Monthly Archives: February 2012

UK: The irrational and sinister campaign against gay marriage

Lord Carey and The Coalition for Marriage have made an argument that is confused, irrational and ultimately self-defeating. Why are some people so preoccupied with the sexuality of their neighbours?

The “Coalition for Marriage” has started a petition, headed by Lord Carey and an assortment of politicians and religious leaders, which asks people to “support the legal definition of marriage” as “the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others”and “oppose any attempt to redefine it.”

The Daily Mail has lavished attention on the group, describing it as “a new grassroots organisation.” ‘Grassroots’ is an interesting choice of term for a group led by a former Archbishop, former Lord Chancellor, half a dozen MPs, four bishops and countless charity leaders.

Their arguments are conveniently laid out on the petition website, and in an article by Carey himself at the Mail‘s ironically-titled blog network ‘Rightminds’. For sake of time I’ll take the website first, which covers the issues under four sections.

First, “MARRIAGE IS UNIQUE”, the block capitals reinforcing the moral correctness.

“Throughout history and in virtually all human societies marriage has always been the union of a man and a woman.”

Even if this were true; throughout history and in virtually all human societies women didn’t have the vote, life expectancy was naff all and you couldn’t play on a Playstation. So what?

Marriage reflects the complementary natures of men and women. Although death and divorce may prevent it, the evidence shows that children do best with a married mother and a father.

The site makes no attempt to link to or cite this evidence, which is doubly suspicious when you look for it yourself and find that e.g. the American Psychological Association have surveyed research and found that“results suggest that lesbian and gay parents are as likely as heterosexual parents to provide supportive and healthy environments for their children.”

Even if their statement were true, to what extent would children suffer because the the innate ‘unfitness’ of the parents, rather than the hostility and bigotry the parents faced from intolerant peers?

Finally, if you’re going to link the fitness of parents to the right to marry and have kids, then either a) you’re a hypocrite, or b) it needs to apply to everyone. Surely, by Lord Carey’s vaguely-eugenicist reasoning, we should institute licensing requirements to weed out ‘all’ unfit parents? If C4M don’t agree with this then what reason can they possibly have for singling out only gay parents?

“PROFOUND CONSEQUENCES” come next.

If marriage is redefined, those who believe in traditional marriage will be sidelined.

There are electrons at the edge of the observable universe that will have a bigger impact on your heterosexual marriage than two gay people exchanging vows somewhere within a ten mile radius.

People’s careers could be harmed, couples seeking to adopt or foster could be excluded

People’s careers and lives are harmed now – by homophobic bigotry. Just ask the families of Justin Fashanu, or other victims of the tragically high rate of suicide among non-heterosexuals. In England and Wales, gay couples were legally excluded from adoption until as recently as 2005 – a double-tragedy given the shortage of suitable families available for kids to go to.

On the other hand, it’s hard to see – and no logic, evidence or explanation is provided – how exactly legalizing gay marriage is going to harm anybody’s career, or exclude straight couples from the foster system.

…and schools would inevitably have to teach the new definition to children.

Presumably we’d have to drop geography to make way for the epic amount of time and resources that would be consumed by the replacing“a man and a woman” with “two people” in the curriculum. And do we really want to educate our children about the world? What is it about love and commitment between two people that is so dangerous for young minds to hear?

If marriage is redefined once, what is to stop it being redefined to allow polygamy?

What’s wrong with polygamy? It seems to be that a child brought up by three loving parents would have some quite big economic advantages, and humans have cooperated in child-rearing since the year dot.

“NO NEED TO REDEFINE” is the third, rather self-defeating point.

Civil partnerships already provide all the legal benefits of marriage so there’s no need to redefine marriage.

On the other hand, why not? Even ignoring the fact that marriage has been redefined regularly, doesn’t arguing that there’s no difference basically undermine every single other point you’ve made?!

It’s not discriminatory to support traditional marriage.

That’s like saying, “It’s not disciminatory to support straight people!”

Or, “I’m just saying there should be more support for white people!”

Or, “I’m not a racist, but…!”

Same-sex couples may choose to have a civil partnership but no one has the right to redefine marriage for the rest of us.

Carey expands on this in his Daily Mail article “The state does not ‘own’ the institution of marriage. Nor does the church. The honourable estate of matrimony precedes both the state and the church, and neither of these institutions have the right to redefine it in such a fundamental way.”

This is such an unholy and inconsistent mess of an argument that’s very hard to untangle it. Carey wants to invoke the legal definition of marriage as immutable, while simultaneously arguing that nobody has the right to define marriage. The obvious question: since the current definition came about through acts of Parliaments-past, why are dead MPs more entitled to define marriage than living ones?

If nobody has the right to impose a definition of marriage on society, then surely the logical conclusion is to remove it from the law books entirely (keeping civil partnerships), and say that’s it’s a personal matter that people are free to interpret as they see fit.

SPEAK UP is the final section.

“People should not feel pressurised to go along with same-sex marriage just because of political correctness. “

I can only imagine the trauma that will be inflicted on the millions of heterosexual people who will be forced to marry homosexuals against their will under the proposed legislation.

Statements like this are just another attempt to pretend that gay rightsare somehow in conflict with the rest of society, when clearly they are not. If you’re heterosexual and you want to get married, your rights will not be affected in the slightest by gay marriage. It will have no conceivable impact on you, your children, or wider society.

Your ability to adopt children will be undiminished. You will not lose your job because of The Gay Mafia. You and your children will not be ‘turned’ gay by street gangs of roaming homosexuals. If you’re worried about these things, or you’re the sort of journalist who would post a picture of a couple on their wedding day with the caption“such communions… jeopardise the stability of our country,” then frankly you need to grow the fuck up.

