Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Humanists agree religion can be ‘a social evil’

Humanists agree religion can be ‘a social evil’. The British Humanist Association (BHA) has today welcomed a report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that found deep concern about the damage that religion does to British society. The study consulted 3500 people about their views on modern Britain and found that alongside poverty, consumerism and drug abuse, religion is thought of as a social evil. While some respondents thought that the decline in religion has weakened morality, most were worried about religious irrationality, the influence of religion on politics or the ways in which religion undermines social cohesion.

Andrew Copson, Director of Education and Public Affairs for the BHA said: ‘It comes as no surprise to us that the public are angered when they see faith schools separating their communities or unelected bishops sitting in the House of Lords. We agree with dominant opinion in the survey which argued that it is not just a tiny minority of extremists who do damage in the name of religion; it is all those who seek to exempt religion from the rules which govern the rest of society.’

Religion is ‘the new social evil’

A CHARITY set up by an ardent Christian to fight slavery and the opium trade has identified a new social evil of the 21st century - religion.

A poll by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation uncovered a widespread belief that faith - not just in its extreme form - was intolerant, irrational and used to justify persecution.

Pollsters asked 3,500 people what they considered to be the worst blights on modern society, updating a list drawn up by Rowntree, a Quaker, 104 years ago.

The responses may well have dismayed him.

The researchers found that the “dominant opinion” was that religion was a “social evil”.

Many participants said religion divided society, fuelled intolerance and spawned “irrational” educational and other policies.

One said: “Faith in supernatural phenomena inspires hatred and prejudice throughout the world, and is commonly used as justification for persecution of women, gays and people who do not have faith.”

Many respondents called for state funding of church schools to be ended.

The findings contrast with Rowntree’s “scourges of humanity”, which included poverty, war, slavery, intemperance, the opium trade, impurity and gambling.

Poverty and drugs remain, but are joined by issues such as family breakdown, young people’s behaviour and fears over immigration.

Tom Butler, the Bishop of Southwark, rejected the indictment of faith. He said: “People meeting together, week after week, for worship, support and education in church, synagogue, temple, gurdwara and mosque can not only help people build local community but can teach children to become good citizens.”

However, Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, said he was “extremely pleased”. “Britain has had it with religion,” he said.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Are the Religous mad or demented? - Tanya Bryon.

Dr Tanya Bryon investigates the psychology of religion and suggests that religious thinking is either flawed, unbalanced, disordered, demented or plain mad. Should the religious be cases for treatment by psychologists? How is a street evangelist or schizophrenic any differant from a nun or a person praying? Why do we judge some as true believers and others as religious nuts? Clinical psychologist Dr Tanya Byron explores what some consider as the fine line between religious devotion and psychiatric disorder. She sees what happens when rational scientists try to analyse religious phenomena like Speaking in Tongues and Hearing Voices, and considers the beliefs of faith healers who claim miracles happen.

Partial transcript of programme:

1 min: Dr Tanya Bryon (TB) (wikipedia) "what place does religious belief which depends not on rational thinking or scientific proof, but simple faith, have in the modern world?" Religion has inspired beautiful art and bloody acts. Are people who devout their lives to something that can never be proved waisting their time? Is the very idea of religous belief evidence of flawed even demented thinking?
Are religious people mad?
Why does society respect nuns but ridicule a street preacher and label him as mad? How does a schizophrenic who hears voices in his head differ from a nun who hears the word of God?

Dr Tanya Bryon (TB) visits a religious rock concert. Sudden religious converts are having a breakdown - but this can bring happiness.
30 mins: TB "Does the simple fact of believing in something you cannot see make you a suitable case for treatment or should we base our beliefs on what we can proove to be true?"
31 mins Matthew Parris: "some people he has met, who have a fervour in their eyes and a quiver in their voice have either met God or they are unbalanced. I am inclined to the second explanation."

32mins: Is 'speaking in tongues' of The Pentacostals - a sign of God or a sign of disorder. Is it gibberish or the Holy spirit speaking?
42 mins: Normal language areas in the brain are changed. Can faith overturn the laws of science? Faith healing - touched by the power of god? Prof Chris French: "no follow up of miracles".
mins: Desperate (sick, simple, gullible) people can be attracted to irrational solutions (beyond provable fact) based on blind faith.
mins: Jeremy Vine
51 mins: Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT).
mins: Casting out of spirits.
57 mins: TB "seeing religious faith up close can be an exhilarating experience. Only a fool would deny that a religous life and a devotion to a set of spiratual beliefs gives great confort and meaning to millions of lives. I think we are just beginning to discover how a religious belief effects the brain. Mental health officials should not be so quick to diagnose disorder. But we must be prepared to say show me the evidence or stop raising false hopes and until we have that evidence from those that claim miracles happen, vulnerable people may remain open to exploitation."

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Jonathan Millers' Philosophers mentioned

Sir Jonathan Miller, a Distinguished Suppporter of British Humanist Association visited a Dorset Humanists home (40 attended) for lunch prior to his afternoon talk at The Lighthouse in Poole (attended by three hundred) today 27th April.

He recommended John Searle on Speech Acts.

Postmodernism and French philosophers Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault were critisised by JM for lack of clarity and impenetratable Philosophy.

Ludwig Wittgenstein was cited several times (games, jokes to make a point, features in common between subjects). Peter Strawson, John Austin, GE Moore (philosophical enquiry ceased to be metaphysical), Donald Davidson, Gilbert Ryle (category mistakes), Democritus (atomist who new no science just did not believe in the supernatural, material v immaterial), Bertrand Russell (Why I'm not a Christian - a humanist at Conway Hall said it was like an orgasm!) were mentioned.

Straight thinking is what is required.

JM says that philosophical enquiry rather than science has been key reason for questioning of religious beliefs in past few decades.

He recommended On Bullshit by Harry Frankfurt and I recommended Mindfucking by his friend Colin McGinn which cites 'On Bullshit'.

Oliver Sachs - his childhood contemporary - he keeps in touch with him.

Eliminative materialism
says that certain beliefs in belief do not exist (Paul Churchland).

Atheism_Tapes-Denys Turner _2_of_3

JM: Natural science replaces theology!
DT: creation is ex nihilo (out of nothing) - Thomas Aquinas, Multiverse
JM: why is their a god at all?

Atheism_Tapes-Denys Turner_1_of_3

JM: reluctant to call ourselves Atheists
JM: i hate to use the word 'spiratual'.
DT: why is there anything at all? Indifference is most troublling for theists.
JM: series of infinite regresses about God

What the World thinks of God - part 9/9

Susan Greenfield: 6mins - i belief in belief - religious and non religious drive people to war, belief in the individual

What the World thinks of God - part 8/9

What the World thinks of God - part 7/9

8min 09secs: my god is the only true god: Yes Muslims 95% (yes: 95% Indonesia, 31% UK)
I blame other religions for trouble in the world: 37% Uk, USA 15%

What the World thinks of God - part 6/9

3min 25secs Susan Greenfield - pray is a placebo effect.

