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What God wants

I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.

Hitchens: Good with words, but fallible

The Internet has been flooded with obituaries to Christopher Hitchens today, since the news of his death. One of the so-called ‘New Atheists’, his book, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, upset lots of religious people and delighted many fellow atheists. True, he was exceptioanally gifted with the written and spoken word (there are some examples in the Guardian), and wrote lots of thought-provoking copy for Vanity Fair, among other publications, but I wasn’t a fan, especially because he thought that invading Iraq was a good idea, regardless of the consequences – who were mostly civilian.

If an easy target like Christianity could be destroyed solely with words, Christopher could have done it. However, the main effect of his witty attacks on religion was to delight other atheists, not to persuade believers of the error of their ways. It’s untrue that “religion poisons everything”. That’s far too simplistic and ignores the many examples of good things that religious people have done. Philanthropists like Elizabeth Fry, a Quaker, achieved social reform long before the introduction of the Welfare State, for example, and religious people still do good without evangelising or proselytising.

Mary Warnock, interviewed by Laurie Taylor in New Humanist, said,

I find Dawkins’ simple-minded view of religion very difficult to take. It pays no proper attention to the history and tradition of religion. It says that religions have done nothing but harm but that is manifestly not true. He omits all the good things, the education, the cathedrals, the music. All that’s disregarded.

Maybe Hitchens wasn’t simple-minded, but he was guilty of the same error. Babies and bathwater?

Brain food

If you haven’t seem these sites, they’re worth exploring:

The Secular Web has pages and pages of food for thought. Thay say:

The Secular Web is owned and operated by Internet Infidels, Inc., a nonprofit educational organization dedicated to defending and promoting a naturalistic worldview on the Internet. Naturalism is the “hypothesis that the natural world is a closed system” in the sense that “nothing that is not a part of the natural world affects it.” As such, “naturalism implies that there are no supernatural entities,” such as gods, angels, demons, ghosts, or other spirits, “or at least none that actually exercises its power to affect the natural world.” And without miraculous interventions into nature from a spiritual realm, neither prayer nor magick are more effective than a placebo.

Butterflies and Wheels is edited by Ophelia Benson.

Butterflies and Wheels was established in 2002 and has (not surprisingly) evolved since then. At the beginning it focused mainly on various kinds of pseudoscience and epistemic relativism, aka postmodernism. The latter prompted an increasing focus on moral or cultural relativism and a defense of universalism and human rights. This in turn led to concern with the chief opponent of universalism and human rights, which is religion. This then led to interest in the backlash against overt atheism.

Keep thinking. If nothing else, it’ll help to keep Alzheimer’s at bay.

Ipswich Science in the Pub – Radiation risks

Monty Guest runs Suffolk Radiation Technical Services Ltd which provides advice on radiation protection to companies and organisations throughout the UK.

Americans (and Brits) and God

Interesting piece in the New York Times by Eric Weiner, on Americans and organised religion.

For a nation of talkers and self-confessors, we are terrible when it comes to talking about God. The discourse has been co-opted by the True Believers, on one hand, and Angry Atheists on the other. What about the rest of us?

The rest of us, it turns out, constitute the nation’s fastest-growing religious demographic. We are the Nones, the roughly 12 percent of people who say they have no religious affiliation at all. The percentage is even higher among young people; at least a quarter are Nones.

In my experience, even more British people are Nones too, and can you blame them? Angry atheism is as off-putting to many people as in your face religion. What’s wrong with keeping your beliefs private? It would make a change.

United Nations event in Ipswich

UN logoThe local United Nations Association group organises an annual inter-faith Celebration of Human Rights in Ipswich. This year the event was on the 10 December and the theme was ‘The Family’, based on Article 16:3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.” This was my contribution (MN).

What do we mean by “the family”? I imagine that when the UN declaration was drafted immediately after the Second World War, it might have been generally assumed that a family consisted of two heterosexual parents, some children, and grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. British families have been described as having 2.4 children, because that was supposed to be the average number of children in nuclear families. Many families aren’t like this.

A few days ago, research from The Centre for the Modern Family was released. They’d interviewed 3,000 people. Fewer than a fifth of them thought they were part of a traditional family. Eight in ten said their families didn’t conform to the stereotype of two married parents with two or more children. The report indicates that family structures have become more diverse. A quarter of couples are childless and a fifth of the population lives alone, and more of us are likely to view families with single parents, same-sex parents or unmarried parents as “proper” families. Some families include people who aren’t related to one another, such as step-families or adopted families.

So ideas about what is “natural and fundamental” have changed, though not everyone will like this. Some families are treated more favourably than others by the state, depending on where they live. We’re fortunate to live in a developed country with welfare benefits and resources to care for children who don’t have families, though the system is far from perfect. In many developing countries, things are different. Many children orphaned by AIDS in Africa, for example, are raised by ageing grandparents or older siblings, and in many parts of the world, groups of orphans could be described as families, since they care for each other without parents.

January meeting – a game of Diversity

We’ll be playing Diversity, a non-competitive educational game devised by Suffolk Inter-Faith Resource that teaches you about the different faiths and beliefs practiced in the county, including humanism. Long term members may remember playing it a few years ago, but you can always learn more. The game tends to prompt lots of discussion, so no one ever seems to finish it.

Click here for more about the game.

December meeting – 10-minute topics

The popular format where everyone comes with suggestions for topics for discussion, then write them on bits of paper, and the pieces of paper go in a hat, is back. Is there something you want to talk about? As usual, guests are welcome and there’ll be refreshments. Note that we’ll be in our new venue at University Campus Suffolk.

Click here for printable maps and directions (pdf).

UN Day Celebration

Every year the local UN Association organises an inter-faith Celebration of the Universal Charter of Human Rights. This year’s theme is the family, based on Article 16:

(1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.