Sunday, July 10, 2011

Accommodate or Confront? by Richard Green

source: highlights: This is Richard Greens' complete article which I've not edited (except for my highlights in green).
Background – the following article is a transcript of the presentation given by Richard Green of Atheism UK as a panel member at the July 2011 World Atheist Convention.

This is the burning issue. It was the subject of a similar discussion at last year’s fractious Council for Secular Humanism conference in California in the context of the relationship between science and religion. In this discussion at this atheist convention, we are talking about the relationship between atheism and religion.
“Confront” conveys a hostile or argumentative intent or manner with which atheists “challenge religious faith”. No matter how reasonably or politely they do it, they are accused of being hostile or argumentative, of being confrontational. As was said in the following passages from the “Four Horseman” discussion of 2007:-
Dawkins: “One of the things we’ve all met is the accusation that we are strident or arrogant, or vitriolic, or shrill. What do we think about that?”
Dennett: “Well I’m amused by it, because I went out of my way in my book to address reasonable religious people. And I test-flew the draft with groups of students who were deeply religious. And indeed, the first draft incurred some real anguish. And so I made adjustments and made adjustments. And it didn’t do any good in the end because I still got hammered for being rude and aggressive. And I came to realise that it’s a no-win situation. It’s a mug’s game. The religions have contrived to make it impossible to disagree with them critically without being rude.”
But – and here’s the thing – the accusation comes not just from theists and religionists but also from atheists and humanists. As Susan Blackmore has pointed out:-
A really clever trick – and I’m not sure how the great religions have managed to pull this one off – is to make the rest of us feel that we ought to respect people for believing impossible things on faith, and that we should not laugh at them for fear of offending them. In a society that strives for honesty and openness, that values scientific and historical truth, and that encourages the search for knowledge, this is outrageous – and it’s scary that we still fall for it.
The advancement of atheism entails challenging religious faith. But, such is the zero tolerance which religious faith has evolved as a defence mechanism for itself, this is always perceived by some, on both sides of the faith divide, as confrontation.
The alternative to confrontation is accommodation, which means (more in US than UK, usage): a “settlement or compromise”. But there is no scope for compromise between religious faith and the lack of it. There is no possible half-way house. You either have it or you don’t. You cannot have half a religious faith.
So, to “accommodate” means to “refrain from confronting” – completely. And “confronting” means “challenging religious faith”. Therefore, to accommodate religion is to abandon the advancement of atheism.
Why do we find such aversion to confrontation, even among atheists and humanists?
Well, many contemporary atheists still have a religious mindset; they believe in things that do not exist. They have replaced the concept of a super-empirical God with secular deities – usually collective constructs – such as the state, the nation or humanity
Of course, these things do, in some sense, exist as empirical facts, but they do not exist in any holistic sense as if they were sentient entities, singular conscious actors with intrinsic value, purpose, responsible for anything or as a source of morality. In the latter sense, they are mere abstractions.
Such atheists rely on faith in these abstractions to be confident in the existence of order and morality. They act as if their non-existence, or at least the lack of them as a rationale, would lead to chaos and immorality and they use them as an appeal to authority for justification of goals and actions.
The distinction, between those atheists who still have a religious mindset and those who do not, corresponds to the recently drawn distinction between “soft atheists” and “hard atheists”. Soft atheists refute the religionist claim: “Without God, there is no morality”, by way of the “Good without God” paradigm. But, far from refuting such religionist claim, hard atheists grant it. They hold that, just as there is no such thing as God, so there is no such thing as morality, only the illusion of it.
“Morality”, in this sense, means not our moralistic intuitions and emotions but a universal injunction external to them. The former are empirical facts; the latter is a figment of our wishful or fearful imagination, but is widely accepted as real.
Atheism implies amorality; hard atheists are amoralists. Soft atheists are moralists; they hold that one can be an atheist and still believe in morality.
Belief, in a universal injunction external to our moralistic intuitions and emotions, entails belief in an external source of it. For the theist, that source is a divine commander; for the soft atheist, it is a secular deity such as humanity – which arch-accommodationist Paul Kurtz has endowed with “global consciousness”. But the mindset is essentially the same, belief in something that does not exist. The reason why the soft atheist dislikes criticism of religion is that the same criticism can be levelled at the soft atheist.
The relationship with secularism is different. According to UK “Secularist of the Year 2009”, Evan Harris, in the preamble to his “Secularist Manifesto”:-
Secularism is not atheism (lack of belief in God) and nor is it humanism (a nonreligious belief system). It is a political movement seeking specific policy end-points. Many secularists are religious and many religious people – recognising the value of keeping government and religion separate – are secular.
Secularism seeks to defend the absolute freedom of religious and other belief, seeks to maximise freedom of religious and other expression and protect the right to manifest religious belief insofar as it does not impinge disproportionately on the rights and freedoms of others. In addition secularism aims to end religious privileges or persecutions and to separate the state fully from religion which is a necessary means to that end.
That is secularism per se, independent of atheism. It accommodates religion because it does not advance atheism.
But secularism, for the atheist, is merely a sub-set of atheism. The premise of atheism is that the word “God” (or any other word), when used to refer to a super-empirical object or process, does not symbolize anything intelligible. Therefore, the theistic assertion “God exists” is false. The state and its branches cannot derive their legitimacy from “God”. “God”, “faith” and “religion” have no place in a state’s constitution (written or unwritten), its laws or its actions. The principles of secularism are but an application of the premise of atheism. Active secularism aims to remove religion from public life. Active atheism aims to remove religion from life, of which public life is a sub-set.
Religious faith makes people hold as true things which either have no truth value or which are demonstrably false or contradictory. Therefore, the world would be a better place without it – “better”, that is, in the epistemic sense rather than in the ethical sense. There is no need to seek a substitute for God as the source of order or morality. Indeed, to do so would introduce other falsehoods.
Challenging religious faith is an end in itself. IF it is perceived by some as confrontation (as it inevitably will be), then so be it. The alternative, accommodation, is either to do nothing or to admit quasi-religions based on secular deities.
The message to those theists, religionists, who display zero tolerance to the advancement of atheism, is: “Get over it!” And the message to those atheists, humanist and secularists, who share the same zero tolerance, is: “Look at your own mindset!”