6min 09secs, God or a higher power judges the way I live my life: USA 75%, UK 42%
Does a belief in god make us better human beings? Yes - 44% Atheists, Christians 85%
I dont believe death is the end. Nigeria 79%, USA 74%, UK 51%

What the World thinks of God - part 5/9

Sean Hughes: 7min 12secs, if you don't believe you dont pray - its called contemplation, you look within yourself to make you a better person not from a higher being.

What the World thinks of God - part 4

39secs - JV: what is your comfort level with Americas evangelisation?
JM: disturbed by extremely intense religious commitments particularly when politics is involved; disturbing is association of religion with patriotism / nationalism, and insistance that religion is to do with morality. Fairness and decency don't arise from religion (may be associated with instituations it has established) - it arises out of increased understanding of one another which does not depend on belief in a god.

Shawn Hughes: 3min 52secs, In Britain religion was not forced on them as a child (unlike Nigeria) hence low levels of religious belief
Susan Greenfield 5min 20secs: talk about belief not god

In UK 29% of Atheists pray sometimes! (6min 55secs)

What the World thinks of God - part 3

8min 27secs: I was encouraged to believe in God by someone outside the family. USA: Yes 57%, UK 29%, Mexico 2%

What the World thinks of God - part 2

Jonathan Miller (JM) 3min 45secs.
Jeremy Vine (JV). Their seems a huge majority for a belief in God. How do you feel about that as an Atheist?
JM: I'm reluctant to use word Atheist - not because I'm ashamed of it but I would never use a special term to describe my disbelief in witches or fairies and notion of atheism is thrust on those who have never entertained thoughts of god. Atheism is a badge or label which would be shameful to deny it. I dont know what people are talking about when they use that glotally stopped monosyllable (God). Fortunately no-one got to me before my cognitive immune system got working. Enormous numbers of people dont give a thought about God and dont even think about disbelief.

What the World thinks of God

from 6min 20 secs: Q I have always believed in God. In Nigeria 98%, USA 79%; UK 46%, Russia 43%, S Korea 31%.
Do you believe in God or a higher power? UK: No 33%
Do you believe in God or a higher power or some sense of spirituality? UK: No 16%
I find it hard to believe in God when there is so much suffering in the world. UK: Yes - 52%
Did God or a higher power create the universe? USA: Yes 85%, Uk: Yes 52%
I would die for my God. Nigeria 98%, USA 71%, UK 19%

Friday, April 25, 2008

Humanism is not for me

From Dilys Bentley: Letter to NSS Newsline 25/4/08
These articles in the New York magazine explore what atheists, brought out of the closet by Dawkins, Harris, Dennett and Hitchens, are to do next. Atheism, they say, is not enough – we need a set of values, we need some kind of ethical structure.

And so they go on to rediscover humanism, which in turn is a reinvention of, and first cousin to, religion.

It does seem that Americans can't think outside the religious box. Even the ones who have decidedly rejected the concept of "God" and have walked away from regular churches are aching to put something else in their place. But why?
Why can't they just leave it alone and stop trying to organise themselves into a group with a "set of ethical values" (which usually just amount to common sense, anyway), and then start saying to each other things like "That isn't a very humanist thing to say" or "That's not a very humanist way to behave".

Surely, having dispensed with God, it doesn't mean to say that we have to lumber ourselves with another rule book that eventually becomes the way we must live.
I notice that we are beginning to see "humanist" chaplains in prisons. And humanist weddings and funerals. Why? Why not just secular chaplains and non-religious ceremonies? Having dumped real religion, I have no desire to embrace an ersatz one. Humanism is not for me

Archbishop and Pope blame secularists for their failing faiths

by Terry Sanderson, NSS President, 25 April 2008
1. The Archbishop.
"The Secularists" (that's you and me and anyone else who doesn't trust religion to behave properly when it gains any kind of power) have been given a new adjective to go before their name. We're familiar with the "militant" secularists, "fundamentalist" secularists and "extremist" secularists tags, but the Archbishop of Canterbury has decided that he will call us "principled secularists". We are the people he seems to fear most, the ones who he claimed in a speech last week, are staging an organised assault on all religion.

Rowan Williams was talking about the drift away from the churches and the increasing embrace instead of an undefined

"spirituality" – a sort of internalised and private connection with all those things you can't buy with your credit card.
But, naturally, being the cheerleader for organised religion, the Archbishop doesn't think that this is necessarily the answer.
He still thinks organised religion is the best way to make the world work as a unified whole, rather than tribal parts. History doesn't support him in that, but hey, the man's got a living to earn.

However, what is clear from the speech is that the Archbishop doesn't really know what secularism means.

He thinks secularism means attacking the core doctrines of religion and trying to destroy them (a la Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens). But I think secularism means simply persuading religious people that their beliefs are a private matter and that they must not be permitted to dictate policy in the spaces that we all have to share.

I have no problem with religious people holding whatever strange and fantastical beliefs they want – so long as they keep them inside their heads or in their homes or places of worship. Once they leave those places, and believers reach the conclusion that everyone must share their faith, that's when the problems begin.

That is why I think the growth of personal spirituality is a good thing, and should be encouraged.

When people say they are "spiritual but not religious" what do they mean? I don't know, and I'll wager they don't, either. But their vague ideas of "spirituality" are unlikely to harm anyone. If it just means that they will do their best to behave in ways that do not harm or disadvantage others, then what more could one ask?

Let's all be "spiritual not religious". It could save the world.

2: The Pope.
The Pope, too, is very worried about secularism. He gave a very similar speech to that of Rowan Williams during the papal trip to New York last week. He told 250 Christian "faith leaders" about the

dangers inherent in "the rise of 'individualism' in the modern world". Mr Ratzinger said that "rapid changes resulting from globalisation" threatened their collective faith. "Also of grave concern is the spread of a secularist ideology that undermines or even rejects transcendent truth,"
he said.

What can Mr Ratzinger have thought, then, of the speech before his appearance at the United Nations by the UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon, who declared

"The UN is a secular organisation, with six official languages but no official religion. We do not have a chapel, but a room for meditation".

Let us hope it can be kept that way. But the invitation of religious leaders to give contentious speeches which cannot be challenged or questioned does not bode well for claims of a secular ethos at the UN. Every religion in the world is represented there, so how come the representative of only one denomination of one of them is given this privilege?

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

BHA Humanism for Schools - Toolkit 2 - What do we celebrate and why? (ages 7-11)

The new BHA Humanism for Schools website has teachers resources for 5-14 year olds.

Humanism is a non-religious approach to life, which the Government and QCA recommend be studied in schools as an example of a secular philosophy. In practice, this most often happens in RE lessons where pupils are also learning about some religious approaches to life.

Six Toolkits are provided for Key Stage 1, 2 and 3 . Each toolkit has a teaching guide (introduction), lesson notes, worksheets and class presentation.

Toolkit 2: What do we celebrate and why? (ages 7-11)

The aim of this toolkit is to explore the humanist idea that our relationships with others are important. Humanists say that it is our human relationships, and the love, commitment, and responsibility in those relationships, which give us the love and support we need in life. Humanists do not believe there is any god who looks after us.

