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.


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.


Please Don’t Label Me

Last night I was discussing my opinions of religion with some friends. I made it clear that, contrary to what it might appear from what I write, I don’t actually want religion banned. I believe that people should be free to believe whatever nonsense they like. There are, however, three conditions that need to be met. You can belief whatever you like as long as you do it a) in private, b) amongst consenting adults and c) never in front of the children.

I think that these are three very important conditions. The first would curtail the effect that religious groups have on public life, the second would prevent anyone from forcing their religious beliefs on anyone else and the third would stop parents from forcing religion onto children while the children are still gullible enough to believe anything their parents tell them.

And completely coincidently, I see today that the people behind the Atheist Bus Campaign (was that really a year ago?) have launched a new campaign and that the subject of this campaign is faith schools – which neatly addresses my third point.

The “please don’t label me” slogan of the campaign comes from a theme that Richard Dawkins covered in The God Delusion. Speaking at the launch of this campaign, he said:

We urgently need to raise consciousnesses on this issue. Nobody would seriously describe a tiny child as a ‘Marxist child’ or an ‘Anarchist child’ or a ‘Post-modernist child’. Yet children are routinely labelled with the religion of their parents. We need to encourage people to think carefully before labelling any child too young to know their own opinions and our adverts will help to do that.

This campaign is initially being funded from money left over from the Atheist Bus Campaign, but there’s a page where you can donate more money if you like.

I firmly believe that the majority of religious people only have those beliefs because they were indoctrinated as children. If people decide to follow a religion when they are old enough to make up their own mind then of course I have no objections to that. But forcing children to believe the same fairy stories as their parents is clearly wrong and should be stopped.


The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas

I’m usually a big fan of keeping christmas in December, but I’m quite happy to make exceptions for a good cause. And this is a really good cause.

Remember, the Atheist Bus Campaign? Well the people behind that campaign haven’t stopped campaigning and their book The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas is published this week. Ariane Sherine has gathered together contributions from dozens of well-known atheists. Contributors include Richard Dawkins, Ben Goldacre, Simon Singh, Charlie Brooker and Richard Herring. All proceeds from the book will go to the Terrance Higgins Trust.

Looks like it will be a great christmas present for all of your friends and family. But don’t wait until December – buy your presents now.

Remember – there’s probably almost certainly no god.


Darwin, Humanism and Science

Darwin Humanism Science
Darwin Humanism Science

Yesterday I was at the British Humanist Association’s one day conference, Darwin, Humanism and Science, at the Conway Hall. I confess that I was really going to see Richard Dawkins speak, but actually I got a whole day of fascinating speakers.

Following a brief introduction by Polly Toynbee, Dawkins was the first speaker. His talk was based around the final words from The Origin of Species.

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Dawkins dissected these words and showed how they are a powerful and succinct summary of Darwin’s ideas. It was a very interesting talk and serves as a good precursor to Dawkins’ book, The Greatest Show on Earth, which will be published later this year.

Following Dawkins, Professor Charles Susanne talked about how the teaching of evolution in schools is under attack in various parts of Europe. Many different religious groups (sometimes with the help and support of national governments) are suppressing the teaching of evolution in favour of myths of legends.

Next up was James Williams with a talk entitled “Insidious Creationism”. This was the highlight of the day for me. Williams talked about the amount of creationist literature which is aimed at young children. Many of the images he showed were very funny (the one of Jesus cuddling a baby dinosaur was a particular favourite) but there is, of course, a very serious side to this. He talked about creationist books that were found in school libraries having been donated by parents. He also mentioned Genesis Expo, a creationist museum in Portsmouth which sounds worth a visit – if only to point and laugh.

I think that it was during the Q&A following these talks that we had the only nutter question of the day. Well, it wasn’t really a question. Someone a few rows behind me stood up and tried to use evolution as evidence that homosexuality was wrong. There was stunned silence from the hall and the moderator moved swiftly on to the next question.