There are only two relevant questions in this debate; why are some people so unhealthily obsessed by the sexuality of their neighbours, and is the campaign against gay marriage based on anything more than homophobia?

The Guardian | Martin Robbins | 20th February 2012

Martin Robbins is a Berkshire-based researcher and science writer. He edits The Lay Scientist, a community blog about science, pseudoscience and evidence-based politics


Twitter: @mjrobbins

 

What is the proper place for religion in Britain’s public life?

Will Hutton and Richard Dawkins. Photographs: Felix Clay and Murdo MacLeod

Britain became engulfed in a culture war last week as secularists and believers clashed over the role of religion in public life. Even the Queen intervened to defend the Church of England’s role.Richard Dawkins, whose survey about Christianity in the UK ignited the row, defends his position on secularism, faith and tolerance in conversation with Will Hutton of the Observer

Dear Richard

I write in defence of liberalism – a tradition as traduced by Baroness Warsi sounding off in the Vatican about a liberal elite underminingreligion‘s necessary and important centrality in national life as it is by your high profile campaign to convert us all to atheism. There are many dimensions to liberalism – proportionality, due desert, mutual respect, belief in pluralism and tolerance of dissent – but we liberals would no more want to pillory those who have faith than we would want to endorse a philosophy that for all its appeal to rationality does not respect difference.

Thus we are neither the virus of which Warsi complains nor your foot soldiers, even while as a liberal I would defend to the last your expression of your atheist views. You play an important role in our national life in provoking a high octane debate. But I can’t join your campaign. Liberalism is a doctrine of live and let live, and there has to be a very high threshold of harm before that liberal principle can be qualified.

Of course when religion is carried to absurd and dangerous degrees – the Tea Party movement in the US or Islamic fundamentalism – I am opposed, but for the same reasons I recoil from any zealot. George Osborne’s irrational zealotry on debt and deficit reduction is a much more serious threat to our wellbeing than Archbishop Rowan Williams’s Anglicanism. Indeed paradoxically the Church of England he leads is a great liberal redoubt – an institution that embodies proportionality, tolerance of dissent and respect for others along with considerable moral authority.

It is our ally, not our enemy, as we are discovering again in its battle against the devastating and thoughtless welfare cuts and the argument for a responsible capitalism. It is why so many English people support it even while their practice and understanding of Christianity is uncertain. Please don’t confuse that hesitancy with their quiet respect – even love – of an institution they understand and feel they need.

Tolerate it and them.
Best, Will

 

 

Dear Will

We really agree. I am as committed to liberalism as you. That’s why my foundation is campaigning for secularism, not atheism. There are many religious secularists, including Gandhi, Martin Luther King, plenty of clergy, JF Kennedy and indeed every religious American who upholds the constitution.

I personally – as opposed to my foundation – would be happy to persuade people towards atheism, but there is nothing illiberal about persuasion. What is illiberal is not persuasion but imposition of one’s views. And the government, in its determination to “do God”, imposes religion on us. Bishops in the House of Lords is just one of many examples.

Ministers justify such impositions by appeals to the 72% of the population who, according to the 2001 census, are Christian. But was this impressive figure inflated by people who, though they self-identify as Christian in the census, aren’t really religious at all? No decent liberal could object to non-religious people choosing to call themselves Christian on the census form. It’s their choice and, as a cultural Anglican, I can even sympathise. But we can object if the consequently inflated number of “Christians” is used to justify illiberal imposition of religiously inspired policies.

How could we discover whether the Christian tally is inflated? The 2011 census can’t help because it baldly asked for religious affiliation, no supplementary questions. The UK branch of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (not atheism, please note) commissioned Ipsos MORI to poll, in the week immediately after the census, those people who ticked the Christian box: the “Census Christians”.

And what Ipsos MORI found was devastating. First, the number of Census Christians has dropped from 72% to about 54%. And a high proportion of the 54% are not religious in any sense that could legitimately be used to justify a government policy of “doing God”. The survey is large, thorough and terminally damaging to a “do God” policy. Please read it on the web (tinyurl.com/6rrso48). You’ll be astonished at the low levels of religious knowledge, belief and practice among UK Christians, and at their very clear opposition to religion having special influence on public policy.
All good wishes, Richard

 

 

Dear Richard

Yes, we do share some common ground. You say you are both liberal and a cultural Anglican: so am I – although I think the cultural Anglicanism we like does not come without the religious dimension which I am prepared to indulge unlike you. Or are you more secretly tolerant? That would make a good front page story! I also agree about the imposition of religion by public authority. I resile from politicians “doing God”. It is not their business to proselytise, especially when they are so selective about what they like and dislike. It is supreme hypocrisy to invoke the values of public religion one week, and then damn the bishops when as Christians they necessarily campaign against pauperising already weak people through the current welfare bill.

But I am slightly bemused by your stance. Of course I’ve looked at the results of your poll, and what I find striking is the still large proportions of respondents who profess some attachment to Christianity – much larger than I would have expected. Not sure the results are quite as devastating as you portray. I also think your distinction between atheism and secularism is sleight of hand. Secularism unsupported by atheism is nonsensical. The reason why a secularist objects so strongly about the extension of religion into the public sphere – and even its private practice – is because its adherents are delusional, and, using your own words, imposing a delusional set of values and practices on others.

Nor do I understand what you mean by religious secularists: it sounds like “expansionary fiscal contraction” – a contradiction in terms. Martin Luther King and Gandhi certainly had secular ambitions, but their inspiration and inner strength came from religious conviction. You’ve made your reputation by being one of the country’s most articulate atheists. Don’t muddy the waters!

