society.
It can be uncomfortable for people of faith to acknowledge the atrocities and fallibility of religion, but I feel this is a necessary step in finding better solutions for a peaceful society.
If we promote "religious literacy" this not only needs to involve gaining an understanding of other religions, we also need to encourage faith communities to understand their own religions better, and foster a "social literacy" that encourages religious groups to accept some responsibility for the influence of religion on communities as a whole. All too often, arguments supporting better interactions between faiths are marshalled to promote understanding of other faith groups rather than a critical analysis of one's own faith, or faith in general.
The long history of rationalist free thought in the UK and Leicester shows that it is possible to reconcile a rational dialogue and healthy scepticism of religion, while embracing discussion with faith-based groups, and actively supporting freedom of religion and belief.
Leicester Secular Society and its long-standing lecture programme on religion, science and philosophy is a local and national institution which more than stands the test of time alongside the religionist "training institutions" that are mentioned in Dr Marsh's article.
Her letter produced a "prayer" from Harry:

Amen to that Emma. It would also be good if people took a little more trouble to find out what secularism really is and how a secular state would protect the rights of all people whether religious or not. One thing that always seems to be missing from 'inter-faith' and 'cross-cultural understanding' initiatives is the huge number of people who are non-religious. In Leicester they are the biggest group of people after Christians yet you would never know it to read the Mercury or listen to politicians who seem always so keen to get the religious vote. Prayers for this or that at churches get reported but never the proceedings of the Secular Society!
Keith then intervened:
It can be equally uncomfortable for secularists to acknowledge the atrocities and fallibilities of their own atheistic faith. We all believe something - and those with an atheistic worldview have been directly responsible for many, MANY times more deaths than can possibly be attributed to any other faith. Hitler justified his murder of the millions of 'undeserving' Jews, Poles and disabled, on the Darwinian 'logic' of 'survival of the fittest'. He named his 'better solution for a peaceful society' the 'Ultimate Solution'. Pol Pot and others have acted similarly. Not much of a recommendation for secularist atheism!
 I then responded:
I'd point out that atheists are simply people who don't believe in any god(s). That's it. There is no doctrine of "atheism".

Atheists can be secularists, humanists, communists, fascists, socialists, non theist christians, stamp collectors, humanitarians, train spotters etc.etc. The label tell you nothing apart from a lack of belief in the supernatural.

Hitler was not an atheist. He was officially a catholic and unofficially a nutter who appears to have believed in some aryan spirits.

Stalin and Pol Pot were communists who happened to be atheists. It was communist ideology that led them to do what they did.

Some secular atheists had a hand in the universal declaration of human rights. But that was not because they were atheists, but because they were human beings who wanted to try and improve the human condition.

This provoked these posts:
Keith, London:
That's exactly it, John. Your faith, as you yourself say, is that there are 'no gods'. Whether you deny it or not, that 'faith' inevitably and unavoidably has an impact upon your worldview, and therefore directly influences your behaviours. In exactly the same way, my own belief in a supreme God inevitably impacts and influences my behaviour. Like it or not I must acknowledge, for example, that I am accountable to a higher authority for the way that I use the life he has given me. The atheist mind that chooses to reject God is entirely free from these restraints, which is exactly why Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot have been free to create a world of their own choosing. This is the world of Darwin - the survival of the fittest. If you don't like where it takes you, then think again.
Peter Wigston:
"Stalin and Pol Pot were communists who happened to be atheists."

This argument does not stand up when you consider that Stalin forced all of USSR to abandon all religion in public, closing or demolishing the churches.

This indicates he was primarily an atheist who adopted communism.

But the leaders of Religion need to combat the increasingly selfish nature of society if they are to be taken seriously.
My response was:
Re. Stalin (extracts from Wikipedia).
At ten, he began attending church school where the Georgian children were forced to speak Russian. 

At sixteen, he received a scholarship to a Georgian Orthodox seminary, where he rebelled against the imperialist and religious order. Though he performed well there, he was expelled in 1899 after missing his final exams. The seminary's records suggest he was unable to pay his tuition fees.
Shortly after leaving the seminary, Stalin discovered the writings of Vladimir Lenin and decided to become a Marxist revolutionary, eventually joining Lenin's Bolsheviks in 1903.

Communism is anti-religious, seeing religions as rival ideologies. Hence the need to restrict and oppose religion.

