Categories
religion

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.

Categories
religion

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.

Categories
religion

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.

Categories
religion

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.

Categories
science

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.

Categories
religion

How Powerful is Religion?

Today’s vote on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill is going to be an interesting test of the power of religion in 21st century Britain. As far as I can see, there are no reasons to object to the bill that don’t have their basis in Bronze Age myths.

Gordon Brown has been really rather unimpressive since he took over as Prime Minister but I was really impressed by his defence of the Bill in yesterday’s Observer. This is a man who is obviously passion about defending something that he believes in strongly.

Should scientists be given the legal framework they say they need to
pursue new cures and treatments through stem cell research or will we
turn our back on these potential advances?

Should children who
face death or critical illness find new hope in scientific advances
that would allow their new brother or sister to be not just a blessing
to their family, but also a saviour sibling to them? And should people
be able to approach IVF clinics without fear of discrimination on the
grounds of their sexual orientation?

My answer to all those questions is an unequivocal yes.

I believe that he is absolutely right. Stem cell research is a vital tool that enables us to make advances in the way that we treat many diseases. To turn our back on these advances because of how a shaman interprets texts that are hundreds of years old would be irresponsible lunacy.

Religion has had a strong hold on British society for too long. It’s time we said that enough is enough and stood up for a secular society which makes decisions based on rational thought, not on the capricious whims of an imaginary friend. I really hope that parliament sees sense today and votes for rationalism over medieval superstition.

Update: Bid to ban hybrid embryos fails

An MP’s attempt to outlaw the creation of hybrid human-animal embryos has been defeated by 336 votes to 176.

An excellent start. More votes follow over the next couple of days.