Sunday, 14 November 2010

Smug Atheists?

This is the script for my two minute broadcast on BBC Radio Humberside on Friday 12th November 2010:

Good Morning. The American comedian Stephen Colbert recently defined Atheism as the religion devoted to the worship of one's own smug sense of superiority. Well, I hope that isn’t the impression I have given in my two minute tuppence worth every morning this week. The truth is that whatever your creed or belief, actually living up to a vision of what life should be about is easier said than done. We can’t all be Albert Einsteins and for most of us, just getting by, managing to hold on to our jobs and homes and families is an achievement in itself. The distinguished Humanist Richard Dawkins wrote in his book “Unweaving the Rainbow”, “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness that are here”. Viewed from this perspective, we are all lottery winners in being born at all. A Human life, with all its trials and tribulations is still worth living and we have but a short time to grasp an understanding and appreciation of this place in which we fleetingly find ourselves. It is an opportunity, an adventure that might never have been and the contemplation of this truth can surely be the basis for an exuberant and life affirming sense of self-worth.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Armistice Day

This is the script for my two minute broadcast on BBC Radio Humberside on Thursday 11th November 2010:

Good Morning. Armistice Day has been an important day in our nation’s life since the 11th of November 1918, the end of the First World War, 92 years ago today. Over 70 million people were killed during the two World Wars. The scale of human suffering engendered by these two epoch defining events of the twentieth century continue to be a focus of remembrance and reflection on the human cost of war. The words of the poet Laurence Binyon have never been bettered, “They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old, age shall not weary them nor the years condemn, at the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.” We owe a debt of gratitude to the hundreds of thousands of service personnel who sacrificed themselves for the sake of their communities. There will be ceremonies to mark the occasion throughout the land but I am especially pleased to hear that humanists have been allowed to participate in the remembrance ceremonies in Edinburgh and Belfast for the first time this year and we are hopeful that Humanists will be allowed to take their place alongside the diverse religious groups represented at the ceremonies in London in future years. 12.6% of service personnel are listed by the MOD as having “no religion”, that’s 23,770 atheists and humanists risking their lives to safeguard our freedom and way of life. It’s certainly not true that there are no atheists in foxholes and it has been my pleasure to meet some of our brave service personnel who are also committed Humanists. David Brittain, the Armed Forces Humanist chaplain recently estimated that about 40 of those who have died in Afghanistan lived their lives as humanists. They deserve to be remembered just as much as their religious comrades and any ceremony should recognise that. Neither the bullet nor the bomb discriminates and it is inexplicable why our society should continue to do so when it comes to matters of personal philosophy.

Friday, 12 November 2010

The Festival of Reason

This is the script for my two minute broadcast on BBC Radio Humberside on Wednesday 10th November 2010:

Good Morning. "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven." So wrote the English poet William Wordsworth, reflecting on his own youthful enthusiasm for the French Revolution. Yet what came to be known as the “Reign of Terror” was a travesty of the enlightenment hope of a better society founded on reason and liberty. On this day, the 10th November 1793, a “festival of reason” was established by the revolutionary government in Paris and the medieval cathedral of Notre Dame was transformed into a “Temple of Reason”. An altar to liberty was installed over the old one, and the inscription "To Philosophy" was carved into the church façade. They even had a goddess of reason. The goal of this “Cult of Reason”, the perfection of mankind, was short lived and their utopian vision would end in tyranny. I think this is likely to be true of all utopian visions. I’m a humanist and critics of Humanism often site the horrors of the two centuries since the French revolution as proof that the enlightenment project of the eighteenth century, the “age of reason” has been a failure and that to believe in human progress is naïve. I think that goes too far. I don’t think humanity is perfectible and science and reason are not my gods. Progress is always going to be three steps forward and two steps back. It is slow and piecemeal. Nevertheless, a quality of life known only to the aristocracy and senior clergy before the enlightenment is now available to all Europeans. This is progress and the improvement is almost entirely the result of the flowering of science and technology through free enquiry, liberal democracy, universal suffrage and human rights, secular government and the liberty which allows individuals to form and express their own opinions and to choose their own way in life, all fruits of the enlightenment.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Albert Einstein's Nobel Prize

This is the script for my two minute broadcast on BBC Radio Humberside on Tuesday 9th November 2010:

