Friday, April 20, 2012

Newsline 20 April 2012

National Secular Society


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20 April 2012
In this week's Newsline
Quotes of the week
Essays of the week
NSS challenges Bear Grylls over Scouts inclusivity claims
Government to work with Church of England to promote more religious schools
Boris Johnson attacks "secularist agenda"
Dutch liberals drop support for abolition of blasphemy law
Poll shows Catholic Church completely out of touch with modern Irish society
Survey shows belief in God declining worldwide
Kuwait must not impose death penalty for blasphemy, says Amnesty
Hitler, Stalin, Obama and a belligerent Catholic Church
Student Secularist Award announced
Liberty elections
Richard Dawkins on BBC4
NSS speaks out
Letters to Newsline

Quotes of the week
"'Our freedoms are threatened,' these clerics cry. 'Religious liberty is under attack.' But what freedoms are these clerics being denied? The freedom to say Mass? To pray the Rosary? No and no. The U.S. government is not forcing celibate priests to have sex, or to condone condoms. The freedom these clerics are being denied is the freedom to ignore the laws of the land in which they live."
(Stephen Prothero, CNN)

"I don't think the state should be regulating your faiths, as long as you're letting other people live their lives as they please."
(Ken Livingstone, speaking at a mayoral husting organised by evangelical Christians)

Essays of the Week   
Viewing any religious group as "block vote" is outdated and patronising
(Duncan Hamilton, The Scotsman)

Preserving the division between church and state will benefit them both
(Tim Verhoevan, Sydney Morning Herald)

NSS challenges Bear Grylls over Scouts inclusivity claims
The National Secular Society has written to Chief Scout Bear Grylls to challenge his recent claims that scouting is for everyone regardless of their religion, ethnicity or belief.

Following the launch of a new uniform designed especially for Muslim girls, Grylls expressed pride that the Scouts offer "an environment for people of all backgrounds to come together and enjoy themselves."

Grylls claims that the Scouts are "continuing to move with the times", but today most young people are not religious, but cannot join without making a 'Promise' that includes an oath to god.

Stephen Evans, NSS Campaigns Manager, said: "Mr Grylls' claim that scouting is for all is simply untrue. The religious oath in the Scout Promise acts as a barrier to the non-religious, who either have to make a hypocritical and dishonest statement or risk being refused full membership of the Scouts."

In the letter the NSS called on the organisation to open itself up to non-believers and make the religious oath optional.

However, responding to the letter, Wayne Bulpitt, the Chief Commissioner of the Scouts, made it clear that the organisation has no intention of changing its policy.

Despite not being a religious organisation, the Scout Association has been granted an exemption from equality legislation so it can continue to accept only members with religious beliefs or who are prepared to make a promise to a god.

The Scouts also exclude atheists from leadership positions. Their 'Equal Opportunities' (pdf) Policy states that 'the avowed absence of religious belief is a bar to appointment to a leadership position'. Paedophiles are the only other group deemed unsuitable for such positions.

Stephen Evans commented: "Such outdated, unfair and discriminatory policies completely contradict claims that the Scout Movement is there for all to enjoy.

"The Scouts are much admired and the organisation does brilliant work. That is why it is such a shame that its refusal to make the religious element of the oath optional deprives many young people of an honest access to scouting activities and deprives the Scouts of people who would be good leaders working in the organisation as volunteers.

"Independent research (pdf) has revealed that two thirds of young people don't regard themselves as belonging to any religion. If the Scouts really do aspire to ensure the organisation is inclusive and welcoming to all, it's about time they introduced a secular option of the promise which would open up scouting to all young people, regardless of their religious beliefs, or indeed lack of them.

However, if the Scouts do want to be an exclusively faith based organisation, they should be up front about this and not masquerade as an open and inclusive organisation which they are not. As long as they exclude non believers, their 'scouting for all' motto will be both misleading and dishonest."
Read a copy of the letter sent to Bear Grylls (pdf)
Read the response from the Chief Commissioner of the Scouts (pdf)
See also: Mother challenged Boys Scouts of America's anti-gay policy

Government to work with Church of England to promote more religious schools
By Keith Porteous Wood
During Education Questions in the House of Commons on Monday, Michael Gove, the Education Secretary (for England) intimated that the Government is working with the Church of England to bring about its ambition to open hundreds more church schools.