Following lunch, we had the most scientific lecture of the day. Johan De Smedt talked about we may well have evolved brains which find it counter-intuitive to accept evolution as a fact. Then Michael Schmidt-Salomon talked about fighting the idea that evolution leads to a lack of morals. He ended by showing us a rather bizarre video called “Children of Evolution” – Darwin reinvented as a rock star!

After a coffee break we had what was, to me at least, one of the most surprising talks. I’ve always had this sneaking suspicion that Hindism was slightly more rational than other religions. Babu Gogineni soon put me straight. He told us about an Indian university that had started a department of astrology (and cut back the study of chemistry and physics to pay for it). His talk was full of interesting (but worrying) anecdotes of religious stupidity in India.

The final speaker of the day was AC Grayling. Whilst many of the day’s speakers had mentioned this year’s Darwinian anniversaries, Grayling took as his theme the 50th anniversary of CP Snow’s influential lecture The Two Cultures. Grayling suggested that the gap between the two cultures (art and science) is now wider that it was fifty years ago and that we need to do what we can to bring the two together.

It was a very interesting day. I’m grateful to the BHA and the South Place Ethical Society for organising it. I’ll certainly be looking out for similar events in the future.

All of the talks were filmed. I hope that means that they’ll appear on the BHA web site at some point in the future.

There were a few twitterers there. You might be interested to read what they said during the day. James O’Malley has also blogged the event.


Creationist Idiocy in the UK

To “celebrate” the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, Theos (the religious think-tank) commissioned a survey into the public perceptions of Darwin’s theories. The results were published yesterday and do not make comforting reading.

It seems that about half of the UK don’t accept Darwin’s findings and only about a quarter of us say that evolution is definitely true. One in ten people believed in nonsense similar to that spouted by young Earth creationists.

Of course, science isn’t a democracy. Even if half of the population demand that creationism or “intelligent design” should be considered a science, that doesn’t suddenly make it a science. But the worrying thing here is the number or people who don’t seem to understand evolution or natural selection and who haven’t seen (or who have chosen to ignore) the overwhelming amount of evidence in favour of evolution.

And the blame for that has to be laid firmly at the feet of the people who bend over backwards to give religious beliefs a level of respect that they don’t deserve. For far too long, ridiculous religious beliefs have thrived in an environment where it is seen as rude to question them. It’s astonishing that children can emerge from the education system at sixteen without knowing about evolution and without being given the intellectual tools that they could use to see through the nonsense that their family and religious community are constantly telling them.

Picture it this way. Imagine how you would feel if there was a group who wanted schools to teach “alternative maths”. A group campaigning that pupils should be told that it was okay to believe that two plus two is five. It makes no sense at all, of course. And that’s about how sensible it is to allow children to believe that evolution isn’t true.

It’s a hundred and fifty years since Darwin published his ideas. And in that time pretty much every advance in biology has been predicted by evolution or has helped to prove and strengthen Darwin’s theory. No sane scientist doubts that Darwin’s theories were correct. And if scientists agree that the theory is correct then the fact that it contradicts some old legends really shouldn’t matter in the slightest.

These poll results should be a big red flag to the people running Britain’s schools. Twenty years ago it looked like creationism was effectively dead in the UK. Now it’s growing again, and if it isn’t quashed soon we’ll end up with cases like the US where religious nutters take schools to court for the right to infect children with their poison. Let’s hope it doesn’t reach that stage.


More Christian Voice Idiocy

Christian Voice (Stephen Green’s one-man extreme christian hate-squad) have written to the Advertising Standards Authority registering an objection to the atheist bus adverts. Green is quoted as saying that the adverts “break the ASA’s codes on substantiation and truthfulness”. He claims that the atheists need to produce evidence that there’s probably no god and goes on to say:

There is plenty of evidence for God, from peoples’ personal experience,
to the complexity, interdependence, beauty and design of the natural
world. But there is scant evidence on the other side, so I think the
advertisers are really going to struggle to show their claim is not an
exaggeration or inaccurate, as the ASA code puts it.

