This tag is associated with 5 posts

A Broadly Christian Debate

My daughter attends an excellent school.  It was the only one in the area with a place, but after a few nail biting weeks on the waiting lists, we were over the moon when it was the school offered.  It is also Catholic.  We are not.

I have had a few people ask me how I reconcile my belief in separation of church and state with sending my daughter to a school where prayers and church services are part of the school day.  I have no problem at all with there being Catholic schools, and with them including aspects of their religion in the school day (as long as the children are not restricted from finding out fair information about other belief systems and are not encouraged to make harmful choices).  We could have home educated her, or held out for a school that is less overtly religious.  What I have a problem with is the lack of choice for parents who wish to avoid religious instruction altogether.Nun with 1960's Catholic Schoolchildren.  Photo: Vin Crosbie

I start from the general principle that everyone should be free to practice their own religion or none at all.  As long as you are not harming anyone, you are respectful of others and you allow members of your religion access to other beliefs, then I don’t see why anyone could object.  I also feel that, if you use the facilities provided by a group, you should abide by the rules of that group, and as such you should also be able to get basic services with no special conditions.  This is why I do not think that the “collective worship of a broadly Christian nature” in mainstream schools is at all fair.

If we had not been ok with our child going to a school that does not fit with our beliefs as an atheist/agnostic family, we would have had to home educate.  There is no option in the state system for a school where no religion or religious practices are imposed on the children.  To me, the default should be no religion, as that leaves it to the parents and child to add on whatever they believe at home, or to find a school that does provide religious instruction.  As it is, in a country where an active belief in Christianity is very much in the minority, nearly every child is expected to take part in worship at school.

My primary school was a mainstream community state school, yet we had ministers from the local evangelical church in assemblies, holiday clubs and classrooms telling us that evolution was impossible and that non-Christians would burn in hell, which leaves a strong impression on an eight year-old.  We also had the standard vicar-with-guitar-and-beard singing hymns at us, and a teacher who told us that global warming is just a test from God.  I left primary school in 1996, but websites like Mumsnet are full of the same kinds of stories.  Of course, these people are more than welcome to hold whatever beliefs they like and to worship how they feel, but they shouldn’t be able to essentially force children to join in.

Yes, there is the option to withdraw your child from assemblies and religious practises, but why isn’t the default position that of the beliefs of the vast majority of the population?  A child is not given the option to refuse to participate, and so is dependant on their parents being aware of the school’s level of religious instruction.

I have no problem with teaching about religion.  In fact, call me Gove, but I do think that children should be familiar with the Bible, and the King James version is particularly useful.  I also feel that children should be familiar with classical mythology and the stories of other religions too – without religion, much of history and the arts would make very little sense.  I would encourage children to respectfully visit churches and other religious monuments, and to meet believers and leaders of all different faiths.  I just think that the beliefs of one particular religion should not be taught as fact in the vast majority of schools, unless the parents have specifically opted in by sending their child to a school affiliated to (and partially funded by) that religion.

Anecdotally, it would seem that most schools have very little religious instruction in the curriculum.  However, it is something that schools are assessed on by Ofsted, and a parent has no way of knowing if a school will suddenly start singing hymns or having religious talks. If a school is about to start sex and relationships education – in which a child will be told facts about their own body and how to keep themselves healthy – the parents are called in to discuss it and are given the chance to ask questions and raise objections.  Why can’t parents be given the same option when it comes to matters of a far less scientific nature?

They Burn Witches, Don’t They?

It seems, on the surface at least, an obvious decision for any moderate, modern thinker, to convict the three Derby men accused of stirring up hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation. Specifically, for those whom the story passed unnoticed, they distributed literature outside a mosque and through letterboxes calling for the death penalty for homosexuals. The leaflet in question – other, equally offensive ones, were previously used by the men, although charges were not applied to them in this case – displayed a picture of a hanging mannequin accompanied by the legend ‘Death Penalty?’ The leaflet quoted Islamic texts and called for the death penalty as a remedy for society’s homosexuality problem.

The men admitted creating and distributing the leaflet, but based their defence on their right to freely express what their religion taught them. In spite of testimony to the contrary from homosexual men who received the sheet, the accused claimed they intended to inform, but not threaten.