Humanist new baby ceremonies and weddings/civil partnerships reflect this idea. New baby ceremonies focus on the love, commitment, and responsibility of the parents and wider family and friends towards the child. Weddings and civil partnerships celebrate the love, commitment, and responsibility of the couple towards each other and the support which friends and family can give.

Curriculum Links
Religious Education, particularly the themes of 'Beliefs and Questions', 'The Journey of Life and Death', 'Religion and the Individual' and 'Religion, Family, and Community'.
Citizenship/ PSHE 1a, 2a, 2e, 2i, 4a, 4b, 4c, 4f
English, opportunities for speaking and listening, group discussion and interaction, drama, reading, and writing
Opportunities for Art and Music

Lesson Guide

Class Presentation (see bottom of this page)


Humanism for Schools - Toolkit 1 - What makes us Special? (ages 5-7)

The new BHA Humanism for Schools website has teachers resources for 5-14 year olds.

Humanism is a non-religious approach to life, which the Government and QCA recommend be studied in schools as an example of a secular philosophy. In practice, this most often happens in RE lessons where pupils are also learning about some religious approaches to life.

Six Toolkits are provided for Key Stage 1, 2 and 3 . Each toolkit has a teaching guide (introduction), lesson notes, worksheets and class presentation.

Toolkit 1: What makes us Special? (ages 5-7)

For humanists, one of the most important attributes of humans is the ability which we have to ask questions about the world around us and investigate those questions.

Humanists do not look to any god or sacred texts for guidance in life, but look rather to our own human ability to ask questions, explore the world, reflect on our own experience, and find answers.

Humanists say that our curiosity, and the intelligence, imagination, creativity, and empathy with which we seek answers to our questions, demands responsibility: we can change the world we live in and we are responsible for our own actions.

Learning Objectives
Pupils are able to give their own answers to the following questions:

  • What makes us special?
  • How have our questions changed the world?
  • Is it always a good idea to think about lots of questions?

Pupils are able to compare their answers with those of humanists and other people.
Pupils are able to explain why humanists say that thinking about questions is special.

Summary of Activities

Pupils explore the humanist 'happy human' logo and watch video clips of humanists talking about their ideas, in order to find out about the humanist idea that being able to think about questions makes people special because it means we can change our world and think for ourselves.

Curriculum Links
Religious Education, in particular the themes of 'believing', 'symbols' and 'myself'
Art and Design, sections 1a, 2 and 3
Citizenship, sections 1a, 1b, 1d, 1e, 2a, 2b, 2c, 2e, 2g, 4a, 4b, 5b, 5c, 5f, 5g
English, opportunities for speaking, listening, group discussion and interaction, and drama
ICT, 2a, 2b, 2d, 3a, 3b
Science, 2a, 2b, 2f, 2g

Lesson Guide

Class Presentation (see bottom of this page)


Monday, April 21, 2008

Evolution v Creation - EvC - a huge resource on the internet

I found this site via a link in New Scientist article on Evolution.

Dipping into EvC forums I found for instance Science forums, a sub forum on Big Bang and Cosmology and a post Before Big Bang: God or Singularity
with a Closing Assessment

about understanding science "...what this thread makes clear is that you can only explain something to someone who already believes it is true. If they believe it is false then they'll find every excuse and opportunity to avoid reaching an understanding. But this practice isn't unique to those approaching science from a spiritual perspective, it is also true of the reverse, as we often see when science minded folks ask Christians about the Trinity. So the problem becomes how do you explain something to someone who doesn't believe it and only wants to disprove it? We can argue that one doesn't have to accept it, just understand it, but this turns out not to be so easy to do, for anyone from either side of this debate. "

Evolution: 24 myths and misconceptions

If you think you understand it, you don't know nearly enough about it

It will soon be 200 years since the birth of Charles Darwin and 150 years since the publication of On the Origin of Species, arguably the most important book ever written. In it, Darwin outlined an idea that many still find shocking – that all life on Earth, including human life, evolved through natural selection.

Darwin presented compelling evidence for evolution in On the Origin and, since his time, the case has become overwhelming. Countless fossil discoveries allow us to trace the evolution of today's organisms from earlier forms. DNA sequencing has confirmed beyond any doubt that all living creatures share a common origin. Innumerable examples of evolution in action can be seen all around us, from the pollution-matching pepper moth to fast-changing viruses such as HIV and H5N1 bird flu. Evolution is as firmly established a scientific fact as the roundness of the Earth.

And yet despite an ever-growing mountain of evidence, most people around the world are not taught the truth about evolution, if they are taught about it at all.

Even in the UK, the birthplace of Darwin with an educated and increasingly secular population, one recent poll suggests less than half the population accepts evolution.

For those who have never had the opportunity to find out about biology or science, claims made by those who believe in supernatural alternatives to evolutionary theory can appear convincing. Meanwhile, even among those who accept evolution, misconceptions abound.

Most of us are happy to admit that we do not understand, say, the string theory in physics, yet we are all convinced we understand evolution. In fact, as biologists are discovering, its consequences can be stranger than we ever imagined. Evolution must be the best-known yet worst-understood of all scientific theories.

So here is New Scientist's guide to some of the most common myths and misconceptions about evolution.

There are already several good and comprehensive guides out there. But there can't be too many.

Shared misconceptions:

Everything is an adaptation produced by natural selection

Natural selection is the only means of evolution

Natural selection leads to ever-greater complexity

Evolution produces creatures perfectly adapted to their environment

Evolution always promotes the survival of species

It doesn't matter if people do not understand evolution

"Survival of the fittest" justifies "everyone for themselves"

Evolution is limitlessly creative

Evolution cannot explain traits such as homosexuality

Creationism provides a coherent alternative to evolution

Creationist myths:

Evolution must be wrong because the Bible is inerrant

Accepting evolution undermines morality

Evolutionary theory leads to racism and genocide

Religion and evolution are incompatible

Half a wing is no use to anyone

Evolutionary science is not predictive

Evolution cannot be disproved so is not science

Evolution is just so unlikely to produce complex life forms

Evolution is an entirely random process

Mutations can only destroy information, not create it

Darwin is the ultimate authority on evolution

The bacterial flagellum is irreducibly complex

Yet more creationist misconceptions

Evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Universe MUST have been created by God!

Atheism cannot be right!

Nobel winner battles plan to let teachers challenge Darwin's theory

Evolution fray attracts top scientist

by Herald Tribune

Reposted from:

Nobel winner battles plan to let teachers challenge Darwin's theory

By Anna Scott
Published Tuesday, April 15, 2008 at 4:30 a.m.

TALLAHASSEE — His mess of white hair rising with the wind, Nobel laureate Harold Kroto delivered what has become his standard speech on evolution:

Humans and fruit flies share the same genes.

"You may not like that but it's not my fault," Kroto, 68, said in front of the state Capitol on Monday.

"It's the way it actually is."

Florida lawmakers are frustrating the winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize for chemistry. They want to change the way evolution is taught so that teachers are allowed to challenge Darwin's theory.

It is the most absurd thing Kroto has heard since moving to Florida in 2004 to teach at Florida State University. His friends back home in England, where he was a professor in Sussex, have been sending him e-mails asking why he stays, he said.