I guess what we dispute is comparatively narrow – but nonetheless important. I am agnostic rather than atheist, which means I am much more well-disposed to the values and sensibility of faith. It also means I set a higher bar for my objections. I object to Baroness Warsi, Rick Santorum and radical Islam alike – but not to longstanding rituals such as prayers before council meetings or even in schools. I am more selective about my fights, and more anxious to protect my general liberalism and tolerance.
BestWill

 

 

Dear Will

“Secularism unsupported by atheism is nonsensical.” Really? You mean the US first amendment is nonsense? The Indian constitution? Their idealist founders enshrined secularism in those constitutions because they wanted all religions to be free: no religion should dominate; no religion should impose. Secularism is supremely liberal, the epitome of tolerance, and you, Will, should be the first to treasure it.

Gandhi’s and ML King’s inner strength may well have come from religious conviction but they were passionate secularists because they believed religion was a private matter – inner, indeed – and an area in which, for everyone’s sake, it was important that the state remained neutral.

That doesn’t mean religious people shouldn’t advocate their religion. So long as they are not granted privileged power to do so (which at present they are) of course they should. And the rest of us should be free to argue against them. But of all arguments out there, arguments against religion are almost uniquely branded “intolerant”. When you put a cogent and trenchant argument against the government’s economic policy, nobody would call you “intolerant” of the Tories. But when an atheist does the same against a religion, that’s intolerance. Why the double standard? Do you really want to privilege religious ideas by granting them unique immunity against reasoned argument?

You are entitled to decide that cultural Anglicanism “doesn’t come without the religious dimension” and I am entitled to decide that it does. But then you say “Or are you more secretly tolerant?” So, not to believe something is intolerant? When I was sub-warden of New College I would always say grace at dinner. Doesn’t the fact that I didn’t believe the words make my willingness to say them, out of respect for tradition, an act of tolerance?

What about prayers before council meetings? I once upbraided my American atheist colleagues for fussing about “In God we Trust” on dollar bills, and other “tokenism”. Unlike grace at college dinners, this is not ancient, by the way: it dates from the McCarthy era. Nevertheless, I said there were more worthy targets to attack, for example tax-exemption for churches.

My atheist colleagues robustly retorted that “In God we Trust” is no mere harmless token. Its presence on dollar bills is regularly used by politicians as “evidence” that America is a Christian country, which justifies the imposition of religious values – for example on abortion – by law. Which is where we came in.
All good wishes, Richard

 

 

Dear Richard

Of course I treasure secularism: it is the great Enlightenment gift. But you appeal to secularism as though there is common agreement there is only pure securalism: zero place for religion except as a private matter and only a place for liberalism and reason – which leads me to my point that such pure secularism must be backed by atheism. But I am not so sure, especially in societies like our own where so many people (as your poll shows) profess allegiance to Christianity that we can define secularism in such purist terms.

Of course we can agree that nobody wants a theocracy, and the founders of both the American and Indian constitutions were right to protect their countries from that risk given the historic and cultural contexts in which they founded their states. But there was little risk of church and state eliding in Britain 200 years ago despite our very imperfect unwritten constitution; there is zero risk today. To raise its spectre is specious.

What we are debating surely is what constitutes the good society in a predominantly but necessarily not purely secular society. What do we understand by liberal tolerance? And where do we draw the boundaries of religious faith encroaching on the public sphere, knowing that there is no risk of a British theocracy?

You betray the core dilemma when you dismissively write that I am entitled to say that cultural Anglicanism needs a religious dimension and you are entitled to say that it does not. That is because you implicitly recognise that when we discuss faith, argument becomes very difficult. Argument stops and “entitlements” begin. But I want an argument – and it centres on what we will tolerate.

Jürgen Habermas says that human nature needs both secularism and rationality on one hand, and faith and belief on the other; that to imagine pure secularism is utopian. I am in the same place. That is why I think the liberal Church of England needs its capacity to express faith which we must tolerate or it becomes a lifeless shell. It is also better, if we are to have churches and faith, that we have a liberal church that has come to terms with secularism. I think you should make your attacks more forensic, more generous and less absolutist.
Best, Will

 

 

Dear Will

I am struck by the fact that, despite your emphasis on liberalism, you are exemplifying the distorted and illiberal way atheism and secularism are portrayed by their opponents. (And please stop conflating the two: atheism is the lack of belief in gods, secularism is the view that governments should be neutral on the subject of belief in gods.)

It has been obvious since the publication of The God Delusion in 2006 that many supporters of religion have preferred to ignore its arguments and just repeatedly claim that it’s full of rage and hatred, fundamentalism and intolerance instead – traits that are not recognised by most people who have actually read it. The less-than-subtle message is: “He’s strident and shrill so you can ignore what he says.” Yet this alleged stridency consists in nothing more than clearly and reasonably challenging religious claims in the same straightforward way that no one bats an eyelid over when the subject is anything other than religion.

And now, when the issue is not atheism at all, but the role of religion in public life, the same stunt is being pulled. The mere act of commissioning a scrupulously factual survey from a highly respected, impeccably impartial polling organisation has been described by an editorial in one of our leading newspapers as “hysterical”, and others are piling in with similarly intemperate words and rather desperate attempts to divert attention from the cool and sober findings of the research.

There is a concerted attempt to make out that our real agenda is not the liberal one of ending unfair privilege in public life but, as you put it earlier, a “campaign to convert us all to atheism”, to “pillory those who have faith”, and as something that runs counter to the principle of “live and let live”. Never mind the fact that – as Ipsos MORI discovered – three-quarters of UK Christians share the view that religion should not have special influence in public life (which is practically the definition of secularism)! No – let’s start by misrepresenting secularism as atheism and go on to portray it as the illiberal persecution of the religious! Never mind that the whole goal of secularism is fair, equal treatment for followers of all religious beliefs and of none! Let’s divert attention from that, and go out of our way to paint it as aggressive and intolerant and illiberal.

