Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Godless British politics: two out of three ain't bad

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Prescient: political theorist M. Loaf predicted
the Godless state of British politics as early as 1977
Two years ago, AC Grayling suggested that the rise of David Miliband within the Labour Party had raised the chances of Britain acquiring an atheist Prime Minister. While it turns out Grayling picked the wrong brother, it would seem he more or less called it correctly, as the new Labour leader Ed Miliband revealed on Radio 5 Live this morning that he doesn't believe in God. Of course, he made sure he threw in what we might call the "Clegg compromise", pointing out that he respects those that do:
“I don’t believe in God personally but I have great respect for those people who do and different people have different religious views in this country. The great thing is that whether we have faith or not, we are by and large very tolerant of people, whatever their particular view.”
So, of the three main party leaders, two are self-confessed atheists. And, as the great political theorist M. Loaf posited in 1977, "two out of three ain't bad".

On a more serious note, of course, a party leader's personal view on religion isn't really the issue. The main concern for secularists is how they view the role of religion in public life. Where, for instance, do they stand on faith schools? We're yet to find out where Ed Miliband will position his party on these issues – writing for Comment is Free, Labour MP Stephen Timms thinks Labour must "do God", and it's interesting to note, as Timms points out, that one of Miliband's first acts as leader was to speak at the Christian Socialist Movement's 50th anniversary reception.

US cartoon strip rejected for even mentioning Muhammad

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Via the MediaWatchWatch blog, we learn of a bizarre case of self-censorship in the US, in which "upwards of 20" newspapers rejected an edition of Wiley Miller's popular Non Sequitur cartoon strip on the grounds that it depicted "a lazy, sunny park scene with the caption, “Picture book title voted least likely to ever find a publisher… ‘Where’s Muhammad?’"

An amusing satire on the widespread fear of publishing anything that comes close to depicting the Prophet Muhammad, don't you think? Sadly, satire appears to be dying, as editors go one step further by displaying a fear of publishing anything that comes close to satirising the widespread fear of publishing anything that comes close to depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

Speaking to the Daily Cartoonist, Miller said “the irony of editors being afraid to run even such a tame cartoon as this that satirizes the blinding fear in media regarding anything surrounding Islam sadly speaks for itself. Indeed, the terrorists have won.”

It's the latest example of Muhammad-related censorship in the US, with TV network Comedy Central coming under criticism earlier this year for censoring an episode of South Park which hinted at showing a depiction of Muhammad, without actually doing so. That incident prompted cartoonist Molly Norris to draw a cartoon calling for an "Everybody Draw Muhammad Day" on 20 May this year. When this led to an internet campaign to actually go ahead with the day, which led to Facebook being blocked in Pakistan, Norris distanced herself, saying she hadn't actually intended for the day to go ahead: "I, the cartoonist, NEVER launched a draw Mohammed day. It is, in this FICTIONAL poster sponsored by this FICTIONAL GROUP". Nevertheless, Norris has received death threats, and has this month gone into hiding with the help of the FBI.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Cardiff councillor John Dixon cleared over "Stupid Scientology" tweet

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News just in - John Dixon, the Cardiff councillor accused of breaking the council's code of conduct for writing “I didn’t know the Scientologists had a church on Tottenham Court Road. Just hurried past in case the stupid rubs off” on Twitter last year has been cleared at a meeting of the council's Standards and Ethics Committee this afternoon. Dixon, fresh from the meeting, tweeted:
"Standards and Ethics Cttee have decided 7:1 no evidence of failure to comply with code of conduct over#stupidscientology. It's all over!"
Sanity prevails in Wales! Now we can all sit back, watch Panorama at 9pm tonight and find out just how stupid Scientology can be.

Sweeney v Scientology: round two

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Three years ago, BBC journalist John Sweeney's bold attempt to break through the Church of Scientology's evasive façade and challenge some of its leading lights on its abuses and the sheer ludicrousness of its doctrines ended in infamy as he lost his cool and ranted at Church spokesman Tommy Davis.

Nevertheless, Sweeney's resulting Panorama documentary was a huge success, providing a rare mainstream media insight into the litigious cult. Since the programme was broadcast, some of Scientology's then-top figures, including Mike Rinder and Marty Rathbun, have left the Church, citing irreconcilable differences with leader David Miscavige (they continue to be "independent Scientologists"). So, John Sweeney has gone back for more, with Rinder and Rathbun as whistleblowers.

Panorama: The Secrets of Scientology is broadcast tonight on BBC One at 9pm - what more could you ask for on a Tuesday night?

It seems one of the people Sweeney speaks to in the programme will be Marc Headley, a Scientology defector who I interviewed earlier this year for New Humanist – he told me about the forced labour and sheer madness at the heart of Scientology, so it might make a good preview read before tonight's documentary.

Also, it's worth noting that, on the same day as the Panorama is broadcast, John Dixon, the Cardiff councillor accused of breaking the council's code of conduct after calling Scientology "stupid" on Twitter, faces his "standards and ethics committee" hearing. Good luck to him. Hopefully he'll be able to sit back in peace tonight and watch Sweeney demonstrate just how stupid Scientology is.

And in case you need a recap, here's the video of Sweeney's 2007 meltdown:

Wardrobes and masturbating mice: censoring children's books

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This week is Banned Books Week, in which the American Civil Liberties Union highlight the censorship of children's books in the US, particularly in "Bible Belt" states. Over on the main New Humanist website, children's author Anne Rooney reveals the themes and images that fall victim to the censors (all sorts of things from Tibet, to Israel-Palestine, to masturbating mice, mini-penises and free-standing wardrobes) and explains how the censorship affects the UK children's book market too.

Banned Books Week isn't a solely an American concern either – to coincide with the US version, the UK Banned Books initiative, showcasing "50 books that are mad, bad and dangerous to read", is taking place in libraries around the country.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Intelligent Design comes to Glasgow

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Further evidence that we mustn't become complacent about the creeping influence of creationism and Intelligent Design here in the UK is provided by the establishment of a new "Centre for Intelligent Design" in Glasgow. Here's the blurb from their website:
"The Centre for Intelligent Design is an independent organisation which has been set up by a network of volunteers across the UK and who have professional interests in education, science, medicine, business, and the law.