"We're the laughingstock of the enlightened world," Kroto said.

For months, he has been writing newspaper articles explaining the basic tenets of Darwin's theory, hoping to change minds.

He sits on round-table discussions and hands out booklets on evolution from the National Academy of Sciences.

He races to the Capitol between lectures to give the fruit fly talk.

To Kroto, and mainstream scientists like him, the idea that humans evolved from the world's earliest life forms is as obvious as the laws of gravity.

"The bedrock of all biology," Kroto calls it. "It's beautiful."
But Florida lawmakers and a national movement of mostly religious-based groups believe evolution is less absolute.

State proposals this year would undo a recent decision by the state Board of Education and allow teachers to "present scientific information relevant to the full range of views on biological and chemical evolution."

Kroto and other scientists surmise such legislation would allow teachers to present as credible theories of creationism and intelligent design, basically beliefs that God or a higher being created humans.

Proponents say it allows teachers "academic freedom" to explore a theory, and that laws clearly ban the teaching of religious theories.

The proposals would also protect from punishment students who refuse to accept Darwin's evolution.

The bill's Senate sponsor, Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, says teachers and students feel too frightened to even discuss intelligent design.

Senate Majority Leader Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden, said the theory of evolution "had flaws."

Republicans have voted for the plan to the point where it will be considered by the full Senate, and has only one more committee to pass in the House.

Kroto, whose father was Jewish and fled the Nazis in Germany, said the belief in God has never made sense to him.

"I just think science is the way the universe is and that's how we figure things out," Kroto said.

He won the Nobel Prize for discovering buckminsterfullerene, a carbon molecule with a soccer ball shape that students now call "buckyballs" for short.

He fears the recent debate over evolution is a sign science is becoming irrelevant.
"As far as I'm concerned, it's an abuse of position not to teach science correctly to children," Kroto said. "Today they don't need to know how anything works. The technology is so good if something breaks they get it fixed. There's a large number of kids probably prepared to accept something without being too careful."

Humanism to be taught at GCSE

Thousands of teenagers will be taught about humanism for the first time as part of a religious education GCSE.

  • Have Your Say: Should humanism be taught at GCSE?
  • Read the Comments
  • Pupils will be encouraged to debate controversial issues from the standpoint of all the major faiths - as well as those that reject the existence of God.n an attempt to bring the subject up to date, students will use the different views to examine topics such as euthanasia and abortion.

    The OCR exam board said the "philosophy and ethics" course would also include units on the nature of good and evil, medical ethics and death and the afterlife.

    Examiners said humanism - the rejection of religion in favour of reason and a belief in human potential - had been included to reflect its growing popularity in the UK

    The problem is still with the religious schools. Can you see them teaching anything that promotes humanism in a positive light?
    Posted by Martin Henderson on April 18, 2008 8:28 PM
    A teachers' representative in Hull at a SACRE meeting recently told the meeting that 99% of the children in her school were atheist (75%) or agnostic (24%). So learning about the various gods of the different religions in RE classes just helps to confirm the indifference of these children to religion. In Birmingham this has been recognised, and their RE syllabus has been radically changed to replace most of the religious education with moral education.
    Posted by Paul Smith on April 18, 2008 6:07 PM
    High time Humanism was given at least equal importance in RE lessons. Religion is increasingly irrelevant to growing numbers of people, especially teenagers. We should be teaching them to think for themselves, and obscure ancient texts just don’t apply to modern life.
    Posted by Amanda Waite on April 18, 2008 6:04 PM
    I find it astonishing that, in 2008, such a question should be asked. In return, I'd ask, why not? We introduced a new syllabus that includes Humanism and secular world views in Suffolk last year. It's long overdue.
    Posted by Margaret Nelson (Humanist SACRE member) on April 18, 2008 4:46 PM
    I really can't understand why humanism isn't already being taught. Young people need to be introduced to a wide range of philisophical world views without fear or prejudice as early as possible. Why wait until GCSE, this should be taught at primary school.
    Posted by J Jones on April 18, 2008 4:38 PM
    Including the non-religious needs to start from day 1 at school. The most damage is done at Primary school, especially in the 30% that are faith schools.

    The RE curriculum is still drawn up by vested interests and serves to promote religion, as does the daily act of worship.

    Throughout the average RE syllabus there are referrals to truth, critical thinking, etc., in an attempt to make RE appear like a proper subject of study. How confusing it must be for pupils, mixing up fact and fiction.

    Of course, RE varies greatly from teacher to teacher. But it is up to the local SACRE to take the lead and include the non-religious. If they do not, they are breaching the government's own guidance on social cohesion.

    Change needs to come from government. RE needs to be scrapped and replaced by something like Philosophy and Culture, where religion can be placed in its proper context; and where the true facts of religion can be openly discussed.
    Posted by Andrew Edmondson on April 18, 2008 4:27 PM
    Excellent news! This will allow the 2 out of 3 teenagers who have no religion to be introduced to the lifestance that is most likely to appeal to them. (The 2 out of 3 figure emerged from two very big surveys a decade apart - one for the old DfES, one by two clergymen.)

    But even children who have a religion need - and deserve - to know about Humanism, just as unbelieving children need and deserve to know something about religion.

    Now Humanism must take its place in the RE syllabus all through school.
    Posted by David Pollock on April 18, 2008 3:59 PM
    I don't know what the philosophy and ethics course referred to is or will be but the present position is as follows. RE is supposed to be taught to local agreed syllabuses produced for each LEA by SACREs as previously mentioned. There are national guidelines in the form of The QCA Non-Statutory National Framework which encourage the teaching of non-religious philosophies such as humanism. some SACREs include it fully, some suggest it as an optional topic and some will not have it included at all.
    It would be good to see Humanism taught more widely and on equal terms with religions
    Richard Scutt SACRE member (co-opted!!!)
    Posted by Richard Scutt on April 18, 2008 3:54 PM

    It's time children were exposed to the idea that not everyone subscribes to organised religion.

    Next let's have a change on SACRE representation. I find it amazing that in my London Borough, the Rastafarians - representing a part of the 0.3% of 'other religions' are allowed a vote, whereas the Humanist representative is not.

    Those of no faith in the borough, forming 18% of the local population and therefore the 2nd largest 'faith group' by a substantial margin have no voice.

    Talk about discrimination!

    Posted by Cllr Helen Jardine-Brown on April 18, 2008 3:10 PM
    Report this comment
    An excellent move forward.

    The next step is to replace the disgraceful Circular 1/94 Guidance on RE written by Jesuit-trained John Patten under the Thatcher government. Circular 1/94 explicity discriminates against humanists on SACREs and doing away with it would allow those of ALL beliefs to be fairly and equally represented.

