Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Eric Pickles shows his ignorance, again

At the Tory Party's recent spring conference, Eric Pickles, the party chairman, is reported to have said,
I've stopped an attempt by militant atheists to ban councils having prayers at the start of meetings if they wish. Heaven forbid. We're a Christian nation. We have an established church. Get over it. And don't impose your politically correct intolerance on others.
He was referring to the National Secular Society's 2012 High Court case that ruled that it is illegal for local councils to include prayers as part of their official agenda.

Of course, Mr Pickles thinks it's OK to impose his intolerant and ignorant views on others. Baroness Warsi is also fond of airing her ignorance in public, using the term "militant secularists". For these two, the words atheist and secularists seem interchangeable, though they're not synonymous, and "militant" atheists and secularists are hell bent on destroying British society.

In 2007, I spoke about secularism at a Suffolk Inter-Faith Resource Forum of Faiths after it had become clear that faith representatives at a previous forum didn't understand what secularism is or how it benefited them. Here's a revised transcript, first published on the Suffolk Humanist website.


I'm here to talk about living in a secular society, and why I believe passionately that it's a good thing. I feel fortunate to live in a democratic secular society, knowing that if I lived in a religious state I wouldn't enjoy the freedom to speak about what matters to me, for fear of recrimination, harassment, persecution and punishment, even death, in some cases.

The word "secular" is often misused. It doesn't mean consumerism, or entertainment, or activities other than religious activity. It doesn't mean "atheist". It doesn't mean being "anti-religious", though some who describe themselves as secularists are anti-religious while many religious people support a secular state. It doesn't mean being value-free, in terms of morality or ethical behaviour.

A secular society is one where religion doesn't dictate political decisions - where the state and religion are separate - and where freedom of religion is possible, as no one religion dominates society. George Holyoake, the agnostic British writer who coined the term "secularism" in 1846, used it to describe the promotion of a social order separate from religion, without actively dismissing or criticising religious belief. Holyoake wrote,
Secularism is not an argument against Christianity, it is one independent of it. It does not question the pretensions of Christianity; it advances others. Secularism does not say there is no light or guidance elsewhere, but maintains that there is light and guidance in secular truth, whose conditions and sanctions exist independently, and act forever. Secular knowledge is manifestly that kind of knowledge which is founded in this life, which relates to the conduct of this life, conduces to the welfare of this life, and is capable of being tested by the experience of this life.
When Holyoake was promoting secularism, it was unusual to acknowledge any other religion than Christianity.

In general, secular societies are modern, liberal societies, not because of organised secularist movements, but through the gradual erosion of old-fashioned religious authority, the modernisation of government, and the development of ethnic mingling through migration.

Constitutionally secular states are all very different. There is no one-size-fits-all form of secular government, and there can be some confusion about how secularism is interpreted. In general, however, they allow freedom of religion or the freedom not to be religious, which makes them different from theocracies and repressive totalitarian states, including communist states, that forcibly suppress religious expression.

India's modern secular democracy was founded in 1947, on independence from British rule. India's first Prime Minister was a Humanist; Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, who believed passionately that India must be a secular state where religious people had to learn to live in harmony with one another. The Muslims, led by Mohammad Ali Jinnah, rejected this principle. The hasty partition of India, mismanaged by the British, caused great suffering and bloodshed. There are still religious tensions in India today, but people of different religious backgrounds can and do live and work side by side.

Section Two of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms details the fundamental freedoms everyone in Canada is entitled to, which are legally enforceable. They are freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, freedom of thought, freedom of belief, freedom of peaceful assembly, and freedom of association. The Charter's preamble includes a reference to God, though this portion hasn't been accorded legal effect and has been criticised for conflicting with the fundamental freedom of conscience and religion guaranteed in section two.

