A recent blog post reported on some of the articles in the New Scientist’s God issue. One or two things have prompted me to write more about this, from a feminist perspective: Men and the religion versus science thing. Feel free to comment, here or there.
This is not an apologia for god. Religious claims still wither under rational scrutiny and deserve no special place in public life. But it is a call for those who aspire to a secular society to approach it rationally – which means making more effort to understand what they are dealing with. Religion is deeply etched in human nature and cannot be dismissed as a product of ignorance, indoctrination or stupidity. Until secularists recognise that, they are fighting a losing battle.
It’s a pity that the words “secularists” is used, as so often these days, as synonymous with atheists or anti-theists, which isn’t what it means. See the BBC site for a definition of secularism, which notes, correctly,
You may be surprised to know that while most secularists are atheists, some secularists are actually believers in a faith. While they believe, they don’t think that belief is a reason for special treatment.
However, it is true that many anti-religionists, like many religionists, make no effort to understand “what they are dealing with”. Whether the contributors to this issue of New Scientist can enlighten us is debatable.
One is Justin L Barrett, author of Born Believers: The Science of Children’s Religious Beliefs, which makes the controversial claim that children “arrive in the world with a strong, cognitively driven propensity for religious belief ‘preinstalled’.”
Had an email today (Sunday) from an East Anglian Daily Times journalist, wanting comment on Delia Smith’s claim that “we are somewhat under the cosh” on her website – does she mean Christians in general, or just Catholics? Devout secularists? What are they? Didn’t read the email until after 10pm, probably too late for the paper, but replied anyway. It gets sillier by the day.
It’s interesting that Delia, a CAFOD ambassador, should think it appropriate to use her cookery website to air her persecution complex. Perhaps she imagines that cooks don’t include atheists or secularists? And what has any of this to do with Lent? Atheists happily donate to charity all the year round; we don’t need to be reminded.
New Humanist magazine reports on Delia’s fighting talk too, with a reference to the story in the Daily Mail.
Julian Baggini is co-founder of The Philosophers’ Magazine and author of ‘Atheisn: A Very Short Introduction’ (OUP). His series ‘Heathen’s Progress‘ that began last year in The Guardian’s Comment is Free section is worth reading. The latest part, ‘Yes, life without God can be bleak. Atheism is about facing up to that‘ firmly removes any comfort blanket you might be clinging to, and is bracingly honest. It ends:
I think it’s time we atheists ‘fessed up and admitted that life without God can sometimes be pretty grim. Appropriating the label “heathen” is part of this. Heathens are unredeemed outcasts from heaven who roam the planet without hope of surviving the deaths of their bodies. They may have values but they are not secured by any divine source. Yet we embrace this because we think it represents the truth. And so we don’t just get on and enjoy life, we embark on our own intellectual pilgrimages, trying to make some progress in a universe on which no meaning has been writ. The journey can be wonderful but it can also be arduous and it may end horribly. But there is no other way, and anyone who urges you to follow a path that they promise leads to a bright future is either gravely mistaken or a charlatan.
Cardinal Keith O’Brien, leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland, has said that plans for gay marriage were a “grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right”. He’s a funny idea about what “human right” means. Article 16 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights says:
(1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
(2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
(3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.
Nothing there about gender, though they probably didn’t consider it necessary when it was written.
The other week it was the Coalition for Marriage, backed by Lord Carey (former Archbishop of Canterbury), who said that legalising gay marriage would be “an act of cultural and theological vandalism”. In response, Ben Summerskill (chief executive of gay, lesbian and bisexual charity Stonewall) said: “Our strong advice to anyone who disagrees with same-sex marriage is not to get married to someone of the same sex.”
The coalition’s website warns,
If marriage is redefined, those who believe in traditional marriage will be sidelined. People’s careers could be harmed, couples seeking to adopt or foster could be excluded, and schools would inevitably have to teach the new definition to children. If marriage is redefined once, what is to stop it being redefined to allow polygamy?
