Saturday, March 19, 2011

Newsline 18 March 2011


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18 March 2011


In this week's Newsline
Quotes of the week
Essays of the week
Keith again slams Vatican failures over child abuse at UN Human Rights Council
Pope's visit debt: now overdue
Listen to Newsline online
Lib Dems and "unjustified" discrimination
Christian insistence on church service wrecks Welsh Assembly opening plans
Catholic adoption service still trying to gain exemption from discrimination law
Muslim Council of Britain out of favour again – but taxpayers' money keeps flowing to promote religion
The Cardinal risks making the situation worse for Christians in Pakistan
Barrister claims Christians are victims of "thought crimes" as he advises foster carers not to appeal
Secularist of the Year to be announced tomorrow
Lautsi verdict due as secularist judge is sacked
East End Gay Pride and Islamophobia
AHS Student Conference
Church not very popular in Norway
Spanish feminists protest at Catholic Church's oppression of women
Have you remembered to renew your membership?
NSS members' consultation
NSS speaks out
From the Web
Letters to Newsline

Quotes of the week 
"The tendency to cling on to our beliefs, and even to strengthen them, in the face of disconfirming evidence is often a real and dangerous problem."
(Andrew Brown, Guardian)

"When next Tony Blair submits to interview, someone should ask him what liberation and seeming democracy have done for the Christians of Iraq. As a man of faith, the former prime minister might be able to explain why his co-religionists are worse off now, demonstrably, than they were under Saddam."
(Ian Bell, The Herald)

Essays of the Week 
The rise of Europe's religious right
(Sophie in 't Veld, MEP, Guardian)

A secular state is necessary for freedom of religion
(T.R. Fehrenbach, My San Antonio)

Careful what you wish for, Cardinal O'Brien
(Alan Massie, Scotsman)

The rising conflict between secularism and Islam in Tunisia
(Jamel Arfaoui, Magharebia)

Keith again slams Vatican failures over child abuse at UN Human Rights Council
The NSS's Executive Director Keith Porteous Wood make a forthright attack on the Catholic Church's deplorable record on child abuse at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva earlier this week.

Keith was acting in the capacity of international representative of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), which does a great deal of excellent work at the UN on a wide variety of areas, for example on children's and women's rights and freedom of expression.

Keith pointed out to the plenary session of the Council that Geoffrey Robertson QC's book The Case of the Pope alleged that the Church had broken six Articles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, thus confirming the accusations that Keith had previously made at the UN – in September 2009 and March 2010.

Keith called attention to the fact that when he made similar accusations at the Council on 22 September 2009, the Papal Nuncio did not deny them, but had claimed that a report, then twelve years overdue, was being "finalised as we speak". It still remains to be filed. Among other "justifications", the nuncio informed the Council that as many as 5% of Catholic clergy could be involved. (If true, that would equate to approximately 20,000 clergy involved in child abuse). He added that offenders can be dismissed under Canon Law.

Keith reported some key points from Robertson's book, including his withering analysis of why the abuse continued unabated. Keith repeated Robertson's conviction that "the scourge of child abuse within the Church itself had for many years gone unpunished as a result of the procedural deficiencies of Canon Law, the selfish desire to protect the Church from scandal by harbouring and trafficking paedophile priests, and the negligent supervision of bishops by the Holy See through its Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith office, headed for the previous two decades by Cardinal Ratzinger."

Keith said he half expected to be called to order during his speech, or at least have the representative of the Holy See or some compliant Catholic country make an objection. He thought the most likely triggers were him naming Cardinal Ratzinger and repeating Robertson's conclusion: "The Holy See's grave and extensive breaches of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and its contempt for its reporting obligations over the past thirteen years, should ... justify its expulsion."

Fortunately, he was not interrupted and the chair later said in response to a member state's objection to another NGOs intervention that, in effect, sometimes it was only the NGOs who were prepared to confront member states with uncomfortable material.

For good measure, Keith drew attention to two "smoking gun" letters which have recently come to light, written by the senior members of the Church's hierarchy. One was from Rome to the Bishop of Tucson and the other was from the Papal Nuncio to the bishops of Ireland. One, for example, contains the damning phrase "under no condition whatever ought the [personnel] files be surrendered to any lawyer or judge whatsoever". Their crucial significance is that they point the finger directly at the Vatican as the source of instructions to cover up abuse by priests. This is in stark contrast to the Vatican's standard rebuttal in which they seek to blame local bishops.