The first amendment of the American constitution ensures that the state won't favour one religion over another, but the country's secular status is confused. George Bush was fond of referring to his God, who seems to have been a sort of unelected co-President, and it's almost impossible to be elected at all if you're open about being an atheist. In a research sample of 2000 households, the University of Minnesota's department of sociology found that the respondents rated atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in "sharing their vision of American society." Atheists are the minority group they were least willing to allow their children to marry. This form of prejudice is widespread, but one effect of Professor Richard Dawkins' lecture tours in the States is that an increasing number of people have "come out" as non-believers, risking the criticism and rejection of their families. It appears that America isn't as Christian as some would like us to think it is.

I was going to talk about France and Turkey, but there isn't enough time, so I'll just mention the reasons that Britain is referred to as "Christian country". It was a pagan country in Anglo-Saxon times. St Augustine's mission was to make it a Catholic country. It remained so until King Henry VIII had a little difficulty with his first wife, his brother's widow, Catherine of Aragon, who he'd married to secure an alliance with Spain. Catherine failed to produce an heir and Henry lost interest in a Spanish alliance because he fancied Anne Boleyn. Henry's marital and diplomatic difficulties led to the establishment of the Church of England. Like many male monarchs who were fixated on their wives' ability to produce male heirs, Henry was, of course, ignorant of the fact that it's the father's chromosomes that determine the gender of a baby, but women have traditionally taken the blame for most things.

It's ironic, considering how the established church was founded, that Edward VIII was forced to abdicate when he wanted to marry an American Divorcee, and that the current heir to the throne had to marry his divorcee in a register office. Not only that, but his talk about being a "defender of faiths" in a multi-faith country was ruled out of order by Archbishop Rowan Williams. As things stand, if Charles declares himself a convert to another faith or rejects faith altogether, he can forget about the crown. Some have speculated that Prince Harry isn't a religious man, after he chose to talk about his mother rather than do a religious reading at her memorial event. There are many inside and outside the Church who think it's time for disestablishment, reflecting the nature of a multi-faith, secular Britain. It's also time to stop allowing the Church to assume control of every state occasion, Government ceremonial, and many other public celebrations. I thought it was significant that the bereaved and the victims of the 7/7 bombings in London chose to organise and conduct a memorial event in a park that was entirely secular, so it included everyone.

So why is it important to defend the secular nature of our society?

There's been talk from a minority of introducing Islamic Sharia law in this country, to settle family and neighbourly disputes. It would, say those who advocate its use, be a form of mediation and conciliation service. I say that Sharia law and British law are incompatible, and the form of Sharia law that's practiced in Muslim countries is essentially unfavourable to women. Human rights and British law come before religious "rights" and the claims of some fundamentalists - you can't have a state within a state.

There are conflicts between the secular state and ideas like "multiculturalism" and "communities". Under the premiership of Tony Blair, the Government sought to appease religious organisations that made demands for recognition by granting them special channels of communication. This has resulted in unelected religious leaders presuming to speak on behalf of citizens who ostensibly share the same religion, but whose attitudes and values vary enormously. The Conservatives declared that this approach to "consultation" was fraught with difficulties, and that it's better to consult people directly, not through religious leaders. It's also presumptuous to talk about religious "communities", when this assumes a commonality that may not exist. I look forward to the day when the word "community" is only used to describe people who live in a geographical area, such as my village. We have community concerns, such as the provision of affordable housing for local young people, otherwise we're a diverse mix, in terms of attitudes and interests. We don't expect or want special privileges. Neither should groups based on religion. If a group of any sort - the Women's Institute, a sports organisation, a residents' association - wants to campaign on a particular issue, they expect people to sign up, to agree with the aims and objectives. Too often, religious leaders have spoken without any such endorsement, only an assumed authority. As for "multiculturalism“; we must be careful what we mean by that too. The last census allowed you to tick a box that identified you as "mixed" in terms of ethnicity. It's no longer appropriate to talk about the "black community", as though everyone with a dark skin shared the same interests, so why should you assume that everyone who describes himself or herself as Christian, say, share the same attitudes and values?