    Given that over 65% of all 12-19 years olds claim to be agnostics or atheists, isn't it also time we got rid of the silliness of a daily act of religious worship in schools?
    Posted by Mike Lake on April 18, 2008 2:37 PM

    high court decision on the BAE fraud investigation

    The law triumphant

    The high court decision on the BAE fraud investigation is a historic one. It reaffirms our core principles at a time when they are under serious threat

    April 15, 2008 11:30 AM

    On Thursday last week Lord Justice Moses and his colleague Mr Justice Sullivan, sitting in the Queen's bench division of the high court,

    handed down a judgment of the very first importance to the rule of law in England and Wales.
    Its central thrust is that no agency, public or private, inside or outside the jurisdiction of the courts of this land, can be allowed to pervert the course of justice here by threats and blackmail.
    It is essential that the independence of the justice system be maintained, for otherwise - to apply a phrase the judges themselves used - "the rule of law is nothing".

    The judgment is the result of a judicial review of the decision by the director of the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) to shut down an investigation into allegations of corruption in the sale of fighter aircraft to Saudi Arabia by BAE Systems.

    The whole sorry saga of this huge deal is by now familiar (read the full Guardian report here); it started in 1986 under a Tory government, and has been subject to efforts by all successive governments to hush up the investigation at the prompting of the Saudis, who threatened to scotch the deal and withdraw from mutual intelligence and security arrangements. Indeed the crucial moment came after a visit to Tony Blair by Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud, who quite bluntly ordered Blair to have the investigation stopped. And, appallingly, Blair obeyed. At that point the SFO was just about to access details of Saudi royal family accounts in Swiss banks.

    In the days since the publication of Moses's judgment last Thursday,

    the government, with the immediately promised support of the Conservative party, has indicated that it intends to introduce legislation which would allow it to halt investigations carried out by the police and such bodies as the SFO if in its view they imperil national security or the lives of British citizens.
    This is therefore a key moment in our history: is the justice system of this country going to lose its independence and be made subject to the executive, or is the appeal to "national security" going to continue to trump every consideration of principle, civil liberties and law, often in the starkest and most opportunistic way.
    Take for example the home secretary's announcement in the last few days, usefully - expediently? cynically? - in the run-up to the vote on 42-day detention without charge, that we face over 30 serious terror threats at present?

    National security is without question a high priority, and the government has a duty to protect the lives of its citizens at home and abroad. But as the Moses judgment emphatically entails, this has to be done consistently with the rule of law and principles of justice. Not only is the independence of the criminal justice system fundamental to the very existence of a rule of law, but national security itself depends on the independence and inviolability of the law. For if the justice system is shown to be manipulable by threats of the kind made by the Saudis, national security is thereby further imperilled. The judges point this out very clearly: "Lest it be thought that there is any true distinction between national security and the rule of law, we need only refer to the attorney general's adoption of the principle that preserving the rule of law constitutes an important component in the means by which democracy is secured".

    What is dismaying about the government's intention to limit the independence of the justice system in the interest - or with the excuse - of national security considerations, is that in effect it and the Conservative opposition are colluding to cover their backs in the very greasy matter of their implication in a corruption affair. Yet this fact, in view of the principles at stake, is almost incidental: politicians will always try to escape being caught in winking at huge bribes and corruption, and covering it up. But doing so by wrecking the heart and foundation of the rule of law is about as disgusting and unprincipled as it is possible to get.

    Moses's judgement is an exemplary piece of work. A model of clarity in prose and devastating lucidity in reasoning, it is an outstanding and I think historic document. Everyone should read it, both for the example it sets of the highest standards of intellect and principle, and because it strikes at the heart of the dilemma of our time: the way our democracy and its institutions are being subjected to manipulation, cover-up and dishonesty of purpose, to the extent that they can even be bought by outsiders.

    One might even say that Moses has brought tablets of law from the mountain top; down below, the worshippers at the golden calf of expediency are preparing to smash them, in part to cover their own backs in an ignominious matter in which the honour and integrity of British law has been sold for a large mess of pottage; thereby not just covering the country in ignominy, but seeking to undermine the justice system itself.

    And to whom has the justice system been sold? To the country which copiously funds the spread of hardline Wahhabism around the world, a version of Islam which is congenial to fundamentalism and extremism. It is said that the "gift" given to al-Saud - which he has acknowledged receiving (while denying that it was a bribe) - was an Airbus airliner and £1bn. Well: we already knew that by our reliance on Middle Eastern oil we are none-too-indirectly paying for the terrorism in our midst; I've said as much on this site before, and I've also said that much of the harm that is accruing to us is the result of our own mistaken reaction to terrorism. This reaction is to diminish our own civil liberties - and now to threaten to undermine the very system of justice which is their underpinning and mainstay.

    Wednesday, April 16, 2008

    Divisive idea 'explains galaxies'

    By Paul Rincon
    Science reporter, BBC News, Belfast

    Dwarf galaxies (Image: Nasa)
    Dwarf galaxies are relatively small galaxies containing a few billion stars

    A controversial theory of physics may explain some aspects of galaxy behaviour better than rival, but more widely accepted, ideas.

    That is the claim of an astronomer who studied eight so-called dwarf galaxies.

    Modified Newtonian Dynamics (Mond) is proposed as an alternative to the widely accepted theory of dark matter to explain the dynamics of galaxies. (Wikipedia)

    Garry Angus, from St Andrews University, said Mond effects could be very important for small galaxies.

    Details of the study have been presented at the UK National Astronomy Meeting in Belfast and a press release.


    Mond would add a new constant of nature - called a0 - to physics, besides the speed of light, Planck's constant, and many others.

    Above it, accelerations are exactly as predicted by Newton's second law, which says that a force equals an object's mass times its acceleration.

    Below it, gravity decays with distance from a mass, rather than distance squared.
    This constant would be so small that it would go unnoticed with the large accelerations that we experience in day-to-day life.

    For instance, when we drop a ball the gravity is 100 billion times stronger than a0 and the accelerated motion of the Earth round the Sun is 50 million times stronger.

    However, when objects are accelerating extremely slowly, as is seen in galaxies or clusters of galaxies, the constant makes a significant difference to the resulting gravitational forces.

    Problem cases

    Mr Angus took two key parameters of the eight Milky Way dwarf galaxies and tried to fit them to predictions made by the Mond theory.

    These two parameters were the ratio of mass to the amount of light emitted by the stars in the dwarf galaxies (the mass-to-light ratio) and the orbital paths of stars in the galaxies.

    "Six out of the eight definitely fit the available data very, very well," the University of St Andrews researcher told BBC News.

    "There are two problem cases, and we're going to run simulations to check them."

    The most troublesome of these problem cases is a dwarf galaxy called Draco.

    But Mr Angus said this could be because this galaxy was falling towards the Milky Way at a speed of 300km/s.

    Our galaxy's gravity could be acting upon it, such that tidal forces were beginning to tear Draco apart.

    The value for Sextans could also be due to tidal effects but also due to using old measurements of the galaxy's luminosity. Mr Angus said the data were improving all the time for these ultra dim objects.

    But he explained: "The larger the systems you go to, the worse Mond fits the data. Presumably there is something we're not understanding at the scales of clusters of thousands of galaxies and upwards."

    At these scales, dark matter seems to be the only realistic proposal. This invisible form of matter is thought to make up some 22% of the Universe. The matter we can see makes up a paltry 4%.

    The origins of the dark matter theory date back to 1933, when the Swiss astronomer Fritz Zwicky found evidence for unseen mass within a galaxy cluster. This became known as the "missing mass problem".

