Pete Waterman and Girl Guides

Pete Waterman is, of course, a complete idiot. I’m sure everyone reading this is fully aware of that fact. But I wonder if the producers of BBC Breakfast knew just how big an idiot he is when they invited him to be their guest newspaper reviewer this morning. Perhaps they were just desperate to find someone concious who was willing to be in Salford at 7am on a Sunday morning. Or perhaps they were relying on him to say something stupid – in which case he didn’t disappoint.

On the section I saw, he picked on the story that the guides are dropping references to god from their oath. It was clear that Waterman isn’t in favour of this change, but it took him a while to come up with a coherent reason. First he babbled about “tradition” and “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” before coming up with this gem

All religions have a god. It didn’t say which god they were talking about.

Let me just unpick that for you. Waterman is obviously coming at this from the perspective of a typical Daily Mail reader. He thinks that the reason for the change is so that the non-Christian religions don’t get offended. He thinks it’s Allah and friends that are the problem here. I bet he was a couple seconds away from claiming it was “political correctness gone mad”.

But, of course, that’s not what this change is addressing at all. The majority of of non-Christian religious people will have no problem at all pledging allegiance to “god” because (as Waterman very nearly gets right) “all religions have a god”.

No, this change addresses a different problem. According to the 2011 census, 25% of the population have no religion. And that’s the people that this change is for. 25% of potential Girl Guides were either avoiding the Guides or taking an oath that meant nothing to them. Those girls can now happily join the Guides without having to swear an oath that they don’t believe.

It’s a good change of course. One that opens up the Guiding movement to a whole new group of potential recruits. I can’t see why anyone would object to it. Well, certainly not if they’ve understood the reason. Waterman clearly didn’t.

Oh, and perhaps someone could send Waterman a beginners guide to comparative religion. You really don’t need to look very hard to find a religion that doesn’t have a god. Buddhism springs to mind.

This is why you should think twice before inviting a record producer to comment on current affairs. Although I suppose it’s also why I should stop watching Breakfast News.


ECHR and Christianity

Today was the day that the ECHR published its verdicts on the four Christians who had claimed that their human rights had been violated by their employers preventing them from acting in ways conducive to their faith. The four cases were as follows:

Nadia Eweida works as a check-in assistant from British Airways. She wanted to wear a cross necklace visibly at work and BA said that all jewellery had to be concealed. BA have since changed this uniform policy to allow staff to display symbols of faith.

Shirley Chaplin was a nurse who was asked not to wear her cross necklace by the hospital where she worked. They said that it was a health and safety issue as the cross could be grabbed by a patient.

Lillian Ladele was a registrar for Islington Borough Council. She refused to carry out civil partnership ceremonies as her church does not condone homosexuality.

Gary McFarlane was a relationship counsellor who was sacked when he refused to give sex therapy guidance to same-sex couples.

All four took their cases to the ECHR after failing to get satisfaction from various UK employment tribunals.

The ECHR upheld Ewieda’s complaint, but overturned all of the others. This seems to me to be an eminently sensible solution. In reaching the decision, the court weighed the human rights of the complainants (i.e. their freedom to follow and express their religion) against other factors.

In the case of Ewieda the court decided that there was no real reason for her not to wear a cross necklace at work. As I said above, BA had already changed their uniform rules in line with this long before the ruling was published.

In the case of Chaplin the court decided that the health and safety issues raised by the hospital outweighed her freedom to express her religion. In other words, your freedom to express your religion can be restricted if it could cause a danger to others or to yourself.

In the cases of Ladele and McFarlane the court decided that the equality issues outweighed their rights to express their religion. It’s important that everyone can expect equal service from their local council and their relationship counsellor so it’s acceptable for an employer to take action against an employee who feels unable to offer their services on an equal basis to all customers. In other words, your freedom to follow your religion can be restricted if it makes you unable to conform to equality legislation.

I think this is an important and useful ruling. It’s basically saying that if your religious beliefs are at odds with the law then you’d better leave them behind when you enter the public arena. It also says that, yes, you have freedom to practise your religion but that there is a hierarchy of human rights and that this one is pretty near the bottom of the pile. Don’t expect it to survive a confrontation with just about any other human right.