Stop and think about that claim for a second – Green obviously hasn’t. This is a religious person objecting to atheist adverts by citing “truth in advertising”. How stupid does that make him sound?

Part of me hopes that the ASA find in favour of this complaint. Because then we could turn it back on them and ban all religious advertising overnight.

But mainly I want the ASA to just laugh in his face.

Update: They pretty much just laughed in his face.


Atheist Quotations

The Atheist bus campaign raised so much money last year that they have been able to massively expand their plans.

Instead of the original 30 buses they were planning in London, they are now running 200 buses in London and 600 more in other places in the UK. The bus campaign officially launched yesterday. They also have the money to pay for adverts in tube trains which will appear next week. These adverts contain quotations from well-known atheists. I’m particularly happy to see that they have included on of my favourite quotations from Douglas Adams.


Non-Magic Bus

Last June, writer Ariane Sherine wrote an article on Comment is Free complaining about the amount of religious advertising on the side of London buses. As part of the research for the article she calculated that it would take about 4,500 atheists donating £5 each to get together enough money to have an atheist advertising campaign on the side of a bus. This idea caught on and a pledge was set up to try to make it happen. This original pledge failed, but the idea had taken root and several people started beavering away to try and turn the idea into a reality.

The campaign relaunched today. This time, some recalculations have been done and the project team have worked out that they for £5,500 they can get adverts on 30 buses for four weeks. Richard Dawkins is involved and has said that he will match all donations up to a limit of £5,500 – effectively doubling the purchasing power of the campaign.

The donations page on Just Giving went live this morning. When I gave my donation at about 10am the total stood at about £4,500. As I write this, it’s approaching £15,000.

The response has been phenomenal. Atheists obviously really want to get their message out to more people. It looks like the campaign will be able to put posters on far more buses than expected and therefore reach far more people than they hoped for. This is obviously an idea which has struck a chord with a great many people who are tired of being presented with religious advertising which largely goes unquestioned.

So it looks like it’s going to happen. The adverts will probably start appearing on buses in the next few months. They will say “There’s probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life”. The “probably” there is to satisfy the bus advertising people that they aren’t leaving themselves open to accusations of blasphemy. Seems a little weak to me as the religious adverts make the most ridiculous claims with no need to back them up in any way.

If these adverts raise a smile then it will have been worthwhile. If they stop just one person from taking a religious advert too seriously then the campaign will have been a great success.

The campaign are still accepting donations on the Just Giving page. Most people seem to be giving £5 or £10. Please consider giving a little bit to the cause.

Sherine has another piece about the campaign on Cif today. The story has also been covered by the BBC and the Times. I expect it to get more coverage tomorrow, once it becomes clear just how successful it has been. I can’t wait to see how the Mail covers it.

Now. Who’s up for trying something similar in the US?


Planet Atheist

I’ve mentioned before that I run a few planets. A planet is a simple web site which aggregates web feeds on a particular subject. They are named after the software which is used to build many such sites.

I’m always looking out for good ideas of other planets to add to my collection. Yesterday on irc, Dave Hodgkinson suggested a “planet sceptic” which is, of course, an excellent idea. It would be great to have a planet which aggregates a number of feeds from the growing sceptic/atheist community. And I thought it would be an interesting experiment to ask for ideas for the feeds to include.

Looking through my Bloglines subscriptions, I find a number of obvious candidates.

But I’m probably missing dozens of interesting feeds. If you have a suggestion, then please leave a comment. I’ll start with my list today but it’ll be easy enough to add stuff later.

Oh, and one other question. What should I call it? Dave originally suggested “Planet Sceptic”. Does “Planet Atheist” sound better? Or “Planet Rationalism”? Or perhaps “Planet Bright” (no, probably not that!) Again, let me know what you think in the comments.