It is funded by contributions from individuals and organisations who support its aims.Its specific objectives are to:
  • promote the professional investigation and public debate of Intelligent Design
  • challenge, on the scientific evidence, the neo-Darwinian claim that the development of life is purely the result of undirected forces
  • encourage consideration of the wider implications of Intelligent Design.
CID will mount a range of public and academic lectures, and distribute both print and electronic publications."
The centre's president is Professor Norman Nevin who, in addition to being professor emeritus of medical genetics at Queen's University, Belfast, is a Christian lay preacher with a history of speaking out in favour of ID and "teach the controversy" in schools. Its director is another lay preacher, Alastair Noble, a former chemistry teacher and current Educational Consultant for the Christian charity CARE Scotland.

There's not a lot more to say right now, but it's one to keep an eye on, I'm sure you'll agree.

In defence of older men

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Our old friend Michael Bywater has an article in the Independent responding to Sally Feldman's piece for us about how older women are seeking out the younger man.

Michael speaks up for the advantages of the more mature man: "We’re better in bed and out of it, in both cases because we’re more interested in what’s happening to you (we’ve seen it all before). Actually, we’re better at most things except producing more testosterone than we can usefully channel."


Unmarried politician shock horror

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Congratulations to the Mail on Sunday, which fought off tough competition from its rivals to produce the most ridiculous story concerning the election of Ed Miliband as leader of the Labour Party.

"Ed Miliband becomes first British political leader of a major party to be living with his family out of wedlock", declared the paper, before rather unsubtly suggesting that this frightfully scandalous fact means the new leader of the opposition would launch an assault on the cherished institution of marriage were he ever to become Prime Minister:

"As the son of a North London Marxist intellectual, you might expect Ed Miliband to have a less than conventional approach to traditional family values.

And the birth certificate of his 15-month-old son, Daniel, would appear to bear this out, as it includes everything except any mention of the boy’s proud father."
Of course, after appearing to raise questions about a child's parentage, the Mail goes on to clarify that it is doing no such thing by adding that "there is no suggestion that Ed Miliband is not Daniel’s father" (although they seem to have been concerned enough to ring the Labour Party for clarification).

No, the Mail is definitely not trying to smear the new Labour leader by asking inappropriate and unnecessary questions about his relationship to his own son. Which is probably why today's edition asks
"So will Ed Miliband now marry the mother of his son? (And why isn't he on the birth certificate)".

No need to worry though – given that the 19th century happened years ago, not even Daily Mail readers are going to be fainting at the sheer scandal of it all, or erupting with outrage at this latest piece of evidence that Britain is indeed going t'dogs. The readers comments will prove that, won't they? Here's John from Sheffield:
"Marxism doesn't advocate marriage. Electing this unmarried father of illegitimate children as Prime Minister would be one more gigantic step for this country towards it's [sic] moral decline."
Oh...

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Is burning the Qur'an a crime?

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The BBC reports that six men from Gateshead have been arrested for inciting racial hatred, and bailed pending further inquiries, after burning a copy of the Qur'an – an event they filmed and subsequently posted on YouTube.

It's a breathtaking display of moronic behaviour and intolerance, and I'd be lying if I said I felt any real sympathy for the culprits, but the fact of some men getting arrested for burning a book does pose some difficult questions. If they'd done it outside a mosque, I'd personally have no problem with them being arrested for incitement, but it seems they have been arrested for the straightforward "crime" of burning a copy of the Qur'an, with the location and audience not being relevant – writing over at Index on Censorship, Padraig Reidy suggests that the arrests aren't even based on the video being posted online, but rather the simple fact of a Qur'an being set on fire.

Does this mean it is considered illegal in this country to burn the Qur'an? In which case, we should probably be told which other books are protected from fire. And if this is about the act of burning, rather than the act of posting the act of burning on YouTube, then does that mean that if a Qur'an is burned in a forest and no one sees it, it's incitement to hatred?

Even if this is about the posting on YouTube, we're still in very difficult territory as to what constitutes incitement. YouTube isn't aimed at a specific audience, so it must be about the act of making it public. In which case, is disseminating images of a Qur'an on fire incitement to hatred? As I say, if someone deliberately burned a Qur'an right in front of some Muslims, outside a mosque, say, or outside their houses, in order to intimidate them, or provoke violence, then I could see why that would be incitement. But anything more general than that raises some tough questions regarding civil liberties.

Furthermore, the men haven't been arrested for inciting religious hatred, but rather inciting racial hatred. It's hard to see how burning a Qur'an counts as a race crime. As Padraig at Index points out, is this because the 2005 Racial and Religious Hatred Act includes a clause, lobbied for by humanists and secularists, protecting "expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions"? Clearly under the "religious" part of this law, Qur'an burning would be legal – is this why the police have used the "racial" part instead?

No creationism in schools, government assures BHA - but is this enough?

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A perspective not coming to a science lesson near you, say the Government
Responding to a letter sent by leading scientists and educators, in conjunction with the British Humanist Association, the Department for Education has stressed that creationism has no place in school science lessons. The key part of the letter, which you can see in full on the BHA site (PDF), reads:
"All schools, including faith schools, are required to teach science. The current science programmes of study set out the legal requirements of the science National Curriculum. They focus on the nature of science as a subject discipline, including what constitutes scientific evidence and how this is established. Students learn about scientific theories as established bodies of scientific knowledge with extensive supporting evidence. Creationism and intelligent design are sometimes claimed to be scientific theories.

This is not the case as they have no underpinning scientific principles, or explanations, and are not accepted by the science community as a whole. Creationism and intelligent design therefore do not form part of the science National Curriculum programmes of study and therefore should not be taught as part of science."
It does, of course, read as a firm assertion that creationism and ID are not permitted in school science lessons, but it doesn't explain how this will be ensured. As is addressed in the letter, the new government have dropped plans to make teaching of evolution compulsory in primary schools. Responding to the government, the BHA's James Gray says firmer assurances are needed:
"While we welcome any public statement that the coalition government opposes the teaching of creationism, these assurances do not go nearly far enough. We need clear safeguards, such as legislative change and statutory guidance, to ensure not only that evolution is placed at the heart of the science syllabus for all ages but also that is not contradicted by religious instruction.

We know that in some 'faith' schools pupils' understanding of evolution is already being undermined by highly doctrinal and insular RE lessons that present religious myth as scientific fact. If this is happening now in maintained schools, it does not bode well for the new religious 'free schools' which do not have to follow the National Curriculum and are outside local authority control."
As Gray points out, one worry is that, in some religious schools, what is taught in science lessons is actively undermined in RE lessons. As I wrote in a recent post on the Guardian science blogs, that's one way of "teaching the controversy" about evolution – children are supposedly left to make their own minds up between what they learn in science and the creation stories they learn in religion lessons. Perhaps assurance is needed that science teachers will not teach evolution in a way that this non-existent "controversy" is a legitimate one?