At a previous forum we spoke briefly about being British. That's the unifying nature of a secular state - we're all British. We have to reclaim the term from the isolationists and the extreme nationalists. As British citizens, we all have an interest in maintaining our basic freedoms, including the freedom of religion, and the freedom from religion - in other words, to keep religion and the state completely separate, and prevent anyone from seeking to impose their religious beliefs on anyone else. I'm more interested in how people behave than what they believe, unless their beliefs motivate them to behave badly. Religion has no claim to the moral high ground, and it's insulting to over a third of the UK population who don't have a religious faith to suggest it does.

From Archie Bland in The Independent:
I’m not sure I’ve ever met an actual militant atheist. But they sound scary – probably armed, and certainly dangerous. They sound like they search your house for Bibles, or stand outside churches on a Sunday morning waving placards and booing anyone who goes in.
Update, 10/4/2014. At a reception for Christians at 10 Downing Street yesterday, David Cameron reiterated the same fallacy as Pickles:
Now, look, there were 3 things that I wanted to say tonight about what I hope we can do more of in our country when it comes to Christianity. And as Eric Pickles said this week, we should be proud of the fact that we are a Christian country, and I am proud of the fact we’re a Christian country and we shouldn’t be ashamed to say so. But I think the 3 things I want to focus on – and I hope we can all work on this – the first is to expand the role of faith and faith organisations in our country. This has been a consistent theme of this government; I’m sure there’s more we could do to help make it easier for faith organisations.

Friday, February 28, 2014

A short wedding, a long marriage, and a fish

I've contributed to a local high school's half-day marriage conference for Year 10 several times. We've talked about the cost of a wedding, which is reported as being between £15,000 and £20,000 these days. The wedding industry is a lucrative one. When I've said that a minority of couples have been happy to wed on a budget, including buying a second hand wedding dress, several of the more opinionated students didn't think much of the idea. I've told them the story of the wedding that cost shillings, followed by a happy marriage that lasted well over sixty years.

I met an old couple, years ago, who lived in tied accommodation on a Suffolk farm. They'd asked me to conduct a funeral for the wife's sister. Several years later, the wife died, and I visited the husband, by this time very frail, to plan her funeral, and heard how they got married.

Ipswich fishmonger, 1938
They met through their employer, a farmer. He was a farm labourer, she was nursemaid to the farmer's children. One day, working in the yard, he glanced up at a window on the first floor of the house and spied a young women with a lacy cap, looking down at him. "That's the girl I'm going to marry," he said to himself. Her parents were strict Plymouth Brethren, and didn't approve of the courtship. In those days, you had to be twenty-one to marry without your parents' permission, so they waited. She turned twenty-one one hot summer. They didn't have much money, but planned to live with his parents until they could find a place of their own. Their employer gave them the morning off so that they could get married. The register office was in Ipswich, about ten miles away, so they caught the bus into town. Two strangers agreed to be their witnesses at the ceremony. Afterwards, they walked back to the bus depot. It was so hot, they paused at a fishmonger's shop, to cool off under the awning next to a marble slab covered in ice and fish. The fishmonger, thinking they were customers, asked what they'd like. They had barely enough money for the bus fare home. It all looks very nice, they said, but no thanks. Bursting with excitement, the new wife couldn't contain herself, and said, "We just got married!" "Congratulations!" said the fishmonger, wrapping up a big piece of fish. He handed it to them, saying it was a wedding present. They ate it for supper. Not long afterwards, their employer offered them the tied cottage where they spent the rest of their married life and raised their daughter. When he died, soon after his wife, I think he hadn't been able to live without her. The last time I'd seen him, he was lost.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Squeamish shoppers and the butcher's window, vegetarians and the dairy industry

Butcher's Stall with the Flight into Egypt by Pieter Aertsen, 1551.