Over the weekend a large group of Catholics wrote to the Telegraph saying that the proposed equal marriage laws could threaten their religious freedom. When I tweeted about that letter, I (semi-)joked that I couldn’t really see a problem with that. We can now see that the ECHR agrees with me – society’s demand for equality will trump religion’s demand for bigotry. And that is, of course, exactly how it should be in a civilised country.

One other interesting point about this story is the way that much of the media has reported it. To take a couple of examples, the BBC headline is “British Airways Christian employee Nadia Eweida wins case” and the Daily Mail’s (which seems to be in a state of flux) is currently “Christian British Airways employee tells of joy as after European court finds she DID suffer discrimination over silver cross”. In both cases the editor has ignored the majority of the decisions and focused on the complaint that was upheld. Of course, both stories go on to mention the other cases, but if you read the comments you’ll see that both stories seem to have a large proportion of readers who haven’t got beyond the headline before commenting and don’t realise that this isn’t the victory for Christianity that they seem to assume.

I see this as a victory for secularism. You can believe and do whatever you think your religion wants to believe or do but if those beliefs and action clash with what society expects, you will lose.


What Is Marriage?

There’s another major flaw in Cardinal O’Brien’s arguments against gay marriage. In his article he says “No Government has the moral authority to dismantle the universally understood meaning of marriage.” He seems to believe that there is some immutable definition of marriage that has always been true and that he is bravely defending. Let’s examine that theory. We’ll start by looking at the Bible.

And Gideon had threescore and ten sons of his body begotten: for he had many wives.

Judges 8:30

Here’s another

And Esau was forty years old when he took to wife Judith the daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Bashemath the daughter of Elon the Hittite

Genesis 26:34

And another

And Ashur the father of Tekoa had two wives, Helah and Naarah

1 Chronicles 4:5

I could go on, of course (try counting the number of wives that King David had), but I think my point is made. The Bible has many examples of polygamy. It’s clear that there isn’t a single universal view of marriage that has existed throughout history. Throughout most of recorded history various kinds of polygamy have been seen as the normal kind of marriage over most of the world.

It’s not even confined to history. Wikipedia lists around fifty countries where polygamous marriage is still legally recognised. Of course, the majority of them are patriarchal societies where woman are treated really badly, but that’s not the point. The point is that the Cardinal’s idea of a marriage which consists of one man and one woman is an anomaly in the history of the family and is still far from universal in the present day.

As I wrote yesterday, marriage is defined by society. As society’s views change, so does what constitutes a “normal” marriage. The problem with religion is that it finds change hard to sanction. Society’s rules from thousands of years ago are written in stone and can’t change without the tribal elders admitting that their gods are fallible.

Times change and society changes with it. The law must keep up with these changes. And it usually does. We can’t allow religious beliefs to hold us back on this occasion.


Marriage in the UDHR

In his article arguing against gay marriage, Cardinal Keith O’Brien twice referred to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, saying that article 16 clearly defined marriage as a relationship between a man and woman. In my response to his article I made the assumption that he, at least, knew what he was talking about here and explained that the UDHR shouldn’t be seen as set in stone and that it should be changed if it no longer reflected the way that society sees marriage.

I should have checked exactly what the UDHR says. The Cardinal is overstating his case a little. Article 16 says this:

  1. Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
  2. Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
  3. The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

No matter how closely you read it, there is nothing in there which implies that marriage should only be between a man and a woman. It doesn’t even imply that a marriage should be between two people.

I find it impossible to believe that the Cardinal is confused about the meaning of Article 16. He must know that it doesn’t say what he claims it says. He was lying to us in the hope that no-one would check and call him on his lies.

This just goes to show the importance of always checking primary sources.

Update: The Cardinal was interviewed on the Today programme this morning. I’ve just listened to the interview and I was disappointed to hear that he repeated this lie a number of times.


Telegraph vs Dawkins

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.
– Gandi

If recent articles in the Telegraph are any indication then Richard Dawkins has just moved from phase two to phase three, which means that his victory must be imminent.