Humanist heresy - why I've been called a prat, an accomodationist and Caspar Milquetoast

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So we had a debate on Tuesday with the title 'Beyond New Atheism: where next for the God debate?'. I introduced this with a piece in which I said that I was bored with New Atheism, which I felt could be crude and simplistic and caricatured religion. That piece was published by the Guardian website, and subsequently on Richard Dawkins' website - with predictable results (I'll get to that later).

First the event itself. Yes, it was in some ways a piece of provocation, especially to atheists and humanists (those who read New Humanist will know that we believe provocation begins at home), but it was also a genuine attempt to see if we could have a different tone for discussion about belief, non-belief, human nature and God. It was also an attempt to grab Marilynne Robinson while she was in London promoting her book Absence of Mind, which is very scathing about New Atheism, and to interrogate her arguments. To this panel I added Roger Scruton, not only a conservative but a religious believer (who I have said before I disagree with on almost everything but who is also interesting and challenging), and the atheist philosopher Jonathan Rée. What they have in common is their shared critique of the kind of arguments made by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris and their followers, so I thought it would be fun to hear what they had to say, and have them lightly grilled by atheist Laurie Taylor, chairman of the Rationalist Association, and an interested audience.

So what did we learn? I broadly agree with Mark Vernon, who wrote the event up for the Guardian, that though there was plenty about what was wrong with New Atheism, "not a lot was said about where next". This may have been because I didn't really brief the panellists very well, but more so I think because though they shared common ground in terms of the kind of debate they didn't like, they are actually interested in very different types of discussion. But I think Mark underplays what we did learn, which I personally found fascinating, even if it doesn't provide a roadmap for a new God debate or anything grand like that. Listen to the entire event. (Video will be up in a day or two). 

Here's what sticks in my mind:

Marilynne Robinson made what I think is a very subtle critique of scientism, the tendency that argues that science is the only way to access truth. What I think she was saying was this: if science criticises religious belief because it makes claims about unprovable things for which there is no evidence, like the existence of God, then how do you account for arguments like M-Theory (multiverses etc) put forward in Stephen Hawking's new book The Grand Design, that are themselves, as Hawking acknowledges, beyond testing or proof. For her this was not a criticism of science or Hawking – she said she loved science and welcomed wonderful ideas like parallel universes. She in fact felt that contemporary science, especially quantum physics, challenged the kind of 19th century positivism that underpins the New Atheist notion of science as an antidote to religion (incidentally her criticism echoes that of many scientists, though they regret Hawking's retreat from provability). She didn't talk that much about God – though she seemed to equate the idea of a deity with the unknowable but central importance of the human mind – but she did say that the belonged to a very fringe Calvinist Church.

Roger Scruton played what I couldn't help thinking was a mischievous role in proceedings. In his visit to the lectern he delivered a pretty straight-forward homily to the benefits of religion, not so much as a belief system but as an important structure of rituals and social glue. So far so Sunday vicarish. Later on he said several interesting things, in particular seeming to concede at one point that if it was true, as Laurie Taylor put to him, that Dawkins' message was liberating some people from religious belief, then it was only possible, as de Tocquville said, to liberate someone from something that was dying. Ergo (though he didn't say this) religion, at least Christianity, is dying (an interesting admission from a believer).. He then intervened on the question of science. In response to an audience member who spoke up for the scientific method, he agreed on the importance of science, and then said: "Religion is more dangerous than I think this panel have recognised. The big difference between religion and science is that science posits theories based on evidence and then does everything it can to try and disprove them, whereas religion posits theories – presented as truths – not based on evidence and then does everything it can to protect them from being questioned or disproved." A brilliant point well put. The sense one gets from Scruton, who really is an arch conservative, is that he thinks 'his' church, the Protestant Anglican church, may have conceded too much ground to science and materialism and is therefore dying (though he feels safe there because it can accommodate sophisticates like him) whereas other kinds of faith, the kind that reject science, are growing and are to be feared, especially, though he didn't spell it out, Islam. After all he has been a visiting scholar at the neoconservative AEI for the past 7 years.

Then to Jonathan Rée. He's written many brilliant things for us over the years, and though he is an atheist and humanist he is disturbed by the tone of some atheist arguments and thinks we should bring a whole lot more specificity, history and analytical sophistication to our understanding of religion and belief. He started off by telling us that he had been pious as a ten year old, a piety that was burned away by embarrassment when he contemplated the wooden crucifix he had made to help him pray for the souls of his impious family. This framed his contribution around the issue of the psycho-dynamics of belief. He recommended a novel, Robert Elsmere by Mrs Humphrey Ward, about the existential crisis of a vicar who loses his faith – making the point that faith is not just a matter of being so stupid as to fall for something that is not real, but a genuine internal and emotional drama, worthy of study irrespective of whether you think there is a God. He brought up the American philosopher William James (also mentioned by Marilynne Robinson) and raised the very suggestive idea that just as James was attuned to the "Varieties of Religious Experience",  and there are many,  so we should not overlook the "Varieties of Irreligious Experience" – there are many ways of not believing in God. (He also, amusingly, suggested a third category - the "Varieties of Religious Inexperience".)

It is true that there was no New Atheist on the panel to defend the arguments, but Laurie did a good job of pressing the panellists on the claims made by Dawkins and others for the importance of not allowing an exaggerated sense of respect stop you from making a strong atheist case, and the audience too were quite critical. Given the frequency with which science came up, all three professed a love for science but felt that some misused it, I was sorry we didn't have a scientist on the panel.

Finally, as promised, something on the reaction to my Guardian piece and the debate which seems to be continuing – there have been more than 500 responses so far on the Guardian and Richard Dawkins sites. I have been called "arrogant", a "prat", a "twat" and "Caspar Milquetoast" (which I really liked – that's him on the right, he's excruciatingly timid and indecisive - so unlike me... or maybe not ). I've been accused of being an "accomodationist", and an "atheist but-head". Several prominent atheists have expressed disappointment that I have let the side down. Richard Dawkins himself even responded in the forums, though to be fair all he said was that he was glad that a lot of people disagreed with me – which they did – and that he hoped I was being sarcastic when I called the title of Alister McGrath's book The Dawkins Delusion 'witty' (I was). I don't want to get into a whole defensive battle about this so just a few quick points.

I don't believe in God - I didn't before I read The God Delusion, though that helped to clarify the implausibility of religious arguments, and I didn't afterwards. But I don't think that makes me better than someone who does believe in God, necessarily.

