A Flight of Fancy

Alan Rogers

A Greek Myth relates that Daedalus, a superb architect and craftsman, created wings made of bird feathers and bee’s wax so the he and his son Icarus could fly.

Daedalus instructed Icarus not to fly too low nor too high. Flying low relates to complacency or lack of ambition, flying high to hubris. Icarus, whether by design or accident, flew too high and the sun melted the wax holding the feathers in place, the wings disintegrated and he crashed to his death.

So we have a work of the human imagination which can make some kind of moral point. A rather sad point since it appears to warn mankind not to be adventurous and innovative. No sensible person today could fail to recognize this yarn as fiction. A work of the human imagination. How can we in the 21st century be sure that it is fiction? There are several clear reasons why in the present age we know that the story is not true. Engineering science tells us that the human musculature is not adequate in power to weight ratio to allow manned self powered flight by means of flapping wings. We have the wrong kind of muscles and the wrong kind of bones. Evolution did not design us to fly. Atmospheric science tells us that as one moves upwards in the atmosphere temperatures, at first, fall rather than rise. Through the troposphere (where we live), stratosphere (where our airliners fly) and the mesosphere where, at about 80,000 metres, temperature begins to rise, only reaching surface temperatures at about 70 miles up. The melting point of bee’s wax is 62-64 degrees Celsius. This temperature is only reached at well above 80 miles high. Icharus would died of hypoxia well before he had flapped to that height. Indeed the air pressure would be so low his blood would have boiled.

The human imagination is a triumph of evolution. That a mammalian brain could achieve such complexity and power is truly astounding. Imagination is what makes the species H.sapiens so competent and effective in the game of survival. It allows us to move forward and backward in time, anticipating the future and recalling the past. It allows us to plan for events we have not yet experienced. It allows us to try out in our minds strategies which we may or may not employ in future. It is the basis of all art.

Imagination is also vital for scientific progress. Albert Einstein used his imagination to begin thinking about the consequences of the experimentally discovered, universal constant speed of light. He imagined himself travelling on a light beam. The outcome was the Special Theory of Relativity.

But there is a problem. It occurs when imagined events are taken to be real events. Mythology is fine and is performing useful tasks when it is understood to be the product of the human imagination. However when it is taken to be factual it can be dangerously misleading. It allows the possibility of a work of the imagination to be passed off as a fact. If a salesman of Icarus plc were to try to pass off a pair of bird wings with straps to fix then to your arms as a means of flying then you would be well advised to regard his pitch with scepticism.

However there is a phenomenon in human civilisation which permits such deception to be practiced and it is considered to be ill-mannered to point out that the imagined event or events are works of the imagination rather than fact. It is also considered to be entirely acceptable for such imagined events to be taught to children as facts. Those who wish to present mythology as fact are particularly anxious to teach children because children do not in general have the necessary knowledge and scepticism to distinguish myth from fact thus making the task easier.

I am, of course , referring to religion. It is no coincidence that a new religion, Scientology, was devised by a writer of science fiction Lafayette Ronald Hubbard but the works of his imagination concerning Scientology are accepted as fact by the adherents of this religion.

The mythology which underpins religion may be ancient or modern. The Virgin Birth myth pre-dates Christianity in stories of gods making women pregnant.

The Christian version insists that the issue was male and human. But we know now about X and Y chromosomes so an XX female cannot, without the involvement of an XY male produce an XY male child. Parthenogenesis in humans is myth. The myth of the creation in seven days with each species made individually by a supernatural entity is clearly a fiction. There are 350,000 known species of beetle. The current estimate of the actual number of beetle species is over 4 million. It seems our supernatural entity suffered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder when creating beetles. But far more importantly, we now have a narrative for the origin of the present biosphere which is consistent with not just one branch of science but with many. Indeed the search for an explanation of biological evolution led to the discovery of DNA and the founding of new science – genetics.

Such is the importance to religion of maintaining that myth is fact, the Director of the Evangelical Alliance in Wales seriously wants the ancient Jewish myth of creation of species by a supernatural entity to be taught alongside the scientific explanation as if it were fact [1].

When I was in school and about twelve years old the book my class read for English lessons was called Norse Legends. It related the adventures, quarrels and general bad behaviour of imaginary supernatural entities believed in by the Norsemen. All very entertaining but we were not required to believe these gods were real entities. However in Religious Instruction lessons (yes, RI not RE in the 1950’s) we were taught stories every bit as mythical as those of the Norse gods and were expected to believe them to be factual.

