Posts Tagged ‘Secularism’

All power to the quacks

June 29, 2010

In Commons Health Questions this afternoon Tory MP David Tredinnick was disgusted by the suggestion of one of his Liberal Democrat colleagues that homeopathy should not receive NHS funding.

Tredinnick, who has a loony reputation in a most appropriate sense, decried the criticism of his beloved homeopathy as “illiberal”. Despite what the cynics claim there was plenty of annecdotal evidence that homeopathy works, he declared. In other words, damn those scientists and their pesky science!

The complementary-enthusiastic Conservative then pointed out that no-one was forcing anyone else to use homeopathic medicine so why not just leave it alone. But Tredinnick is of course in favour of forcing us taxpayers to pay for this nonsense as part of the NHS budget. As with hospital chaplains, I spy some sensible public expenditure cuts!

In a two fingered defiance to sanity and reason Conservative MPs recently put both Tredinnick and Nadine Dorries on the Health Select Committee. Yes, that’s the same Nadine Dorries who, as part of her anti-abortion crusade, allied herself to Andrea Williams of the Lawyers Christian Fellowship, an evangelical who believes that the world is only 4000 years old.

Would it not be more sensible to establish a harmless All Party Parliamentary Flat Earth Society and then let Tredinnick and Dorries help run that?


Helping Dave, Nick, Gideon et al with their cuts

June 6, 2010

As a good patriot I want England to win the world cup, the Queen to live forever and the deficit to be tackled as quickly as possible (won’t somebody please think of the credit rating!? etc).

Regarding that later patriotic duty, I have identified a public spending cut the Government could be making. Let me refer to the fifth day of the debate on the Queen’s Speech in the House of Lords:

The Lord Bishop of Chichester: The Government’s background note suggests that the reference to doctors is shorthand for front-line medical staff more generally. It is good that the role of nurses is specifically mentioned. Less welcome, however, is the absence of a mention of other front-line health workers, whose increasing recognition as members of multidisciplinary teams has been a notable sign of the progress made over the past decade. 

Human health and well-being, including better clinical outcomes, require a whole approach in which doctors, nurses, allied health professionals, psychologists, chaplains and social workers all play key roles. The 1996 Department of Health document, Standards for Better Health, requires healthcare organisations to co-operate with other agencies to ensure that patients’ individual requirements are taken into account and that,

    “their physical, cultural, spiritual and psychological needs and preferences”,

are met. So we await with interest discussion and clarification of what is meant by, and who is included in, “front-line workers”.

It may be worth pointing out that a chaplain often serves more patients directly each week than any other single healthcare professional working in a hospital. Although his or her role may not usually be immediately life-saving, neither is the everyday work of most doctors, nurses and allied health professionals. In any case, life-saving is not all that is meant by good-quality healthcare. I hope that Her Majesty’s Government will assure us that chaplains are valued within the National Health Service as front-line staff.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Earl Howe): He asked me specifically about chaplains. We very much value the work done by NHS chaplains, who play an important part in providing high-quality spiritual care services to patients and staff, and we are committed to ensuring that patients and staff in the NHS have access to the spiritual care that they want, whatever faith they may have.

What’s this gibberish about chaplains being front line health care workers? It’s a miracle that the Bish was able to suggest with a straight face that chaplains made comparable health care contributions to those of “doctors, nurses…psychologists”.

Jako sez that in these belt-tightening times the NHS needs to prioritise the protection of certain resources. Preferably these should be resources of considerable utility. For example, A&E units. Or doctors. Nurses. Medicines. Things with undisputed ability to improve health.

Hospital chaplains cannot possibly be placed in that same category. In 2008 the National Secular Society that the NHS spent £40 million on providing chaplains and ‘spiritual care’. Well, time for Big Government to step out of the way and let Big Society – in the form of the organised religions – start providing the funds for this service.  

I expect that my David Laws Austerity Medal For Distinguished Cost Cutting and State Stinginess will soon be on its way in the post.

A meaty question

April 10, 2010

When out knocking on doors today, asking people if they had any issues they wanted to raise with their local councillor, a fellow-canvasser was told that the nearby school should serve halal meat. The voter’s argument was that the majority of pupils were Muslims. This was politely noted.

Had it been me canvassing that person I would not have been able to appear at all receptive to this demand. In fact I would probably have found it hard to restrain my anger at the suggestion that securing halal lunches was more important than safeguarding free school meals, the local Sure Start centre or youth clubs.