If saying that religion should be a private matter and should not have special influence in public life is illiberal, then 74% of UK Christians are illiberal too. If it is intolerant to say that religious belief should not exempt you from compliance with the law, then 72% of UK Christians are intolerant too. These are mainstream, humane and liberal attitudes, not the obsession of an intolerant few.

Secularism is categorically not saying that the religious may not speak out publicly or have a say in public life. It is about saying that religion alone should not confer a privileged say in public life, or greater influence on it. It really is as simple as that. Surely any true liberal must agree?
All good wishes, Richard

 

 

Dear Richard

Your poll helps to confirm an important part of my argument: the majority of self-described British Christians seem to manage their faith while simultaneously acknowledging it should have firm public limits. They are not demanding more, and as a result most of the rest of us think that the pluses of a moderate Christianity, even along with some of the historical detritus (bishops in the House of Lords etc) offset the minuses. It may even help keep the extremes in check.

The situation here is broadly OK, although we have to be watchful. But it is why in a British context your critics can portray you as militant and hysterical – but why in an American or Islamic context where the public impact of religion is potentially much more dangerous your stance is a vital corrective. Different religions and faiths represent different threats – but some, like the Church of England, can be positively beneficial.

That, at least, is where my liberalism leads – and during our exchanges I’ve wondered if your position is not closer to mine than I suspected. See you soon I hope.
Best, Will

 

 

Dear Will

This has been a pleasure, but I fear we must close. Yes, the majority of self-described Christians accept religion’s public limits. More of them oppose than support bishops in the Lords, for example. My worry is that the recorded numerical strength of nominal Christians like you (albeit reduced now from 72% to 54%) is exploited by the minority of less enlightened Christians who want to overstep those limits: who complain of being “persecuted” when they can’t discriminate against gays, for instance. Discrimination is not liberal. Arguing against discrimination is not intolerance.

Two final points: First, arguing against religious belief is not hysterical, militant, or totalitarian. It’s what we do in all other fields of discourse, where no one viewpoint can claim privileged immunity to argument.

Nor is it the same as saying people shouldn’t have the right to hold, and speak, their beliefs – which of course I would absolutely never do, despite numerous mendacious claims to the contrary. Second, secularism isn’t something we need only when threatened with theocracy, any more than democracy is something we need only when threatened with dictatorship. These are principles resting on fairness and justice for all. Something we are surely able to agree about.
All good wishes, Richard

 The Observer | Will Hutton and Richard Dawkins | Sunday 19th February 2012

Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, is an emeritus fellow of New College, Oxford; Will Hutton is principal of Hertford College, Oxford

A QUESTION OF FAITH

2008

Atheist councillor Clive Bone proposes a motion at Bideford town council that the tradition of having prayers before council meetings ceases. His motion is rejected.

2010

Bone complains to the National Secular Society which announces it will seek a judicial review to end the practice, claiming it breaches human rights.

 

10 February
High court rules that councils in England and Wales have “no power” to say prayers as part of formal meetings and that to do so is “not lawful”.

 

11 February

Former archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey warns that Christianity is being “marginalised”. Speaking after the ruling, Carey said he was concerned that people hostile to religion were trying to redefine the public role of religious faith.

 

14 February
Conservative party co-chairman Baroness Warsi warns of what she calls the “militant secularisation” of society and proposes that Christianity is given a central role in public life. An Ipsos MORI poll, conducted for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (UK), finds that 74% of people agree religion should not influence public policy. About one in eight (12%) think it should.

15 February
The Queen, in a speech at a multifaith reception at Lambeth Palace, declares her belief that the concept of the established church is “commonly under-appreciated” and “occasionally misunderstood”. She says the Church of England has a duty to protect the freedom of all faiths in the country.

 

17 February
The communities secretary, Eric Pickles, signs an order fast-tracking a change in the law to overturn the high court ban on councils starting meetings with prayer. It will mean councils can perform any action which an individual citizen is capable of carrying out.
Paul Gallagher

 

UK: Christians should unite with atheists to defend secularism

Baroness Warsi accused secularists of 'denying people the right to a religious identity' when in fact secularism supports this right. Photograph: Steve Parsons/PA

If atheists are bemused by the latest attacks on secularism, spare a thought for Britain’s Christians. Most agree with equality for homosexuals, support the separation of church and state, and share the basic principles of humanism. Many of the comments supposedly made on their behalf must be as alien to them as they are to the rest of us.

The ‘war on secularism’ is a battle over privilege. On one side, secularists – whether Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist or other – believe in freedom of (and from) religion; that faith is a personal choice and the state should be neutral in such matters. Opposing them, an elitist minority of Christians believe that one group – themselves – should enjoy privileges that others do not share.

Privilege is like swimming in a pool of marshmallows and beer; it sounds enjoyable, but to quote Bill Hicks on beer“it makes you stupid, slow, and docile, and that’s the way we like you to be.” Privilege is patronizing and infantilizing, and leads to underachievement and stagnation; but most of all it reinforces the status quo – something that tends to benefit those at the top more than anyone else.

Just as feminism ultimately benefits men, secularism is the best option for Christians in the long term. Sadly, a self-interested, parasitic elite within the Christian community are prepared to do anything to cling to their own positions of power, even it means misleading and undermining their own flocks.

Claiming to represent ‘ordinary’ British Christians, the Biblejackers have conjured an imaginary threat – militant secularism and the ‘war on Christianity’ – in an attempt to corral Christians behind a misleading campaign that fails to serve their best interests.

