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.

Equal Marriage

Over the last few days there has been a fair amount of heat and light coming out of the Tory party, generated by the discussion about equal marriage (or, as the tabloids like to describe it, “gay marriage”).

We’ve know for ages that David Cameron is in favour of it and that a lot of the Tory heartland isn’t. But at the end of last week Cameron said that he supported same-sex wedding ceremonies taking place in churches if (and that “if” is important here) the church is happy for them to take place. This hasn’t played well in the shires and various Tories have said a number of increasingly stupid things about it (for a particularly ridiculous example see Tim Fenton’s excellent piece on Nadine Dorries’ confusion over religious freedom and the ECHR).

The problem seems to be that all of the naysayers are illiterate. I said that the word “if” was important in what Cameron was proposes. To many of his critics it seems to be invisible. Where you and I are reading “churches may decide to hold same-sex wedding ceremonies if they want to”, Cameron’s critics are reading “churches will be forced against their will to hold same-sex wedding ceremonies”. They seem to be reading the story through some kind of middle-England auto-bigotry filter.

Some people on my side of the debate (in case that’s not clear, it’s the pro-equal-marriage side) have gone the other way – saying that churches should be forced to hold these ceremonies. I don’t want that at all. Here’s what I want.

I want churches to be stopped from marrying people.

Ok, that’s a deliberately attention-grabbing way of putting it. I should explain in more detail.

As I see it, there are two parts of a marriage. There’s the legal joining together of two people. And then, for some people, there’s a religious ceremony. What if those two parts were completely separated? What if churches lost the right to perform the legal part of the marriage ceremony?

This isn’t so strange. People do it all the time. If non-Christians want to get married, they have to do it in two stages. They go to the registry office to do the legal stuff and then they go to a mosque, temple or whatever to have a ceremony. What if all weddings worked like that?

So here’s what I propose:

  • In order to be legally married, you need to go through some process at a local registry office. This would be a purely legal thing. Bride and groom (or whichever permutation is appropriate) and a couple of witnesses. After this you would be legally married.
  • You then have the option to have some other kind of ceremony of any type you want. Many people would choose a church. Others would go to a mosque or a temple or whatever. You’d also have the option to do nothing else.

The advantage, as far as I see it, is that as the second part (the religious ceremony) now has no legal standing whatsoever, then the government would have no say at all about how it is run and whether or not churches or mosques or temples can run same-sex ceremonies. That decision would be unambiguously in the hands of the people running the organisation in question (but good luck getting a mosque to run a same-sex wedding!)

Of course, this is one of the areas where the religious playing field is uneven. Non-Christians are used to the set-up I describe above. The only reason that Christian churches get a special dispensation to carry out the legal part of a wedding is because they are the established church and therefore sometimes get to dabble in things that should completely off-limits to them.

All of which means that implementing my suggestion would be another step on the way to (or, at least, another very good argument for) disestablishment of the Church.

All in all, I can’t see the flaw in my suggestion. Can you?

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.

We Cannot Afford To Indulge This Madness

By “this madness”, of course, I mean religious leaders talking about what society wants without bothering to ask them. The latest example is this piece in the Telegraph by Cardinal Keith O’Brien. Let’s take a close look at what he says.

The Government is this month launching a consultation on same-sex marriage, asking the public whether it should be introduced in England and Wales.

That’s a good thing, surely? I mean going out and asking people what they think. Rather than just assuming that you know best.

I hope many respond and consider signing the petition in support of traditional marriage organised by a new organisation, the Coalition for Marriage.

And I hope that many more sign the petition from the Coalition for Equal Marriage.

On the surface, the question of same-sex marriage may seem to be an innocuous one.

That’ll be because it’s an innocuous question.

Civil partnerships have been in place for several years now, allowing same-sex couples to register their relationship and enjoy a variety of legal protections.

That’s not marriage though, is it? And, bizarrely, heterosexual couples can’t opt for a civil partnership.