Being a liberal sort of society, people are allowed to follow a religion which requires them to kill animals for meat in a manner different to standard practice and which sits uncomfortably with the laws on animal welfare. People are even (mistakenly, IMO) allowed to have state-funded faith schools where conformity to these sorts of cultural norms are more rigorously enforced.

However, the school in question is not a faith one. Altering its catering policy to comply with the demands of religious parents – even if they did happen to form a majority – would be a mistake.

As a secularist, I dislike seeing publicly funded institutions bowing to the demands of the religious. Accepting a new dietary regime because of religious pressure may only encourage other changes to be sought – perhaps to the curriculum, the teaching style or the use of facilities.

At my next school governors’ meeting I will definitely be seeking to establish where any meat in the meals is sourced.

Quick response to my post coming under the knife…

February 9, 2010

Dave of Though Cowards Flinch disagrees with my thoughts on Sikh knives being allowed in schools.

I appreciate the need to try to respect pluralism and to accommodate the individual beliefs and cultural attachments of pupils. As a vegetarian I appreciated not being forced to eat meat at lunchtime and having the veggie option available. I’m aware that my dietary choice was ‘eccentric’ when compared to the majority and that I personally benefited from a certain flexibility in school rules and administration. 

I’m not sure, however, that I’m comfortable with Dave’s line that everyone should be allowed to wear their own symbols as long as they don’t harm others. Would swastikas be tolerated in Dave’s classroom? [EH-ERRR. Yes I know, the sound of Godwin’s law being broken!] On the face of it, a swastika is less harmful and intimidating than a knife.

Also: I don’t really see why Dave has come up with this:

“Thinking secularists would surely defend the right of anyone to do anything, provided that it was unlikely to result in harm or the coercion of any individual.”

That seems more like a summary of liberalism or libertarianism to me than secularism. Dave then gets in a huff about my concern that religions are being granted exceptional status in the law and seems to suggest that this shouldn’t be relevant to secularists. He writes:

“…You could exclude non-Sikhs from wearing the kirpan on the same basis as excluding someone who claimed a shotgun was part of their worldview; blatant opportunism, rather than serious conviction.”

It is an odd sort of secularism that gives religious affiliation a priviliged position; when religious people are allowed to engage in behaviour clearly outside mainstream norms simply because they are religious. 

As I say, I understand that Dave as a teacher presumably presiding over a classroom of diverse individuals wants to maintain some sort of happy compromise, but I can’t see how Dave the secularist can be satisfield with rewarding those with “serious conviction” with behavioural exemptions.

Sunny over at Pickled Politics also disagrees with me, thinks schools should be allowed to let Sikh kids carry kirpans if they want to, and has a bit of a go at nasty militant atheists for being rude about religion.

Sunny posits leftie atheists criticising religion damage the left. I accept that sometimes this can happen. I myself try not to be too crude. Even when I do, I think I manage to get along fine with my religious friends and comrades. I would perhaps suggest to Sunny that endorsing a form of multiculturalism that grants all sorts of benefits and priviliges to those who shout loudest about their cultural identity and distracts from materialist interests has been more damaging to the left – but that’s a blog post for another day. 

Some of Sunny’s readers think it is bigoted and intolerant to describe the religious obligation to carry a knife around with you as “eccentric”. Such ridiculously sensitive souls.  

I like this article by Hardeep Singh Kohli in the Guardian. Well, not all of it, but this makes sense to me:

“Sir Mota believes that it is wrong to stop schoolkids wearing the secreted, ceremonial dagger into school and believe that it is an infringement of a child’s right to practise their religion. Let me repeat that: he thinks it’s OK for kids to take knives to class. Flippant though this may sound, while going to school in Barnet may be challenging, it’s not the Punjab in 1708. Sir Mota notes that there has been no case of any Sikh child using the kirpan in a violent way. But I’m simply not comfortable with knives being allowed into school. What if the kirpan were forcibly removed and used? The practicality of baptised Sikhs carrying kirpans is not a new issue. That is why small, symbolic kirpans are attached to combs that Sikhs keep in their hair. Similarly, small kirpan-shaped pendants are worn around the neck, again fulfilling the criterion of the faith that the dagger be ever-present…

…We must do all we can to protect the rights of people to enjoy the way of life they choose. But there are more important battles to fight with regard to religious intolerance than whether Sikh kids can wear kirpans to school. Perhaps I’m being too literal, but all religions could do with taking a step back from symbols and icons and explore a little more deeply the philosophical content of what their belief system hopes to offer the world.”

Thank Waheguru, Onkar, Rama and Purushah that this bloke is retired.

February 8, 2010

Sikh judge Sir Mota Singh criticises banning of Kirpan.