Atheism is not a ideology, it is simply the lack of belief in supernatural beings. It has no creed and requires no kind of behaviour either good or bad.

"With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion. " Steven Weinberg

Launch of Census Bus Campaign

The Society with the support of Skeptics in the pub recently announced the launch of this campaign and achieved good coverage in the Leicester Mercury.

The article began:
People who claim to be Christian when they do not practise the religion are creating a "misleading" picture of Britain, it has been claimed.
Leicester Secular Society is calling for non-believers to tick the 'no religion' box on this year's census.
The society says that during the 2001 census, many people felt compelled to answer 'Christian' when it came to their religious belief, either out of habit or because they felt they ought to.
But it says that doing so leads to inaccurate figures, which are then used to justify policies that "do not reflect the real demographics of our society".
 The piece attracted 45 comments, but unfortunately many concentrated on accusing the Society of targeting Christianity and ignoring Islam.

Kulgan began:  
I wonder what would be said if the Leicester Secular Society said 'People are Muslim but do not practice Islam should tick No Religion'?
 and subsequently said:
My comment is on the fact that Leicester Secular Society have taken the easy option of targetting Christians because they know the uproar they would cause if they had said the same against Muslims? Whether that is right or wrong is another issue.

Leicester Secular Society who purport to promote equality seem to targetting one particular religion. Religionism, or the true colours of LSS coming to the fore?
Matt made an observation:
Look, it's common sense. It's implausible that 7 out 10 people in this country can be genuine christians, I can hardly think of a handful out of the 100's possibly 1000's of people I have met over the years that have any religious beliefs at all. The majority of those people were white so it's common-sense to make the assumption that the census is painting a hugely distorted picture of the religious make up of this country.

Ned put the Society's viewpoint:
According to the 2010 British Social Attitudes Survey, those who profess no-religion as an identity have risen from 31% to 43% between 1983 and 2008. Yet the 2001 census data suggests that this figure is only 14.8%. The Census also concluded that there were more Jedis than Jews. This the reason for the Secular Society campaign.

The Society is NOT singling out Christians, since there are plenty other people who might identify themselves as Muslims or Hindhus without really being believers. Religion is a belief and you cannot really still be a Christian/Hindhu/Muslim/Jew if you cease to believe.
hmmm then intervened:
Kulgan has a point. Isn't it about time these particular secularists are had for religious discrimination? That will wipe the smile off their faces, and their enjoyment in convincing people that there is no god, but not offering any alternative. 
I responded:
Not sure how Leicester Secular Society http://www.lsec.org.uk could be "had" for religious discrimination. The talks at the Hall include people from all backgrounds. Tomorrow (3/2/11) Dilwar Hussain, Head of the Policy Research Centre at the Islamic Foundation, Markfield, Leicestershire (http://www.islamic-foundation.org.uk/User/Home.aspx) will be giving a talk on "British Secularism and Religion".

I think it is also incorrect to accuse the members of Leicester Secular Society of only ever targeting Christianity for criticism. Take a look at the letter "Islam: A lifestyle choice" http://www.thisisleicestershire.co.uk/letters/Islam-lifestyle-choice/article-3158705-detail/article.html. However, based on the census, Christianity is be far the largest religious group and it is the established religion. Removing religious privilege is at the core of secularism and so an established church will always be something that the Society opposes.

As to "any alternative", this is what it says on the membership application form:
I then listed the Principal Aims of Leicester Secular Society.

This provoked hmmm to say:
What utter lies!!! If you truly believe that there is no god.. faith etc why go around widely publisiing utter crap on adverts etc. You just excel in making people miserable and giving them no hope. And yes you do focus on christianity as you see it as weak and unable to answer back. Its cowardly that you don't pick on those who get offended much more easily in a city like Leicester. the trouble is as christians they are told to turn the other cheek, so they wouldn't say anything back and extremist secularists like you portray yourself here as get away with it.
I responded:
Please specify where I have lied.

hmmm, leicester also said:
"If you truly believe that there is no god.. faith etc why go around widely publisiing utter crap on adverts etc. You just excel in making people miserable and giving them no hope".

I would suggest that religion in general far excels secularism in "making people miserable". Going around worrying about whether or not you are going to end up in hell is not a good way of feeling joyful. I believe this is a particular problem with the Muslim population as well as the more literalist interpretations of Christianity.

hmmm, leicester also said:
"And yes you do focus on christianity as you see it as weak and unable to answer back".