As editor of New Humanist I am privileged to have published many people who I would consider to be "New Atheists", or arguments of this kind - like Richard Dawkins, AC Grayling, Mano Singham. I've also published appreciative reviews of new Atheist texts, and criticisms as well. I've also published vicars, theologians and Communists and Tory party grandees. I think that the New Humanist reader is interested in debate, and that arguments are only strengthened by being challenged.

I'm not sure what is meant by the accusation that I am an "accomodationist", feels a bit like being denounced as a collaborator. I suppose it means that I am prepared to debate with people who have views that are different from mine, including those who have religious belief and those who liked the film Amelie. If this is what it means, then I am, and proud of it. This doesn't mean I accept what they have to say or agree with them or, in some cases, don't think their ideas are dangerous or disgusting (I agree with Les Back on this: "Our political debates do not suffer from too much doubt but from too much certainty. The task of thinking is to live with doubt in the service of understanding, rather than living with certainty in the preservation of ignorance. Name-calling is not thinking. The temptation to dismiss the view of one’s opponents as “drivel” or “rubbish” is strong but misguided")

Last, I said that some New Atheism is crude and simplistic. This is what I think, and the reaction from many people, especially on the Dawkins website, I think bears this out. I'm thinking particularly of the term "Atheist But-Head", which Richard coined (he told me that himself) and is flung at me by quite a few commenters. I think what it means is the kind of atheist who says "I don't believe in God BUT..." then qualifies it with all kinds of concessions to religion and faith and comes over all "PC" and "accommodationist", when what they should really do, it is implied, is stand up loud and proud and follow through on the logic of their non-belief by stating that religion is a social ill and anyone who believes in it is the victim of a delusion.

To me branding people you disagree with a term like "but-head" (clever pun though it is) is a pretty crude, simplistic and impolite way to carry on. As for being accused of letting the side down, you'd think I'd contravened the articles of (non)faith by holding an opinion. I suppose if you think that this really is some kind battle – between religious believers (all in one camp) and atheists (all in another) you could believe that, but I don't (in fact I think this is very dangerous view).

My not believing in God and being critical of religious power and authority and theocracy and irrationalism and superstition and religious exploitation – all of which I am and will continue to be – does not mean I will agree with everyone else who doesn’t believe in God.

When I debated the theologian Alister McGrath on the radio on Tuesday he said – "I feel that I have found the Truth, the Truth of God that makes the world clear to me. I’m sure you think you have found your truth too." I answered that this was not how I felt. I haven’t reached the point at which I can say I know the Truth, I'm full of doubts, and I am still looking for answers. This is what keeps me interested in reading books and debating. I'm suspicious of arguments that sound like they have discovered the Truth. They always sound too much like dogma for my taste, and if the non-believing gang is against anything, surely it's dogmatism?

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Reflecting on the Papal Visit and Protest the Pope - time for a change of tone?

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Protest the Pope demonstrators gather on Piccadilly
Attending the Protest the Pope demonstration in central London on Saturday, the aggressive secularists of whom we have heard so much didn’t appear to have made the trip. I’d had my own concerns about the tone of the campaign against the Papal Visit after attending a raucous debate on the issue earlier this month, but what I saw on Saturday was peaceful and good-natured. You could even say there was a party atmosphere. Some religious commentators, perhaps in search of a valuable “told you so...,” reported seeing protesters behaving aggressively towards pilgrims, but that kind of behaviour was noticeably absent from what I saw.

I did, however, see groups of pilgrims passing the march on their way to the Pope’s prayer vigil in Hyde Park, and the bewildered looks on their faces for me summed up the national conversation this visit has generated among interested parties in Britain – it is a debate between two sides that, in many respects, do not appear to understand where the other is coming from. Opponents have portrayed the Pope as a criminal in both thought and action, whose pernicious views and response to the child abuse scandal make him utterly unwelcome in Britain. Meanwhile supporters have welcomed Benedict XVI with open arms, turning out in hundreds of thousands to catch a glimpse of him and hear what he has to say, while dismissing the opposition as a shrill and insignificant aggressive secular minority. Both sides, unsurprisingly, have utterly failed to convince the other.

The question we as secularists must now ask ourselves is why this has happened. The national media appears to have adopted the narrative about aggressive secularism, and we must look at why this is. Is it because, with the emergence of the so-called New Atheism, advocates of secularism have become more extreme, or is it because opponents of religion have been misrepresented? In my view, it is certainly the latter. There is nothing particularly aggressive, and certainly nothing extreme, about the secularist movement. Nobody suggests the use of violence, or the repression of people of religion (for anyone, as a blogger did this weekend on the Labour blog Left Foot Forward, to use the term “secular jihadists” is utterly ridiculous). All the secularist movement consists of is people arguing with varying degrees of stridency and, most importantly, with words for a society and government in which free expression is protected and religion is not afforded special privilege (something summed up perfectly by Evan Harris on Comment is Free this weekend). Yet many people persist in characterising it as aggressive and extreme, and sensible debate suffers in the process – is this because religious groups, such as the Catholic Church, don’t wish to engage with our arguments, or is it because we’re failing to communicate them properly?

The gulf in understanding was underlined within minutes of the Pope’s arrival in Edinburgh on Thursday, when he referred to the “sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the twentieth century”. Many secularists immediately expressed outrage, suggesting Benedict XVI had slandered atheists by comparing them to Nazis. If that was what he was implying, then it was an unhelpful, perhaps offensive, thing to say, based on both a misreading of history and a misreading of what secularists stand for. But it is important for those opposed to the Pope to look carefully at what he has to say – as the Guardian's Andrew Brown has pointed out, it’s not clear that he was comparing modern-day atheism to Nazism, and the ensuing tit-for-tat, with atheists pointing to Catholicism’s relationship with European fascism, helps no one. As Brown wrote, “shouting ‘nyah nyah, Hitler was on your team!’ is pissing on the corpses – or the ashes – of the dead”. By joining in that game, as many did, atheists add fuel to the idea of aggressive secularism (one banner at Saturday’s rally did depict a Pope carrying a swastika, though apparently it was taken down after complaints from other protestors).
A banner depicting the Pope as a Nazi, later taken down

If the Pope, rather than likening atheists to Nazis, was actually expressing the view that a godless society lacks the moral grounding required to keep it from evil, then is that really a surprising thing for the Pope to say? Atheists may disagree profoundly, but does this mean that we shouldn’t listen to what he has to say? David Cameron put the case for engaging with the visit in his words of farewell to the Pope on Sunday, saying “People do not have to share a religious faith or agree with religion on everything to see the benefit of asking the searching questions that you, your Holiness, have posed to us about our society and how we treat ourselves and each other."