Dawkins has, of course, been in the media a lot over the last couple of weeks as a representative of the secular movement. He’s been interviewed by people who presumably find the difference between atheist and secularism a little tricky to understand. Some of the interviews I’ve seen and read have been rather bizarre, but it’s the series of articles in the Telegraph that have been the strangest.

It started on 14th February when they reported on Dawkins’ appearance on the previous day’s edition of the Today programme. Dawkins had been talking to Giles Fraser, the former canon of St. Pauls about the MORI poll on the beliefs of people who had ticked the “Christian” box on the census. Fraser seemed to think that the validity of the poll somehow hinged on Dawkins’ ability to recall the full title of the Origin of Species. Taken by surprise in the studio, Dawkins failed this challenge. Most listeners struggled to see any relevance to the discussion in hand, but Stephen Pollard in the Telegraph described it like this:

In a discussion on the Today programme yesterday, Dr Fraser skewered the atheist campaigner Richard Dawkins so fabulously, so stylishly, and so thoroughly that anti-religion’s high priest was reduced to incoherent mumbling and spluttering.

It’s clear that Pollard has no love for Dawkins but this is a very strange description of what happened.

But it got worse on Sunday when the Telegraph ran Adam Lusher’s story Slaves at the root of the fortune that created Richard Dawkins’ family estate. Apparently some of Dawkins’ ancestors in the eighteenth century made rather a lot of money from slaves. Quite how the actions of his ancestors are supposed to influence our opinion of Dawkins is never really made clear, but the clear implication is that it’s all a bad show and that it should certainly stop him being quite so cocky about morality. Or something like that. Of course, we all had dozens of ancestors alive in the eighteenth century. What are the chances that one of them was involved in something that would offend present-day sensibilities? Dawkins has written in some detail about the article and his reactions to it.

Then yesterday there was a story by John Bingham – Richard Dawkins: I can’t be sure God does not exist. This was based on a public conversation between Dawkins and the Archbishop of Canterbury. During the conversation Dawkins mentioned that he couldn’t be sure that God doesn’t exist and that he describes himself as an agnostic. Bingham has leapt on this as though it is a new revelation and a major change of position. Of course it is neither of these things. Anyone who has studied even basic logic knows that it is impossible to conclusively prove a negative assertion and that it would be ridiculous for Dawkins to ever take any other position. This whole argument is laid out in considerable detail in chapter four of The God Delusion (it’s entitled “Why there almost certainly is no God” which is a bit of a giveaway). Bingham is the Religious Affairs Editor at the Telegraph. You might expect him to have read that.

And there’s this confusion between atheism and agnosticism. Bingham seems to think that if Dawkins is agnostic then he can no longer be an atheist. This is, of course, nonsense. The two terms are completely orthogonal. Just because we can’t be sure of God’s non-existence (the agnostic position) that doesn’t mean that we need to accept that his existence is as likely as his non-existence. The atheist has decided that the balance of probabilities fall firmly in favour of God’s non-existence. But only a fool would say he definitely doesn’t exist (which is about as close as I’m ever going to come to agreeing with Psalms 14:1).

So why is the Telegraph attacking Dawkins with this incredibly weak stuff? Surely it’s a sign that they are rattled. Secularism is definitely an idea whose time has come in the UK. The Bideford prayer ruling has been praised by a large percentage of the population and the few who object are sounding increasingly like they represent a group who doesn’t know its time is over. If the MORI poll is accurate, the percentage of people who said they were Christian in the 2011 census has fallen to 54% (from 72% in 2001). And among that 54% a large number have beliefs that fall a long way outside what most people would consider mainstream Christianity. That’s not to say for a second that they shouldn’t call themselves Christian if they want to. But it’s clear that politicians and the more reactionary elements of the media cannot use Christianity to support policies like the rejection of gay marriage if a) only just only half of us are Christians and b) most of the Christians are as disgusted by the Church’s traditional view of homosexuality as the rest of us are.