The UN itself did not escape unscathed from Keith's intervention. He drew the Council's attention to another target of Robertson's criticism: "It is a serious reflection on the competence and resolve of the 'eighteen experts of high moral standing' who have been elected to the Committee on the Rights of the Child that they have done and said nothing about the Vatican's thirteen-year failure to deliver a report, during the period when widespread child abuse by its priests has been extensively publicized."

Keith concluded by calling once more upon the Human Rights Council and the Committee on the Rights of the Child to hold the Holy See to account for:

  • its breach of its obligations under the CRC;
  • its disregard for its duty of care to the abused children; 
  • its systematic cover-up of thousands of cases of abuse; and
  • its failure to adequately control those put in positions of trust with children.

See Keith's speech and the written statement (pdf). Within this are links to key media reports .

While in Geneva, Keith participated in other key meetings and took up an invitation to visit the UN High Commission at the Palais Wilson to meet officials to discuss these matters further. We pay particular tribute to the work at the UNHRC of Roy Brown and Jack Jeffery of IHEU – both, as it happens, also NSS life members.

Also at the Human Rights Council this week, IHEU delivered another stinging rebuke on the topic of "Defamation of Religion". Read the story.
See also: Making the church face up to the truth of child abuse

Pope's visit debt: now overdue
According to a Government response to a parliamentary question from NSS honorary associate Baroness Turner of Camden, the Catholic Church has not yet paid the £6.3 million it owes the British taxpayer for debts incurred during the visit of the pope last September.

The Church had promised to pay the money back by 1 March, but responding to Baroness Turner, the Foreign and Commonwealth Minister Lord Howell of Guildford, said his office sent the invoice to the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales on 25 February 2011. "We expect to receive the funds in due course," he said. The NSS is monitoring the situation and will ask for a subsequent question to be tabled if the money is not paid in good time.

Meanwhile, a Freedom of Information request to the Metropolitan police by NSS council member Dennis Penaluna has revealed that the London force spent an estimated £1.7 million on the "policing operation" during the pope's visit. (Although the police admit that this amount may increase).

The Met was also asked how much it spent on surveillance helicopters and replied "approximately £4,840", a figure which was greeted with some scepticism by Mr Penaluna. The full costs will be revealed in the annual report of the Metropolitan Police Authority. 

Listen to Newsline online
You are now able to listen to Newsline online, thanks to our friends at Ladbroke Productions. You can subscribe and download the Newsline podcast for free on ITunes, or listen via the Newsline blog. You can also listen on our website on the Newsline page. The Newsline podcast will usually be available a few days after the Friday email. 

Lib Dems and "unjustified" discrimination
At its spring conference in Sheffield, the Liberal Democrat Party passed a policy statement on Community Futures which promised that if religious organisations were handed public services to run, they would not be permitted to discriminate in employment or service provision.

This is something that the NSS has been demanding for the past decade.

The clause reads: "Ensuring that public services are delivered without unjustified discrimination against service-users or employees, by amending equalities legislation to narrow the exemption granted to organisations with a religious ethos , and in the interim requiring public sector commissioners to include non-discrimination clauses in their contracts with providers."

Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, said: "No doubt there will be much arguing about what constitutes 'unjustified' discrimination, with some religious groups – such as Catholic Care (see report below) – insisting that even though they use public money they should be able to enforce Catholic doctrine in service provision. As far as such organisations are concerned, any discrimination they consider suits their 'religious conscience' is justifiable." 

Christian insistence on church service wrecks Welsh Assembly opening plans
Plans for a multi-cultural celebration to mark the Queen's opening of the new Welsh Assembly term in June have fallen into disarray because of a religious row.

A proposal was in place for the celebration to take place on 6 June, a day before the official opening of the fourth Assembly. But Assembly Members (AMs) have fallen out over how prominent a role Christianity should play. In past years, the celebration has taken the form of a "multi cultural service" in a church, but this year it is proposed to make it a "ceremony" at Cardiff Bay's Wales Millennium Centre.