As an impecunious single parent in the mid-'70s, long before A Girl Called Jack wrote about her supermarket bargain diet, I did my best to provide healthy food on a small budget for myself and my small son. As omnivores, meat was part of it, though it had to be cheap. I grew vegetables, bred rabbits for the pot, and became expert at killing, skinning and disembowelling them. The surplus were sold to a butcher in Oxford Covered Market. A friend often gave me game, when her freezer was full of gifts from a local gamekeeper, mostly pigeons. I was in the middle of plucking some one day, my apron covered with feathers, when there was a knock at the door. My visitor visibly blanched at the sight of my half-plucked pigeon and bloody fingers, and took a couple of steps backwards. If he'd come back another day, when pigeon pie was on the table, he might have sniffed it appreciatively, but the makings didn't appeal to him, and he didn't accept my invitation to have a cup of tea.

I was reminded of this by a story that's been in the news this week, about a butcher's shop in Sudbury that's been forced to remove its window display of game and pig's heads. I could tell you a story about how pigs' heads make good brawn, but that's for another day. A Mr Ben Mowles of Great Cornard has written to the local paper, the Suffolk Free Press:
In reference to Daniel Cudmord’s comments in last week’s Free Press, I too have been disgusted at the needless display of multiple mutilated carcasses on display at JBS Family Butchers in the Borehamgate precinct. I used to take my 12-year-old daughter to Marimba sweet shop but now we avoid the entire precinct as we’d rather not look at bloody severed pigs’ heads when buying sweets.
Poor child! Thanks to her father's over-reaction to the sight of dead animals, she'll probably have a lifelong squeamishness problem to deal with herself.

I have no idea if Mr Mowles is a vegetarian, or if he only eats meat that's been shrink-wrapped for the supermarket. Some of my friends are vegetarian, and I know at least one novice vegan; a nutritionally difficult diet, from what I've heard. The trouble with vegetarians who are repelled by meat is that most of them rely on dairy products for part of their protein intake, and that strikes me as a bit of a cop-out. Even if they only accept organic milk, cheese, butter, cream and yoghurt, do they ever consider how the dairy industry works? Do they consider what happens to male calves, for example? The Jolly Meat Company, one of the butchers in Hadleigh, my nearest town, occasionally sells veal, but it's not popular in the UK. Most people will drink milk from cows but won't eat the calves that have to be born so that the cows will produce milk. Many have been shot at birth, leaving their mothers bellowing in distress. If Mr Mowles and his squeamish ilk are careful to avert their eyes from the reality of meat production (even game that comes from creatures that live a totally natural life), so that their delicate sensibilities shouldn't be upset, they're unlikely to want to think about the welfare of the animals in question. Seems a bit hypocritical to me.

I hope that the Sudbury butchers reinstate their window display, though they might want to leave out the pigs' heads as a compromise. I'm still an omnivore. I eat meat in moderation, including offal, which many are too squeamish to contemplate. It would be good if people in the developed world ate less meat and dairy products, for the sake of the environment and their own health. China is rapidly increasing its meat consumption, which isn't good. If you're a regular carnivore, try only eating meat as a treat - you'll probably feel better for it.

Click here to read about a more humane approach to the welfare of dairy calves.

Click here for some butchers' opinions.

27 Feb: The window display is back, due to "overwhelming public support"

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Some good could come of the floods

Some good could come from the UK floods if they prompt more people to take climate change seriously and agitate to do something about it, including changing their own lifestyles. Most of the recent TV news stories have largely ignored weird weather elsewhere, but it's a global phenomenon. Cameron has surrounded himself with climate change sceptics who all need some remedial science education. If they could take their heads out of their arses long enough to see the error of their ways, it might be possible for the UK to lead the world with action. There are do-nothings in all parties, but the Tories currently have the most power.