In Wales, following the Donaldson Report [2], we are expecting a revision of the teaching of religion. The hope is that a new subject will integrate aspects of citizenship responsibilities, morality, philosophy and comparative religion. A key aspect of such a development would be the teaching of the difference between works of the imagination and facts established by careful research.

The Independent reported in 2015 before the Election for the Fifth Assembly.

Wales is poised to scrap Religious Education lessons in its schools, it has been revealed. Instead, the Welsh Government’s Minister for Education and Skills Huw Lewis, argued it should be renamed to focus on the teaching of “religion, philosophy and ethics”.[3]

There was also an article in the Guardian. [4]

Huw Lewis retired from politics before the Assembly Election and, as a result of that election, Kirsty Williams, Liberal Democrat AM for Powys, was appointed Cabinet Secretary for Education.

We need Kirsty Williams to press on with the transformation and repositioning of Religious Education in the schools of Wales and I hope that the Humanist Association in Wales and the National Secular Society will be able to monitor the progress of this transformation and keep members informed about this project.

[1] http://www.eauk.org/current-affairs/media/press-releases/welsh-church-leader-baffled-by-top-scientists.cfm

[2] https://hwbplus.wales.gov.uk/schools/6714052/Documents/Donaldson%20Report.pdf

[3] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/wales-poised-to-scrap-teaching-of-religious-education-in-schools-10435880.html

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/education/shortcuts/2015/aug/04/wales-new-plans-for-re-classes-with-less-religion

What is meant by "Respect"?

by Alan Rogers

The Welsh Government is committed, during the Fifth Assembly, to the revision of the school curriculum using the Donaldson Report “Successful Futures” as a guide for this work. I am interested in the treatment of religion in the proposed Humanities subject area proposed by Donaldson.

“Successful Futures” contains the word “respect” in its comment on Religious Education in the 21st Century. The paragraph on Page 46 of the report is given below:-

Despite the positive ways in which RE can contribute to the education of learners in the twenty-first century its position on the curriculum has been fragile[32]. Its role can be misunderstood as being about the promotion of a particular faith or belief system rather than developing respect and understanding of different forms of religion over time and in different societies.

What is meant by “Respect”?

The word ” respect” may be applied to a person, I think, without problem. A declaration of respect for an individual is the statement of an opinion about that person’s character and qualities – which may of course be in error. Jimmy Savile was, after all, awarded a Papal Knighthood by the Catholic Church for his quality of character and good worksi. Even the Vatican can make mistakes.

A civilised way to behave is to accord such respect to others unless one has clear and indisputable evidence of inadequacies in character and offensive qualities of the person under consideration.

Maintaining respect until it is clearly inappropriate maintains dialogue between persons allowing differences to be explored and, perhaps, an accommodation achieved.

Respect for abstract ideas and belief systems is more problematic. This difference is concealed by some persons insisting that their beliefs must/should be “respected”. Such an individual self-identifies with their belief, consequently criticism of these beliefs is interpreted as criticism of the holder of that belief. The convention that “ad hominem” attacks are inappropriate in a discussion of scientific or philosophical issues is an expression of the importance of this distinction. Sadly, this convention is often neglected in political discussion.

If philosophy, science and religion are to be discussed and debated, individuals must separate themselves emotionally from their beliefs. Quite simply they must be prepared to consider what they believe dispassionately. They must also accept analysis and criticisms of their beliefs by others as legitimate and not regard them and ad hominem attacks. Without this effort of will, no effective consideration of ideas is possible.

If the student in school begins with few strongly held beliefs it may be easy to consider alternatives but as conviction about these alternatives develops the objectivity fades. Contrary evidence may be ignored or forgotten, lapses in logical consistency may go unnoticed. If this analytical process is to be conducted, considerable effort must be maintained to remain objective. It is common for the leaders and adherents of religion to demand “respect” for their religion. This is incompatible with rigorous analysis of belief systems.

If the Humanities curriculum achieves just one thing it must be to impart skill in the dispassionate analysis of ideas.

The scientific method is a system which has been responsible for the most astounding advances in human understanding during the past four hundred years. It is the only reliable method we have for approaching truth about the world. I use the term “world” in the sense used by philosophers. It means everything in the universe outside of the mind which is thinking about the universe.

Nothing is excluded – the behaviour of others, the way they interact with the universe, the behaviour, structure and origins of the universe. Religion can only escape this analysis by hypothesising a “reality” which lies outside the universe. Gods, spirits (both good and evil) , miracles and messages from this external “reality” (revelation).

Now the creation of this external “reality” can be a work of the human imagination.

The issue is: Is it only a work of the human imagination?