    Observational evidence for dark matter has since been obtained from the study of the motions of galaxies. And this continues to be the dominant theory to explain observations of galaxies.


    The MOND theory was first put forward in 1983 by Mordehai Milgrom, now at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. The constant, a0 is equal to 1.2 x 10-10 m/s2. Milgrom points out that this value is also the acceleration that you get by dividing the speed of light by the lifetime of the universe.


    There are fourteen dwarf galaxies known to orbit the Milky Way, including the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. The eight selected for this study are all spherical in shape and lie around 240-750 million trillion (x10^16) kilometres outside the Milky Way.

    "Even without direct detection, the dark matter theory is difficult to prove or refute and although we may not be able to prove whether MOND is correct, by carrying out these kind of tests we can see if it continues to hold up or if it is definitely ruled out,"

    Sunday, April 13, 2008

    Ricky Gervais - comic atheist - does the Bible

    Thursday, 10 April 2008

    The day Ricky Gervais became an atheist

    American men's magazine Best Life has a short piece by comedian Ricky Gervais on how he became an atheist.

    After saying how, at the age of 9, he was a massive fan of Jesus – "More than pop stars. More than footballers. More than God" – Gervais describes the day his 19-year-old brother, Bob, walked in just as he was drawing Jesus on the cross as part of his RE homework:

    "There I was, happily drawing my hero when my big brother Bob asked, 'Why do you believe in God?' Just a simple question. But my mum panicked. 'Bob,' she said, in a tone that I knew meant 'shut up.' Why was that a bad thing to ask? If there was a God and my faith was strong, it didn’t matter what people said. Oh…hang on. There is no God. He knows it, and she knows it deep down. It was as simple as that. I started thinking about it and asking more questions, and within an hour, I was an atheist."

    So, a fairly rapid conversion then. And Gervais goes on to describe the "gifts" that opened up to him as a result of his "newfound atheism":

    "The gifts of truth, science, nature. The real beauty of this world. Not a world by design, but one by chance. I learned of evolution—a theory so simple and obvious that only England’s greatest genius could have come up with it. Evolution of plants, animals, and us—with imagination, free will, love, and humor. I no longer needed a reason for my existence, just a reason to live. And imagination, free will, love, humor, fun, music, sports, beer, and pizza are all good enough reasons for living. But living an honest life—for that you need the truth. That’s the other thing I learned that day, that the truth, however shocking or uncomfortable, in the end leads to liberation and dignity."

    Nice one, Ricky. And thanks for giving me a great excuse to put up a clip of the hilarious Genesis scene from stand-up show Animals:

    Dr Who to meet Dawkins?

    Dr Who to meet Dawkins?
    Richard Dawkins is to have a cameo role, playing himself, in the final episode of the new series of Dr. Who.

    Series producer Russell T Davies, who declared himself an ardent atheist and a fan of Dawkins' work, said: "He was just brilliant. He has brought atheism proudly out of the closet. When he came on set people were falling at his feet."

    Professor Dawkins has another connection with Dr Who. His wife – the actress Lalla Ward – starred in the series between 1979 and 1981. She played Romana, an assistant to the fourth Doctor, Tom Baker, during his time in the Tardis.

    11 April 2008

    Tony Blair doesn't understand that the core of faith is fanaticism

    April 5, 2008

    Must try harder

    Schoolboy error: Tony Blair doesn't understand that the core of faith is fanaticism

    An examination technique I learnt early as a schoolboy was to go for an arresting general claim whenever hazy about the facts or the logic. This is a technique that Tony Blair has devoted a lifetime in politics to honing and it was on display again on Thursday night when at Westminster Cathedral he delivered his lecture “Faith and Globalisation”.

    Oh boy, did he globalise. Oh boy, did he evangelise. And so we are naturally tempted - those of us who remain doggedly unconvinced of the ragbag of metaphysical claims made by the world's religions - to respond in general terms. Already friends have been in touch urging me to attempt a humanist avaunt-ye-Godbotherers counterblast. Sock it to him!

    It's tempting. But the world, the media, and his own country, have for too long indulged Mr Blair by countering his passionate abstractions with counter-abstractions. And that has suited him beautifully because in a clash of abstractions nobody ever wins. Passion checkmates passion but never trumps it, and he saunters away, eyes cast up like Joan of Arc at the stake, crying: “I only ever did what I truly believed to be right.”

    Looking sadly back over the trajectory of this charming imposter's delusional career, it grows clearer to me that, short of the policeman's knock, there was only ever one way Mr Blair might have been stopped early in his tracks. It was not by answering passion with outrage - but by asking quietly for the transcript.

    Then, after scrutinising each sentence calmly, we could have reached for a red ballpoint and marked his homework as a chalk-flecked history master might. Small marginal comments and questions - “define your terms”, “what's your evidence there?”, “but how do you square this with * (above)?” and (time and again) “what does this mean” - will, with patience, eat through the gaudy fabric of a Blair oration like an army of moths. Sadly, this is not the kind of thing that either a rowdy Commons Chamber or the modern mass media are geared to do, and Mr Blair has traded on that all his life.

    And this stuff from Westminster Cathedral on Thursday really was lower-sixth. It is clearly Mr Blair's own work. It doesn't reach undergraduate standard and should never be allowed to detain a proper don, but perhaps it may detain me.

    So please arm yourself with a red ballpoint, and go first to his justification for Alastair Campbell's famous phrase that at Downing Street, “We don't do God”.

    Why not? “To admit to having faith,” Mr Blair explained, “leads to a whole series of suppositions, none of which are very helpful to the practising politician. First, you may be considered weird.”
    [Marginal note: but "blessed are ye when men shall say all manner of evil against you, for my sake" - Mat v II. How reconcile w. duty of Christian witness?]

    “Second,” Mr Blair continues, “there is an assumption that before you take a decision, you engage in some slightly cultish interaction with your religion...” He goes on to give absurd examples of policies where wrongheaded people might think religion guided his hand [Marginal note: but see yr. para. 9 above: “If you are someone ‘of faith' it is the focal point of belief in your life. There is no conceivable way it wouldn't affect your politics.” How reconc.? Abortion? Divorce? Homosexuality? Human Fertilisation & Embryology? Helping the poor?]

    “Third,” he goes on, “that you want to impose your religious faith on others. Fourth, that you are pretending to be better than the next person.” [Marginal note: but reconc. w. yr. para. 38 below: "Let me be clear. I am not saying it is extreme to believe your religious faith is the only true faith. Most people of faith do that"?]

    Or, as he reminds us near the end: “I make no claims to moral superiority.” [Marginal note: ditto. Is saying "I belong to the only true faith" while adding that this "only true faith" centrally informs your politics, not a claim to moral superiority? Explain.]

    I could go on, but why bother, because the speaker is at heart so unsure of what he wants to say that the speech remains in the shallows and says very little. Prominent among those shallows, however, is one idea heard often and typically from the milder sort of Christian, Hindu or Liberal Jew.