The three men were found guilty on 20th January 2012 and will be sentenced on 10th February. What is interesting and unique about the ruling is that it is the first of its kind since new laws came into force in 2010. The Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 made it an offence to use words, actions or to publish, display or distribute written material; to publicly perform a play, distribute, show or play a recording, broadcast a programme or to possess material that would be considered inflammatory. In regards of hatred based on religious belief or sexual orientation, the material would also have to be proved to be a incitement to hatred and threatening in its intent.

In British law, rights of freedom of sexuality, religion, speech, and the expression of such and protection from persecution based on the above, are very rightly enshrined. But where, such as in this case, they clash, it’s like opening your cupboards to find all they contain are cans of worms.

It is not a crime to hate someone based upon their sexuality, religion, race, gender, age, disability or social position. ‘Thoughtcrimes‘ may befit the world of Winston Smith, but no progressive society would ever prescribe such dystopian control. You can also express those thoughts, if you’re so inclined, in private or public, but with the possible consequence of judgement by and ostracism from polite society.

Celebrity gaffes, like those recent ones by Jeremy Clarkson or Diane Abbott, on television or Twitter, are quickly seized upon by the public who express their collective, and often over-inflated, outrage. The celebrities then suffer a usually temporary but sometimes fatal loss of public favour.

When a member of the public causes offence, outrage often follows, but only locally and in a much reduced way. The man-in-the-pub, armchair pundit, who thinks sending everyone back to where they came from is the cure for society’s ills, is usually written off as a casual racist or, depending on the extremity of his views, a nut. We may not like or agree with what he’s saying, but we can’t do anything about it. It’s as much his right to think and say what he likes as it is yours to disagree.

The change in law was an amendment, to be applied where the intent could be proved to go beyond the mere expression of opinion. In this case, the men’s efforts amount to a campaign against homosexuals in the area – little more than a gay witch-hunt. Their previous leaflets – brought to the court as supporting evidence – were entitled ‘G.A.Y.’ (God Abhors You) and ‘Turn or Burn,’ and homosexual men were targeted both in the street and at home.

If they practised what they preached, the men would have formed a lynch mob and acted upon their own proposal. There’s a huge gap between saying something should be done and actually doing it, and I’ve never been one to apply argumentum ad consequentiam to my reasoning, but I don’t believe it’s as far fetched as it sounds. There is a trend toward increasing, and unregulated, use of Sharia law in the settlement of disputes. The judgements are not legally binding, and are given in the spirit of advice based on Islamic law, but it is usually expected that those in receipt act upon them. According to the men, they were only reiterating the position of Islam on the practice of homosexuality. Where Islamic law differs so fundamentally from British law, they are completely irreconcilable, and it worries me that an impressionable recipient of such teaching might take it upon themselves to act in a manner they believe to be correct.

This law, and, by extension, the conviction of these men, is designed to protect those of a certain race, religion, sexual orientation etc. from threatening intentions, words and actions. It does not exist to restrict the thoughts and expression of opinion of an individual. It is an important distinction to make and, hopefully, an indication that no one need hide what they are or what they believe, and the law is finally on their side.

Denounce bling, says man on golden throne

I hope, when Pope Benedict XVI gave his Christmas Eve mass this year, he did so with a healthy sense of irony. The commercialisation of Christmas, or ‘superficial glitter’ as he put it, should be shunned in favour of a simpler, more Christian celebration. The obvious response, I would hope, from any reasonably educated individual would be that he should practice what he preaches.

The institution of the Catholic church, and indeed any religious institution, is a business set up to regulate and control the belief structure of its devotees, and to make money doing so. It is not necessary if, for example, you support Manchester United or Chelsea to belong to a supporters club, to go to matches at home or away, to buy merchandise or to subscribe to a pay-per-view channel to support your team. All these are part of a structure to facilitate your support and to make money from it. Your support is a given whether or not you participate in these activities. All it does is make it easier for you to do so.

Religious institutions are no different. They provide group activities, in a designated place of worship; they have paid individuals like priests who aid in this worship; they elicit donations of money and time from devotees; they sell merchandise such as medals, rosary beads, crucifixes; they support travel and pilgrimage by individuals and groups to other sites of worship; they even have their own radio and television stations and bookshops to spread their message. They are structured and behave in every way like a business, except that in many countries they enjoy tax-free status.

The current pontiff’s predecessor, John Paul II, instigated the practice of publishing the Vatican’s finance reports in 1981, to dispel the perception that the Holy See was rich. In the three years leading up to 2010, the Vatican reported small losses of a few million euros, before returning a profit of around ten million last year over an expenditure of 235 million. Any institution that has a cash flow of almost half a billion euros can be considered rich by any measure, whether or not they make small profits or small losses.