It’s probably incredibly unpleasant for Dawkins to see this nonsense being written about him. But I hope he can draw some hope from them. These attacks are a sign that the Telegraph has run out of arguments. They can’t build a rational argument against Dawkins ideas so they are forced to try and discredit him personally. They are the increasingly desperate voice of a vanishing minority.

Religion is losing ground in the public arena in the UK. And that has to be a good thing.


10 Reasons Why Religion is Like Masturbation

  1. Most people try it at some point in their life
  2. It’s generally harmless in small doses
  3. But you would be worried if a friend was constantly doing it
  4. Or constantly talking about it
  5. Or inviting you to do it with them
  6. It can bring on bouts of extreme ecstasy
  7. But they never last long
  8. No-one should object to it taking place behind closed doors
  9. Between consenting adults
  10. But never in front of children

The Inescapable Rise of Secularism

I’ve got rather sucked into the comments on Nadine Dorries’ nonsense about the “attacks” on Christianity. Here’s the first comment that I left, which pretty much sums up my feelings.

The Christian church’s outcry against Mr Justice Ouseley’s eminently sensible ruling can only be seen as the death cries of increasingly irrelevant group.

Spout whatever statistics you like about the percentages of people who call themselves Christian, but the inescapable fact is that the UK ceased to be a Christian nation by any meaningful measure about thirty years ago. The fact that we still have an established church is nothing but a historical accident. It’s inconceivable that this relationship between church and state will still be in place in twenty years time.

So, yes, maybe parliament will waste some time overturning this ruling. But it will only be a temporary setback. Secularism is on the rise. Religion has no place in the public square.


Atheism, Humanism and Secularism

Yesterday’s news stories about prayer in Bideford council meetings and the Christian guesthouse owners have triggered the expected levels of outrage from the usual suspects.

One thing that critics of this ruling often seem to (deliberately?) misunderstand is the differences between atheism, humanism and secularism. I thought it might be useful to post simple definitions of the meanings of these three words.

Atheism is simply the absence of belief in any kind of deity. Atheists just don’t belief in your god. In fact they don’t believe in any gods. They don’t believe in your god for pretty much the same reasons they you don’t believe in other people’s gods. Atheists don’t hate god. It would be incredibly silly to hate something that you don’t believe if. For obvious reasons there is are very few religious people who would call themselves atheists.

Humanism is a philosophical approach which assumes that the best way to build a system of morals and ethics is to approach the problems logically and rationally and with humanity. Humanists don’t want to take moral instruction from a supernatural entity, but rather assume that moral and ethical decisions should be taken on the basis of the effects that they will have on human beings. Despite what some people would have you believe, this does not lead to them murdering babies. Although there is nothing intrinsically preventing religious people from being humanists, many religious people prefer to take moral and ethical stances prescribed by their religion rather than thinking things through for themselves.

Secularism is the belief that religion has no place in public affairs and that there should be complete separation between church and state. This means that the USA is, by definition, a secular country (it’s in their constitution) whereas the UK, which is by any measure a less religious country than the USA still has an established church and therefore (by definition, at least) is not a secular country. Whilst many religious people can see no problem with their religion being tightly integrated with the state, they can often recognise the problems when someone else’s religion is in control. For this reason many religious people (although by no means all of them) are keen supporters of secularism.

The three concepts are completely separate, although (of course) many people subscribe to all three beliefs. In the UK we have separate organisations to promote each of these ideas – Atheism UK, the British Humanist Association and the National Secular Society. You can join any combination of the three and members of each of these organisations should not be assumed to hold the beliefs of the other two.

In particular, the campaign that led to the Bideford council ruling was run by the National Secular Society. Therefore it cannot be seen as an attack on religion in any way. If it is an attack on anything, it is an attack on the influence that one particular religion (actually one particular church within that religion) has (or, rather, had) over the governance of that local council.

No-one has been told that they can’t pray. They haven’t even been told that they can’t pray before their council meetings. They have been told that they can’t pray on the meeting’s agenda. Effectively, they can’t pray on taxpayers’ money. And I’m astonished that people are seeing this as an attack on their. faith.