Good Morning. On this day, the 9th November 1921, exactly 89 years ago, Albert Einstein, the most famous and celebrated physicist in the world was awarded the Nobel Prize for his services to Theoretical Physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect. Einstein revolutionised our understanding of space and time and his theory of Relativity occupies a central position in our modern scientific understanding of the universe. His famous equation, e=mc squared is one of the few physics equations familiar to the general public. I even remember a song about it in the pop music charts of the 1980s. People often think of Einstein’s wild hair and eccentric appearance, the quintessential absent –minded professor and a gift to cartoonists throughout the world. What fewer people know about Einstein is that he was a Humanist and was one of the founder members of the first Humanist Society in New York in 1929. He was also an honorary associate of the British Humanist Association and of the Rationalist Press Association whose journal was among the items present on his desk at his death. It’s true that Einstein had an almost mystical appreciation for the lawful harmony of the universe revealed by science. He once said “I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.” On another occasion he said “I am convinced that a vivid consciousness of the primary importance of moral principles for the betterment and ennoblement of life does not need the idea of a law-giver, especially a law-giver who works on the basis of reward and punishment”. I think Albert Einstein was probably the greatest genius who ever lived and was all the more remarkable for his compassion and commitment to ethical humanism.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

The Return of the Jedi

This is the script for my two minute broadcast on BBC Radio Humberside on Monday 8th November 2010:

Good Morning. Every ten years there is a census in the UK and in March next year we will all receive a paper questionnaire through the post. One of the questions on the 2011 Census will ask about religion. The last census in 2001 showed that 72% of the population of Hull and the East Riding said that they were Christians and 18% said they had no religion. 8% didn’t answer the question and all the other religions combined amounted to less than 2%. So according to the census data, most people are Christians, but what does this really mean? When someone ticks the Christian box, do they mean that they believe in God, spend a lot of their time going to church, praying or reading the Bible? Or do most of the people who tick the Christian box do so simply because they were christened in a church, had parents who were Christian or identify as a cultural Christian without any real religious belief. Why should it matter if people who are not religious tick one of the religious boxes? Well, the data from the last census was used to support all kinds of policies which non-religious people in particular might disapprove of such as the increase in the number of faith schools. Surveys which ask more detailed questions about people’s beliefs suggest that the number of non-religious people is more than 18%. The Church of England has just published figures which suggest that about 45,000 fewer people attend their church services now compared to a decade ago. In the last census over 390,000 people said that their religion was “Jedi” like Luke Skywalker from Star Wars. In fact, this is more than the number who said they were Sikhs, and more than Jews and Buddhists combined, although Jedi didn’t become recognised as an official religion. We are all free to put what we like on the census forms but it is important that the Census generates accurate figures because ultimately they will be used to legitimise resource allocation and policy.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

The Gunpowder Plot

This is the script of my 2 minute broadcast on BBC Radio Humberside on Sunday 7th November 2010:

Good Morning. Remember, remember the fifth of November. I’m sure that most of you heard or saw some fireworks on Friday night. Guy Fawkes Night or Bonfire Night is of course the annual celebration to mark the failure of the Gunpowder plot on the 5th of November 1605 when Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament. The gunpowder plot was an example of religiously inspired terrorism, something that has made an unwelcome return to these shores in the twenty-first century. The conspirators were Roman Catholics and their plan was to assassinate King James I and restore Catholicism to England. Until 1859 it was compulsory to celebrate the deliverance of the King on the 5th of November as the result of an Act of Parliament called “The Thanksgiving Act”. Prolonged war and bloodshed as a direct result of religious disagreements was a constant feature of life in the seventeenth century. The Thirty Years' War between 1618 and 1648 was one of the most destructive conflicts in European history, not to mention the English civil wars. Thanks to the enlightenment and the rise of secularism in the Eighteenth century, religious conflict has declined significantly, though conflict between Protestants and Catholics has continued in to modern times in places like Northern Ireland where traditional religion has remained a potent force. Religiously inspired violence in places such as India and Somalia is even worse. Today our society faces new threats from those bent on usurping our hard fought secular traditions, for example by advocating the introduction of religious laws such as the sharia which would inevitably come to rival the one secular law we live under at present. Bonfire night remains a perennial reminder that we should never again allow the explosive mix of religion and politics to dominate our society. To do so is playing with fire.