Saturday, 21 February 2009

Björn Free Thinker

Anyone reading my blog might be forgiven for thinking that we Humanists, atheists and assorted free thinkers were concerned only with expounding on neo-Darwinian theory and the debunking of postmodern nonsense, a dour and serious enterprise. I am going to lighten up a bit to talk about non-believers in the entertainment industry. We usually only find out about celebrity Humanism when reading the obituary of a recently deceased showbiz persona. Good examples would be the late Bob Monkhouse and Ronnie Barker who were both Humanists and had BHA funerals. Comedians feature strongly on the list of celebrity Humanists, with Ricky Gervais leading the pack of current comics who wear their atheism on their sleeves. You only need to watch the hilarious send up of Genesis in Gervais’ Animals standup routine to know that he has some serious doubts about religion. Gervais was one of the comics who took part in the Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People this Christmas which I am hoping will be released on DVD this year. Other acts included Robin Ince who sometimes writes for New Humanist magazine, Richard Dawkins fan Dara O’Briain and Stewart Lee, writer of Jerry Springer the Opera, someone known for making appearances at local Humanist societies. Rowan Atkinson was a leading light in the campaign to end the blasphemy laws. The BHA even had a comedienne as it’s President until the tragic and premature death of Linda Smith in 2006. Well known atheists in comedy across the pond include Stephen Colbert of the Colbert Report, Saturday Night Live’s Julia Sweeney and the late George Carlin.
The world of stage magic also has it’s fair share of scepticism for good reason. Derren Brown and Penn & Teller were prominent cheerleaders on the publication of Dawkins’ God Delusion. James Randi is another famous sceptic. Lord of the Rings star Sir Ian McKellen heads the list of prominent actors known for their Humanism. Fewer people are aware of the atheist inclinations of Angelina Jolie, Keanu Reeves and Bruce Willis. Angelina Jolie is apparently making a film version of Atlas Shrugged by Objectivist philosopher Ayn Rand.
Perhaps the most famous showbiz person who is explicitly linked with the International Humanist movement is Björn Ulvaeus of Abba who is a prominent and outspoken supporter of Humanisterna, the Swedish Humanist Association. The original lyrics to the song Thankyou for the Music included the lines

"…thanks for all the songs, words and tunes, who needs religion? We can do without that, but imagine if music didn’t exist, not anywhere. Everybody needs a song and a dance…"

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?

Thanks to the editors of the excellent Butterflies and Wheels website (see side panel) which featured my Monday morning blog entry titled Thought for the Day for Everyone. I didn’t realise I had been exposed to the worlds fighters of fashionable nonsense until I looked at the viewing statistics for my blog site which had suddenly increased from the usual dozen to over 600 in a couple of days. It’s nice to know someone thinks that what I have to say is worth reading, or perhaps it was a slow news day.
The Butterflies and Wheels website takes its name from a quotation from the Richard Dawkins hating philosopher Mary Midgley who wrote:

Up till now, I have not attended to Dawkins, thinking it unnecessary to break a butterfly upon a wheel.

I have found that this patronising and dismissive tone is often adopted by the philosophically and theologically trained when contemplating the good professor who has recently retired. I have read Midgley’s Science as Salvation. She thinks that people like Dawkins are guilty of scientism, turning evolution in to a quasi-religious ideology. The lady doth protest too much, methinks. Dawkins is no butterfly and was voted the top public intellectual in the UK by the readers of Prospect Magazine in 2005. Though he is an ethologist and evolutionary biologist, he is sometimes referred to as "the philosopher" by his friend the philosopher Daniel Dennett. I think it is just the case that some people who are trained in philosophy or theology don’t like people with a background in science encroaching on their turf.

Photo by Fir002,

Friday, 13 February 2009

On the Wrong Track

This week I attended a conference at the Yorkshire Rail Academy next door to the National Railway Museum in York. The conference was put on by NASACRE (the National Association of Standing Advisory Councils for Religious Education). I was involved because I was recently invited on to theEast Riding of Yorkshire Council SACRE as a co-opted Humanist member. I had to be co-opted because a rule made by the last Conservative government prevents Humanists from sitting on SACREs with full voting rights. Religious Education is not part of the National Curriculum and the syllabus is decided locally by the SACRE. The current syllabus for the ERYC schools does not contain the words “atheist” or “humanist” (I did a word search). Is this right when about 17% of the local population have Humanist type beliefs and do not believe in the doctrines of the major religions. When children in our schools are presented with a text book scenario with a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu, a Bahai, etc, should there not also be a Mrs Smith, the Humanist who doesn’t believe in God? Should there not be a look at an assessment of the sacred and profane from the perspective of someone who has no sacred text or icons? Recent human rights legislation outlaws discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief, or the lack of belief. A story in the news this week tells of how a head teacher in Sheffield has resigned after her attempts to move away from separate Muslim and Christian school assemblies, both attempts at “collective worship”, towards “inclusive assemblies” for all the students together were resisted by religious school governors. As the trains thundered past the conference facilities, shaking the foundations, I could only contemplate what the future holds for multifaith and multicultural Britain if we allow our education policies to be dictated by the thinking of Lord Reith’s generation. Some think that not exposing children to an experience of religious worship deprives them of an important opportunity. The world has changed and our laws about “collective worship” in state schools which are blatantly flouted by 70% of head teachers, should be dragged kicking and screaming in to the 21st century in the interests of community cohesion if nothing else.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Thought for the Day for Everyone