The plans included an afternoon of "performances representing the diversity of the modern Wales", followed by an hour-long event including "contributions from faith and cultural groups".

But the plans have now been withdrawn after the four Assembly Commissioners who make decisions on the running of the Senedd couldn't agree on its form. One of the Commissioners is NSS honorary associate Lorraine Barrett – who was in favour of the new format. But she was opposed by Chris Franks of Plaid Cymru who said the event should "more reflect the fact of the historical position of Christianity in Wales", while William Graham (Conservative) said that he would only accept a "service" and not a "celebration".

"The last three occasions we had a multi-faith service," he said. "I see no good reason to depart from that. What we are being offered is a celebration, not a service."

Ms Barrett said: "I felt it was very narrow to want to hold a celebration in a place of worship, because it would have excluded a lot of people from being able to join in in a more informal way. I felt that the opportunity for churches to celebrate the Assembly through their prayers on that weekend was to be welcomed. I hope that this event can be rescued. I'm not sure how, but I hope very much we can find a way through this because it has to be an inclusive event for everyone."

Plans will now be reconsidered. 

Catholic adoption service still trying to gain exemption from discrimination law
The Charity Commission has defended its decision not to allow the charity Catholic Care to prevent gay people from using its adoption service, at a charity tribunal hearing.

During the hearing, which finished last Friday, the Commission argued it would be a "serious and demeaning act of discrimination" for the charity to restrict its adoption services to heterosexual, married couples.

The charity appealed to the tribunal to quash the Commission's ruling, made in August last year, that it could not change its objects to prevent same-sex couples from using its adoption service. Catholic Care argued that failing to change its objects would force it to close its adoption service because it would lose its funding from the Catholic Church.

The Commission's barrister, Emma Dixon, said at the hearing: "The exclusion of same-sex couples is a particularly serious and indeed a demeaning act of discrimination. Weighty reasons would be needed to justify discrimination on the grounds of sexuality."

Dixon said religious belief was not a justification for restricting its services to heterosexual couples.

"The Charity Commission was right to conclude that there were no substantially weighty reasons to justify the exclusion of gay and lesbian couples," she said.

Christopher McCall QC, the barrister acting on behalf of the charity, argued that section 193 of the Equalities Act 2010 allowed organisations to discriminate on the grounds of sexuality if this was "a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim".

He said the charity accepted that discrimination was "detrimental in itself", but that its only alternative was to close its adoption service, which would be a bigger loss to the community.

"This service can only be provided on the grounds that it is not open to all," he said. "It is beside the point to argue that it would be better for all to be able to access the service, because that couldn't happen. We are not proposing any more discrimination than is necessary. What is section 193 for if not this?"

In response to McCall, Dixon said: "There is no evidence as to whether donors would give if the service was open. They haven't tried. Section 193 would apply if there was a rational link between the restriction and the charity's aim, and that is what is missing here. The fact that the charity might close is not a justification for discriminating."

Alison McKenna, principal judge of the charity tribunal, said it would make its decision in about a month. 

Muslim Council of Britain out of favour again – but taxpayers' money keeps flowing to promote religion
Andrew Griffiths, Conservative MP for Burton and Uttoxeter asked in parliament last week what individual payments the Department for Communities and Local Government had made to (a) the Muslim Council of Britain and (b) its associated bodies in each of the last three years; and for what purpose in each case.

Andrew Stunell, Minister at the DCLG said it had provided £2,500 to the Muslim Council of Britain for a guest table at the council leadership dinner held on 22 February 2010. DCLG has not provided any further funding to the Muslim Council of Britain for the organisation to undertake work or projects.

Mr Stunnell said: "For an interim period, funding for the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board (MINAB) was routed through the council as one of MINAB's founding members as MINAB had not then acquired independent charitable status, and as a result did not have its own bank account. Funding for MINAB was made directly to them as soon as they became an independent organisation. The funding was to support them to improve standards in mosques (£116,000 in 2008–09 and £58,000 in 2009–10).