It clearly can be a work of the human imagination since such overt works exist and are claimed by their authors to be works of the author’s imagination. The world of Harry Potter or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland are typical of this. Some will argue “but Jesus was a real person”, well, probably but then Alice Liddell was a real person but the Adventures were imagined by Charles Dodgson.

Scientology is a good candidate for this attribution. It was the work of a single author, one Lafayette Ronald Hubbard. Mr. Hubbard was a published author of fiction and the descriptions of the creed of Scientology strongly suggest a link with Hubbard’s fictional output. Nevertheless the adherents of Scientology seem to set this creed in the real universe. The UK Supreme Court has accepted Scientology as a religionii or perhaps a quasi-religion for the purpose of marriage. Should one “respect” Scientology? In so far as it claims to represent the nature of the universe I think this is quite impossible. Perhaps one might respect it as a work of fiction which was highly successful in creating wealth for the author… that depends upon one’s criteria for “respect”.

Is , say, Roman Catholicism any different in a fundamental way from Scientology? It is older and carries the patina of age which can provide an aura of respectability. Many generations have been indoctrinated from childhood in one version of Christianity or another. It has been the basis of Western Civilisation since the late Fourth Century when it became the official creed of the Roman Empire. Its claim to represent the real world depends largely upon historical analysis of documents. It turns out that very few (some would argue none) of these documents are first-hand accounts.

The canon of the Christian faith, the New Testament, is a selection of sources put together in the Third and Fourth centuries to support the dominant sect of Christianity which was to be adopted by the now decaying Roman Empire. Only four gospels were included. The gospels of Peter, Mary Magdalene, Phillip and Thomas were deliberately excluded. If it is God’s word then it was severely censored by man.

The bulk of this historical “evidence” is, as Thomas Paine argues, “hearsay” iii which would be inadmissible in a law court.

Many events reported in this body of literary evidence are contrary to experience in the real world (reincarnation, parthenogenesis, etc) Indeed it is these “miraculous” events which, if believed, make Christianity a religion rather than a philosophy. Many details in these accounts are contradictory and the excluded documents are contradictory enough to be regarded in the Fourth Century as heretical.

Now this is not an argument that because religion is probably a work of the human imagination it is therefore not important. The human imagination may well be the most important thing about us as a species. Albert Einstein had to imagine riding on a beam of light to begin thinking in a new way about the physics of space and time in order to accommodate the experimental factiv that the speed of light was constant irrespective of the motion of the observer. He was guilty of a failure of imagination when he failed to imagine that the universe might not be eternally constant (really a religious belief although he was not a religious person) so he added a “cosmological constant” to the equations of the General Theory of Relativity to make them fit this assumption of an unchanging universe. Edwin Hubble v made the observations of the expansion of the universe a little while later and Einstein had to admit that the cosmological constant was his greatest mistake (or rather failure of imagination).

The argument I am putting is that religion is a creation of the human imagination but only if its priesthood can convince people that it is not a creation of the human imagination can religion survive and multiply the number its adherents. If a religion has components which imaginatively illustrate and promote socially good behaviour (for example some Christian parables) there is no reason why these should not be used in teaching – but this is not an example of servile “respect” it is the sensible use of the resources of human imaginative creativity to enrich the education of children.

The entirely predictable reaction of leaders of religion (whose life purpose is to maintain and, if possible, increase the number of adherents of their religion) is to oppose any challenge to the claim that religion deals with the real rather than the imaginary by declaring that such a challenge is “disrespectful”.

I am concerned that this part of school education should develop the student’s critical and analytical capabilities, which will be much needed by both the student and the society in which the student lives, than to pander to religious sensibilities and allow the leaders of religion to pass off works of the imagination as factual and indisputable truths which must be “respected”.

Refs:

i  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-20108980

ii  https://www.supremecourt.uk/decided-cases/docs/UKSC_2013_0030_PressSummary.pdf

iii  Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/3743/3743-h/3743-h.htm

iv  http://scienceworld.wolfram.com/physics/Michelson-MorleyExperiment.html

v  http://hubblesite.org/the_telescope/hubble_essentials/edwin_hubble.php

God in the Classroom

“God in the Classroom” was the title of a conference called by the Cross Party Group on Faith on 10th February 2016. The conference was held towards the end of the Fourth Assembly but there was certainly a reason for this meeting and I believe that there was a reason for this specific title.

The minutes of the meeting are unhelpful about what was discussed. Item 4 reads as follows:-

4. Darren chaired a time of discussion in which a broad range of issues relating to Religious Education were raised from attendees and answered by the Welsh Government representatives.

The list of those attending is interesting.

