Saturday, 30 January 2010

Evict the Bishops Debate

On Wednesday I went to London for the Evict the Bishops debate, which was held by the Labour Humanists in Committee Room 10 in the Houses of Parliament. We were advised to turn up early to get a seat, and this was just as well since everyone had to spend a long time queueing outside in the cold before even getting through the door. This was due to over-the-top security arrangements, involving everyone having their photo taken and attached to a tag round the neck, and having their coat and bags passed along a carrier through a detector while themselves passing through another. I suppose this is the sort of thing that now happens routinely for air travellers, but to me it was a new and most unpleasant experience. This is no way to treat invited guests. After that there was an enormously long walk to the committee room through the vast open space of Westminster Hall and up innumerable steps past many pretentious statues and busts followed by a twenty-minute wait in the corridor outside.

After this the debate itself was something of a let-down. It seems the Lords had voted on the Equalities Bill the previous night, but no-one present seemed to be aware of much about this or of the role of the Bishops in voting down the amendments. The meeting was advertised as being from 7:30 to 9:30 but the chairman David Aaronovitch seemed intent on ending ot at 9pm, and I felt that comment was consequently cut short. Not as much fun as I had anticipated!

Earlier in the day I had paid a visit to the Cocoon at the Natural History Museum. That also I found a disappointment, but I will report on that elsewhere.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Our February Darwin Day Meeting

I've just sent out the following notice to the local papers:

23 January 2010

Creationism and the Teaching of Evolution

Hastings Humanists are pleased to welcome James Williams of Sussex University who will speak to us on Thursday 11 February from 7pm at the Arts Forum, 36 Marina. The entrance fee is £2, and all are welcome.

Mr Williams is a Lecturer in Science Education at Sussex University, and has written on how science works, and on the ways creationists have tried to introduce propaganda into state schools. Only in December for instance a free book was sent to many school and college libraries with the misleading title "Explore Evolution", which was really antiscientific nonsense.

Hastings Humanists began on Charles Darwin's 200th birthday, 12 February last year, and it is proposed to hold a Darwin Day lecture around this date every year. The ideas of evolution by natural selection are of course of great importance for Humanists, since they provide the basis for understanding many aspects of human life.


I've omitted a bit at the end that gave the link to this blog and my telephone number for enquiries, and put in some extra links for this blog entry.

Friday, 22 January 2010

My Nasty Suspicious Mind?

I've just noticed that there was a debate on Night Waves on BBC Radio 3 from 9:15 to 10 pm this evening on "Is the Enlightenment still relevant today?" Besides the chairperson, one Rana Mitter, no names are given for the other debaters, only that they include "historians, theologians and politicians" (no mention of philosophers). Perhaps I am overly suspicious that this is going to be a largely anti-enlightenment debate? It does say that "To critics, however, the Enlightenment has become a twisted dogma". I'll have to wait until it is available on Listen Again to find out.

The main BBC webpage tonight has a prominent picture of Michaelangelo's ubiquitous God from the Sistine Chapel, overlaid with the leading question "Why Does God Allow Natural Disasters", followed by "Your thoughts". This however, it turns out, is not a request for our thoughts, but leads to the BBC News Magazine which, it says, earlier this week 19 January published an article with the given title, by Philosopher David Bain, which prompted more than 4,000 emails sent in. It gives a selection of about 20 of these, and there are about 11 on the original article, but no invitation for further responses.

Only one commenter, John O'Toole, responds with the obvious "The reason why god does not reduce suffering and evil in the world is simply because he does not exist!" Though he then goes on to embroider his case unnecessarily. The others are convoluted exercises in theology that all contradict one another. This hardly seems to be a balanced discussion, but perhaps the leading question didn't attract sceptical readers. I've never heard of this magazine before.

EDIT: The "Night Waves" programme wasn't as bad as I anticipated, but it certainly wasn't a celebration of the Enlightenment. Here are details of the speakers, not given on the BBC site:
Justin Champion see also. Phillip Blond see also. Karen O'Brien. Baroness Haleh Afshar and also.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Some Assorted Links

Here is a nice video, gleaned from, in which Stephen Fry talks an awful lot of good sense about Humanism and Religion.