If you’d like to blow a collective raspberry at the silly old bigoted duffers, click here to sign the Coalition for Equal Marriage’s petition. You know it makes sense, unlike the Cardinal and his Lordship.
I was asked to contribute to a discussion on James Hazell’s Saturday Show on BBC Radio Suffolk. James introduced the slot on Facebook as follows:
The Warr Zone at 11 – Are we losing our religion? Rows over prayers at council meetings, falling church attendences and an MP who says Europe needs to ‘get comfortable’ with christianity. Do you need religion in your life?
The “Warr” in the title is Simon Warr. I’d never heard of him before but apparently he teaches at the Royal Hospital School, Holbrook (he isn’t the headteacher, as some have described him), and he writes a column for the East Anglian Daily Times as well as being on Radio Suffolk. If you listen to the broadcast, from about 2 hours and 10 minutes in, you’ll find that Mr Warr isn’t strong on listening skills and shouts a lot. Click here for his website, and see below for his appearance on The One Show, where he advocated beating children.
You have about a week to hear it on iPlayer – click here to listen. I don’t think that it will have enlightened many of those who are confused about the “militant secularism” claims.
Click here to read Baroness Warsi’s speech to the Vatican today, in full. You might want to pour yourself a stiff drink first. You’ll need it.
Europe needs to become more confident in its Christianity.
Let us be honest –
Too often there is a suspicion of faith in our continent, where signs of religion cannot be displayed or worn in government buildings, where states won’t fund faith schools, and where faith is sidelined, marginalised and downgraded.
An angry parent has told us that the Gideons have visited her child’s school, where they contributed to an act of collective worship and gave every child a Bible. Most people have heard of Gideon Bibles being left in hotel rooms, but they distribute them in many other places too. On their website they say,
We are aware that many people in Britain have never seen a Bible and may be uncertain what it is.
Our aim is to give them the opportunity to read it for themselves, perhaps for the first time, and to discover God in a personal way.
The Gideons place Bibles or New Testaments in many areas including:
Additionally we make personal presentations of God’s Word.
Each year we present personal copies of the New Testament and Psalms to children in thousands of British secondary schools and to many university and college students.
We make personal presentations to medical personnel and uniformed services – Armed Forces, Police, Ambulance and Fire.
We place New Testaments at hospital bedsides.
Quite apart from the fact that it isn’t appropriate to allow groups like this to proselytise in schools, the Bible isn’t a guide for life, as we reported earlier. When teachers allow this to happen, maybe they haven’t considered why they shouldn’t? Suffolk’s SACRE (Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education) has provided some guidelines for schools on visitors to RE lessons and assemblies.
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.
This week’s National Secular Society e-newsletter quotes Irish writer Jennifer Johnston saying, “Personally I think that religion should be abolished and I think when you look around we’re doing not too bad a job of it in this country at the moment. It’s all just moving and about time, too.” This was in an interview with the Irish Independent. Johnston’s attitude is understandable, when you read about her own and her family’s experience of Catholicism, but abolishing religion isn’t the answer. I remember being shocked when, some time ago, I heard one of the British Humanist Association‘s leading activists say more or less the same thing – and he was serious. It’s an attitude that persists in online atheist forums. Calling for the abolishment or banning of religion isn’t a rational response to the problems that it causes. It was tried by the Soviets and by the Chinese during the Cultural Revolution, but they only succeeded in driving it underground. There have always been extremists, religious and atheist, and they’ve always caused destruction.
The answer is secularism, or an end to religion in civil affairs and no religious instruction in schools. Children might learn about religion but not to be religious. Teach children to think, not to believe. Most organised monotheistic religion is about power. Remove that power, and you remove most of the damage it causes.
“A good teacher makes you think, even when you don’t want to.” (Tom, aged 10)
Teach people to think, and maybe they won’t make foolish statements like, “Ban religion!”