Saturday, July 09, 2011

What is secularism? by David Pollock

source: highlights comments

Edited version

The question: What is secularism?

  • Human rights treaties commit nations to freedom of religion or belief (including freedom of nonbelief and nonreligious beliefs). 
  • Any constraints on freedom of religion or belief should be the minimum compatible with the survival of a liberal, tolerant, democratic open society. 
  • In addition the European convention on human rights includes a commitment to the principle of nondiscrimination.
    • From this it appears to follow necessarily that the state, the law and the public institutions we all share must be neutral towards different religions and beliefs. 
  • On questions of profound disagreement and deep sensitivity where there is no agreed way to establish the truth or falsehood of the claims made variously by Christians, Muslims, humanists and everyone else, it is quite wrong for the state to throw its weight behind any one particular religion or belief. 
  • This neutrality is what is meant by secularism. It is a political principle applicable to states: a secular state may be supported by religious believers and be the home of widespread religious belief. 
  • Indeed, secularism is the best guarantee of freedom of religion or belief – but the enemy of religious privilege. 
  • It must be distinguished from a secular society, a term that suggests a society that has distanced itself from religion.
  • Now there is a common riposte to this: that neutrality is impossible, that a secular state in fact imposes liberal, secular values on everyone.
    •  In the Italian crucifix case, partisan law professors went so far as to claim: "An empty wall in an Italian classroom is no more neutral – indeed, it is far less so – than is a wall with a crucifix upon it." But this is playing with words. Laws, government and institutions that do not impose or assume any religion or belief on the part of any individual citizen leave the individual free to hold any religion or belief, or none. Is it dictatorial to remove chains from contented prisoners? They need not leave their cells if they prefer to stay. 
    • By contrast, those who reject secularism seek to fit everyone with their own style of shackles. This is not an enhancement of the freedom of the dominant religious group but a curtailment of that of all the minorities. By contrast, secularism is the best possible guarantor of freedom of religion or belief for everyone.
  • Objectors often allege that humanists and other secularists wish to drive the religious from the public square. 
    • Not so. How could we, when atheism or humanism are in law no less "religions or beliefs" than Islam or Christianity? If Christians were banned from the public square, so would be humanists and atheists. 
    • (Moreover, the phrase "the public square" needs further analysis: there are different types of public space for which different conventions are appropriate.)
  • What secularists do say is that in debates on public policy purely religious arguments should carry no weight. 
    • In a Voltaire-like defence of freedom of expression, we absolutely do not wish to suppress or forbid such arguments being voiced – but we do say that by convention they should count for nothing in the minds of politicians and decision-makers. 
    • By all means let the religious argue, say, against assisted dying with warnings of a slippery slope – an argument we can all understand and assess – but if they argue that life is the gift of God and that it is not for us to take it away, then in the process of public decision-making their words should be ignored. 
    • Such arguments cannot be legitimately admitted in a society where there are so many competing beliefs that reject its very premises.
  • Let the religious draw their motivation from their religion, let them encourage each other by citing its doctrines, but let them in the public square speak in a language everyone can understand. 
    • Similarly, no atheist should expect any attention to arguments premised on the nonexistence of God.
  • Being derived from principles of freedom and human rights, secularism does not entail restrictions on freedom of speech beyond those envisaged in the treaties 
    • nor does it require bans on religious clothing unless for good reason, related, for example, to safety or efficiency, to a reasonable requirement for a uniform, or where there is a risk of a role (especially an authority role as a public official or a representative of an employer) being appropriated to make a private statement, which might be about religion or belief or perhaps about politics. 
    • Even in France freethinkers opposed the ill-founded burqa ban.
  • Plainly secularism is opposed to privilege for any or all religions -
    • guaranteed seats in parliament, 
    • unnecessary exemptions from anti-discrimination laws, 
    • prejudiced arrangements for religious education (which still usually excludes humanism) 
    • or requirements for collective worship even where children object. 
    • On a Europe-wide view, the most objectionable privilege is that hundreds of millions of taxpayers' euros are handed over to the churches every year – an EU-sponsored academic project has just produced a report (not yet on its website) referring to the "massive scale [of] public or semi-public funding aimed at majority religions".
  • But the working out of how the principles of secularism should be applied in practice has received too little attention, allowing its opponents to create a bogeyman of "militant atheists" and the like.