"The Essay" this week on BBC Radio 3 at 11 pm continues the series on "Enlightenment Voices" with a look at Denis Diderot and the Encyclopedie.

The Libel Reform Campaign continues. Quote: The law is so biased towards claimants and so hostile to writers that London has become known as the libel capital of the world. The rich and powerful bring cases to London on the flimsiest grounds (libel tourism), because they know that 90% of cases are won by claimants. Libel laws intended to protect individual reputation are being exploited to suppress fair comment and criticism.

Our member Graham draws attention to another petition, directed at the General Optical Council. Quote: We, the undersigned, call on the General Optical Council (GOC) to take one simple step to give us, the consumers, a fairer deal and greater choice when buying our prescription glasses.

Concerning the Haiti disaster, and other charitable causes, see the BHA Good Causes and Charities List for links to secular organisations.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Religious Responses to Haiti Disaster

The despicable response of the US televangelist Pat Robertson is hardly worth giving wider publicity, but he was the first off the mark.

The Archbishop of York John Sentamu interviewed on the Today programme on Thursday 14 January criticised Robertson, but also said that he himself "has nothing to say that makes sense of the horror" in #Haiti.

In the Thought for the Day on Friday Giles Fraser of St Paul's Cathedral could likewise offer no theological explanation other than to pray. Here is an alternative interpretation of his thoughts.

At the end of the Today programme on Saturday a sensible response from a humanist was at last broadcast in the form of an interview with A. C. Grayling.

A correspondent on the NSS Newsline, Michael Green writes:
A little advice for those who want to donate in aid of victims of the Haiti earthquake but want to avoid giving money to a faith-based organisation – don't give through the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC). Of the thirteen members of DEC, 5 are faith-based: CAFOD (Catholic), Christian Aid, Islamic Relief, Tearfund (Christian) and World Vision (Christian). Instead, give directly to one of the other 8 or, indeed, to any other secular emergency relief charity which works or will work in Haiti.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

A Note on Our January Meeting

This evening's Hastings Humanists meeting went quite well, with eight people in attendance, including one new member, Graham. We held a round-table discussion on "What Does Humanism Mean for You?" and it was evident that we all come from very different backgrounds, some having received a very religious upbringing and others a much freer life. We also considered what other activities we could initiate to have more effect on the community locally.

I think everyone present agreed to pay £5 to become formal members. I must apologise that I failed to get a proper receipt book, or to print out copies of our programme of events. This will be corrected at our next meeting, if not before. We have now opened a bank account in the name of Hastings Humanists.

When I came home I listened to The Essay on Radio 3, and several back issues from earlier in the week. This week it has resumed it's "Enlightenment Voices" sequence, with a series of essays on Spinoza, who was born in 1632, was influenced by the philosophy of Descartes and his followers, and argued for religious tolerance and a rational basis for ethics. The terms of his excommunication by the Jewish authorities in Amsterdam for atheism were quite terrifying, but he seems to have been unperturbed.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Attempts to Amend the Equalities Bill

Our local MP Michael Foster was appointed Government Minister for Equalities in June 2009, and is responsible for helping to steer the Equality Bill through Parliament.
According to his website the Bill, published in April, sets out "new laws which will help narrow the gap between rich and poor; require business to report on gender pay; outlaw age discrimination; and significantly strengthen Britain’s anti-discrimination legislation."

The BHA maintains that the Bill should be amended to tackle ingrained discrimination against non-religious people in our equality laws. However the Conservative Baroness Warsi, has tabled an amendment to the Bill which would remove the phrase ‘or philosophical’ in the definition of belief, which currently reads: 'belief' means 'any religious or philosophical belief'. This is opposed by the Conservative Humanist group.

The BHA states: "There are now amendments that seek to privilege religion over philosophical beliefs such as Humanism in law, to grant even wider exceptions to permit religious organisations to discriminate in their employment on a number of grounds, including sex and sexual orientation, and to permit people providing public services to refuse to provide a service should that conflict with their personal beliefs."

There was a letter in the Hastings Observer last Friday from a Liam Atkins which maintains "This bill is discriminatory to all religious groups ... and erodes relgious liberty completely ..." but does not give explicit examples of what liberties he means. I hope that the MP will respond in this weeks paper.