Like the infamous and tediously persistent “Winterval” Myth, coverage of religious issues by the right wing press is often riddled with inaccuracies and blatant untruth.

The recent case of the Christian B&B owners who were fined for attempting to ban homosexual couples provides a useful example.“Christian beliefs DO lose out to gay rights,” is how the Daily Mail reported the story, even though the suggestion is obviously untrue. If gay B&B owners attempted to ban Christian couples it would lead to the same outcome.

The recent ruling that prayers shouldn’t be part of the formal agenda of council meetings led to the misleading declaration “Town hall prayers banned,” followed by this mess of a statement: “The ruling means prayers will not be allowed at the start of council meetings across England and Wales, though they may still be said before the official start.”

Christians are still free to pray in town halls before meetings, they just don’t have the right to make everyone else join in. if they do, then I want the right to force Parliament to play Abba before every debate.

The worst of this nonsense in recent days came from Baroness Warsi, in a terminally confused rant in the Telegraph:

For me, one of the most worrying aspects about this militant secularisation is that at its core and in its instincts it is deeply intolerant. It demonstrates similar traits to totalitarian regimes – denying people the right to a religious identity because they were frightened of the concept of multiple identities.

Secularism supports “the right to a religious identity”, state religion opposes it.

In a secular society everyone is free to have their own faith and express it as they see fit. State religion imposes one brand of faith, forcing people to participate in its traditions and skewing the political system to give its followers preferential treatment over the rest of the society.

In any case, the decline of Christianity in the UK has little to do with secularist bogeymen. “Militant secularism” is a convenient distraction for religious elites who – like many incompetent rulers through the ages – would rather place blame on some semi-mythical enemy caricature than admit their own failings.

Many people of my generation consider the church at best irrelevant, and at worst judgmental and bigoted. Supporting gay marriage, standing up for public institutions like the NHS, challenging failed drug policies, siding with the poor against Westminster’s failure to address inequality and poverty in modern Britain – positive steps like these would bring more sheep to the flock than another century of dreary compulsory school prayer.

Instead, religion in Britain is best known for attacking the rights of minority groups, child abuse, and bombing things. It’s a PR mess worthy of Bell Pottinger.

If a company lost its customers at the rate Christianity haemorrhages followers, its board would be sacked and stakeholders would cry for revolution. Instead, the Christian elite are happy to maintain the status quo as long as they can preserve their own privileges: positions in the House of Lords, guaranteed coverage on the telly, state-mandated marketing to school children, regular columns in the Mailygraph. Centuries suckling at the nipple of the state has left the religion fat, lazy, and ill-equipped to compete in the modern world.

I’m an atheist, but if I were a Christian surveying the state of my religion in modern Britain I would welcome secularism; and it seems that many already do to some extent. Secularism would shake up the church and force it to address its relevance to modern society, bringing it back to the people. Faith is in decline, and when Christians inevitably find themselves in a minority – on local councils or nationally – secularism will protect their choice of faith or religious identity.

Above all, secularism is fair. It satisfies the demand that we should treat others as we would like to be treated, and sits well with Jesus’s instruction to “render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s.” Secularism allows each of us to have our own religious, spiritual or atheist identity untroubled by the state. That’s why we should defend it, and that’s why we should be suspicious of the motives of those who attack it, be they atheist, Muslim, Christian or just a bit confused.

The Guardian | Martin Robbins | 17 Feb 2012

 

Martin Robbins is a Berkshire-based researcher and science writer. He edits The Lay Scientist, a community blog about science, pseudoscience and evidence-based politics

Twitter: @mjrobbins

 

 

Italy plans to tax Vatican on commercial properties

The Vatican owns about 20% of Italy's properties

Italy’s Catholic Church faces an annual multi-million euro bill over government plans to strip it of its tax-exempt status.

Prime Minister Mario Monti has announced the Vatican must pay taxes on non-religious property, from which it previously enjoyed an exemption.

The annual cost could be up to 720m euros ($945m; £598m) according to municipal government bodies.

Italy’s Catholic Church has 110,000 properties, worth about 9bn euros.

It includes shopping centres and a range of residential property.

In December, the government reintroduced a tax paid by anyone who owns land or property in Italy – which the Church does not pay.

But a growing wave of Italians are opposed to what they see as special privileges in the face of a tightening economy.

Following their government’s latest austerity measure package, more than 130,000 people signed an online petition calling for the Church’s tax exempt status to be revoked.

Since 2005, church-run groups and organisations have not been classed as official commercial bodies and have been exempt from paying property tax.

According to the Corriere della Sera newspaper, tax authorities will calculate how much of a property is used purely for religious purposes and tax it proportionately.

This means a church would remain exempt but a chapel which operates an hostel would pay tax accordingly.

Earlier this week, new figures showed Italy has entered recession, after two consecutive quarters of growth between July and December 2011.

BBC News | 17 February 2012

UK: Establishment means the Queen does not belong equally to us all

Queen steps into secular row with defence of religion

In a speech at Lambeth palace today, the Queen told the Archbishop of Canterbury how inclusive the Church of England is and how important its establishment is to the nation.

She said: “The concept of our established Church is occasionally misunderstood and, I believe, commonly under-appreciated. Its role is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead, the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country. It certainly provides an identity and spiritual dimension for its own many adherents.”

Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, said:

“The Queen has a strong religious faith. For her to express her enthusiasm for that faith among religious leaders is appropriate and I’m sure they appreciated it. But her depiction of the Church of England as inclusive is a little hard to swallow.