Not taken into account are the assets of the church, which must amount to billions in real estate, art and artefacts etc. I struggle to take seriously a message of fiscal modesty from a man who lives in the kind of extravagant opulence that would make most monarchs look like they hadn’t two palaces to rub together.

Compared to some, the Catholic church is relatively indirect in its methods. At its most extreme and obscene, daylight robbery is committed in the name of people’s good faith, exemplified by televangelists such as Oral Roberts. Amongst his fundraising methods were claims such as in 1987 when he said that God would call him to heaven – kill him, in other words – if he did not receive $8m within a set period of time. He raised it, and more. Unlike the Catholic church, pastor Roberts’ aides thought the flagrant bling he wore wasn’t an appropriate image for an honest televangelist, and his jewellery was airbrushed out of photos. That isn’t an example specific to the Catholic church, but I give it to highlight the fact that organized religion can be and is used as a vehicle to take individuals and institutions to the riches they desire.

The message at the heart of Christmas is a good one, with which I have little argument. This year I spent my first Christmas with my family for four years, and to be with them was more important to me than any amount of pretty baubles. Sure, I’d have been disappointed if there’d been nothing under the tree for me, but it would have been enough to spend time, have a drink and a good meal with those that are dear to me. The message of peace and love can often get lost among the modern trappings of the season.

The question is do we need this elderly, out of touch relic of an outdated belief system to tell us to be nice to each other, and that love is more important than money? The Catholic church certainly hopes so, because as soon as we don’t they have no need to continue to exist.

Does the Pope shit in the woods?

PM David Cameron this week, at a speech in Oxford commemorating the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible, made the world shaking announcement that the UK was a Christian country. This astounding peroration was made in support of his claim that a return to the country’s Christian values would stop its “moral collapse.” If this were true, then bears are Catholic and the Pope shits in the woods.

Religious Ursidae and defecating pontiffs aside, this would be the kind of meat Christopher Hitchens would relish sinking his sharp teeth into, but in his place lesser moral philosophers will have to chew on it the best they can.

My two main issues with this statement are that I do not believe the UK is as much a Christian country as the Prime Minister makes out, and, even if it were, we do not get our morals from the Bible and should hold any individual who does in deep suspicion. There are lengthier dissertations on just this subject, such as The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and End of Faith by Sam Harris, but I’ll make a brief summary of the main points as I see them.

According the the 2001 Census, 72% of the UK population describe themselves a Christian, and 16% as having ‘no religion.’ This doesn’t give an accurate sketch of the actual religious beliefs of the country. There is an increasingly secular movement within the population, which isn’t reflected by these figures. Technically, I am a Catholic, and I’m quite sure when my father filled out the form ten years ago he would have marked me down as such. However, when old enough to decide for myself what I did and didn’t believe in, I decided I most definitely did not believe in a personal god and confidently describe myself as an atheist. ‘Atheist’ was not an option on the census a decade ago, nor was agnostic, nor secular. Yet these combined describe a large slice of the opinions of the population. We’ve all filled out forms and know that if your preferred choice is not represented you pick the closest option. The majority of people of voting age and above – i.e. those legally eligible to take part in a census – will have been at least born into if not actually brought up in one or other version of the Christian faith and so would pick that. But given the current falling church attendance figures they could not in all fairness be described as practising their religion.

According to a 2008 survey by the Office of National Statistics, only 38% of the population professed a belief in a personal god, and 45.8% considered themselves to have ‘no religion.’ Take into account that that 38% includes other faiths with large representations in the UK – Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Sikhism etc. – which it can generally be said are less secular than British Christians and combined account for at least 6% of the population in the 2001 census. In the 2010 British attitudes survey, only 43% described themselves as Christian, with just over 50% choosing the option ‘no religion.’ That’s half the population last year. This shows a distinct trend of increasing secularism. If democracy is meant to represent the majority of opinions, then the majority of opinions are that the UK is not currently a Christian country.

On the second point, that we do or should get our moral values from the Bible and the Christian religion, I would like to make David Cameron – a man confessedly a non-practising Christian – aware of some of the more morally reprehensible qualities in the Bible. According to the King James Bible it is morally acceptable to do the following: Commit genocide against non-Christians; give up your daughter and/or wife (it doesn’t matter, as, according to the Bible all women are the property of their parent or spouse) for gang rape; slay any individual caught worshipping another deity; and to persecute and execute homosexuals. Anyone who suggests the world would be a better place if we followed the values prescribed by the Bible has, I suspect, not read it.