Present:

1. Carys Moseley, Swyddog Cyswllt Eglwys a Chymdeithas, Eglwys Bresbyteraidd Cymru

2. Chris Abbas, Baha’i representative on Interfaith Council of Wales

3. Claire Rowlands, , Deputy Director Curriculum Division, Welsh Government

4. Darren Millar AM (chair)

5. Elfed Godding, National Director, Evangelical Alliance Wales

6. Fr. Bernard Sixtus, Director of RE (Schools), Catholic Archdiocese of Cardiff

7. Gethin Rhys, Swyddog Polisi, Cytun

8. Glyn Tudwal Jones, Minister, Eglwys Bresbyteraidd Cymru

9. Huda Pearn, Leader, Ihsan Academy School

10. Huw Stephens, Baptist minister, Baptist Union of Wales

11. Ian Govier, Regional Leader, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints

12. Jim Stewart, Public Affairs and Advocacy Officer, Evangelical Alliance Wales (secretary)

13. John Pugsley, Head of Curriculum Support Branch, Welsh Government

14. Julie Jones, Public Affairs Officer, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints

15. Manon Jones, Head of Areas of Learning & Experience, Design & Development – Humanities,

Languages, Literacy & Communication, Welsh Government

16. Matt Lewis, Schools Development Worker, Scripture Union

17. Matt Parsons, leader of Connections Church

18. Naeela Minhas, Deputy Headteacher, Cardiff Muslim Primary School

19. Patricia AlBayari, School secretary, Ihsan Academy School

20. Paul Francis, leader of Glenwood Church

21. Paul Morgan, Vice President, Religious Education Movement (Wales)

22. Paul Soltis, Research Assistant for David Melding AM

23. Peter Noble, Chaplain in Cardiff Bay

24. Philip Lord, Chair of WASACRE and Challenge Adviser

25. Philip Manghan, Adviser for Wales, Catholic Education Service

26. Rachel Nelmes, Children, Youth and Families Adviser, Diocese of Monmouth, Church in Wales

27. Russell George AM

28. Samsunear Ali, Trustee, Cardiff Muslim Primary School

29. Simon Cameron, Schools Officer, Diocese of St. Asaph, Church in Wales

30. Simon Plant, Associate, Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service

31. Stanley Soffa, Chair of South Wales Jewish Representative Council

32. Steven Harris, National Training Director, OAC Ministries

33. Vaughan Salisbury, Education Officer, Presbyterian Church of Wales

The persons listed above in bold (my emphasis) Claire Rowlands, John Pugsley and Manon Jones are Welsh Government civil servants. One can only imagine what the impression made by this large number of representatives of the religion industry upon these civil servants but it was surely out of proportion to the numbers of people in Wales who are devoutly religious.

Now the Cross-Party Group on Faith has no role in policy development but does allow special interest groups to meet with a number of Assembly Members in the Senedd environment. Cross Party Groups must include members from three or more parties in the Senedd. No doubt the civil servants were able to communicate little, at this stage, about the future of “God in the Classroom”. Never-the-less, if the Donaldson Report recommendations in Successful Futures are to be implemented then the title of this conference is inappropriate. The title “Religion in the Classroom” would be very much more appropriate.

The implementation of changes to the curriculum of schools in Wales in the light of the Donaldson Report is the major task in education of the Welsh Government in the Fifth Assembly.

The Donaldson Report says on religion in the curriculum:

“Its role can be misunderstood as being about the promotion of a particular faith or belief system rather than developing respect and understanding of different forms of religion over time and in different societies”.

The title “God in the Classroom” exhibits just such a misunderstanding. Teaching religion objectively requires that the beliefs of various religions are taught in a detached, objective, scholarly way and, where necessary, challenging these beliefs. Teachers must not attempt to convince children of the truth of any of the claims of religion although they may be presented impartially. If parents wish to indoctrinate their children in the parents’ own religion they have more than half the child’s waking hours in which to do this. The purpose of education is to introduce the child to the whole of human knowledge – of which religion is a small and diminishing proportion.