Christianity "weak and unable to answer back"? Please pull the other one. For a start you are answering back (and I would strongly defend your right to do so). Lets see - 26 Bishops in the House of Lords, a free column for the Bishop in the Mercury each week, "Thought for the Day" every morning on Radio 4, in most state schools a Christian form of worship every day is prescribed by law, predominant religion in Religious Education syllabus, 70% of the population being believers  (according the the last census). I could go on.

05 February 2011

Baroness Warsi Controversy

The speech by Baroness Warsi at Leicester University provoked several letters from members of the Society and comments in the Letters area of the Mercury.

The first comment published was from Harry Perry "Some Muslims are extremists" on 26 January. His main point was made at the beginning of the letter:

You report (Mercury, January 21) Baroness Warsi saying that making a distinction between "moderate" and "extremist" Muslims fosters prejudice against Muslims as a whole.

This is surely nonsense. We make these same distinctions in respect of all political and religious groups. For example, her own government has just barred the American Christian pastor Terry Jones from Britain because he holds "extremist" views!
Click here for the full letter.

The only comment this raised was "Excellent letter".

The next letter "Confrontation will not create a better society" from Allan Hayes  on 28 January began:
I came away from last week's speech by Baroness Warsi deeply disturbed: I am even more disturbed after reading her speech to the College of Bishops (http://bit.ly/ fA9lTT). Islamophobia, bigotry and ignorance are certainly to be combated by us all, on that there can be no disagreement, and we all recognise the good work done by religious charities – it is her views on the wider issue of religion and society and her lack of recognition of the good work done by others that concern me.
We have a dynamic and effective politician who is giving the impression to the religious, particularly Muslims, that religion is under attack from the non-religious; and to the non-religious that government is pushing religion on them. This is not helping anyone.
 Click here for full letter.

This letter attracted a few snide remarks such as:
" She could have mentioned how we came together against the English Defence League."

Over half the EDL arrests where Leicester people, hard to believe the whole of Leicester is against the EDL. How many of our Muslim friends live in Braunstone for example?
 However, the letter that really got readers going came from Lyn Hurst on 29 January with the title "Islam: A lifestyle choice"
Here is a secular view of what Tory peer Baroness Warsi said on your front page (Leicester, January 21).
It was simply a demand that Islam is above criticism. She claims "prejudice against Muslims in Britain is at an all time high", but offered no evidence to support this claim, unless you count the e-mail she received as an example of prejudice against Muslims.
But the e-mail was nothing more than a concise sentence typical of hard political debate, that used a play on halal, which is indeed a Muslim custom/superstition hated by many, especially animal rights folk, that seemed a fair way to have a dig at her to me.
This is the e-mail: "Instead of bleating like some halal lamb being led to the slaughter, how about ending the knee bending to Islam at every opportunity."
This is mild indeed compared to the messages sent from Islamists to their critics.
She goes on to confuse race with religion. She tries to draw a similarity between racism to the Jews and criticism of Islam, but she is wrong; criticism of Islam is equal to criticism of Zionism – criticism of an ideology. Does Warsi think Zionism above criticism?
Opposition to Islamic aims, as to how we should all lead our lives are not racist, but ideological, as they are with any political creed we may oppose.
When asked whether she still faces regular discrimination, she said: "On the basis of my race? Less so. On the basis of my religion? More so". So Baroness don't be a Muslim, give it up! It's not compulsory. Here in Leicester it's a free choice, unlike being Jewish or Asian. If Warsi is attacked for being Asian, that is racist and she must be defended from that, but when she is criticized for freely following a lifestyle ideology many of us disagree with, she must expect hard arguments against that choice.
Especially as someone who has excepted an unelected, privileged, and well paid role in the Government on the Tory side!
She states that anti-Islamic sentiment is bigotry, so she can call those of us who are critical of Islam bigots, but we must, in her words, "be urged to be more careful about what they say about religion".
Why? She must extend the same freedom of speech to those of us who disagree with her, as she received on the front page of the Mercury.

This provoked 17 comments including a rant from a suhail ahmad.

Harry Perry and I attempted to deal with his points.