The British Humanist Association (BHA) has a long running campaign to allow non-religious speakers on the Thought for the Day which is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 every weekday morning as part of the Today programme.
I can’t believe it is 7 years since the BBC allowed Richard Dawkins to broadcast an unofficial Thought for the Day from the atheist perspective. The campaign has been in the news again recently and Revd Giles Fraser has written a piece in the Guardian entitled “Atheists should get a life and leave our slot alone”.
The question is, is it “their” slot. Given that recent human rights legislation has outlawed discriminating against people because of their lack of belief, is it not anachronistic to continue to pretend that it is only people with a “faith” position that have something to contribute to a commentary on current affairs related to contemporary ethics, morality and the good life. Many Humanists are increasingly taking their place at the table of “interfaith” dialogue, taking part in "Interfaith Forums" which should be renamed "Religion and Belief Forums", serving on local Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education (SACREs) which now have 85 Humanist representatives nationally, talking to schools about secular ethics and beliefs and appearing on local radio “God slots”. There are people just like me up and down the country playing their part in multi-faith and multi-belief Britain and so why is it still fair to exclude us from the national “slot”?
One of the points Giles Fraser makes is that the character of the TftD slot is such that the contributors do not take pot shots at other people’s beliefs (the religious commentators on our local radio certainly do). A good example of this is Christopher Brookmyre’s “Ditch the bitch, she won’t be missed” monologue on the Humanist Society of Scotland Thought for the World, which is being re-launched this morning in collaboration with the Guardian newspaper and the excellent A.C. Grayling is the first speaker (see The assumption is that someone like Dawkins coming on and referring to religious beliefs as “infantile regression” undermines the ethos of the slot. I suppose the view you take on this depends on whether you see TftD as a hallowed God only slot, in which case it should be renamed Religious Thought for the Day or if you see the slot as having the potential to be a genuine conduit for religion and belief commentary.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Theist Bus Campaign

It has been reported that a number of Christian groups are going to begin a new round of bus advertising in response to the much discussed Atheist Bus Campaign. The advert shown above has been proposed by Revd George Hargreaves, leader of The Christian Party which is a right of centre political party which recently won a seat on the Greater London Assembly, beating UKIP. I first became aware of Revd Hargreaves, bizarrely the writer of the 1980s pop song So Macho by Sinitta, in the 2008 Haltemprice by-election when David Davis resigned and then stood for re-election. Hargreaves was one of the candidates and polled just 76 votes, being beaten by both The Miss Great Britain Party and the Monster Raving Looney Party. Even David Icke had more votes. Needless to say I didn’t vote for Hargreaves, choosing to support David Davis on his civil liberties ticket. If you would like a taste of Revd Hargreaves views, reading about his campaign to remove the dragon from the Welsh flag is sure to cause amusement:
Ridicule aside, this story raises the important question about whether religious people should mix their politics and religion. Though the United States was founded on the secular ideals of a separation of church and state, recent decades have seen the increasing use of the pulpit to explicitly promote a political agenda, usually right-wing, involving the turning back of the clock on abortion rights and civil liberties for the LGBT community, sometimes extending to ministers instructing their flock as to which politician to vote for. This has to be bad for democracy and I would suggest that right-minded religious people would not want to see the increase of political parties which are explicitly tied to a particular religious creed. I for one don’t want to see 21st century politics informed by bronze age superstitions.
The other question is to ask if the new advert contravenes the Advertising Standards Agency rules. This is taken from the ASA website:
Before distributing or submitting a marketing communication for publication, marketers must hold documentary evidence to prove all claims, whether direct or implied, that are capable of objective substantiation.
This is partly why the BHA adverts used the phrase “There probably isn’t a god”. I would agree with the probably in any case because the agnostic position is the correct Humanist view. God existing or not is definitely the case (I am not a relativist) but the proposition that “There is definitely a god” is not capable of objective substantiation and so I don’t think it should contravene the rules. I don’t think that “There definitely isn’t a god” can be said to contravene the rules either, for the same reason.
The BHA position has been stated by Hanne Stinson, it’s Chief Executive:
We entirely support free expression and freedom of belief, and so fully support the right of these Christian groups to place their ads on buses. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”

Friday, 6 February 2009

Origin of Species

Next week is Darwin Day which commemorates the birth of the Victorian scientist Charles Darwin. This year is a significant anniversary because it is 200 years since the birth of Darwin and 150 years since the publication of his seminal work, On the Origin of Species, which I am reading for the first time to mark the occasion. There has been a raft of TV documentaries about Darwin and Evolution, including Richard Dawkins’ The Genius of Charles Darwin which was shown before Christmas and more recently David Attenborough’s Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life which was shown on Sunday. Darwin was born in Shropshire and was an alumni of my old alma mater, Edinburgh University, where the Biology building is named after him. Another Edinburgh alumni was David Hume who had demolished the “argument from design” using logic a century earlier, but it was Darwin who hammered home the final nail in the coffin of natural theology. Richard Dawkins said in his book, the Blind Watchmaker:

An atheist before Darwin could have said, following Hume: "I have no explanation for complex biological design. All I know is that God isn't a good explanation, so we must wait and hope that somebody comes up with a better one." I can't help feeling that such a position, though logically sound, would have left one feeling pretty unsatisfied, and that although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.

Having said all of that, it was whilst studying at Edinburgh that I first encountered Christian fundamentalism. I remember attending a lecture on evolution in the Zoology building (not related to my course) and was amazed by all of the young earth creationists who were studying science. Some of them were a lot more intelligent than me, but the truth is that it is difficult to break free from ideas strongly and repeatedly presented to you as a child by intelligent adults, no matter how barmy. These people arrive at university in an impregnable cocoon of circular reasoning. This is why it is important to reverse the early conditioning by strongly and repeatedly pushing the mantra of the enlightenment scientific world view.