Alan Rogers

May 2016

Report on Secular Wales Questionnaire Senedd Election 2016

 

The Questions

1. Do you agree that the absence of religious belief should not cause disadvantage in political life or in the delivery and use of public services? YES/NO

2. Do you agree that state schools financed by general taxation should generally be secular community schools rather than faith schools? YES/NO

3. Do you agree that Christian collective worship is inappropriate in non-religious state schools? YES/NO

4. Do you agree that the chaplains providing pastoral care for religious patients in NHS hospitals should be financed by a charitable trust rather than, as at present, from the NHS Wales budget. YES/NO

5. Do you agree that forms of religious worship (e g prayers) are not appropriate to be included in the business of democratically elected assemblies (e.g. Borough, County and Community Council meetings, Senedd meetings)? YES/NO

List of Respondents

1 2 3 4 5

[Green] Y Y Y N Y

[Green] Y Y Y Y Y

[Green] Y Y Y N Y

[Green] Y Y Y Y Y

[Green] Y Y Y Y Y

[Lib Dem] Y Y Y Y Y

[Lib Dem] Y Y Y N Y

[Plaid Cymru] Y N N Y Y

[Plaid Cymru] Y Y N N Y

[Plaid Cymru] Y Y N Y N

[Plaid Cymru] Y Y Y Y Y

[Plaid Cymru] Y Y N N N

[Plaid Cymru] Y Y Y Y Y

[Plaid Cymru] Y N N N N

[Plaid Cymru] Y Y N N N

[Plaid Cymru] Y Y N Y Y

[Plaid Cymru] Y Y N Y Y

[UKIP] Y Y N Y Y

[UKIP] R R R R R

[UKIP] Y Y Y Y Y

[UKIP] R R R R R

[UKIP] Y N N N N

[Labour] Y Y N N Y

[Conservative] Y N N N N

[Conservative] Y Y N Y Y

The response rate to the questionnaire was very disappointing. There are two reasons for this.

Firstly the Welsh Labour Party did not supply an email list for candidates despite two requests. It did not even reply to these requests. Only a few Labour candidates were found to have a web site message service or a widely available email address for the election campaign. Of these only one replied.

All the other main parties supplied email access to their candidates centrally. Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats provided Excel pages. The Welsh Conservatives provided a link to a web page giving the required information. The Green Party undertook to distribute the questionnaire by email to all its candidates and UKIP provided an “All Candidates” email address which broadcast the questionnaire to all their candidates. It is worrying that the party of government on the Fourth Assembly was alone in not co-operating with this exercise in democratic access to candidates.

The second reason for disappointment was that the proportion of respondents from the parties was very low. Just 25 candidates replied. By comparison in 2011 a similar questionnaire produced 73 responses from a smaller number of questionnaires distributed.

I fear that the turn-out to this election will be even lower than in 2011. The public are not entirely to blame for being uninvolved in our democracy if candidates are unwilling to answer five simple questions provided weeks before the election.

The questionnaire was not intended to be a poll which provides an analysis of party policy. Since it is not random (candidates may choose if they wish to participate or not) no such analysis is possible.

It is a “snap shot” of the mind-set of the people who offer themselves for office.

A number of candidates stated that they were ministers of religion. They were all prepared to answer YES to question 1 so were in favour of secular governance in principle  but answered NO to all the other questions thus proving they were implacably against secularism in practice.

Some candidates found it difficult to provide a simple YES/NO answer to the questions. They hedged their answers around with provisos and justifications (often self contradictory and/or factually inaccurate). Their answers were interpreted as YES or NO and this decision was returned to them for comment if the disagreed with the interpretation. No such candidate challenged the interpretation.

If you would like to find out if a candidate in your region or constituency responded please email me with your Postcode or address and I will try to reply before end of polling on the 5th May.

Alan Rogers 3rd May 2016

rogers.a@btinternet.com

On religious freedom and religious licence

 

Scientology is a body of beliefs and practices created in 1954 by American science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard (1911–86). After developing the pseudoscience Dianetics after WW II as an alternative to psychiatry, Hubbard lost the rights to its seminal publication Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health in 1953. He then founded the Church of Scientology which in the USA gave certain exemptions from taxation. [Wikipedia]

An attempt to have the CofS registered as a charity in the UK failed in 1999

Then in December 2013:-

A Supreme Court (UK) case was brought by Louisa Hodkin after she was told that a Church of Scientology chapel in central London could not be used to conduct weddings. 

Five Supreme Court judges ruled yesterday that the church was a place of meeting for religious worship and that she should be able to get married there. They ruled that religion did not have to involve worshipping a god.

So it seems to be possible to invent a religion and to have it accepted as such under English Law. Although this may take a little time.

As a thought-experiment I have considered reviving the cult of the Pythagoreans with some modern embellishments.

Jordan Ellenberg in his excellent book “How Not To Be Wrong” [Penguin Books 2014] describes The Pythagoreans thus:- ” … , you have to remember, [they] were extremely weird. Their philosophy was a chunky stew of things we’d now call mathematics, things we’d call religion and even mental illness. They believed that odd numbers were good and even numbers evil; that a planet identical to our own, the Antichton, lay on the other side of the sun; and that it was wrong to eat beans, by some accounts because they were the repository of people’s souls. Pythagoras himself was said to have the ability to talk to cattle
(he told them not to eat beans) and to have been one of the few ancient Greeks to wear pants” .
[ I assume “pants” is American usage for trousers].