Protesters have strong and important reasons for opposing the state visit, but does this mean he was not welcome at all? My personal attitude to the visit has veered between opposition and ambivalence, but watching the Pope’s address in Westminster Hall on Friday I was struck by its historical significance. For a Pope to address British politicians and dignitaries in that building would have been unthinkable perhaps as recently as a century ago, and for it to happen on Friday was a sign of the progress Britain has made in that time. Surely, leaving aside all the other issues surrounding the visit, this can be considered a good thing? Actually, it ties in with Benedict XVI’s apparent misunderstanding of what secularists stand for. It is because Britain has become a secular, plural society that it possible for a Pope to come here on a state visit and speak in a building long-associated with the Protestant establishment and its past persecution of English Catholicism.

Ultimately, the protest campaign has rested on the argument that, while Benedict is free to come here, it should not have been a state visit. Whether or not the Holy See is a legitimate state is a fascinating question, and in his book The Case of the Pope Geoffrey Robertson QC presents a strong argument that is not. It is certainly a historical curiosity, but the reality is that, rightly or wrongly, it is widely recognized as a state. Do we not, therefore, need to engage with it on these terms?

Opponents of the Vatican have legitimate concerns over its conduct and policies. The response to the child abuse scandal has been insufficient and at times criminal, and the Church has, in the eyes of many, much to do before it can be seen to have acted appropriately. For the good of humanity we implore it to reconsider its stance on condoms, which genuinely costs lives, as well as its reactionary and damaging positions on gender and sexuality. We disagree firmly on the proliferation of faith schools and the role of faith in public life. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church, along with other religions, wrongly portrays secularism as extreme and aggressive. At worst this involves wilful mischaracterisation and at best misunderstanding – it was bizarre to hear the Pope suggest that Christmas is under threat, as though he had bought into the tabloid myth of “Winterval”, allowing the Sun to run with the headline “Pope: Don’t let the PC brigade ruin Christmas”.

As secularists, we are asking the Church to change its ways. Yet how can we expect it to change if we don’t engage with it? Even the Pope appeared to appeal for engagement in his Westminster Hall speech, when he said that “the world of reason and the world of faith - the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief - need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue.” As Geoffrey Robertson says when he explains that his book was aimed at Catholics, change in the Church will have to come from within. For progress to be made, critics of the Church need to find sympathetic ears among Catholics, and some of the stronger rhetoric we have heard during the Pope’s visit can only reduce the chance of this happening. Saturday's protest was generally good-natured, but some of the placards I saw – "Fuck the Pope, wear a condom", pictures of Hitler and Benedict with the slogan "Same shit, different asshole", "Arrest the paedo Pope", "Despicable twisted vile hypocrite" – serve no constructive purpose. If Catholics are allowed to think we are aggressive and extreme, they won’t listen to us. But if they see that we are reasoned critics, they may begin to engage with our arguments.

In central London on Saturday, I saw thousands of people (the police estimate was 12,000) take to the streets in opposition to the Pope’s policies, but I also saw pilgrims flocking to see him speak. It has been reported that over 200,000 people came out to watch the Popemobile pass or attend the official events and, as the opinions of those people are just as valid as mine, or anyone else’s, the fact is that in the eyes of many Benedict XVI was welcome here. Many oppose the Church, but many support it. The Papal Visit was an opportunity for both sides to debate the reasons for this, but what we have seen are two distinct groups in our society that appear to be talking past one another, while many others (perhaps the majority) look on in confusion.

Could it be time for a rapprochement?

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

After New Atheism - where next for the God debate?

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Tonight is our event at the RSA in London - with Marilynne Robinson, Roger Scruton and Jonathan Rée, discussing what they think is wrong with New Atheism, and where the discussion of religion and society might go from here. Laurie Taylor is in the chair.

If you haven't got a ticket or are miles away from London you can watch it live online - its 6-7.15 (British Summer Time - there will also be a permanent link to the video). If you want to tweet about it the hashtag is #rsanh. The Guardian's Comment is Free Belief is co-sponsoring it – I've written a preview piece over there, asking whether it's time to move on from the New Atheism, so please do take a look and dive in with comments.


If you want to read up on the subject here's some relevant material:

Jonathan Rée on William James and why he is a good guide for discussions of religion

Roger Scruton on why you should bring up children with faith

Further reading

AC Grayling defends New Atheism from attack

Richard Norman assesses the strengths and weaknesses of New Atheism

Monday, 20 September 2010

A film to look forward to this Chr... Winterval

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It's a lovely September day here in London, but quite frankly I'm gearing up for the holiday winter solstice Festivus season. That's because I just watched the trailer for the forthcoming movie Christmas with a Capital 'C', starring Ted McGinley and Daniel "Not Alec, or even Stephen" Baldwin, in which an embittered secularist returns to a small Alaska town after years living in the "big city", becomes mayor and proceeds to wage war on the good, honest, God-fearing townspeople's celebration of an old-fashioned Christian Christmas. As, obviously, any atheist would, he gets Christmas banned in the name of the First Amendment of the US Constitution, and does all sorts of breathtakingly evil things, like replacing signs saying "Merry Christmas" with signs saying "Season's Greetings".

It's clearly this winter's must-see film. Let's just hope the Daily Mail don't pick up on it, or we could be seeing a British remake in our cinemas in time for Christmas 2011.



[Via Adam Rutherford on Twitter]

Halal for humanists?

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"Britain goes halal (but nobody tells the public...)", screamed the front page of yesterday's Mail on Sunday. Meat from animals killed according to Islamic ritual slaughter is, the paper told us, now routinely being sold in restaurants, schools and public venues all over the country, without customers being informed.

Of course, the idea of halal in Britain ticks plenty of familiar boxes for the Mail and its readers, perhaps explaining why this was deemed front page news, but the report suggests this should be a cause for concern for animal rights reasons, rather than its connection to non-Western religious practices:
"Under Muslim laws, animals are slaughtered by having their throat slit to allow all the blood to drain out. Animals often die a slow painful death because religious slaughter houses are exempt from laws that require animals to be stunned before killing. Last night there were growing concerns that members of public were unwittingly supporting a cruel form of butchery."
If dhabihah, the method of slaughter used to produce halal meat, does indeed cause disproportionate suffering in the animal, then this is indeed a cause for concern. At the very least, customers have the right to know if the meat they are consuming was produced in this way. But are concerns about halal (and, to a lesser extent, Jewish shechita slaugher), driven primarily by concerns for animal welfare (when did the Mail turn into a leading voice for animal rights?), or by a deeper-lying discomfort with the use of unfamiliar religious methods in modern Britain?