Please note Sir Mota saying: “The fact that I’m a Sikh matters more to me than anything else”.

Insisting that Sikhs should have the right to walk around with their ceremonial daggers – even in schools – certainly suggests the man is possessed by a religious arrogance of such massive proportions that there isn’t room for any other considerations.

Pity the BBC Asian Network didn’t bother finding an opposing point of view. I’m sure there’s a sensible Sikh out there willing to say that some of the more eccentric teachings of their faith should not be given privilege over the law of the land (and of course basic common sense).

Failing this, a secularist organisation would have been happy to point out that allowing children to take knives to school is ridiculous.

“It is the essence of Western civilization to slice and divide”.

January 15, 2010

I am currently reading a book by an Indian politician called Mani Shankar Aiyar. The title of this book is ‘Confessions of a Secular Fundamentalist’. It was bought for me because I am pretty fundamentalist when it comes to secularism. 

For most of the book Aiyar comes across as a sensible chap. He lambasts the populists in Indian public life who want to encourage divisions and sectarianism between all the different religions that make up that country. He laments the 1947 partition that created a new state for Muslims. He loathes the Hindu nationalists of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) whose cultural chauvinism threaten religious coexistence in India.

Remember the scene in Slumdog Millionaire when there’s an anti-Muslim riot and little Jamal Malik’s mother gets killed by a rampaging mob? Basically that is the sort of stuff that, quite rightly, really annoys Aiyar when it happens in real life.

However, another thing that seems to irritate Aiyar is ‘the West’. In one of the later chapters in the book he broadens his focus beyond the subcontinent to look at religion and politics around the world. Inevitably he has some opinions on Israel-Palestine. Whilst discussing this subject he speaks a lot of nonsense. For example:

“Hitler’s anti-Semitism was by no means an aberration in European history; he merely carried to its logical (and terrifying) conclusion the fundamental defect in Western civilisation, which is non-comprehension of cultural and spiritual plurality, intolerance of ethnic diversity and discrimination against minorities”.

Eh? Western civilisation is unable to comprehend plurality and diversity? Discrimination against minorities is integral to Western civilisation? A tad harsh, methinks.

“The inability of Western civilisation to tolerate Jews in their midst was the basic cause of the Zionist mission to colonise Palestine with a sufficient number of European Jews to establish a Jewish homeland in Arab Palestine. That the Palestinians, who had done the Jews no harm, would be displaced and disenfranchised was of no concern to the Zionist, himself a product of European intolerance and Western racism”.

Leaving aside his simplistic/inaccurate take on the history around Zionism and the establishment of Israel, Aiyar continues pushing the line that Western civilisation is essentially intolerant of diversity. Aiyar should come spend a day working with me in Stamford Hill where the Jewish community seems to be doing just fine.

“It is the essence of Eastern civilisation – specifically of Indian civilisation – to synthesise and harmonize. It is the essence of Western civilisation to slice and divide. The Western mind finds only one solution to problems of conflict: separate and compartmentalise (dressed up as ‘self-determination’). The Western mind finds only one answer to ethnicity: domination of the minority by the majority (dressed up as ‘democracy’).”

Having spent the entire book highlighting the problems brought about by communalism in India and the divisions encouraged by the BJP, it is farcical for Aiyar to suddenly start talking about Indian civilisation’s essential tolerance. Aiyar’s desire to essentialise ‘civilisations’ is only a slightly more sophisticated version of coming up with anti-foreigner stereotypes – the French are smelly, the Germans are humourless, the Westerners are racist and unable to tolerate cultural diversity, etc.

His disappointing habit of using these cheap tactics suggests that he’s actually a bit dim or he himself has an appetite for crude political populism. Bash the West, claim India is the most tolerant place in the world, please your readers and voters (the book is primarily aimed for the Indian market). Nevermind that a Western country like Britain has one of the highest rates of interracial relationships in the world, a sizeable and safe Jewish population who are given the freedom to practice their religion in peace, and fewer communal riots than India!

Apologies for yet another post that seems to go along a clash of civilisations line. I just find his post-colonial instinct to paint a largely fictitious portrait of  ‘Western civilisation’ in order to then decry it highly nauseating. The sooner that people (and politicians!) all over the world stop trying to essentialise each other the better. Less of this ‘my culture is fundamentally good but your culture is fundamentally bad’ malarkey – more recognition of our common humanity.

It’s 2010, so can we please move out of the dark ages now?

January 2, 2010

As one axe-wielding religious maniac tries to kill a blasphemous cartoonist, atheists in Ireland are organising a campaign against the new blasphemy law over there.