I would like to add to their religious numerology the belief that right is good and left is evil. This is not too far-fetched since in that fount of imperfect knowledge Wikipedia we find:-

Historically, the left side, and subsequently left-handedness, was considered negative in many cultures. The Latin word sinistra originally meant “left” but took on meanings of “evil” or “unlucky” by the Classical Latin era, and this double meaning survives in European derivatives of Latin, and in the English word “sinister”.

My religion will decree that on Woden’s day (I have searched far and wide for my religious construction) observant Pythagoreans will insist on driving on the right side of the road. They consider that doing this is a test of their religious freedom.

Is this crazy? My son, when a Sixth Former, earned a little money in the summer vacation by supervising children at a residential EFL course in Lampeter university college. Also in residence were a party of Hasidic Jewish families on a sectarian summer vacation. They occupied a self-catering unit which was carefully prepared for their use. They brought their own Kosher food. One Saturday my son was called to the “Hasidic” accommodation to find that a kitchen was on fire. There was fire fighting equipment in the kitchen but it could, of course, not be used by the residents. He tackled the fire and managed to put it out. The university college had a difficult meeting with their insurers after this incident. If there had been tragic fatalities because of this incident, would it have been possible to charge adults who refused to fight the fire with involuntary manslaughter through gross negligence given that they had, at least, raised the alarm?

Religious dogma has consequences.

My hypothetical Latter Day Pythagoreans would surely not be allowed to drive on the right in the UK on Wednesdays. Our society only works if we all accept the pragmatic man-made laws. I would suggest that if Moslems must eat Halal slaughtered meat for religious reasons then they should be free to do so. That is religious freedom. But our man made laws concerning humane slaughter should also be observed so all Halal meat should be imported and clearly marked as such. This would also guarantee my freedom of belief by allowing me to avoid Halal meat. I don’t think this requirement is impractical. For the first forty years of my life all the mutton and lamb which I consumed was imported, frozen from the antipodes.

To waive the humane slaughter laws in the UK is to grant religious licence.

I like the Encarta definition 5.

licence = excessive freedom in behaviour or speech that gives a bad name to liberty.

Alan Rogers

December 2015

Should there be an offence of blasphemy (again)?

This from Law and Religion UK website

A new blasphemy law?

The issue of blasphemy came up at a conference in London on Wednesday on “Terrorism and Extremism – how should British Muslims respond?” under the auspices of the Muslim Council of Great Britain. during which concern was expressed that the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) has no power to pursue complaints of discrimination against groups of people, such as Muslims, if no individual is specified in an offending article.

Al Arabiya News carried a brief report of the conference on Friday in which it quoted Keith Vaz, Chair of the Commons Home Affairs Committee, to the effect that he would have “no problem” with a new blasphemy law provided it applied to all religions. David Anderson QC, the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, said that some mainstream media had been “grossly irresponsible” in their coverage of Muslim issues and it was something that the IPSO ought to think about. However, though he would not object to a public debate about blasphemy, he had his doubts:

Should there be an offence of blasphemy  (again)?

A little bit of history. There was a time when, in the Christian world, blasphemy was a punishable by death. The last person so killed in Britain was Thomas Aikenhead (March 1676 – 8th January 1697). He was a Scottish student from Edinburgh who was prosecuted and executed at the age of 20 on a charge of blasphemy. The last person in Britain to be sent to prison for blasphemy was John William Gott on 9 December 1921. He was sentenced to nine months of hard labour despite suffering from an incurable illness, and died shortly after he was released. The case became the subject of public outrage.  It took a while for this outrage to be translated into legislative action however. The common-law  offence of blasphemy was repealed with effect  from  8th July 2008.

Let’s start with a definition of blasphemy. My Concise Oxford just says “talk impiously, utter profanity about, revile”  (revile is defined as  “Call by ill names, abuse, rail at, talk abusively”).

Encarta Dictionary (via MS Word) is more specific (perhaps because it is American).

1. Disrespect for religion

Disrespect for God or sacred things.

2. Something showing disrespect for religion

something done or said that shows disrespect for God or sacred things.

So some or all of the above if demonstrated would, I suppose,  be a criminal offence.

The Encarta definition might be a problem for Moslems since they are clearly very sensitive to adverse comment or depiction  of the Prophet – and he is/was not a God… in fact it would be blasphemous to say he was. Perhaps “sacred things” would cover this. I suppose in the traditional English way we would have to rely not on definitions but on case law.