This is our 100th post to this blog, since it was started in February last year, so we have maintained a steady flow of ideas, about two a week.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Towards a Multifaith Theocracy?

Do you remember when Prince Charles proposed that he would become Defender of Faiths when/if he eventually became King?

John Denham, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Development has appointed an interfaith coven clique committee of 13 advisors to guide his policy making. It includes my old sparring partner the Bishop of Leicester Tim Stevens who is now the convener of the bench of Bishops in the House of Lords.

Bishop Tim is also taking part in a debate at the House of Lords on 27 January on the future of the Lords Spiritual. He is suported by Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, and opposed by Polly Toynbee and Jonathan Bartley with David Aaronovitch in the chair. Could be a fun event!

Friday, 8 January 2010

Our January Meeting

A notice of our January meeting has appeared in Hastings Observer today, on page 18, under the exciting headline "Humanists are inviting people to a discussion". The headline I provided was: "What Does Humanism Mean To You?" which will be the subject of the discussion. The venue is the Dripping Well public house, 1 Dorset Place, from 6:30 pm Thursday, 14 January. Humanists in my experience all tend to have different views, as indicated by such terms as Rationalist, Freethinker, Secularist, Atheist, Bright, Unbeliever, and so on that are used as alternatives.

There is also likely to be some discussion, initially, about the way the Group should develop. A bank account in the name of Hastings Humanists has been opened (although I'm still awaiting confirmation from Lloyds Bank). We have received a £50 donation from a supporter to start off the account.

I think the Group is now at the stage where we should introduce a £5 Membership Fee for those who wish to be formal Members. This is an entirely voluntary payment. Supporters, and indeed Opponents, who do not want to be formal Members can still attend our meetings. Being a Member means that you are declaring yourself in support of Humanist ideas, and means that you get a vote in the election of the Secretary and any other officers, and a say in the way the group is run, and the right to put your name forward for election. There may also be other privileges.

Let's hope the weather will be better by then.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Campaign Against Irish Blasphemy Law

The Atheist Ireland group has published a list of 25 so-called "blasphemies" as part of its campaign to repeal the new Irish Blasphemy Law which came into force yesterday. The 25 quotes include sections from the Bible and the Muslim Hadith and from religious pundits like Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor and Ian Paisley, as well as from well known sceptical writers like Mark Twain, Frank Zappa, Salman Rushdie, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens. There are comments on, where Richard Dawkins says he is praoud to be included in this list.

Blasphemy is now a crime in Ireland punishable by a 25,000 Euros fine. The new law defines blasphemy as "publishing or uttering matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion", with some defences permitted.

Atheist Ireland argues that this new law is both silly and dangerous. It is silly because medieval religious laws have no place in a modern secular republic, where the criminal law should protect people and not ideas. It is dangerous because it encourages religious outrage, and because Islamic States led by Pakistan are already using the wording of this Irish law to promote new blasphemy laws at the UN.

The shooting of a man who was trying to break into the home of one of the Danish cartoonists who drew cartoons of Mohammed is also relevant to this issue.

Friday, 1 January 2010

A Big Year for Science

This year 2010 marks the 350th anniversary of the foundation of the Royal Society in 1660, so it's going to be another big year for Science. Melvyn Bragg is getting it off to a good start with four "In Our Time" programmes in the mornings on radio 4. No doubt we can expect to hear of some results from the experiments at CERN during the year, and perhaps from the new space telescopes.

Another series of programmes on Radio 4 are the "Dear Darwin" letters written by current scientists explaining how Darwin's ideas are relevant to their research. (These were apparently first broadcast early in 2009, and are now being repeated late at night.) Last night's letter by Peter Bentley covered developments in computing, whereby evolutionary methods are being used for purposes of improving design. Contrary to "Intelligent Design" proponents who maintain that evolution cannot produce more information, he indicates that evolution is all about information, and that it has much wider relevance than solely to the evolution of biological species.

The "Material World" is another Radio 4 science programme that I regularly listen to. The presence of science on Radio has been quite good lately. However on television my impression is that it is less evident. The Royal Institution Christmas Lectures for instance have been sidelined to a lesser channel.