    Real, “positive” faith, said Mr Blair, would “encourage peaceful co-existence by people of faith coming together in respect, understanding and tolerance, retaining their distinctive identity but living happily with those who do not share that identity.”
    [Forgive me one more marginal note: how reconc. respect, understndg, tlrnce, etc, w. “ours the only true faith” - para 38?]

    Mr Blair is encouraged by this, he says, not least because (he believes) faith is newly resurgent in the 21st century. He rejoices at that - why, “even ten years ago religion was still being written off as a force in the world”.

    Well, he's right on both counts. First, the “positive” approach to inter-faith relations is indeed well represented in many religions, and a certain kind of nice Anglican has been banging on about it all through my lifetime. Second, it's true that there do seem to be religious revivals under way across the globe.

    The problem for Mr Blair's analysis is this: where faiths are reviving, they are tending towards fundamentalism and intolerance. Even in the Catholic Church, it's the reactionary bits that seem to be the most muscular. Likewise the US Bible Belt. Not to speak of Islam.

    The two halves of Mr Blair's argument (1: faith advancing - hooray! And 2: faiths can be tolerant - hooray!) are therefore at war with each other.

    But the bedrock of Mr Blair's argument is that, worldwide, faiths have more in common than divides them, and that they are all, in an important sense, on the same side. And you know what? He's right - but not in the way he thinks he is.

    Throughout history, faith resurgent, the Church militant - be it Islam, Christianity or Judaism - tends as it gains enthusiasm to become more extreme. It goes back to basics. It strips the modifications of modernity, delving for a core. That core is fundamentalist. So, yes, from the Bible Belt to the Vatican, from the West Bank to Helmand, a comparable muscle is being flexed, it is profoundly reactionary, and all faiths do share it. In some deep and inchoate way, these human tendencies are indeed “all on the same side”.

    But it's not my side, and it shouldn't be yours; and a secular political class of the kind that produced our current generation of leaders, including Mr Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron, should think long and hard before throwing so much as a scrap to this tiger - let alone riding it.

    Plainly Tony Blair does believe in God. A political career showered with good fortune has proved that God believes in Mr Blair, so perhaps Tony judges it only polite to return the compliment. But there, for all our sakes, the exchange of pleasantries should end.

    Secular Seasons

    Get ideas to celebrate Humanist holidays! Secular Seasons lists them around the world, by month.

    Secular Seasons say " We would like all individuals, groups, and organizations to contribute by sharing your ideas, suggestions .. We here at the Institute for Humanist Studies are striving to expand the options and alternatives for holidays, ... If you have invented your own holiday or tradition, adapted an existing one, or know of one that is not listed, please feel free to share not only with us, but with the entire secularist community and the world. Please contact us with your ideas.

    Via BHA:

    Secular Seasons
    The Institute for Humanist Studies is re-launching their Secular Seasons website. The revitalised site aims to provide information and resources about new global holidays that transcend separate nationalities, religions and cultures; share resources for organising personalized rites of passage, such as weddings and funerals, for people seeking an alternative to traditional religious ceremonies; list major freethought conferences and events, and create opportunities to honour great discoveries, developments and exemplary people from human history.

    Monday, April 07, 2008

    Does Morality Depend on God?

    Does Morality Depend on God?

    Crabsallover submission for Philosophy Gym at Oxford University

    Morality are the principles on which people make decisions about how to tackle issues relating to right and wrong. If morality does depend on a Judeo-Christian-Islamic (Abrahamic) God it should be the main (if not the only) source from which people can receive guidance on moral decisions.

    I will argue that morality is not dependent on any God given moral absolutes but are instead dependent on mans' own ideas about morality, a mix of moral relativism and moral objectivism.


    Theists say that if there is no God to lay down what is right and wrong then things are right or wrong only because we say so. Killing could be right or wrong depending on what we decide. Without God, say theists, moral chaos will result.

    Plato (~400BC) in the Euthyphro dialogue asked:-

    1) Is killing wrong because God says so? OR

    2) Does God say killing is wrong because it is wrong?

    If the theist says 1) - killing is wrong because God decrees it to be so - he is advocating the Divine Command Theory of Ethics. But God could have commanded killing to be morally good and we should have to obey that rule - since it comes from God. So morality based on God could be quite arbitrary. But the theist will argue that God would only ever command what is good. God would never say that killing is good - because it isn’t. The conclusion is that morality is both arbitrary and independent of God.

    If the theist answers 2) - God says killing is wrong because it is wrong - then atheists could also help themselves to this morality without reference to God at all. Morality is independent of God.

    Society today does not have moral roots based wholly in Christianity instead they are based on Greek culture where morals were separated from religion. Zeus did not link religion to morals. Other societies such as the Romans have had ethical systems that are not based upon a divine command theory. Many morals are based on the Ancient Greek philosophers who said that murder and stealing was wrong. These ideas was later redacted by Abrahamic religions and embellishments added such as restrictions on types of food.

    Ideas in the Bible seem not a good guide to morality. Human sacrifice, genocide, slaveholding, and misogyny are consistently celebrated. God's advice to parents - if children talk back to them - is to kill them. God says we must stone people to death for numerous crimes including heresy, adultery, homosexuality, working on the Sabbath, worshiping graven images and sorcery.

    If we follow some rules (eg do not kill) but don't follow other rules (stone people who work on the Sabbath) then we have either made an arbitrary choice or are making our choice based upon some other moral yardstick. If we need to decide what to use and what to ignore by means of reason, we might as well reason our way to our morality without reference to the Bible at all.

    Jesus did teach some good moral codes such as the Golden Rule “Treat others as you would wish to be treated.” but the source of this is in 5th BC Greece (Epictetus & Thales).

    If God were necessary for morality, there should be some evidence that atheists are less moral than believers. Theists allege that atheism is responsible for some of the most appalling crimes of the twentieth century. While it is true that the regimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot were irreligious to varying degrees, they were not especially rational or critical enough about specific secular ideologies.

    Today there is a positive correlation between a society’s level of religiosity and the prevalence of all sorts of ills – crime, illiteracy, mortality rates etc.

    Incompatible religious doctrines have balkanized our world into separate moral communities and these divisions have become a continuous source of human conflict. Morality of Islam eg with regard to women, is often at variance to that taught by Christian morality.

    Some theists believe that nanotechnology, biotechnology and stem cell research are wrong. Researchers are viewed as "playing God" when they create materials that do not occur in nature. Why are these innovations playing God and not others (eg vaccination)? The theist distinction seems arbitary.

    If morality does not depend on God then what does it depend on? As a Humanist I think that moral values are founded on human nature and experience alone which depend on guiding principles not dogmatic rules. I thinks some moral principles are simply matters of personal preference (moral relativism) but others may not vary much from place to place or time to time (moral objectivism). Morals should be based on reason, experience, empathy and respect for others and the Golden Rule. I think that it is more moral to think for oneself, and to make responsible and independent choices without divine authority or the hope of divine reward in an afterlife.