In Ireland, where the government presumably considers itself fairly enlightened and rational, those convicted of the crime of blasphemy face a possible fine of €25,000. I suppose taking money off blasphemers is indeed more liberal than the punishment preferred by Islamists – i.e. taking the disbelievers’ heads off with an axe! – but the entire concept of a blasphemy law is a humiliation for humanity and has no place in the 21st century.

All sensible religious folk appreciate that the doctrines they follow originated as heresy. Every religion was once as wacky as Scientology. Of course, the instinct to protect our deeply held beliefs from vilification is something we all possess, but it is ridiculous and dangerous to try to use the law to silence critics.

Anyway, people ‘of faith’ should have more, well, faith in the righteousness of their individual religious views. Relying on the state’s authority for shielding your beliefs from the sacrilegious is surely a sign of weakness. Plus, we all have an interest in maintaining freedom of speech. Blasphemy laws should be opposed by anyone who values an open, tolerant society where differing views are welcomed.

This issue is far from abstract. As well as the potential for criminal prosecution in Ireland, various regimes around the world (usually Islamist inclined) are attempting to curtail free speech through imposing special protections for religion. Pakistan seems to have been inspired by the wording of the Irish blasphemy law when it suggested something similar at the United Nations.

Blasphemy laws encourage reactionary governments to place even greater controls over what their citizens think. They also give succour to the religious fundamentalists who won’t be satisfied until we all believe whatever nonsense it is that they believe and who think they are justified in trying to murder a cartoonist who pokes fun at one aspect of their belief system.

Shame on the Irish government (currently composed of the right-wing Fianna Fail Party and the Greens) for having this law on the books. It would be nice if the Irish Labour Party did the right thing and voiced more opposition to this.

The campaign group Atheist Ireland has published some classic blasphemous quotes to draw attention to the silliness of the law. As a simple act of solidarity, and because copying and pasting is very easy to do, here are some of the best:

Jesus Christ, when asked if he was the son of God, in Matthew 26:64: “Thou hast said: nevertheless I say unto you, Hereafter shall ye see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.” According to the Christian Bible, the Jewish chief priests and elders and council deemed this statement by Jesus to be blasphemous, and they sentenced Jesus to death for saying it.

Frank Zappa, 1989: “If you want to get together in any exclusive situation and have people love you, fine – but to hang all this desperate sociology on the idea of The Cloud-Guy who has The Big Book, who knows if you’ve been bad or good – and cares about any of it – to hang it all on that, folks, is the chimpanzee part of the brain working.”

Salman Rushdie, 1990: “The idea of the sacred is quite simply one of the most conservative notions in any culture, because it seeks to turn other ideas – uncertainty, progress, change – into crimes.” In 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa ordering Muslims to kill Rushdie because of blasphemous passages in Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses.

Christopher Hitchens in God is not Great, 2007: “There is some question as to whether Islam is a separate religion at all… Islam when examined is not much more than a rather obvious and ill-arranged set of plagiarisms, helping itself from earlier books and traditions as occasion appeared to require… It makes immense claims for itself, invokes prostrate submission or ‘surrender’ as a maxim to its adherents, and demands deference and respect from nonbelievers into the bargain. There is nothing-absolutely nothing-in its teachings that can even begin to justify such arrogance and presumption.”

Bjork, 1995: “I do not believe in religion, but if I had to choose one it would be Buddhism. It seems more livable, closer to men… I’ve been reading about reincarnation, and the Buddhists say we come back as animals and they refer to them as lesser beings. Well, animals aren’t lesser beings, they’re just like us. So I say fuck the Buddhists.”

Hizb ut High School Musical and the continuing confusion caused by faith schools.

November 28, 2009

The ‘Hizb ut Tahrir running faith schools’ scandal got big this week.

The Tories made a mess of things by getting the details wrong and embarrassing themselves in Parliament. More fool them. It is not quite a simple case of anti-extremism funds being given to a bunch of extremists.

However, it is still apparent that the state is willing to hand over money to religious organisations and entrust them with educating children even if officials have little idea what these groups’ religious beliefs are exactly or what political organisations (such as Hizb ut Tahrir) they share members with.

For instance, Newsnight dug up an article written by the headmistress of one of the Islamic Shakhsiyah Foundation schools (the ‘charity’ given funds to run faith schools) in which she churns out the usual Isla-mentalist nonsense about the importance of hating democracy and refusing to integrate with Western culture.