When these arrangements were introduced, supporters were at pains to point out that they didn’t want marriage, accepting that marriage had only ever meant the legal union of a man and a woman.

Those of us who were not in favour of civil partnership, believing that such relationships are harmful to the physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing of those involved, warned that in time marriage would be demanded too. We were accused of scaremongering then, yet exactly such demands are upon us now.

That’s not how I remember it at all. It was clear to me that civil partnerships were a stepping stone on the way to full equal marriage. If that’s not what you heard, then perhaps people were being politically astute and trying not to scare you too much.

Since all the legal rights of marriage are already available to homosexual couples, it is clear that this proposal is not about rights, but rather is an attempt to redefine marriage for the whole of society at the behest of a small minority of activists.

Well, yes, clearly it’s an attempt to redefine marriage. But a “small minority of activists”? That doesn’t seem accurate to me. I see a huge wave of people in favour of equal marriage rights. Perhaps we’re both just talking to people like ourselves.

Redefining marriage will have huge implications for what is taught in our schools, and for wider society. It will redefine society since the institution of marriage is one of the fundamental building blocks of society. The repercussions of enacting same-sex marriage into law will be immense.

Maybe. We’ll see. But change isn’t always bad. Perhaps the repercussions won’t be as large as, say, the abolition of slavery. Society seems to have dealt with that change.

But can we simply redefine terms at a whim? Can a word whose meaning has been clearly understood in every society throughout history suddenly be changed to mean something else?

Yes. Next question.

If same-sex marriage is enacted into law what will happen to the teacher who wants to tell pupils that marriage can only mean – and has only ever meant – the union of a man and a woman?

The teacher who wants to tell pupils that will clearly be wrong, as the definition of marriage will have changed. So that teacher should be dealt with in the same way as any teacher who tells lies to pupils.

Will that teacher’s right to hold and teach this view be respected or will it be removed? Will both teacher and pupils simply become the next victims of the tyranny of tolerance, heretics, whose dissent from state-imposed orthodoxy must be crushed at all costs?

The teacher will be able to hold that view, of course. But that view will be wrong and therefore shouldn’t be taught to children (other than when setting historical context). Not seeing how the children are victims here. They should be being taught the truth – as defined by the law.

In Article 16 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, marriage is defined as a relationship between men and women. But when our politicians suggest jettisoning the established understanding of marriage and subverting its meaning they aren’t derided.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights should not be written in stone. If society changes and disagrees with its definitions then those definitions can (and should) be changed. People suggesting that aren’t derided because in the real world their suggestions make total sense.

[Update: It turns out that if you actually read the UDHR then you’ll see that it doesn’t say what the Cardinal claims it says at all]

Instead, their attempt to redefine reality is given a polite hearing, their madness is indulged. Their proposal represents a grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right.

Reality has been redefined by society. Acknowledging this is not madness. We are not subverting a human right but, rather, extending it.

As an institution, marriage long predates the existence of any state or government. It was not created by governments and should not be changed by them. Instead, recognising the innumerable benefits which marriage brings to society, they should act to protect and uphold marriage, not attack or dismantle it.

No, marriage was not created by governments. It was created by society. And society, therefore, has the power to change the definition. Of course governments recognise the benefits of marriage. They are not attacking or dismantling it – they are expanding and enhancing it.

This is a point of view that would have been endorsed and accepted only a few years ago, yet today advancing a traditional understanding of marriage risks one being labelled an intolerant bigot.

Well I wouldn’t use the word “bigot”. But I’d certainly suggest that anyone putting forward your arguments was out of touch with modern society.

There is no doubt that, as a society, we have become blasé about the importance of marriage as a stabilising influence and less inclined to prize it as a worthwhile institution.

This may be true. But it’s not gay marriage that has undermined it. You only have to read the celebrity pages of any newspaper to see how many heterosexual couples are doing all they can to undermine marriage. This cannot be laid at the feet of the campaigners for equal marriage rights.