But things are better now, a religious apologist might argue. No one pays much attention to the Old Testament any more. Are they better? The current Pope – apologies if it seems I am picking on Catholics, but I was brought up one so they receive the majority of my ire – is a man who is known to have shielded paedophile priests, and instigated the lie that condoms spread HIV/AIDS and has refused Vatican financial aid to African nations that hand out free contraceptives. Hardly a worthy example of ethical behaviour.

The most strongly religious countries at the beginning of the 21st century are undoubtedly the so-called Islamic-fundamentalist nations, such as Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Recent legal judgements in these countries have included the handing out of death sentences – to be carried out by methods ranging from stoning to having a tractor push a wall over and crush the convicted – for such ‘crimes’ as homosexuality, blasphemy and for being the victim – yes, the victim – of rape. As good an example of why religion should be kept out of politics and the law as any.

The United States – a country more strongly Christian than probably any other – has a per capita prison population of 743 per 100,000 (0.743%) – the highest in the world. The United Kingdom, for all its ‘moral collapse’ comes in at 89th of the 216 on the ICPS (International Centre for Prison Studies) list with 155 per 100,000 (0.155%) – about a fifth as high.

To be frank, if these facts and figures are an indication of the benefits of a Christian nation, I’ll take moral collapse any day.

Without a Hitch

“That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.”

Christopher Hitchens

It saddened me to learn of the death of writer, journalist, atheist and professional agitator Christopher Hitchens, aged 62, after a long battle against cancer. ‘The Hitch’ was an inspirational character, being an astounding intellect, a devastating debater, a possessor of a wit sharper than a sword lined with piranha teeth, and, just to prove he was human, a roaring drunk.

His speeches resonate with me, and I can’t help but think of a legendary address from history. At Gettysburg, 1863, at the dedication of a cemetery to the fallen of the American Civil War battle, politician Edward Everett was giving a keynote speech. It lasted over two hours. After he had finished, Abraham Lincoln arose and spoke for a little under three minutes, beginning by intoning the immortal words “four score and seven years ago…” Which speech does history recall? That was the power of The Hitch: He had impact. You could argue intelligently for hours, with facts and figures in your support, but unleashing the Hitch on an opponent was like fighting cavemen with a tactical nuke.

His put-downs have become colloquially known as ‘Hitch slaps,’ for their sharpness and ferocity, and for leaving those on the receiving end feeling like they’ve been smacked in the face.

He argued from a position on the political left, pro the preeminence of science, not just as an atheist, but as an anti-theist. Where Professor Richard Dawkins – who lead the tributes to his friend – would avoid direct debate with Creationists, Hitchens would actively pursue confrontation with religious extremists, and had been very vocal on religious issues and figures, such as Mother Teresa.

His thoughts on alcohol are almost as well known, citing many writers that created their best works while drunk. Perhaps as a society we’re more willing to forgive a drinker over any other form of personal abuse, and accept characters like Oliver Reed and George Best in spite of their flaws. But he never saw his drinking as a flaw. When former MP George Galloway once described him as a “drink-sodden ex-Trotskyist popinjay,” Hitchens let it pass bar protesting at the suggestion he couldn’t hold a drink.

Later in life some of his opinions seemed at odds with his liberal leanings, including being actively outspoken in support for the Iraq war. At the time I too shared his opinion, but have come to think differently in the light of subsequent information about the misleading and demonstrably false intelligence given in justification. This isn’t flip-flopping, but a change of mind of which Hitch would have approved. He was a believer in the primacy of persuasion and a sucker for a well-constructed argument, supported by proofs. He would never stubbornly maintain a view when all the evidence was against him.

If how he lived his life was the model I aspire to, then how he faced death can be an inspiration to us all. He refused to be cowed by his illness, and continued to fight for his cause until he was no longer able to. He recently engaged in a high profile debate against former Prime Minister Tony Blair, arguing against the proposal that religion is a force for good, in Canada in 2010. The assembled audience voted at its conclusion in favour of Hitchens.

Towards the end some religious opponents, upon hearing of his illness, offered to pray for his salvation. He told them not to bother, as heaven is deaf.

I hope, when I go, that I can face my death with as much dignity and humour, and with his lack of fear.

Christopher Hitchens 1949-2011


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