"Muslim Council of Britain has a large and wide ranging national membership of organisations that are affiliated to it. Of these, DCLG has funded the following organisations through the Community Leadership Fund:

"Muslim Youth Helpline: £30,650 (2008–09), £61,888 (2009–10), £64,767 (2010–11) to build their capacity to extend the reach of their support services to vulnerable young people, 

"Karimia Institute: £67,180 (2008–09), £50,000 (2009–10), £50,000 (2010–11) for youth leadership training. 

"Islamic Society of Britain: £20,000 (2008–09) for developing the Islamic Awareness Week website to promote positive understanding of Islam to other communities.

"Young Muslims UK: £20,000 (2008–09), £5,000 (2009–10) to promote talent among young Muslims

"Muslim Aid: £5,000 (2009–10) for part-sponsorship of Muslim Aid's 25th Anniversary." 

The Cardinal risks making the situation worse for Christians in Pakistan
Editorial by Terry Sanderson
Cardinal Keith O'Brien — the UK's most senior Catholic — said this week that foreign aid should be contingent on respect for religious freedom. Well, he would say that, wouldn't he? Like so much of what comes from religious leaders these days, it is self-serving and exclusive. Foolishly, he even described Britain's foreign aid policy as "anti-Christian".

Cardinal O'Brien made his case like this:

"I urge William Hague to obtain guarantees from foreign governments before they are given aid. To increase aid to the Pakistan government when religious freedom is not upheld and those who speak up for religious freedom are gunned down is tantamount to an anti-Christian foreign policy. Pressure should now be put on the government of Pakistan — and the governments of the Arab world as well — to ensure that religious freedom is upheld, the provision of aid must require a commitment to human rights.

"This reality is both shocking and saddening. In countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, Christians face violence, intolerance and even death because of their beliefs. This is intolerable and unacceptable. Here in Scotland we value our freedoms, particularly the freedom of religion and the right to practice our faith free of persecution. Yet this detailed and at times harrowing report reminds us that not all of our fellow Christians enjoy such freedom to worship."

Nobody would argue that the persecution of Christians in Pakistan, and other parts of the Islamic world, is real, disgusting and lethal. But so is the persecution of other religions – including other sects of Islam that do not conform to the narrow Taliban view of faith.

Human Rights is a concept that generally holds little meaning in such countries. The right to freely practise or change religion is, of course, fundamental to any charter of rights worthy of the name. But such rights are not the only ones that are abused in these regimes.

Cardinal O'Brien is walking on thin ice when he calls for aid to be denied to countries that indulge in religious persecution. It is not the fanatics who will suffer from such a move, it is the poorest people whose main concern is the survival of their families in the face of famine and warfare.

It doesn't sound like a very Christian approach to demand that in order that your special interests are protected, those millions who harbour no ill-will are left to suffer.

We stand shoulder to shoulder with those Christians in Pakistan and Iraq who are murdered, driven from their homes and jobs and who live in constant fear of marauding Islamist fanatics. But we understand that depriving the country of much-needed aid will not stem the problem; it would probably make it worse. Those Christians on the front line in Pakistan would find themselves even more pressured as the idea spread that they were the cause of further deprivation.

Cardinal O'Brien should stop to think before he speaks in future. As the Scotsman pointed out in an editorial: aid money is not always given selflessly, it is often used as a bargaining tool in diplomatic negotiations.

Human rights — all human rights — are precious. Free speech, the right to a fair trial, the rights of all minorities, religious or otherwise, to live their lives unmolested are all part and parcel of the same objective. By protecting the whole concept of human rights, we will protect those of religious minorities along with everyone else.

To single out for special treatment religious rights for one religion would put those minorities at further risk.

See also: Among the blasphemers
Careful what you wish for, cardinal

Barrister claims Christians are victims of "thought crimes" as he advises foster carers not to appeal
After being on the losing end of several court cases claiming that British Christians are being discriminated against because of their religion, barrister Paul Diamond now says the law is "prejudiced, irrational and partial".

Having failed repeatedly to gain special privileges for Christians, Mr Diamond appears to have become embittered. He has announced on the website of Christian Concern that he will not appeal the case of Eunice and Owen Johns because it would be "futile" and "a waste of resources". Many would say that the original case fitted that description and certainly the judge gave the impression that he had little time for Mr Diamond's take on the case.

Read Mr Diamond's thoughts .

