Tuesday, November 13, 2007

NSS - Newsline 9th November

reposted from: Newsline 09 November 2007
Chris Street comments are in bright green; highlights in blockquotes (yellow).

From Sue Leyland:
I am angry and incredulous that in Britain today, a Jehovah's Witness mother can refuse a blood transfusion after the birth of twins, so causing her death. Her husband and family refused to overrule her decision. How can they not be charged with manslaughter? Where was their humanity?

Had she refused it because Daisy's Dancing Dolls would get her, would the doctors have decided she wasn't of sound mind and overruled her? But because it was a 'recognised religion' that informed her decision, she was allowed to die. This is why we need to get rid of religion's right to allow cruelty and, in this case, death. It is impossible for those of us who have emotions that are not corrupted by a religion, to understand how anyone could do this to another person, let alone someone they presumably love. Some love.

From Muriel Fraser:
With religious groups pressing to take over government services, those who favour separation of church and state are looking for a single word to describe themselves. This is easy for the French, the Turks and other nations which have traditionally used the local form of "laicist" to avoid the less-than-catchy phrase, "advocates-of-the-separation-of-religious-organisations-from-the-state". However, in English "laicist" just won't fly and for this purpose "secularist" is the obvious and, it seems, increasingly popular choice. For a good example, see here.

The religious lobby, of course, is not happy with this. They don't want to have "secularism" simply mean "separation of church and state". They'd like to imply that unless you want them to run society you must be anti-religious and/or atheistic. A good way to keep many people from questioning religious privilege is to pretend that it involves questioning religion, as well. Therefore the churches favour a definition of "secularism" which yokes it to "atheism".

Unfortunately the NSS appears to lend support to the church strategy through the wording of "The Society's Principles and Objects" (last page of the Annual Report). There it does not say "Our aim is to promote..." (which would be unproblematic), but rather, "Secularism affirms...". Of the six items listed, only #5 involves separation of church and state. And before you get to that you encounter #2 which asserts that secularism requires believing that "supernaturalism is based on ignorance". A curious corollary of this is that you can be in complete agreement with all six of the NSS aims, yet still be technically disqualified from membership if you doubt that "secularism affirms" anything more than church-state separation. (Anyone proposing to excommunicate me for this admission of heresy?)

We need a manageable term for those who support the idea of a "wall" between church and state. We also want to greet as allies those who, whatever their personal metaphysics, don't wish to live in a theocracy. If they think of themselves as "secularists", are we supposed to tell them, "Oh no, you're not -- until and unless you admit that 'supernaturalism is based on ignorance' "? I certainly wouldn't want to be a party to that.

Wouldn't it be both generous -- and wise -- for us to stop pretending that we have proprietary rights to "secularism" and move over to the more modern, no-frills, "separation" definition? That wouldn't require any change in our aims, any change in our admission policies or any change in the groups with whom we are affiliated. It would only require granting that we are not "the only true secularists".

This would help create clarity about the term -- who, if you please, can remember a definition of "secularism" which has six logically unrelated sections and runs to 144 words? And it would also help undercut the argument that denying privileges to the churches means denying God. But we end up bolstering this invidious argument if we insist that to be a "secularist" it's not enough to "merely" fight for separation of church and state -- oh no, you have to renounce religion first. (The huge and highly effective American Civil Liberties Union wouldn't dream of doing such a thing.)

Why can't we admit that we're not the only secularists in the world? We can still be one kind of secularists -- secularists who happen to be atheists and who also believe in human rights, respect science, value education, want an open society and seek peace. Isn't that enough?

Terry Sanderson, president of the NSS, writes: I am confident that a significant proportion of the Council of Management and the members would, as I do, agree with the broad thrust of Muriel's letter. The difficulty faced by those seeking to change the Principles and Objects is a practical one. Legally, it requires a 75% majority of those who are present at an AGM to agree on the exact wording of an alternative. Even after previous debates seeking such reform, often lasting several hours, no form of words has been found that was supported by 75% of those present. What do other members think?