If  write this :-

I do not believe that anything that might be described as a God exists in the universe.

Would I have committed a criminal act?

How about:-

“All Gods are creations of the human imagination” .

or how about:-

“In the twenty first century, belief in God or Gods as actual entities by educated adults is truly pitiful.

Now I may be wrong in every one of these opinions (and they are just opinions) but is religion now so desperately fragile that it cannot tolerate such opinions being expressed?

Since I believe all the above then, in my world-view, I cannot be disrespectful of  a thing or things which do not exist.  I do risk  annoying, even upsetting a highly sensitive believer. I suppose I could be accused of disrespecting that person’s beliefs but surely not disrespecting  God. But I disrespect many beliefs held by people…  astrology, homeopathy, fairies, ghosts, faith healing, parapsychology …  and many more. Why should all these not have redress in law if the religious are granted it?

Now there are those who believe in the existence of the Loch Ness Monster. If I were to say I don’t believe there is a Loch Ness Monster they have a right to contradict me  and give their reasons for so believing.  I do not think it would be right for them to call the police.

What we are really dealing with is a wish by those who believe in God or Gods not to be contradicted.  In a theocracy, blasphemy is viewed as a very serious crime because it challenges the basis of theocratic state – the very basis of law and order. I hope we do not and never will live in a theocracy.

Half the UK population now claims not to be religious. Has anyone considered the amount of work a blasphemy law would cause the judicial system?

I once heard an old Jewish man say sadly…” If God came into the World, the people would break his windows”. I believe that he had every right to say that without being hauled before the courts.

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams has recently written on this subject with uncharacteristic clarity. He comes to the conclusion that blasphemy should not be reintroduced as a criminal offence. It is good to be able to agree with Dr. Williams even if I arrive at the same view by a different line of reasoning.

http://www.newstatesman.com/2015/05/when-faith-tested

Alan Rogers

November 2015

Theos

By Alan Rogers

The religious “think tank” THEOS is a well funded operation for promoting religion in public life.

From the THEOS web site:-

What THEOS stands for:

In our post-secular age, interest in spirituality is increasing across Western culture. Faith is on the agenda of both government and the media. Our increasingly religiously diverse society demands that we grapple with religion as a significant force in public policy and our wider public life. In the arts, humanities and social sciences there are important intellectual developments currently taking place around questions of values and identity. Theos speaks into this context. We believe that it is impossible to understand the modern world without an understanding of religion. We also believe that much of the debate about the role and place of religion has been unnecessarily emotive and ill-informed. We reject the notion of any possible ‘neutral’ perspective on these issues.

The term “post-secular” was coined by Jürgen Habermas. A German academic born in 1929. An on-line biography of Habermas may be found at:- http://www.egs.edu/library/juergen-habermas/biography/

The European Graduate school biography of Habermas offers the following:-

Habermas thus stressed the importance for having an “ideal speech situation” in which citizens are able to raise moral and political concerns and defend them by rationality alone.

This is entirely in keeping with the ambitions of secularists and rationalists today.

Habermas seems to have used the term “post-secular” to introduce discussion on how human affairs might be guided now that religious dogma no longer determines these matters. He writes extensively on this at:-

http://www.signandsight.com/features/1714.htm

A more appropriate rendering of the term “post-secular” might be “post-secularisation” so “post-secular society” should be understood as “society after secularisation has taken place”. More economically as “secular society”. I think the problem is that when we talk of a “secular society” the religious fear that this is a society without religion. What we really mean is a society which forms its laws and delivers its services without regard to a specific religious dogma. In such a society, citizens are free to practice their religion but must not expect the state to privilege their or any other religious beliefs. It is the only workable basis for a complex, modern, internationally connected state.

The important question is:  What are the roots of morality and justice now that we have (in Wales) a (nearly) secular society? The attempt by THEOS to convey the impression that the process of secularisation is ended and we now inhabit in a world of “spiritual” concern, with governments and people wishing to “grapple  with religion” to find the right way to live is utterly detached from reality.

The equality of women and men, universal adult suffrage, the elimination of capital punishment, universal state funded education with a national curriculum, were all achieved by struggle against the Church. The opposition to these foundations of a free society are still to be found in the fossilized remnant of Church power. The titanic struggle over the past few decades to obtain gender equality and the ending of discrimination  on grounds of sexual orientation in that last bastion of Church power. .. its own Cannon Law and the House of Bishops… is proof, if any were needed, of historic Church opposition to these benchmarks of Western Civilization.

Are we now in a “post-secular age” at a time when many churches are empty or have been converted to secular use? Are we moving to a world where every nation will be a theocracy? Of course not.