“Public office was reserved to communicants of the Established Church. The National Secular Society has been concerned since its foundation in 1866 about the lack of inclusiveness of the Anglican Church in England. On four occasions our founding president, Charles Bradlaugh, was elected to represent the people of Northampton but was each time refused permission to take the necessary oath to take his seat in Parliament because he was an atheist. That only changed because secularists pressed for a more inclusive society.

“In the past the Church of England has excluded Catholics, Jews, atheists – indeed, the Act of Settlement still forbids a Catholic to take the throne. So this rewriting of history is a bit disingenuous.

“In a vastly diverse society such as ours, it is unsustainable that this tiny denomination (less than a million people attend CofE services on the average Sunday) should have such extensive privileges.

“The Queen is regarded by many as a great unifier in Britain. But her position as both head of state and head of the Church of England sends the wrong message to the many, many people in this country who are not Christians – or who are not even the right kind of Christians.

“The Queen should reign over a country of equals. That is certainly not what the establishment represents.”

National Secular Society | 15 February 2012

UK: Poll reveals majority of Christians support secular outlook

 

Results of a poll carried out by Ipsos MORI for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (UK) show that UK Christians are overwhelmingly secular in their attitudes on a wide range of issues.

The study also reveals that Christianity has become a minority activity and even those who define themselves in the Census as Christian have very little attachment to or desire to practise their claimed faith.

The research was carried out in the week after the 2011 Census and focused on the beliefs, attitudes and practices of UK adults who say they were recorded as Christian in the 2011 Census (or would have recorded themselves as Christian had they answered the question).

The poll contradicts claims that Britain is “a Christian country”.

The Church of England point out whenever they have the opportunity that 72% of people ticked the “Christian” box in the 2001 census but this new research confirms that this figure is meaningless.

People are much more likely to consider themselves to be Christian because they were christened or baptised into the religion (72%) or because their parents were members of the religion (38%) than because of personal belief.

As many as half (50%) of do not think of themselves as religious and less than a third (30%) claim to have strong religious beliefs.

The poll revealed that, on balance, significantly more Christians:

  • agree that the law should apply equally to everyone, regardless of their religion or belief (92% v 2%)
  • oppose religion having special influence on public policy (74% v 12%)
  • oppose the UK having an official state religion (46% v 32%)
  • oppose seats being reserved for Church of England bishops in the House of Lords (32% v 25%)
  • support the costs of hospital chaplains being met by the chaplain’s religious organisation rather than from NHS budgets (39% v 32%)
  • want state-funded schools to teach knowledge about the world’s main faiths even-handedly, rather than inculcate beliefs (57% v 15% solely Christian inculcation or 8% inculcate other school faith)
  • approve of sexual relations between two adults of the same sex than do not (46% v 29%)
  • approve of an adult woman’s right to have an abortion within the legal time limit (62% v 20%)
  • support the legalisation of assisted suicide in the case of terminally ill adult patients with safeguards (59% v 21%)

While Christians are more likely to support than oppose state-funded ‘faith schools’, this support is reduced when non-Christian schools are included. Less than half (45%) support state-funded faith schools for any religion, whether Christian or non-Christian, while just over half (53%) are in favour of state-funded schools for Christian denominations.

The current law in England and Wales requiring state schools to hold a daily act of broadly Christian worship is not strongly supported either, with almost as many Christians opposing to it (36%) as in favour (39%).

Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, said:

“These findings show the compete fallacy of recent claims by both bishops and Secretary of State for Communities, Eric Pickles MP that “we are a Christian country” in anything but a constitutional sense.

“They also confirm that church leaders are significantly misrepresenting the views of their followers in the very areas where the leaders seek the hardest to influence Government policy.

“The more the Government heeds the bench of bishops and other religious leaders on key ethical issues, the more democracy is undermined. Politicians should also take careful note that “Eight out of ten (78%) say Christianity would have no, or not very much, influence on how they vote in General Elections”.

Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association, commented:

‘There is clearly a vast gulf between the views of what we might call “census Christians” and the politicians, politicised Bishops and Christian lobby groups that claim to speak on their behalf. Those that argue for religious exemptions from equality laws, reductions in the abortion time limit, Bishops in the House of Lords, confessional education in state funded schools, or keeping marriage for a man and a woman only, do so without the support of the majority of those calling themselves Christian in Britain today.

‘The surprise results from the 2001 Census, which saw over 70% of those in England and Wales ticking the Christian box (mostly for cultural rather than religious reasons as other research has shown) have been widely used ever since by politicians and lobbyists to justify any number of divisive and discriminatory policies. Today’s research confirms that those justifications have been without foundation and future governments should recognise that fact.’

Richard Dawkins, an Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society and a Vice President of the British Humanist Association, said:

“Britain is a secular society, with secular, humane values. There is overwhelming support for these values, even among those who think of themselves as Christian. Just as importantly, there is also deep opposition to the state promoting religion in our society. When even Christians overwhelmingly oppose the intermingling of religion and state policy, it is clearly time for the government to stop ‘doing God’.”

We are grateful to the Foundation for commissioning this information that exposes myths which the establishment has been rather too keen to foster.

The full findings can be found on the Richard Dawkins Foundation website.

RDFRS UK/Ipsos MORI Poll 1: How religious are UK Christians?

RDFRS UK/Ipsos MORI Poll 2: UK Christians oppose special influence for religion in public policy

Sources:

National Secular Society | 14th February 2012

British Humanist Association | 14th February 2012

UK: A day to defend free expression – London, 11 Feb 2012

11 February 2012. A day to defend free expresssion.

The One Law for All 11 February rally for Free Expression is being held in London from 14:00-16:00 hours at the Old Palace Yard opposite the House of Lords. [Here is leaflet for download and distribution.]