In our current issue, physiologist Harold Hillman argues that research he conducted during his own career into the effects of electrical torture on humans suggests that Western methods of slaughter, which involve the stunning of animals using electrical currents prior to the slitting of the throat, may not be as pain-free as is commonly assumed. He suggests that this has been under-researched, and that scientists must look at it in more detail before we can be certain that pre-stunning leads to a more humane death for animals than halal or kosher methods.

It's a controversial argument, but is it one we should reject? If we are to argue, as many secularists (and yesterday's Mail) do, that religious slaughter has no place in our society, then we must do so based on firm scientific evidence. Hillman seems fairly convinced that stunning does not effectively minimise pain – many, I think, will argue he is wrong about this, but at the very least should we not heed his call for further research? Because if religious slaughter isn't as cruel and inhumane as critics suggest it is, what basis would there be for opposing its use, other than prejudice?

Comment, as always, encouraged and appreciated – I expect lots of you will have opinions on this.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Protest the Pope march and rally - listen live

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The Protest the Pope march and rally takes place in central London this afternoon, coinciding with Benedict XVI's prayer vigil in Hyde Park. Speakers include Geoffrey Robertson, Richard Dawkins, Ben Goldacre, Johann Hari and Peter Tatchell.

If you're not going, but would like to hear what's going on, James O'Malley from the Pod Delusion podcast is broadcasting live from the event. You can listen via the embedded player below from 1.30pm.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Someone talking sense at the UN

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Via Roy Brown of IHEU:

At an informal UN meeting yesterday, the Pakistani Ambassador delivered a five minute diatribe against freedom of expression, claiming the West used it as a cover to demonise and discriminate against Islam. Thankfully he did not go unanswered. Canadian Muslim Raheel Razam, a journalist and activist, responded with a powerful refutation of his argument and defence of free expression. She argued among other things that Muslims enjoy far more freedom in the West than they do in any Muslim country. Have a look. She's today's hero!



Thursday, 16 September 2010

Top Tip - Big Media, why not save money by stealing content from charity magazines without attribution

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Being humanists we are benevolent, so here's some free advice for big media, who we know are going through a terribly hard time. Instead of bothering to produce your own content why not just steal it from small charity magazines? To avert any suspicion that you stole it make sure not to credit the original source so your readers (and listeners) will think you had the wit and gumption to get original quotes yourself.

Yes we mean you Daily Mail (see Claire Rayner quote), Times (Dawkins quote, no link so we can't even read our own content!)) and (say it ain't so) Today Programme (who credited the Times with our Dawkins quote oh the irony). Today's Guardian was in the frame too, Michael White used the Dawkins quote wrongly attributed, but then their web team pulled it back by linking correctly to us (for which thanks).

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Pregnant nuns like ice cream and sex, or something

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Congratulations to the marketing folk at Antonio Federici Ice Cream, who have succeeded in getting themselves free advertising all over the media (including here), by getting this advert banned by the Advertising Standards Agency. Look! They've even bagged themselves a slot on the BBC, which doesn't carry ads.

The ice cream company had big plans for this particular ad, involving placing it on billboards on the route of the Popemobile's drive through London this Saturday, but the ASA stepped in and blocked it, following complaints over its appearance in the magazines Grazia and The Lady:
"We considered the use of a nun pregnant through immaculate conception was likely to be seen as a distortion and mockery of the beliefs of Roman Catholics. We concluded that to use such an image in a lighthearted way to advertise ice cream was likely to cause serious offence to readers, particularly those who practised the Roman Catholic faith."
But that's not going to stop Antonio Federici Ice Cream, who are taking a moral stand against, er, not getting any more publicity, by planning to fill the billboards with a poster representing "a continuation of the theme"

Padraig Reidy at Index on Censorship has, in a very amusing post, already pointed out that the idea of a pregnant nun eating ice cream, apparently as a result of "immaculate conception" or something (it really isn't clear) represents, at best, a misreading of Catholic doctrine, as well as the hilarity of an ice cream company claiming that their advertising represents a satire on the "relevance and hypocrisy of religion and the attitudes of the church to social issues". So, for my own part, I'll just add this – do a Google image search for "Antonio Federici Ice Cream", and you'll see that their entire advertising strategy seems to revolve around the idea that their product makes nuns and priests want to have sex with one another. It's a bizarre notion, but I suppose it must make some people buy the ice cream.

Now, somebody pass me that tub of chocolate chip...

Comparing the "Ground Zero Mosque" and Danish cartoon controversies

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Just a quick one this, as I wanted to share this excellent column by Lawrence Wright that I just read on the New Yorker website, in which he argues that the current "Ground Zero Mosque" (or more accurately, the Park51 Islamic Cultural Centre a few blocks from Ground Zero) controversy is reminiscent of the 2005 Danish Muhammad cartoons controversy, in that both were manufactured by extremists in order to foment division and serve their own ends.

Would a burqa ban work?

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Further to my previous post on the passage of the French burqa ban, aside from all the moral and political arguments for and against such bans, there is the simple issue of whether they would ever actually work. How do you enforce a ban on face coverings? Unsurprisingly, Muslims in France have already begun thinking of ways around the ban, and the woman in this video seems to think she's found one potential loophole. Could the French law stop people wearing medical masks in public?

French Senate votes to ban the burqa

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The French ban on wearing the full veil in public, which was voted through the lower house of the French parliament in July, was passed overwhelmingly by the upper house, the Senate, by 246 votes to 1 yesterday. The legislation will come into effect in a month, provided its legality is confirmed by French Constitutional Council, with those breaking the law facing €150 fines. Men judged to have forced their wives to wear the burqa could be fined €30,000 and jailed for a year.

Obviously this a hugely controversial piece of legislation (except, it would seem, in the eyes of 99.6% of French senators), and it remains to be seen, if it is deemed constitutional, how exactly it would be implemented. With other European countries, such as Spain and Belgium, considering similar bans, the debate is bound to continue over whether Britain should follow suit (although immigration minister Philip Green has already ruled it out, saying it would be "rather un-British").

It's something we cover in our current issue with Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Kenan Malik going head to head on the subject. Alibhai-Brown says we should stand up to the oppression of women and support human rights by banning it here, while Malik argues that doing so would be self-defeating and illiberal. You can read the debate in full online, so have a look at both arguments before voting, if you haven't already done so, in our poll on whether Britain should ban the burqa. We opened it a couple of weeks ago and as you'll see it's a close run thing at the moment.


Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Nasty bilious oaf - Hugo Rifkind

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First it was Brendan O'Neill writing in Spiked; then Andrew Brown on Comment is Free, and today it's someone called Hugo Rifkind in The Times (no link, you know why) – all of them have made the same remarkable discovery: many atheists are very cross with the Pope and would have some pretty peppery things to say to him, if they got the chance. This leads all three to the same conclusion; atheist discourse is intolerant, irrational, smug and overly aggressive. Each use our feature about the Pope as their example.

Well, look. First of all we at New Humanist are well aware that some people can be shrill and irrational when it comes to religion – our news editor Paul Sims wrote critically about this in his report from a recent Protest the Pope meeting – and that a tone of relentless aggressive denunciation is not only childish and unproductive but boring. Which is why alongside the more strident contributions from Richard Dawkins and Claire Rayner, we asked liberal Catholics Conor Gearty and Tina Beattie what they would say to the Pope, and published some very sincere and powerful responses from abuse survivor Graham Wilmer, and writers Richard Wilson and Ben Goldacre. (Rifkind does mention these "quite reasonable" responses parenthetically though it doesn't derail him from his main point that we atheists are nasty, bilious and – say it ain't so! – "not nice".)

Part of the problem here is that each of these these fine investigative journalists track their stories down by clicking on a web link – which takes them to one article, from which they cobble together their thesis on the state of humanist or atheist discourse. If they took the trouble, for example, to pick up a print copy of New Humanist magazine they might get a different impression. Yes, our Audience with the Pope feature contains some rudeness to the Pope – though not much ruder really than what the Pope has to say about secularists, and given his record pretty well justified – but our current issue also features Christian novelist Marilynne Robinson arguing in favour of religion and the soul, and physiologist Harold Hillman saying that humanists and atheists are wrong to consider ritual slaughter cruller than conventional methods. Hardly evidence of irrationality or intolerance.

Forceful argument, satire, even the occasional bit of rudeness, are useful and effective tools against excesses of religious hypocrisy and irrational nonsense. But there are many other tools including reasoned argument, debate and open inquiry - all of which are also employed in "atheist discourse", at least as practised in the pages of New Humanist.

So, to all you paragons of reason and virtue who think we are rude and intolerant, I say this: Up yours!

Irish Science Minister nearly endorses creationist book

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The past 12 months or so haven't been the best for the Irish government's relationship with modernity. The turn of the year saw the introduction of a new blasphemy law, which carries a €25,000 penalty for "publishing or uttering matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters sacred by any religion, thereby intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion, with some defences permitted", leading to criticisms that the Irish Republic had taken a step back into the Middle Ages.

Now there is further cause for Irish secularists to despair, with the news that the country's Science Minister, Conor Lenihan, was set to take part in the launch of a new book, the pithily-titled The Origin of Specious Nonsense: 3000 Million Coded Chemical Letters Fit On Top of This Pin Head This DNA Language Was Once You And I by John L May.

Now you may be able to guess, mostly from the fact that this epic title takes a couple of scientific terms, throws in the word 'specious', and arranges them into something utterly incomprehensible, that May's book is what you might call an "anti-science" book. Further light is shed, again largely on account of the utter incomprehensibility of it all, by the book's official website, where May introduces himself by informing us that "Charles Darwin and his modern 'disciples' Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris - Daniel C. Dennet, Christopher Hitchens et al are; The high priests of the highly improbable foisting the impossible on the impressionable."

Confused? Don't worry, he elaborates on the "Book Synopsis" page:

"These men appear to be intelligent good people who have sacrificed reason on the alter [sic] of, Chance, Mutations, Randomness which is a concoction for chaos. (I have read their excellent books) My cry to many of the worlds atheists, scientists, evolutionists plus tens of millions of their duped followers shall be "Expose organised religion and deny there is a God to your hearts desire.. only STOP pretending you have any facts whatsoever to support 'the greatest deceit in the history of science! 'Evolution is a fantasy of farraginous farcical fatuous feculent facile facetiousness and my book shall lead the charge against this UNSCIENTIFIC HOAX worldwide. This manuscript is extremely controversial and billions of human beings, young and old, black and white rich and poor are quite simply confused and would enjoy for a change some serious solid satisfying facts as opposed to the sorry sophistical nonsense we are inundated with from the media on a daily basis. Incidentally four times last year I visited the brilliant Natural History Museum in London to examine the shrine to a religiously tortured excellent taxonomist Charles Darwin. The tragedy of this pretentious fiction is that most people appear to accept it on face value without realising for a fact THERE ARE NO FACTS to support this delusion.."
Well, that's evolution demolished, now what's this about the Irish Science Minister? Well, Lenihan was all set to attend the book's launch party tomorrow night in Dublin, which is billed on the book's website as a "Gorillas and Girls Party", at which "Charles Darwin and King Kong the gorilla will be present" (presumably this is the creationist equivalent of a "Tarts and Vicars" party). At 7.30pm attendees can see May (who, in what one presumes is an attempt to be the Irish Adnan Oktar, is also offering €10,000 to anyone who "can prove evolution at a biochemical level") deliver his talk "How Evolution Made Monkeys Out of Man". This was due to be followed at 8pm with a "launch" by Lenihan. Which, of course, is just where a Science Minister should be.

Unsurprisingly, this led to some secularist outrage – Atheist Ireland reported it on their website, with both Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers picking up on it, and shortly afterwards May revealed that Lenihan had pulled out. He said the minister was taking part as "a friend", and expressed his anger at the harsh reaction to news of his appearance:
"I am revolted and disgusted by the way my friend Conor Lenihan is being vilified so I have asked him not to launch my book. My book merely presents a different opinion. However, the abuse he is receiving by text and email is outrageous. I have received similar abuse but I can take it."
As for Lenihan himself, he told the Irish Times he “remained to be convinced” by May's thesis, although he believes “diversity of opinion is a good thing”. Ah yes, our old friend "teach the controversy" – I wrote about its intrusion into British education on the Guardian Science Blog last week, and now here it is popping up in the words of the Irish Science Minister. Of course "diversity of opinion" is a good thing, but that means diversity of valid opinions, not any opinions no matter what they are. What Lenihan is suggesting here is that diversity of opinion means placing, say, the theory of evolution by natural selection as posited by Charles Darwin and developed by thousands of scientists in the 150 years since, against the words of John L May, for example:
"There is no scientific verifiable demonstrable evidence in our past or today on a DNA/Biochemical level that evolution ever happened or might occur. So wake up and smell the coffee, see the beauty all around us, and if there is a God then hope in his goodness for our future."
Thankfully for Ireland's collective sanity the Science Minister cancelled his participation in such utter ludicrousness while he still had the chance, but clearly he's one for secularists over there to keep their eyes on.