European Convention on Human Rights - 1950 & its 5 Protocols

source: via


Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance. Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Nature of Big Society & its relationship with faith & faith groups

The non-religious think
whilst the religious pray?
source: | (90 minute discussion)

Committee Room 15 
Meeting started on Thursday 30 June at 9.53am
ended at 11.21am


Witnesses: Rt Rev Tim Stevens, Bishop of Leicester, Lord Sacks, Chief Rabbi, Charles Wookey, Assistant General Secretary, Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales, and Andrew Copson, Chief Executive, British Humanist Association

 9:54am - Bernard Jenkin MP (Committee Chair)  - We are looking at the nature of the Big Society and the relationship with the various faiths and faith groups in our Big Society.

9:55 - Mr Halfont - Wall Street Journal, 30th June 2011 (Godless Britain The U.K.'s churches are empty enough to land jumbo jets inside) - Britain is one of the most irreligious nations in the western world.

Britain today has become one of the most godless societies on earth. Its principle religious exports today are thinkers who despise religion. From Richard Dawkins, who has compared religion to child abuse, to my friend Christopher Hitchens, who titled his 2007 book "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything," the British have cornered the market on being anti-God, at least the Christian and Jewish varieties.
While 92% of Americans believe in God, only 35% in Britain do and 43% say they have no religion, according to Britain's National Centre for Social Research. The number of people who affiliate themselves ...

9:56 - Bishop Tim Stevens (C of E) - Britain is in the vanguard of secularism ... the measure of secularism is not clearly defined ... government would want to be equidistant between people of faith and people of no faith and between the different denominations within the faiths.