Harry's post contained:

1. Lyn Hurst ceased being President of Leicester Secular Society four years ago. The current President is Ms Emma Chung.
2. The questioning of halal and kosher meat is only a religious one in so far as religious people have obtained exemptions from animal welfare law to practice it. Secularists oppose religious exemptions to laws that should apply to all. Thus it is not anti-religious bigotry that leads secularists to question it but the exemptions.

I attempted to deal with his posts point by point.

SA"However, you have not referred to christianity as 'superstitious customs'. Oh no, instead you reserve this derogatory title only for Islam and its' adherents".

Lyn was only addressing the issue of Islam. I'm pretty certain that if you checked out his record he has in the past described all religions based on the supernatural as "superstitious custom". I am certainly happy to bracket them all together.

SA "To deny halal meat to muslims is a persecution of their basic human rights".

First of all there are different versions of halal meat. Some of them meet the regulations. Secondly why is the denial of halal meat a persecution of human rights? If you don't want to eat the meat available you can be a vegetarian or vegan - many so choose.

SA "What authority do you have to impose your heretical belief systems upon another individual?"

So secularism is heresy? Where did Lyn seek to impose any belief system on Muslims or anybody else? As far as I can see he is suggesting that all should be subject to law and that we should have freedom of speech to criticise the ideas and beliefs of others (subject to the restrictions of law which prevents incitement to violence and hatred of other citizens).

SA "You have also foolishly claimed that Islam is just a lifestyle choice. By your idiotic argument, the same could be said of christianity, judaism and any other religion and of it's adherents."

First of all I'm sure Lyn would class all religions (along with Humanism etc.) as lifestyle choices.

I have been told by many Muslims that in their version of the religion "There is no compulsion in religion" is what they believe. In which case Islam, along with other religions is a lifestyle choice.

SA "For the record, Islam is not a lifestyle choice (unlike choosing to be a atheist/secularist like you, a vegetarian, teetotal, an alcoholic or even a drug addict)".

If it is not a lifestyle choice, what is it? Or are you saying the your version of Islam prescribes death for apostates so there is no real choice?

SA "However, muslims have never claimed race discrimination. We have always stipulated religious disrmination (which actually became an article of British law since 2007 or 2008 because this was an area of basic human rights completely ignored by the race discrimination act).

Religious discrimination is defined as preventing an individual from practising any aspect of their faith".

Religious discrimination is certainly not so defined. Otherwise I could claim to follow the Aztec religion and go in for Human Sacrifice.

Wikipedia has a reasonable description: "Religious discrimination is valuing or treating a person or group differently because of what they do or do not believe" .

SA "What Mr. Hurst and other people like him are trying to achieve, is the incremental prohibition of facilities that are available to muslims in order to practice their faith. First they will want to outlaw halal meat. Then they will want to outlaw headscarves. Next, they will want to outlaw places of worship (ie - masjids)."

Mr. Hurst is a member of Leicester Secular Society (see www.lsec.org.uk ). This is what members sign up to:

Practical Humanity.
Our efforts should be devoted to elimination of human misery, injustice, poverty and ignorance in the world as it is here and now.
We oppose teachings that divert people away from realities, into inactive fatalism, supernatural worship, or superstitious ritual.

Free Speech.
People should be allowed to express and publish their views, however controversial, without fear of persecution, prosecution or physical harm, so long as they allow others the same freedom.
We advocate separation of church and state, withdrawal of special privileges of religious organisations, and secularisation of church schools.

Rational Argument.
Anyone should be prepared to submit their views to vigorous argument, questioning their assumptions and testing their conclusions.
We refuse to believe or act on anything without evidence, just because some authority says so.

Working Together.
Moral values like kindness, loyalty and honesty derive from the need of people to live together in a peaceful and constructive manner.
We oppose bigotry and coercion based on factors such as beliefs, racial and ethnic origins, disability, sex, age, sexuality or lifestyle.

What we oppose is religious privilege, which is what SA appears to be asking for.

SA"The vast majority of muslims are peaceful, law abiding citizens and we only ask that we be allowed to live our lives in peace and without the fear of being attacked. The vast majority of muslims, including myself, would never impose my belief or lifestyle upon a person of a different faith, although we do welcome with open arms inter-religious dialogue, as it helps to strenghten community ties between people of different ethnic and religious heritage. "

At last something sensible with which I can agree.You can substitute atheist, christian, agnostic, jew, hindu, secularist etc for muslim and it would still hold true for nearly all such people.

Perhaps there is hope for us all after all.