Speakers are: A C Grayling (Philosopher); Alex Gabriel (Blogger); Anne Marie Waters (One Law for All); Caroline Cox (Peer); Derek Lennard (Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association); Faisal Gazi (Spittoon.org); Gita Sahgal, (Centre for Secular Space); Hasan Afzal (Stand for Peace); Jennifer Hardy (Queen Mary Atheism Humanism and Secularism Society); Jenny Bartle (National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies); Jim Fitzpatrick (MP); Kate Smurthwaite (Comedian); Kenan Malik (Writer); Lilith (Poet, Anti-Injustice Movement) ; Marco Tranchino (Central London Humanist Group); Mark Embleton (Atheism UK); Maryam Namazie (One Law for All and Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain); Nick Cohen (Writer); Nick Doody (Comedian); Pragna Patel (Southall Black Sisters); Rashid Ali (Centri); Rhys Morgan (Student activist); Roy Brown (International Humanist and Ethical Union); Rupert Sutton (Student Rights); Sohaila Sharifi (Equal Rights Now); Sue Cox (Survivors Voice Europe); Sundas Hoorain (London School of Economics Atheist, Secularist, and Humanist Society); Susan Zhuang (University College London Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society); Terry Sanderson/Keith Porteous Wood (National Secular Society); and Yasmin Rehman (Campaigner). There will also be messages from Jesus and Mo creator and Richard Dawkins. Iranian Secular Society’s Fariborz Pooya will be the Master of Ceremonies.

The call for action follows an increased number of attacks on free expression in the UK, including a 17 year old Rhys Morgan being forced to remove a Jesus and Mo cartoon or face expulsion from his Sixth Form College and demands by the UCL Union that the Atheist society remove a Jesus and Mo cartoon from its Facebook page. It also follows threats of violence, police being called, and the cancellation of a meeting at Queen Mary College where One Law for All spokesperson Anne Marie Waters was to deliver a speech on Sharia. More recently, the LSE Student Union has asked the atheist society to remove its affiliation to the union again due to a Jesus and Mo cartoon.

[To read Maryam Namazie's recent speech on how accusations of offence and Islamophobia are secular fatwas,click here.]

The Day of Action has already been endorsed by nearly 100 groups and individuals including Jessica Ahlquist, Richard Dawkins, Equal Rights Now, Taslima Nasrin, National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies, National Secular Society, Salman Rushdie, Southall Black Sisters, and Peter Tatchell. To see the list and add your own, click here.

In addition to the London rally, there will be actions and acts of solidarity in other cities, including Australia, France, Gambia, Germany, Poland and South Africa. To see the list or to add your own action or event, click here.

Clearly, the time has come to take a firm and uncompromising stand for free expression and against all forms of bogus accusations, threats and censorship.

The right to criticise religion is a fundamental right that is crucial to many, including Muslims.

11 February is our chance to take that stand.

You need to be there.

Enough is enough.

NOTES:

1. Join 11 February Free Expression Day of Action Facebook page here and Tweet #11FebFEDay.

2. The rally is sponsored by The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Science and Reason UK.

3. See recent media coverage of the rally and/or attacks on free expression:

A Day to Stand up for Free Expression, South African Times Live, 24 January 2012 [external link]

How freedom goes, The Spectator, 22 January 2012 [external link]

Strong religious belief is no excuse for intimidation, The Independent, 22 January 2012 [external link]

11 February: A Day to Defend Free Expression, New Zealand’s Scoop, 20 January 2012 [external link]

Islamist stops university talk with threats of violence, National Secular Society Newsline, 17 January 2012 [external link]

3. For more information, and details of the Day of Action, contact:
Maryam Namazie
Anne Marie Waters
One Law for All
BM Box 2387
London WC1N 3XX, UK
Tel: +44 (0) 7719166731
onelawforall@gmail.com

Vatican rubbishes corruption claims

A rare mantle of snow blanketed the St Peter's basilica on Friday. The Vatican has fiercely denied the widespread corruption charges against it. (Tiziana Fabi, AFP)

The Vatican on Saturday fiercely rejected claims by one of its archbishops of widespread corruption and waste in the management of the Holy See, condemning the accusations as utterly groundless.

“The claims are the fruit of erroneous judgements, or based on groundless fears, openly contradicted by those called as witnesses,” the former head of the Vatican’s governorate or administrative body, Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo, said in a statement.

Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, former secretary general of the governorate and current envoy to Washington, had sent strongly-worded letters warning Pope Benedict XVI of corruption. The letters were published in January in Italian media.

In a rare public rebuke of another top Vatican official, Lajolo said he was “greatly embittered” by the publication of the letters and accusations made.

“The claims cannot help but give the impression that the Vatican governorate, instead of being an instrument of responsible governing, is an untrustworthy entity, controlled by dark forces,” he said.

Lajolo rejected the “baseless suspicions and accusations” the claims had provoked in the media on publication, describing some as “laughable” and pointing the finger at “a certain type of unprofessional journalism.”

‘Disastrous’ situation
In extracts from the letters written in 2011, Vigano said he had faced a “disastrous” situation when he became head of the governorate in 2009 and said his transfer to Washington was a “punishment” for challenging malpractices.

“My transfer is causing disarray and discouragement among those who believed it was possible to resolve the numerous situations of corruption and waste” in the Vatican, he wrote.

Much of his criticism was focused on a Vatican financial committee that includes the head of the Vatican bank, Ettore Gotti Tedeschi. He said the bankers were favouring “their interests” more than the Vatican’s.

In one financial operation by the bankers that went wrong, the Vatican made a net loss of €2.5-million euros, the archbishop said.