Paul Diamond naturally fails to mention that the two judges that he holds in such contempt are both pillars of the Anglican community and hardly the raving secularists he portrays. Mr Diamond was harshly criticised in the last case he brought to court involving the Johns, where the judge said he had used exaggerated rhetoric that didn't do his case any good.

Secularist of the Year to be announced tomorrow
As we expected, once more all seats are taken the Irwin Prize for Secularist of the Year, the sixth presentation, tomorrow. The glittering presentation event will take place in central London and prizes will be presented by Professor A C Grayling. Watch our website for first news of the winner. 

Lautsi verdict due as secularist judge is sacked
The judgment in the Lautsi case will be given this afternoon by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) Grand Chamber (see the NSS website for latest news). The case revolves around the presence, by law, of crucifixes in every classroom in Italy.

The Lautsis, complained that they did not want their children to be educated in such a blatantly sectarian atmosphere. The European Court upheld their complaint, but Italy appealed and now the matter will finally be settled by the Grand Chamber of the Court at 2pm British time.

Coincidentally, an Italian judge who refused to work in a court room where a crucifix was hanging was this week finally drummed out of the judiciary by the country's Supreme Court.

Judge Luigi Tosti had argued that religious symbols should not be present in a court room, but given that the crucifix was there because the law demands it, he said that other religious symbols should also be present. He asked that the Jewish symbol be permitted alongside the crucifix, given that he is Jewish himself.

On this point, the Supreme Court judges reasoned that "it is true that in theory the principle of secularism is compatible both with a model of assimilation upwards to allow each person to see symbols of their religion represented in public places, and with a model of downward assimilation."

Such is the overwhelming power of the Catholic Church in Italy, that any idea of equality of religions is unthinkable. The court, as if reading from a Vatican script, stated categorically that the presence of a crucifix doesn't threaten the religious freedom of those who aren't Christian and therefore Judge Tosti could not justify his stance. He was therefore removed from the judiciary.

Judge Tosti refused to work even when the crucifix was removed from his own courtroom, as he was asking for the crucifixes to be removed from all courtrooms.

See also: some rather skewed background from a Catholic paper
Pope says Italy and the Vatican were never at war (although popes were prisoners in the Vatican until the fascists liberated them)

East End Gay Pride and Islamophobia
ADRIAN TIPPETTS looks at the culture clash in the (east) London Borough of Tower Hamlets
An attempt to stage a gay pride party, scheduled for 2 April in Tower Hamlets failed this week when it was revealed that one of the organisers, Raymond Berry, was a co-founder of the anti-Muslim group, the English Defence League (EDL).

The party was called in reaction to the appearance of stickers in Whitechapel and Shoreditch, declaring a 'gay free zone', complete with verses from the Koran. Faced with such intimidation, a group of locals decided enough was enough and it was time to hold a party, with drag queens and no politics from either extreme left or right.

The cancellation of East End Gay Pride (EEGP) was welcomed by local gay groups including rival pride organisers OutEast, the Muslim group Imaan and Tower Hamlets' LGBT 'community forum', Rainbow Hamlets, who had been seeking its cancellation since the event was announced a month ago.

It should go without saying that the involvement of the EDL is not wanted. Their leadership demonise all Muslims as extremists; the rank and file have been filmed indiscriminately attacking Asians, including women and children.

However, even without the EDL link, far-left elements would still be seeking to sink the event now. For OutEast, the very consideration of a festival immediately after the sticker campaign "risks antagonising and scapegoating Muslim communities."
It probably says more about OutEast's contempt for the Muslim community's sense of decency. Ever since the gay liberation movement started, the whole point of pride was to confront head on infantile prejudices about homosexuality. Asserting yourself, and saying "we're here, get used to it" is always going to be confrontational, and for murderous thugs who regard our very existence as obnoxious, any rainbow flag will always be offensive.

It should be remembered where the intimidation has been coming from in recent years. The East London Mosque has been hosting and promoting a string of hate preachers calling for the replacement of the State with a Taliban-style Sharia government, and who have called for the death of gays, Jews and non-Muslims. Despite this, Rainbow Hamlets and others were perfectly happy to make a joint statement to condemn homophobia last month, without even asking for an apology.