    I argue that morality does not depend on God or a Divine Command Theory of Ethics. Many morals today were originally based on ideas from the Ancient Greeks and not from Abrahamic religions. Many of the Bibles moral strictures (eg stoning people for adultery) seem actually immoral. Evidence about morality in the world today suggests that atheistically inclined nations may be more moral than religious nations. Moral disagreements between different religions have resulted in balkanisation of people from Belfast and Bagdad. I argue that Humanism based on a mix of moral relativism and moral objectivism is a good way to lead a moral life.

    Sunday, April 06, 2008

    Tony Blair - On Faith - view clip to 9th April

    Newsnight, BBC 2 TV, 3rd April 2008 - view to 9th April 2008
    View from 33 minutes - with Prof. Anthony Grayling and Prof. Richard Levin (President of Yale University)

    At 44 minutes:

    Kirsty Walk: "Do you think in a globalised world Richard Levin, faith is more important then ever before?"
    Richard Levin (President of Yale University): "I think it is just an empirical reality that faith is important in politics and in the global conflict. So we could say and
    I'd be the first to welcome an era in which secular humanism prevailed and religion had no devisive influence on political life. I think that would be a wonderful world but frankly its a fantasy. Britain may be close to such a world but Britain is much more secular than most parts of the world.
    Religion plays a big role in life of the Middle East, a huge role; a big role in the life in America much more so than in Britain and as a consequence I think it is important to acknowledge that fact and try to undertake a political analysis that takes faith into account. I think that is a perfectly legitimate question for our new member of our faculty (Tony Blair) to be pursuing at our great univeristy (Yale)."

    Universal Human Rights "terminally damaged" by Islamic demands

    reposted from: NSS Newsline 4th April 2008

    Concerns have been expressed this week that the activities of Islamic nations at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) are terminally damaging the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

    The claims follow the adoption by the UNHRC of a resolution urging all member countries to enact legislation outlawing "defamation of religion" – particularly Islam. The motion was tabled by the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), a 57-member bloc of mainly African and Asian nations.

    After this came a motion that proposed to renew the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression. Egypt and Pakistan tabled an amendment to this requiring the Special Rapporteur in future to "report acts of racial or religious discrimination" that constitute "abuse of freedom of expression." In the words of the Canadian delegation: "instead of promoting freedom of expression the Special Rapporteur would be policing its exercise."

    Shortly before the vote, 40 civil society organisations pleaded with the Human Rights Council to protect the mandate of the Special Rapporteur by rejecting the amendment. Tellingly, most of these groups came from within Islamic conference's member states. They said,

    "While international law permits certain restrictions on speech to protect reputation of individuals, these restrictions are not extended to cover religions per se. International law does not entirely rule out restrictions on speech to protect religion but circumscribes the precise scope of such restrictions. Religious believers have a right not to be discriminated against on the basis of their beliefs, but religion itself cannot be set free from criticism."

    These pleas failed to move the Islamic delegates and the amendment was adopted by 27 votes to 15 against, with three abstentions. Britain, Canadian and EU countries voted against. The amended or substantive motion was then passed 32–0, with western nations tactically abstaining to make clear that they still supported the spirit of the original motion.

    The defeat was seen as a move against forms of expression that Muslims could not tolerate, such as the Danish Muhammad cartoons.

    The developments drew strong criticism from several other NGOs. Press freedom advocacy group Reporters Without Borders called the changes "dramatic" and said the growing influence of the OIC in the Human Rights Council was "disturbing."… "All of the council's decisions are nowadays determined by the interests of the Muslim countries or powerful states such as China or Russia that know how to surround themselves with allies," it said.

    The free speech non-governmental organization Article 19 joined with an Egypt-based rights group, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, in a joint statement saying the council process was being repeatedly misused "to push for an agenda that has nothing to do with strengthening human rights and everything to do with protecting autocracies and political point scoring."

    Pakistani Ambassador Masood Khan claimed on behalf of the OIC, however that the resolution would not limit free speech and simply attempted to require people to "exercise their freedom of expression responsibly" – that is to say, in the way that the religious authorities demand. Egypt's ambassador, Sameh Shoukry, said the right to freedom from religious discrimination and defamation was not being sufficiently protected, permitting "some of the worst practices that incite racial and religious hatred."

    The U.S., Canada and some European countries said the measure would not only curtail freedom of expression but also help dictatorial regimes block dissenting views. Ambassador Warren W. Tichenor told the Human Rights Council:

    "The resolution adopted attempts to legitimise the criminalisation of expression."
    The United States is not a member of the council but can speak as an observer.

    Human Rights Watch said the changes to the mandate

    "clearly calls into question the very essence of media freedom and independence."

    The OIC countries have since been busy trying to stir up a Danish cartoons-type crisis in the Islamic world over a film, Fitna, made by Dutch MP Geert Wilders that is critical of the Koran. So far, this has been relatively muted, but the pressure is building.

    Roy Brown of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (to which the NSS is affiliated) who has been trying to raise the alarm about this, has more details here. Mr Brown said: "Canada's position was echoed by several delegations, who objected to the change of focus from protecting to limiting freedom of expression. More than 20 of the original 53 co-sponsors of the resolution withdrew their sponsorship. These included the European Union and the United Kingdom (speaking for Australia and the United States), India, Switzerland, Brazil, Bolivia and Guatemala."

    Keith Porteous Wood of the National Secular Society has been working closely with IHEU to try to raise awareness of the rapidly deteriorating situation at the UNHRC. He spoke about it earlier today on the BBC World Service. Mr Wood said: "Islamic countries' domination of the UNHRC has been leading to increasing difficulties, but last week's events mark a new low point which is clear for all to see. The UNHRC has become an instrument to police freedom of expression and whitewash human rights abuses, unless they are alleged to have taken place in Israel. At best, the reputation and effectiveness of the UNHRC has been seriously undermined. But my view is even bleaker.

    As presently constituted, the UNHRC's credibility and future as a human rights body is finished and with it any pretence that Human Rights are Universal.

    The Human Rights Council has no enforcement powers, but is supposed to act as the world's moral conscience.
    It has been accused of spending excessive amounts of time focusing on Israel while giving a free pass to countries with poor records of observing human rights. The U.S. Senate voted in September to cut off U.S. funding for the council, accusing it of bias.

    Roy Brown said this week: "We have just witnessed the death of the Human Rights Council, and with it the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
    Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan saw the writing on the wall three years ago when he spoke of the old Commission on Human Rights having "become too selective and too political in its work". The old system needed to be swept away and replaced. The Human Rights Council was supposed to be that new start, a Council whose members genuinely supported, and were prepared to defend, the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Three years later, Annan's dream lies shattered, and
    the Human Rights Council stands exposed as no longer capable of fulfilling its central role: the promotion and protection of human rights.
    NGOs and those States that are genuinely concerned with human rights should now seriously consider withdrawing from the Council until such time as it puts its house in order. Or failing that, set up their own organisation actually committed to the promotion and protection of human rights."

    Mr Brown said:
    "Freedom of expression is most important for those who live under the tyranny of Islamic law. This was highlighted by the courageous group of 21 NGOs from the Islamic States who issued a statement appealing to delegations not to support the amendment."

    A full report on the resolution and debate
    See also: Wee Frees want to silence Dawkins
    Arabs condemn Saudi religious call for death for "apostate" writers
    4 April 2008