From Surendra Lal (writing in a personal capacity):
I was surprised to read terms like "Catholic secularist" in Bob Harrison's letter. In short, an atheist is one who does not believe in a deity and a secularist, likewise, is one who does not believe in religion. Secularism is defined as a "social teaching... which allows no part for religion..."

Bob Harrison asks if he is a member of the wrong society. In reply, I would refer him to the NSS's 'What is secularism?' which states that "This life is the only one about which we have any evidence-based knowledge and ... effort should be directed (towards this life)... Belief in the supernatural, including religion, is an evolved side-effect of our mental processes."

Thus, the NSS holds that such beliefs are not founded in any reality that can be proven. As an atheist and as a secularist, I would say that Bob Harrison is most definitely in the appropriate society. Given the above, it seems safe to affirm that an atheist is one who does not believe in God and that a secularist is a non-religious person who does not hold superstitious, or non-rational, beliefs.

I believe that it is important to draw clear lines here. Numerous organizations and societies exist to represent various degrees of religious views. The NSS is one of the few societies which takes a secularist stand and which actively opposes religious privileges and the anti-social effects of religious behaviour wherever they are found.

Separation of Church from State is only part of the battle. Secularism stands for much more than this. Religion is currently posing a direct threat to freedom of speech, civil liberties and democracy. The NSS fights against all such religious threats.

In the wider world, interpretations of secularism may be broadened and the definition becomes blurred. However, I feel that this is all the more reason for the NSS to be clear about what it stands for and not to shy away when it becomes difficult for others to hear its message.

When the secularist voice is so often stifled it becomes extremely important to take every opportunity to ensure that those such as "Muslims with ... strongly held beliefs" hear it; clearly and directly and without ambiguity. It is important for them to know that there is a rational alternative to their supernatural beliefs. Who knows how many may feel relief in hearing a secularist speak out; expressing a view which may lie dormant within themselves; that all of the religious tenets which they have been fed are, in fact, nonsense.

Sadly, there are currently many mistaken notions concerning Islam. The idea of a 'moderate' or 'secularist Islam' is paradoxical. Islam divides society into two clear groups; believers and non-believers (infidels). "The unbelievers, amongst the People of the Book (Jews and Christians) and the pagans, shall abide in the fire of Hell. They are the worst of creatures." If it were possible for secularists to compromise with people holding such religious beliefs, the battle for a fair and rational world would be lost before it had even begun.

From Chris Newell:
I'm slowly but steadily building a database of atheist and secularist quotations and would welcome suggestions from NSS members. You can search the database to see what I've already found or suggest a quotation online (requires registration). I'm interested in both historical and contemporary quotations, especially anything humorous! The database is used to publish a daily quotation which can be received in a variety of ways -- details.

For your diary
Secularism, atheism and agnosticism in nineteenth century Britain -- NSS vice president Jim Herrick considers some figures and movements in the British nineteenth century secularist tradition. He will look at Shelley, Huxley, J.S. Mill, Charles Bradlaugh, G.W. Foote and others.
Leighton House Museum, 12 Holland Park Road, London W14 8LZ. Wednesday 14 November, 6.30-7.30. Details and bookings from Alan Kirwan, 020 747 19156, or e-mail . Price £6, concessions £3. Glass of wine on arrival.

The NSS AGM will be on Saturday 24 November at Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London WC1. 2pm (registration opens 1.30pm). Come and exercise your democratic right and take the opportunity to meet other members and staff of the NSS. You must be a paid-up member in order to attend and participate.

Can there be a Just War? Farnham Humanists annual public debate. Speakers Bruce Kent (peace activist) Albert Beale (Peace Pledge Union) Field Marshall Lord Bramall (Former Chief of Defence Staff) Prof Richard Norman (Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy). Tuesday 20 November 8pm, South Farnham School, Menin Way, Farnham. Admission free, all welcome.

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