It has been damaged and undermined over the course of a generation, yet marriage has always existed in order to bring men and women together so that the children born of those unions will have a mother and a father.

Actually, I think the damage goes back more than a generation. Yes, marriage has existed for as long as society. No-one is suggesting that it should be removed.

This brings us to the one perspective which seems to be completely lost or ignored: the point of view of the child. All children deserve to begin life with a mother and father; the evidence in favour of the stability and well-being which this provides is overwhelming and unequivocal. It cannot be provided by a same-sex couple, however well-intentioned they may be.

See, I think you’re just making things up now. I don’t believe that there’s any evidence that backs this up at all.

Same-sex marriage would eliminate entirely in law the basic idea of a mother and a father for every child. It would create a society which deliberately chooses to deprive a child of either a mother or a father.

We already live in a society where a large number of children are brought up by a single parent. Surely two parents (of any sex) has to be better than one?

Other dangers exist. If marriage can be redefined so that it no longer means a man and a woman but two men or two women, why stop there? Why not allow three men or a woman and two men to constitute a marriage, if they pledge their fidelity to one another? If marriage is simply about adults who love each other, on what basis can three adults who love each other be prevented from marrying?

Why not indeed? I don’t really see this as a danger. If you seen two parents of different sexes as a good thing, why wouldn’t multiple parents of mixed sexes be even better? Mind you, I don’t see anyone seriously campaigning for this.

In November 2003, after a court decision in Massachusetts to legalise gay marriage, school libraries were required to stock same-sex literature; primary schoolchildren were given homosexual fairy stories such as King & King. Some high school students were even given an explicit manual of homosexual advocacy entitled The Little Black Book: Queer in the 21st Century. Education suddenly had to comply with what was now deemed “normal”.

I’m not sure what policies in Massachusetts have to do with the discussion in hand. What is appropriate in British schools will be decided by the British parliament and British courts.

And your use of scare-quotes around the word “normal” rather gives away your whole view on this matter. Homosexuality is normal. Deal with it.

Disingenuously, the Government has suggested that same-sex marriage wouldn’t be compulsory and churches could choose to opt out. This is staggeringly arrogant.

No, that’s not arrogance. It’s government trying to accommodate the outdated views of people like you.

No Government has the moral authority to dismantle the universally understood meaning of marriage.

Maybe not. But society does. And government is acting as the representative of society here.

Imagine for a moment that the Government had decided to legalise slavery but assured us that “no one will be forced to keep a slave”.

Would such worthless assurances calm our fury? Would they justify dismantling a fundamental human right? Or would they simply amount to weasel words masking a great wrong?

Oh, you’re on very shaky ground here. Remember that the Christian church endorsed slavery for as long as it could get away with it. And besides, slavery clearly reduces human rights, equal marriage increases them.

The Universal Declaration on Human Rights is crystal clear: marriage is a right which applies to men and women, “the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State”.

This universal truth is so self-evident that it shouldn’t need to be repeated. If the Government attempts to demolish a universally recognised human right, they will have forfeited the trust which society has placed in them and their intolerance will shame the United Kingdom in the eyes of the world.

Didn’t we cover this a few paragraphs back? The Universal Declaration can and should be changed if it no longer reflects modern society.

The Cardinal has no reasonable argument here. He is simply saying that something shouldn’t change because it hasn’t changed before.

As he says in his opening paragraph, the government is opening a public consultation. If society believes what I think it believes then the final report will recommend that the definition of marriage should be changed. If society is still as blinkered as the Cardinal hopes then the report will recommend that things remain as they are.

That is surely the best approach to take. To ask people what they want. But scare-mongering and hand-waving of the kind in the Cardinal’s article has no place in the discussion. If he has facts and evidence to back up his claims, then let’s see them. But I don’t think he has.

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.

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.