Both pre-Christian and post-Christian philosophers have dealt systematically with the requirements for an ethical life and a just society. Consulting the authors of Scientology, Eastern mysticism or fundamentalist Islam and Christianity are not likely to be productive.

The facts are these – the Catholic Church is in disgrace and even in the Republic of Ireland politicians are now, at last, prepared to stand up to the Cardinals. The Anglican Church is in rapid decline, most of its pews are empty and those that are not are filled with elderly folk. A University of South Wales academic (who is a Christian) is predicting extinction for the Church in Wales within a few decades.

http://churchgrowthmodelling.blogspot.co.uk/2015/07/anglican-church-decline-in-west-data.html

It is true that the retreat of the traditional religions leaves a vacuum and into this vacuum are moving some strange cults, Scientology being one of the strangest, although the even stranger beliefs of Roman Catholicism are protected by a patina of age and familiarity. But these weird cults still represent a tiny minority of citizens. Many only exist because they were set up and are maintained by the wealthy Religion Industry of the United States.

But census data reveals that more and more people are utterly uninterested in religion. Many of those have seen through the tired mythology and ritual which they were force-fed in their school days (primary school nativity plays, secondary school compulsory worship and RE) and the rest have simply found more interesting and worthwhile things to do with their lives than religious ritual and are quite happy with not being “saved”.  It is more difficult for religionists to engage with lack of interest than with reasoned opposition. Creating a complex argument in Theodicy to explain away a vast natural disaster at least gives the cleric something to work with. Indifference was once combated by threats of damnation but this no longer has any effect and would be greeted by derision.  

The frantic efforts of THEOS to make religion seem relevant are rather sad. Religion in the present day world is relevant mainly because of the violence of fundamentalists. Suicide bombers who kill at random and the assassins who murder those who have the courage to think for themselves. Such violence is not confined to Islamic Fundamentalism. It should be remembered that Christian religious extremist in America have murdered doctors because of dogmatic opposition to abortion.

http://www.legacy.com/ns/george-tiller-obituary/127922039

The Churches are noticed only when their cover-up of the misdeeds of clergy are at last revealed. Bishops, Archbishops and Cardinals oppose, from time to time, social progress – but almost always without effect. Two recent episodes that demonstrate this are the futile opposition of the Archbishop of Wales to organ donation by presumed consent and the futile opposition by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster to mitochondrial DNA transplant.

The political class, always two steps behind the zeitgeist, continues to pay homage to religion, conservatives more so than progressives, and this can be expected to continue for a while.

Religion in Britain is more irrelevant today than at any time in history. Of course religion has an historical and sociological interest. Its political relevance lies in the traditional links between governance and religious dogma and the residual influence of the clergy. Both are waning.

An important issue involving religious dogma concerns human reproduction. It is now almost forgotten that there was dogmatic religious opposition to IVF when it first became technically feasible. One rarely hears of religious objection now, indeed one rarely hears of
IVF although its use is common. A current example concerns assisted suicide. Again opposition is largely religious. One indication that even the clergy recognise the weakness of dogmatic argument is that they will attempt to object on the basis of non-dogmatic argument. Assisted suicide, they say, is un-necessary because palliative care is so effective.  Assisted suicide, they say, is damaging to the morale of disabled persons. Never do they say “suicide is a mortal sin”. That argument was lost when suicide was de-criminalised decades ago, no doubt despite opposition from the Church. Former Archbishop George Carey has argued for legalising assisted suicide. He bases this upon harrowing personal experience. His isolation proves my point.

The only public service in which religion has, to a degree, turned back the tide of secularisation is school education in England. The schools  policy of Tony Blair and Education Minister Ruth Kelly following the 9/11 atrocity was to create many state funded sectarian (“faith”) schools. The utterly irrational argument advanced for this was that state funded sectarian apartheid  in schools would somehow stem the growth of fundamentalist Islam. The fact that both Blair and Kelly were Catholic was proved to be important when Ruth Kelly confessed on TV  “if we are to have Catholic schools then we cannot refuse to provide Moslem schools”. Kelly, a member of the Catholic society Opus Dei  (working for God) left politics before the 2010 General Election and is now working for God in the Banking Industry. A suspicion  must remain that the Blair schools policy was an attempt to pre-empt demand for the total secularisation of school education. The Blair “faith” schools policy was enthusiastically taken up by the Coalition Government and the current Tory government. They are all two steps behind the zeitgeist.

In Wales we have not suffered this reversal. We must work to make sure that it does not happen here.

Alan Rogers

August 2015