9:57 - Andrew Copson (CEO, BHA) - In 2010 British Social Attitudes Survey, 51% Britains said they had no religion, 43% were Christians, but compared to US this makes little difference with civic participation such as volunteering eg in 2009 survey 60% of religious and 60% of non-religious people were involved with civic participation.
10:02 - Mr Halfont - Lord Sacks has said that faith communities are essential for the Big Society, which I agree with. If religion is declining in this country does that mean that it will be very difficult for the Big Society to work, because of a lack of belief or a decline in religion?
10:03 - Lord Sacks quotes work of Robert Putnam in USA which says religious people who attend church have more social capital than non-religious ie religious give more money to charity, voluntere for a charity, give  money to homeless person, donate blood, help with housework, spend time with someone who is depressed.
10:04 - Andrew Copson - reiterates, in 2009 survey 60% of religious and 60% of non-religious people were involved with civic participation. UK society is differant from USA society. ‘In the UK there is no difference between non-religious [and religious] people’s charitable, civic or voluntary engagement. None at all.’
10:05: Bernard Jenkin - would you say Mr Copson that that reflects the fact that we are Judeo-Christian country and that this infuses our values whether or not they are actively participating in religion or not?
10:06: Andrew Copson - I think that important values of civic participation predate the various Christian institutions in Europe, they’re shared around the world, they’re more likely to be human values, because we’re social animals who cooperate and participate in a shared society, and I think that’s a firmer foundation to build upon.’
10:07 Mr Halfont - is social capital as important as economic capital?
10:08 Tim Stephens - in Leicester immigrants, asylum seekers are reached out by faith groups. 
10:11 Charles Wookey, Assistant General Secretary, Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales - Robert Putnam unpublished research applys to UK as well as USA ie religious have more social capital than non-religious.
10:12: Andrew Copson refers to research included in BHA submission. Read the BHA’s 2010 briefing: ‘Religion, belief and volunteering’
10:13: Tim Stephens, If C of E did not participate in Big Society you would reduce impact of all 19,000 C of E clergy / 16,000 churches/ church halls, public education, youth workers, expenditure by congregation on clergy and buildings is £700Mpa.
10:14: Lord Sacks - What is Social Capital? Emerson said Education is what you are left with when you've forgotten everything you were taught in school. Social Capital is what is left when you subtract the state and the market (ie transactions to do with power and wealth).
10:22 Andrew Copson - Humanist funerals are attended by 500,000 a year
10:23 Lord Sacks - Social capital is partly bonding capital (within a group) and bridging capital (between groups) - hence InterFaith discussions 
10:30 - Mr Flint MP - Churches are being used cynically by government to do their dirty work
10:38 Andrew Copson - transfer of secular Eves Housing contact to Salvation Army.
10:57 Andrew Copson - risk to focus on people as if they were members of groups - individuals should be canvassed too, can build in risks of division between groups, reinforce heirarchies and inequalities, best to work with individuals in their locality without introducing notion of religious affiliation, 
11:00 Bernard Jenkin - shouldn't humanist groups stand shoulder to shoulder with religious groups?
11:00 Andrew Copson - focus on streets, on localities is appealing. A very small minority of people are interested in philosophy or religion. Better to have interfaith initiatives than inter religion strife and tension, but 73% from latest social attitudes survey says that religious beliefs cause division. 
11:03 Lord Sacks - media is blowing out of all proportion the extremist religious viewpoints to the detrement of the good work done by vast majority of faith groups
11:04 Bishop Tim Stephens - no evidence of public square free of religious groups would be easier to government. Muslim groups are problematised - religions are part of the solution not the problem. Religious providers should not provide for everyone. Religious groups can provide small scale and transformation eg local police centre, asylum seekers, unemployed - should not behave like a local authority or government department
11:10 Charles Wookey - family care homes, homeless projects
11:14 Andrew Copson / Bernard Jenkin - balkanisation of public services or manage friction and treat as obstacle, compulsory secularisation becomes a tyranny of its own? legal discrimination by religious groups, Equality Act does not bind some religious groups as secular providers, no protection against prostelytizing,
10:18 Lord Sacks - Erosion of religious liberty if attempt to impose Equality Act and anti-discrimination on religious groups. Might get 17th century Mayflower situation where people leave UK to find religious liberty elsewhere. equality and human rights law were somehow eroding religious liberty and he referred to the pilgrims on the Mayflower who had to leave England to go somewhere where they had more religious freedom. 
11:19 Andrew Copson  - Equality and human rights was not the flag under which the pilgrims on the Mayflower had been oppressed in England. It was a religious intolerance which we risk re-importing into public services if we split them up now.’
10:20 Bernard Jenkin - a humanist absolutism would be just as tyranical
11:20 Andrew Copson - of course which it is not desirable.
11:22 Meeting ends.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Debate: Does religion in education lead towards division or inspiration?

On June 15th the Accord Coalition and University College London held a successful panel debate asking whether religion in education lead towards division or inspiration?

The event was held to mark the 140th anniversary of the University Tests Act 1871, which brought to end almost all religious discrimination in Universities in the UK. The speakers were myself, Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari (Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain, 2006-2010), The Rt Hon Charles Clarke (Secretary of State for Education 2002-04) and Andrew Copson (Chef Executive of the British Humanist Association).

A recording of the debate is now available to watch online at:

Best regards,
Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain MBE
Chair of the Accord Coalition