EEGP's decision to ban anti-fascist group Unite Against Fascism (UAF) from the event, also left the far left seething. This is ironic, since UAF stood on platforms with Islamic extremists. At a demonstration in June 2010, its members joined forces with hardliner Anjem Choudary, who called for sharia law executions to deal with adultery. These associations put East End Gay Pride's EDL links into the shade.

Most disappointing is the LGBT left's abdication of commitment to universal human values. OutEast seems more concerned that gay liberation and feminist movements are an excuse "to stigmatise migrants and Islam as a monolithic culture or Muslim people as uncivilised, barbaric terrorists or hateful invaders."

No rational mind is attempting to stigmatise a whole group. But if we are to deal with the issue of homophobia and oppression of women within the Muslim community, the first step is to be honest about the problem. Sweeping it under the carpet will not help.

The gay Muslim group Imaan goes further, and seeks to drive anyone who should seek the abolition of Sharia law out of the LGBT movement, despite the overwhelming evidence that judgments passed on inheritance, child custody, divorce and domestic violence reinforce women's subjugation.

The questionable alliances and collective denial about the problem of Islamic extremism in the borough cannot continue. Meanwhile Rainbow Hamlets blames the sticker campaign on the EDL.

Yet the sticker campaign is only one of a long series of acts of intimidation and violence against LGBT people, who have suffered assaults, harassment and abuse at home or on the street, causing some to leave the borough altogether.

Furthermore, homophobic hatred is but one manifestation of Islamic extremism in an area where a female councillor faced death threats for not wearing a headdress and a religion teacher's face was slashed for teaching Muslim girls about other faiths. Shaw says this is due to 'poverty'. Perhaps, when young minds are given the impression that kicking a defenceless young man to a pulp and slicing a knife through his neck was the holiest, most devout and dutiful thing to do, there is a danger they might act on such vile preaching?

See also: Lewisham Islamic Centre promoting hatred  

AHS Student Conference
Last weekend, the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies (AHS) held their annual convention in Conway Hall. Students, academics and others from all over the UK and Ireland came along. On Saturday, NSS vice president Gerard Phillips gave a talk and the NSS ran a stall. It was a great success, a chance for us to catch up with familiar faces and to meet new ones. On Sunday, NSS Honorary Associate Professor A C Grayling presided over the first AHS prize-giving. Our congratulations to all the winners, who included:

Best Collaboration – The London Societies (UCL Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society, UAL Atheist Skeptical Society, QMUL Atheism Society, LSESU Atheist and Humanist Society) for their quizzes.

Best New Society – UCL Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society and Bradford Atheist and Humanist Society. Best Society – Bristol Atheist, Agnostic and Secular Society.

Any students who would like to start a group at their college can contact our office (020 7404 3126) or the AHS .

Church not very popular in Norway
The average Church of Norway member went to church once a year in 2010, Statistics Norway reported on 15 March in the annual statistical report it sends to the church. Although church attendance has remained the same since 2000, other indicators show dwindling participation in the Lutheran state church in the past decade.

Of Norway's five million inhabitants, 78 per cent were members of the Church of Norway in 2010, as opposed to 86.3 per cent in 2000. Out of total newborns, 66.3 per cent were baptised in the Church of Norway last year, significantly down from 81.4 per cent in 2000. The percentage of 15-year-olds being confirmed dropped to 64.9 per cent from 68.3 per cent. The percentage of funerals performed in church continued to be very high at 91.1 per cent, down just slightly from 92.5 per cent.

The total number of people attending Church of Norway services in 2010 was 6.2 million. Of these 1.1 million participated in Holy Communion, Statistics Norway reported. 

Spanish feminists protest at Catholic Church's oppression of women
Around 70 college students — mostly women — stormed into the chapel of Madrid's Complutense University on 10 March chanting slogans about the oppressive nature of the Catholic Church and the anti-women teachings of the pope and his priests. Several of the women stood on the altar and stripped to the waist, revealing feminist slogans painted on their skin.

The group, armed with a megaphone, pushed the chaplain out of the way and proceeded to decry the teachings of the Church. They put posters on the pews and notice boards demanding that the Church stop trying to control women's lives. 