Don’t believe the stories that church leaders and the tabloid press are telling you. The full text of Mr Justice Ouseley’s ruling is available online. Read that and see exactly what he said.

Even if you can’t be an atheist, or you’re doubtful about humanism, please accept that secularism makes sense.


Hitchens’ Last Laugh

This morning I woke up to the terrible (although not completely unexpected) news that Christopher Hitchens had died. The rational community has, of course, lost one of its most erudite and interesting members. But it seems that Christopher had one last trick up his sleeve.

As with most breaking news these days, I found out about his death from Twitter. I checked my Twitter feed as I got up at about 6am. A few people that I follow were already awake and discussing it. As a mark of respect, many of those tweets were tagged with the name of Hitchens’ best known book “God Is Not Great“. And then more and more people started to do that. And before too long, the hashtag #GodIsNotGreat was listed as one of Twitter’s worldwide trending topics. At which point it started to go a bit weird.

All around the world religious people who knew nothing at all about Christopher Hitchens, his books or his death were looking at Twitter and seeing the tag #GodIsNotGreat. And that annoyed many of them immensely. So they started tweeting on the subject. Their tweets seemed to largely fall into three categories.

1/ What is this? And why is it trending?

2/ Attempts to inject their own beliefs into the stream – “God isn’t just great – he’s the GREATEST!!” (from someone called foolishdenise – you couldn’t make this up)

3/ Threats to kill whoever had started the hashtag (all very Christian) [UPDATE: Replaced a tweet with a rather NSFW background with another expressing the same sentiment]

Of course, all of these new tweets all included the hashtag. So that just helped ensure that the hashtag became even more popular. Hitchens fans replied, pointing out why the hashtag was trending (and inviting them to read the book) and the hashtag was tweeted and retweeted and commented on and argued over more than pretty much any other hashtag I’ve followed all year. For most of the morning the Tweetdeck column I set up to follow the tag was moving too fast for me to follow it.

At some point in the morning, the hashtag disappeared from the list of trending topics. Some people claimed that Twitter had removed it deliberately in response to the Christian death threats. But it seems slightly ironic for Hitchens fans to claim something like that without any firm evidence. I suspect that it’s more likely that once a hashtag reaches a plateau of activity then Twitter’s algorithm ignores it – otherwise the top trend would always be Justin Bieber (as two people pointed out to me). Apparently it’s still trending in Canada. But I’m not sure what that proves about anything.

One tweet in particular from luketadams summed things up for me.

Hitchens dies. His book #GodisNotGreat trends. Religious people threaten violence. The point of his book is proven. Hitchens for the win.

It’s tempting to imagine Hitchens looking down on the storm that his death has caused and laughing. But that would go against everything that he believed in.

So don’t do that. Instead, reread his articles, buy his books, watch videos of him demolishing his opponents in debate. And remember the great mind that we have lost.


Ticking Religious Boxes

In a few month’s time, everyone living in the UK will be expected to fill in the census return so that the government can get its once-a-decade look at the population of the country. As was the case in previous census in 2001, one of the questions will be “what is your religion?” It’s really important to answer that question accurately. And last week the Census Campaign launched in an attempt to persuade people of this fact.

The government uses statistics from the census to justify certain kinds of policy. For example a large number of religion people might indicate that faith schools (or, more accurately, superstition schools) are a good idea. It’s vital that the government have accurate data to base these kinds of decisions on. The campaign suggests that in 2001 a large number of non-religious people ticked a religious box and that therefore the census data over-estimates the number of religious people in  the UK.

There are, of course, a number of reasons why you might tick a religious box. Perhaps you were bought up in a religion which you no longer follow but that you still feel some cultural link with. Or perhaps you think of yourself as christian because you live in a (supposedly) christian country even though you take no part at all in regular christian worship. The campaign would argue (and I would agree with them) that in those cases you’re skewing the statistics by claiming that you are christian.

I assume that the campaign will ramp up over the next six months. But for now, just think about how you would answer the question. Are you really religious? I mean, really?

Oh, and there’s a fund raising drive going on as well. If you donated to the Atheist Bus Campaign, you might consider giving a similar amount of money to this campaign as well.