Update: Our former deputy editor Padraig Reidy informs me on Twitter that there may be a reasonable explanation for why Lenihan was appearing: "It's the nature of Irish politics. Author is constituent. TDs have to go to all this local crap. Even ministers." Although this was followed up by an Irish reader, who said "That's nonsense. He didn't HAVE to go just cos May is a constituent. He obv WANTED to go. Bad judgment call."


Monday, 13 September 2010

It's Pope week...

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The Pope, like the God he represents here on Earth, is everywhere at the moment – and there are still three days to go before he lands here in the UK. With that in mind, it's worth reminding you that Peter Tatchell's documentary about Benedict XVI, The Trouble with the Pope, is broadcast tonight on Channel 4 at 8pm. Writing on the Guardian website, Tatchell says he deliberately steered clear of interviewing atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, for the documentary, instead focussing on Catholic interviewees, both for and against the Pope.
"Early on, I decided to deviate from what might be expected of me. Instead of a ruthless Christopher Hitchens-style evisceration of Benedict XVI, I opted for a more subtle approach – and a degree of open-mindedness. I was ready to confound my own preconceptions. And I did, in some respects. I discovered that when he was plain Joseph Ratzinger, the pope was an inspiring, popular university lecturer. He initially supported the liberalising Second Vatican Council. But he was traumatised by the student protests of the late 1960s. His fear of chaos and revolution turned him into a conservative who believed that authority and tradition must be preserved at all cost."
It sounds well worth tuning in to – if you can't watch it tonight, it'll be on 4 On Demand after the broadcast.

Of course, it's hard to keep up with all the Pope-related content in the media at the moment, but we'll do our best over the course of the week to bring you some of our favourites. (And when he's gone home, we'll be ready for a break from His Holiness). So in that spirit, here are three of our favourites from today:
  • The Guardian's interactive guide to the Papal Visit. Discover how many Popes have stepped foot in Britain (there was once an English Pope, y'know), where he's playing (if he was our favourite band or comedian, we'd be very disappointed with the lack of venues) and why he's so controversial.
  • Carol Vorderman will introduce the Pope at the big Hyde Park event on Saturday. As one reader on Twitter quipped, "two vows and a Protestant please, Carol...".
  • Martin Robbins, who writes the Lay Scientist blog on the Guardian site, suggests the Vatican may be scraping the barrel with the miracle attributed to Cardinal Newman, whose beatification is a major reason for the Papal Visit. It seems someone recovering from a bad back is enough to earn a man his sainthood these days...
[Illustration - one of Ralph Steadman's drawings for our Audience with the Pope feature]

Friday, 10 September 2010

Mary Warnock and the House of Lords

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Earlier in the summer, I accompanied Laurie Taylor to the House of Lords when he interviewed veteran philosopher Baroness Warnock for our new issue. Aside from getting to nosey around inside the Palace of Westminster, which is always good fun, it was a fascinating experience.

Listening to Mary Warnock talk so clearly and eloquently about ethical issues, such as assisted dying and embryology, and why she finds the special privileges afforded to the Church of England by way of the bishops in the House of Lords so irritating, I found myself having something of a revelation in terms of my attitude towards Lords reform and the issue of an elected second chamber.

I've always firmly believed that the existence of the House of Lords is thoroughly undemocratic, and that it should be replaced by a fully elected upper house. I was familiar with the argument that appointed peers results in a House of venerable experts, but I never bought it. Get rid of them, I thought, and let's turn Britain into a proper democracy. But since sitting in on Laurie's interview with Mary Warnock, I'm not so sure. If members of the House of Lords had to stand for election, would an eminent 86-year-old ethicist like Warnock really bother getting involved? Would we have experts such as her, without a political agenda, providing their vital scrutiny to legislation concerning issues that most people, elected representatives included, know very little about? Or would we end up with a House full of career politicians, ready to toe the line in the same way as their counterparts in the Commons (and, admittedly, many of the current peers) do now?

I'm not claiming that this is a particularly original observation, but it was certainly an interesting experience for me. We're very lucky to have people like Mary Warnock in Parliament, and I think we'd lose them if the Lords was made into a fully elected chamber. I now find myself thinking it would be best to keep at least a portion of it appointed, on the basis of past professional expertise.

Have a read of the interview and see what you think – there's also a great line about Melanie Phillips near the end, which I think many of you will enjoy.

The Richard Dawkins Humanist Conservatoire

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Regular New Humanist contributor Francis Beckett, a long-standing critic of faith schools and recent education reforms, has a piece in today's Guardian in which he describes the school he would set up if he had the opportunity under the government's new free school legislation. Wonderfully named The Richard Dawkins Humanist Conservatoire (we used to have schools, which became colleges, and then they became academies, so why not conservatoires?), Beckett's school would be the exemplar of secular, inclusive education. And there's even a mention for New Humanist:

"As a humanist school, we will pride ourselves on our teaching of religion. Other faith schools have agitated for and been given the right to discriminate against teachers and pupils who are not of the correct religion, but we will not. Our children will learn about all beliefs. Children can cope with the fact that adults believe different things. And we see nothing but good in the idea of a Muslim learning mathematics from a Sikh, or an atheist being taught English by a Catholic.

So, no spying to find out whether a prospective parent had been guiltily sneaking into church. No demanding evidence of a subscription to New Humanist. Personal letters confirming faithlessness from Dawkins himself will get you nowhere. Even being the object of a fatwa will not get you in. If we are oversubscribed – which I confidently expect we will be – we will take pupils strictly on the criterion of proximity to the school."
It's a lovely piece, and may have you longing for the opening of a Dawkins Conservatoire with a catchment area near you. It links to something I wrote about recently – in light of the new academy school legislation (which we learn has been enthusiastically embraced by religious groups), is it time humanists and secularists went ahead and set up their own schools? In other words, if we can't beat them, should we join them? (Beckett even says this in his piece.) When I last wrote about this, the majority of commenters seemed to oppose the idea, on the grounds that it would mean going along with a bad system.

This seems like a good time to pose the question again. If humanists could set up schools like Beckett describes, would you welcome it? Or would it still be an inadvertent endorsement of faith schools?