University administrators condemned the act and said that attempts would be made to identify those responsible. They reiterated the university's commitment to respect for freedom of worship and belief and urged students to be tolerant of each other's religious beliefs. "The neutrality of the government in religious matters means no specific belief can be imposed or subjected to persecution. Tolerance and respect are absolutely indispensable," they said.

It seems tolerance and respect works only one way with the Catholic Church.

See also: Spain's feminist revolution continues

Have you remembered to renew your membership?
Membership subscriptions are due in January (for all those who joined before the previous September), so we hope that if you haven't already done so, you'll stay with us.

We are in for a very interesting and potentially very productive year and it is vitally important that you keep up your support for the cause of secularism. You can renew online or by post to NSS Membership, 25 Red Lion Square, London WC1R 4RL. Many members are now setting up standing orders so that they can forget about renewals – it will be done automatically. More information online.

NSS members' consultation
The consultation on the aims and objectives of the NSS will continue until the end of the month, so if you are a fully paid up member please make sure you have your say .

NSS speaks out
News of our challenge to council prayers was carried in the Scottish Sunday Express .

NSS vice president Gerard Phillips spoke about the NSS's work at the Association of Humanist and Atheist students last week. Our other vice president Elizabeth O'Casey chaired a session at the One Law for All conference on international Women's Day. 

From the Web
How Islamists pervert, undermine and destroy justice .

Bristol Secular Society meeting Monday the 4th of April, 7–9pm, at the Ship Inn, 7–9 Lower Park Row, Bristol BS1 5BJ. Guest speaker will be NSS Vice President, Gerard Phillips. Gerard will be talking on the subject of 'Challenging religious privilege'. For more information please contact .

Sam Harris in conversation with Rev Giles Fraser at Intelligence Squared: Where do our ideas about morality and meaning come from? Most people — from religious extremists to secular scientists — would agree on one point: that science has nothing to say on the subject of human values. Indeed, science's failure to explain meaning and morality has become the primary justification for religious faith and the reason why even many non-believers feel obliged to accord respect to the beliefs of the devout. Kensington Town Hall, Monday 11 April 2011.

Letters to Newsline
Please send your letters for publication to We want to publish as many letters as possible, so please keep them brief: no more than 250 words . We reserve the right to edit. Opinions expressed in letters are those of the writers and not necessarily those of the NSS.

From Garry Otton:
It's important that efforts to stamp out sectarianism don't strengthen the hand of religionists wanting to impose blasphemy laws by the back door. Criticism of religion is vital and necessary. I'm deeply suspicious when the Catholic Church squeals 'sectarian' or 'bigot' at every criticism of its flawed institution. As the Vatican colludes with those Islamic nations demanding censorship of religious criticism in the United Nations, they must be delighted with the hypocrisy of the Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond, demanding more divisive 'faith' schools along with censorship of the Internet to combat the inevitable consequences of such sectarian measures.

There is a creeping censorship on the discussion of the Catholic Church in Scotland already and this must not be allowed to continue. Women, gay people, non-Catholic employers and victims of abuse all have legitimate concerns to air along with those who find themselves unwitting cohorts of the Catholic Church's excesses by dint of a few splashes of water over their heads as children.

From Simon Mayhew:
Time and resources being scarce, I wonder if a bit too much time is spent trying to reduce the prevalence of CofE Faith Schools, hidden-agenda Islamist and other schools apart.

Prep school, daily prayers, Sunday service. Public school, daily service, twice on Sunday, evening prayers. Distinction in School Certificate in Divinity, soft subject(!). Christening, marriage in church. Repeat for four children and 6 grandchildren. All a totally godless and irreligious lot, though pretty well behaved by 10 commandments standard!

From Paul Braterman:
Nick Rowland reports (Newsline, 11th March) receiving an unsatisfactory letter from his MP, presumably a member of one of the governing parties, on this subject, which said, among other things, 

"I realise that there are concerns about the teaching of creationism as fact in Free Schools as such schools do not have to follow the national curriculum.

"However my colleagues in the Department for Education have assured me that it has established a due diligence committee that will monitor Free Schools' application[s] to ensure that religious extremism is not promoted."

This is extremely interesting. Although Mr. Rowland does not need me to tell him how unsatisfactory the MP's letter was, I would nonetheless urge him to follow up with a further letter, quoting back these two sentences, and asking whether they imply that the teaching of creationism as fact would be treated as a kind of religious extremism.