How exactly does the screening process work when the Department for Children, Schools and Families is deciding which religious organisations should be allowed to set-up faith schools? How much effort are they putting into examining that fine line – that oh-so-delicate balance – between people who are very very sincerely religious and those who are ideological nuts?

The goal of the Islamic Shakhsiyah Foundation is to develop the “Islamic personality” of young British Muslims. Hizb ut Tahrir also likes to bang on about the “Islamic personality” and this shared outlook is being used as evidence that the schools are promoting dangerous Islamism.

But ultimately all faith schools seek to develop children with religious personalities – whether they are producing good little Christians, Jews, Muslims or whatever.  If we’re not comfortable with public funds going towards an organisation that sees education as a tool for creating Islamic personalities then why are we cool with other religious groups doing the same?

In my opinion the government’s support for faith schools is well-intentioned but misguided. It is hard to make judgements about religious groups and how appropriate it is for them to be involved in running state-funded schools. Much simpler and much fairer to have a system where all schools are run along secular lines.

Sadly, getting to such a situation from where we are at the moment would not be easy and I don’t think anyone has the political imagination or courage to call for the leap.

On a more positive note, it’s nice to see the media starting to get quotes from the excellent new group British Muslims for Secular Democracy when covering a story about Islam in Britain. For too long lazy journalists have just asked the Muslim Council of Britain for their views. Considering how many Islamists there are in the MCB it has been a mistake to present them as  representing British Muslims. Recognising that British Muslims do not form a homogenous block of opinion is progress.

“Let’s go back to church. Let’s go back to church. Been so damn long since we sung this song. Let’s go back to church”.

November 9, 2009

Yesterday this devout atheist attended church for the first time in many years. It was for a Remembrance Sunday service and my hosts were going.  It would have been churlish not to have joined in.

The war remembrance part of the service was done well with local representatives of the Royal British Legion carrying flags, a schoolgirl tooting out the ‘Last Post’, and the names of parishioners who died in the First and Second World Wars being read out. There were 40 killed in the First World War. It must have been devastating for that small village to have lost so many of its young men.

In addition to reflecting upon the casualties of war, the service also provided an opportunity to reflect upon the role of the church. I was reminded of how implicitly – and sometimes explicitly – these church gettogethers can be.

Despite falling attendance over the long-term, atheists still have to respect the fact that for a lot of people all over the country church services (or other religious events) represent a community coming together, an opportunity to meet neighbours and participate in civic activities. That is in itself a good thing and a secularising culture needs to somehow replace that function performed by religion. At the very least an atomized society where people feel little connection to the community around them should surely be opposed by those who support any sort of collectivist politics?  

In terms of the explicitly political aspects, there was a lay speaker who spoke of the terrorist threat being a greater danger to the world than the Cold War clash between capitalism and communism. He also made undoubtedly well-meaning but potentially dodgy comparisons between the Holocaust and human rights violations taking place today.

There is no opportunity for questioning or alternative points of view to be put forward at services like yesterday’s. It is clear how vital the influence of established churches have been for governments trying to maintain the political status quo and discouraging independent-thinking amongst their people throughout history.

All in all, despite my aversion to the inevitable ‘God’ stuff and disagreement with many of the views expressed during the service, it was an interesting experience and I’m glad I went.

Standing up for Secular Democracy.

October 31, 2009

I turned up to join in this protest today. Islamist loons were supposed to be there demanding the establishment of Sharia Law in Britain. They didn’t bother to turn up. David T of Harry’s Place said that the Islamists were claiming to have received death threats but they probably knew that they were going to be outnumbered by the counter-demonstrators. Disappointing – I was looking forward to observing the crazed antics of Islam4UK!

As well as the nice multiracial secular democrats there was also a contingent of ‘English Defence League’-types. They were wearing lots of St.George’s flags, had a banner that said ‘March for England’, and most were skinheads. Standing next to them waiting to see if the Islamists were going to appear was a bit awkward.

The most exciting moment was when the police suddenly stopped the traffic in the streets and cleared the roads. Were the Islam4UK nutters about to arrive after all? The tension mounted. A large mass seemed to be approaching with a police escort in front. We could then make out that the police were escorting a group of about 100 motorbikes. Had the jihadis launched a motorised division? Frankly, I was terrified.

However, it turned out that it was a totally unrelated protest making its way through London. Motorcyclists demanding to pay less tax or something. It wasn’t very clear what exactly they were for or against. I guess it would have been difficult to distribute leaflets from the bikes. They soon passed.

Also spotted at the demonstration for secular democracy: Nick Cohen (who smokes in an odd way and has hairy ears), Peter Tatchell and Douglas Murray.