Lots of angry people have been filmed blaming the Environment Agency, the government, anyone but themselves, for what's happening. Most seem oblivious of the effect of their own energy consumption, not just for household and motor fuel, but in all the consumer products that are floating off down their gardens. At least they might expect some help from UK emergency services. What about the people of the Pacific Islands, who'll soon lose their homelands due to rising sea levels? They barely have any impact on the climate, yet they're still victims.

The elephant in the room, that no one in power will acknowledge, is over-population. The planet is full. More people = more consumption = more warming. For more on this, go to Population Matters.

If any of this strikes a chord, write or email as many people in power as you can, and keep on doing it. For more on climate change, see my collection of articles in Delicious.
Cartoon by Polyp at

Friday, January 17, 2014

Bloody immigrants, taking all our jobs!

The right-wing press has been full of anti-immigrant alarmist claptrap recently, leading up to the anticipated influx of Romanians and Bulgarians. They must have been disappointed that only about thirty have turned up to far, since most have gone elsewhere, to countries like Spain.

I follow The Medical Registrar on Facebook, pseudonym of more than one NHS hospital doctor, where they let off steam about the reality of healthcare and government lunacy. Yesterday he or she posted the following:
I wonder if Mrs Daily Mail reader and her Daily Mail reading family would appreciate the irony that tonight, her life was saved by a team consisting of an Indian SHO; a Chinese radiologist; a Pakistani medical registrar; a Welsh consultant physician; Spanish, Filipino and Irish nurses; a Romanian and an Australian anaesthetist; an English surgeon; Bulgarian, Scottish and Polish porters; using equipment made in China, Britain, Germany, Japan, France and Italy; drugs made in Britain, America, India and Greece; and all working together as team. Oh and by the way, several of these people are gay.

No? Probably not.
I'm very grateful for all the foreign NHS staff who've taken care of me over the years. Among other things, I'd have rotten teeth, since my NHS dental practice relies on some lovely, cheerful people from all over the Europe and further afield.

Friday, November 08, 2013

No more poppies, no more war

"O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it-for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen."
From The War Prayer by Mark Twain, c.1880
It's almost Armistice Day again, November 11th, when practically everyone on TV is wearing a poppy. Robert Fisk wrote in the Independent why he won't wear one...
On the briefest of visits to London, I was appalled to notice that our television presenters and politicians and dignitaries have almost all resorted to stereotype by wearing those bloody poppies again – even though I suspect most of them would not know the difference between the Dardanelles and the Somme. How come this obscene fashion appendage – inspired by a pro-war poem, for God’s sake, which demands yet further human sacrifice – still adorns the jackets and blouses of the Great and the Good? Even Tony Blair dares to wear a poppy – he who lied us into a war, which killed more people than the Battle of Mons.
I am afraid it will be the last time that I will bear witness to those soldiers, airmen and sailors who are no more, at my local cenotaph. From now on, I will lament their passing in private because my despair is for those who live in this present world. I will no longer allow my obligation as a veteran to remember those who died in the great wars to be co-opted by current or former politicians to justify our folly in Iraq, our morally dubious war on terror and our elimination of one's right to privacy.
If you feel the time for poppies is over, maybe you could make a donation to an over-stretched charity that works to help the psychologically-wounded, like "John" - I conducted his funeral, where his brother told his story.
One Christmas, when home on leave, we sat watching the news. An IRA bomber had blown himself up while planting a device. I remember the look of shock on Mother’s face when John raised both his hands and shouted, “Yes! Own goal!” How could her cuddly little boy take such a delight in the demise of another human being?

What she didn’t know was that some months before, while on active service in what the Army called “bandit country” in Crossmaglen, things had gone badly wrong and John got spattered when a colleague was caught in an explosion. It was the horror of this, I believe, that led to a serious drinking habit.
Combat Stress works to help veterans who suffer from mental health problems. Demand for their services is increasing. As Patrick Stewart explains on their site, it's not just the veterans who suffer; their families do too. Click here to find out more and make a donation.

Click here to find out about the Peace Pledge Union, campaigning since 1934.