If yes, we have an interesting commitment. If no, we have an admission that there is no protection against the teaching of creationism as fact.

Rob Jamieson:
I was brought up in Glasgow and during the Second World War part of our primary school was bombed. This caused accommodation problems and, in my final year, our class was sent to a Catholic school for a few weeks. During the break our small group huddled in a corner of the playground while the hoards of Catholics formed up in the other end. They charged us and we were pushed and harassed. I realised what it felt like at Rourke's Drift.

From Andrew Main:
Terry Sanderson writes, of the poppy burning case, "Did [the derisory punishment] just add insult to injury?" No, it added insult to insult, for those offended by the original act. No injury has so far occurred in this case.

Indeed, on reading news reports about the judgement, I was rather at a loss to see what law had been contravened. The "deliberate insult to the dead", which the judge was widely quoted speaking about, seemed unlikely to qualify. Terry's extended quote makes it all (relatively) clear: "the threat to public order is obvious".

The inherent weakness of the public order allegation, tacitly admitted by the judge in imposing the lowest possible punishment, surely shows up the case as a political point-scoring exercise. This tallies with the politicians lining up to denounce the judge's leniency. And so it shouldn't be a surprise when the koran-burning case is subjected to the same kind of political posturing. Freedom of other people's speech is an easy sacrifice to make in the pursuit of popularity. As Terry suggested, equality under the law is liable to go the same way.

From Nigel Sinnott:
The item in last week's Newsline about the Lautsi case in Italy took me back to London in 1972 when I was editor of The Freethinker. In most issues I included short paragraphs on "Ninety Years Ago" and "Fifty Years" ago, snippets from Freethinker issues of 1882 and 1922.

I remember that, while looking through the bound volume for 1922, I found a waspish piece by Chapman Cohen about the rise to power of Fascism in Italy; and Cohen noted that one of the Fascists' first actions when they formed a government was to put crucifixes into the classrooms of state schools. It is a fair bet that crucifixes have been there ever since, and Mrs Soile Lautsi is complaining about a piece of Catholic appeasement that was originally Fascist policy.

And, of course, we should not forget that Mussolini did a deal with the Catholic Church that created the Vatican as a pocket "city state", just as he later appeased Hitler by introducing anti-Jewish legislation in Italy. I very much hope the Lautsis win the appeal case.

From David Dalby:
The recent terrible events in Japan have given me cause to think that if God did make this planet of ours, he didn't do a very good job of it. What kind of God creates a sub-standard planet? Shoddy cowboy builder workmanship I call it. Worse, he hasn't seen to come over and fix it either. Bad show, God, very bad show.

From Jean Elliott:
In the current issue of The Oldie Richard Ingrams gives his views on David Attenborough:
"Attenborough, a convinced Darwinian, is unaware of how damaging his programmes are to the theory of evolution as most of these creatures are so improbable that they could never possibly have evolved."

From Sue Cauty:
Here's an amusing 2 minutes: the World's Smallest Political Quiz. The friend who sent it to me was correct when he said I might be surprised by my result. Enjoy!

From David Peacock:
I have often wondered why it is that intelligent, well-educated people such as the archbishop, the chief rabbi, Ann Widdecombe, Chris Patten and Tony Blair in particular believe in the existence of god and much of what goes with it. I have concluded that, deep down in the rational regions of their psyche, they don't.

The human brain is vulnerable to two strong and persistent influences, tradition and superstition, the young particularly so. Religious beliefs are in fact traditional superstitions supported in most cases by ritual and implanted or indoctrinated in the early years when the young brain is programmed to believe all that it is told. ("Don't go near the river dear...."),

Is there anyone since the Stone Age who has come to such beliefs solely through a process of intellectual reasoning? Little chance of being able to. Conrad Lorenz, in his book On Aggression tells of his traditional practice of driving in to Vienna by one route and going home by another. When he entered by the normal exit route and vice versa he experienced an irrational feeling of unease.

It is a huge step to come to the realisation that there is no one out there, no paternal, all powerful, all knowing, beneficent, merciful being to provide comfort and salvation. Atheism is a hard lesson to accept; perhaps we should envy their delusion.

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