He was also highly critical of the cost of basic technical services and said construction contracts for Vatican buildings were always going to the same companies for tariffs that were more than twice as high as in Italy.

Lajolo rebutted the claims, blaming the losses on the 2008 financial crisis and insisting that competition for contracts was transparent and fair.

Vigano has been widely praised in the media for enforcing drastic budget cuts — for example for the traditional Nativity scene on Saint Peter’s square, whose budget was slashed from €550 000 to €200 000.

‘Disinformation’
But Lajolo said that an improvement on the books from 2009 to 2010 was due to factors outside Vigano’s control, namely “the handling of financial investments … and the excellent performance of the Vatican Museums”.

The Vatican’s spokesperson, Federico Lombardi, accused Italian media outlets last week of “disinformation,” and said Vigano’s appointment as envoy to Washington was “proof of the pope’s indubitable respect and confidence in him”.

The Repubblica newspaper, however, said that just as Vigano’s decision to rely on Benedict XVI’s stated desire for more transparency had backfired, this public spat with one of the Vatican’s top men could cost him his US post.

“Vigano has been officially contradicted on every point by the Vatican’s top brass and it is now difficult to imagine that he can continue to carry out his diplomatic mission to represent the pope to the US government,” it said.

“There are some at the Vatican who have begun to bet on how long he can hang on,” it added. — AFP

Mail&Guardian online | Sunday 5th February 2012

Scotland: Catholic church fury as charity boss blames faith schools for sectarianism

John Downie, a director of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO).

THE public face of the country’s top lobbying group for charities has been criticised for launching an outspoken attack against faith schools.

John Downie, a director of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO), said one of the “key causes” of sectarianism was the existence of denominational education.

He added that “getting rid of faith schools” would help eradicate the blight of religious hatred north of the border.

Bishop Joseph Devine, the President of the Scottish Catholic Education Commission, last night told the Sunday Herald the opinions were “reckless” and “offensive”.

The SNP Government has made tackling sectarianism a top priority in its second term.

Legislation passed last year created new offences relating to singing at football matches and internet behaviour.

However, the bill became law in spite of cross-party criticisms that the plans were poorly conceived and vague.

In a blog on the SCVO’s website last year, Downie picked up on this theme, arguing that “the Government have the right intention but are taking the wrong action”.

He said “the solution” was to focus on the real cause of sectarianism, namely the school system.

Downie said: “In my opinion one key causes [sic] of sectarianism is Scotland continuing to have separate denominational and non-denominational schools…the reality is that separate schools foster estrangement between Catholic and Protestant communities and influence the behaviour of children.”

He added: “Yes, the attitudes of parents and grandparents don’t help and need to change but, like it or not, separate schools are a huge factor.

“The reality is, it doesn’t matter if a school is Catholic, Muslim or non-denominational, it is the attitudes of difference that separate schools perpetuate.”

Downie, who said in the piece that he was a Rangers season ticket holder, concluded: “The SNP landslide victory in the election broke Labour’s traditional stranglehold in the West of Scotland – if they really want to get rid of sectarianism then getting rid of faith schools would be the bold and right action to take.”

All SCVO blogs contain the caveat that “opinions expressed by the bloggers are their own”.

Downie was appointed as SCVO head of public affairs in 2009, leading a department that includes the body’s policy, research, communications and campaigns staff.

He also has responsibility for the SCVO’s “internal and external” engagement with politicians.

His appearances on television effectively make him the body’s public face.

Around 1300 charities and voluntary groups are members of the SCVO, which acts as the sector’s national voice.

Its members, one of which is the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund, employ more than 50,000 people.

Devine said: “Mr Downie has mis-used the SCVO website to make offensive and untenable claims that Catholic Schools are a cause of sectarianism in Scotland.

“Such an intervention is not what one would expect to read on the official website of a respected social agency that is expected to champion co-operation, harmony and tolerance.

“If he has no evidence to support his reckless claims perhaps he would have the good grace to withdraw them and better spend his time and energy promoting the interests of his members instead.”

Labour MSP Michael McMahon said: “There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that separate schools creates sectarianism – in fact, the opposite is true.

“If John Downie expressed these views on his own website, then fine, but using the SCVO website is for me stepping over the line. He should apologise.”

Neither Downie nor SCVO responded to requests for comment.

The Herald Scotland | Paul Hutcheon | Sunday 5th February 2012

Sweden : protest on forced sterilisation

Goran Hagglund, Sweden's social affairs minister, has blocked proposals to overturn Sweden's demand of sterilisation for people undergoing sex-change surgery. Image: PONTUS LUNDAHL/AP

In Sweden people who have their gender reassigned from male to female or vice-versa are forced by law to be permanently sterilised.  The European Humanist Federation has sent a protest to the Prime Minister of Sweden, Fredrik Reinfeldt, who – apparently for political reasons – is refusing to amend the law.

Our message was as follows:

The European Humanist Federation unites over 50 organisations in over 20 countries, with contacts in many more.  Our purpose is to represent the views of people who have no religion (maybe one-third of all Europeans) but hold non-religious beliefs such as Humanism, and to promote secularism, i.e., separation of politics from religion and belief, on a basis of equality and human rights.  We are recognised by the European Union for dialogue under Article 17 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

We are shocked to learn that Sweden has a law requiring that people having their gender re-assigned are compelled to be sterilised.  We are even more shocked that your Government is defending this law and refusing to go along with the majority of Parliament that is in favour of repeal.

We urge you, as the elected leader of a country that rightfully takes pride in its human rights record, to change your stance and repeal the law without delay.

European Humanist Federation | 4th February 2012

See also: Sweden blocks plans to overturn sex-change sterilisation law

 

 

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