The recently published Chadwick report from the CofE called for a new "concordat" between the Church and the Government that would "reinforce and enhance" the Church's influence throughout the education system. This now seems to have been granted, as was evident from an orchestrated exchange in the Commons initiated by Tony Baldry, the Conservative MP for Banbury and Second Church Estates Commissioner – effectively the CofE's place man in the Commons.

He asked the Education Secretary: "Has my right hon. Friend had the opportunity to read the report, chaired by Priscilla Chadwick, on the future of Church of England schools? Does he agree that the recent changes in education introduced by the Government provide opportunities for the continuing involvement of the Church of England in education, particularly in delivering distinctive and inclusive new academies?"

Michael Gove replied: "I absolutely agree. Education on both sides of the border was driven in the first instance by the vigorous missionary activity of Churches, and we praise and cherish the role of the Church of England in making sure that children have an outstanding and inclusive education. I welcome the report, and I look forward to working with Bishop John Pritchard to extend the role of the Church in the provision of schools."

No space in this love-in to question whether these new CofE academies would be inclusive, as Tony Baldry claims in his self-serving puff. Converting Church schools that are Voluntary Aided (not local authority controlled) will be able to recruit 100% of their pupils from families of the faith. (Mr Gove has a very curious attitude to inclusiveness. He has also said that religiously designated free schools technically limited to recruiting no more than 50% on the basis of denomination or faith are not obliged to recruit the remainder from other denominations or faiths, giving the green light to them being 100% mono faith academies.)

Mr Gove's praise for the churches' missionary activity on both sides of the border ignored its primary purpose, to recruit followers rather than to educate. Nor did he, predictably, acknowledge that in the first half of the nineteenth century the Church opposed universal education altogether and even as late as 1870 still opposed the emergence of public education provided independently from the Church.

In praising the CofE for "outstanding ... education", Mr Gove overlooks that the generally better achievements of Church schools come from the privilege they have of being able to select pupils, leaving the unchosen — the less supported and generally harder to teach children — to the community schools, which in the circumstances do remarkably well. The more such selective schools or academies there are, the harder will be the job of those in community schools or non-religious academies."

Conspicuous by its absence from this push for ever more Church schools is an acknowledgement that CofE attendance is declining at a rate likely to compromise its survival as a national institution, and forcing a growing proportion of non-religious parents, probably already a majority, to have their children attend a religious school when they would prefer otherwise. The more children abandon church and Sunday school, the more determined Mr Gove seems to be to force them back. For both parents and pupils, these moves detract from choice, on which this Government purports to be so keen.

Boris Johnson attacks "secularist agenda"
All but one of the leading future mayoral hopefuls in London declared or implied that they had no religious faith at a meeting of Christians last week. The odd one out was Liberal Democrat candidate Brian Paddick who said he was a Christian.

Nevertheless, present mayoral incumbent Boris Johnson told the hustings at St James' Church that a "secularist agenda was at risk of bringing about perverse results" in society.

He said that British Airways had been wrong to "ban" Nadia Eweida from wearing a cross (which it didn't – it simply asked her to wear it under her uniform). He said he had met Ms Eweida on the tube by chance and after listening to her story (which we're sure was told utterly objectively) thought that BA were "completely over-egging it" for "banning her wearing of a cross".

Mr Johnson, who is seeking a second term as Mayor at elections on 3 May, said he also disapproved of the NSS's attempt to remove prayers from the formal business of local councils. He said it was "completely wrong" and an attempt to rid the country of its heritage.

During the hustings — organised by the ecumenical London Churches Group and the Evangelical Alliance — both Mr Johnson and Ken Livingstone, the Labour candidate, pledged to make it easier for new churches to be built in London by amending planning laws.

When challenged on his banning of an advertisement from a Christian group that claimed gay people could be cured by prayer, Mr Johnsons said he had done the right thing because ultimately the advertisement would have reflected badly on Christians.

Ken Livingstone — one of Mr Johnson's opponents — supported this, saying Boris had made the right decision. Mr Livingstone also said that although he wasn't a believer he had "toned down" the "militant atheism" of his youth.

When challenged on recent reports of him saying London should become "a beacon of Islam" Mr Livingstone denied making the remark.

Other questions mainly concerned gay marriage (which all agreed with), gambling, housing and other social issues.

One audience member asked the panel whether they had the Fear of God or the Fear of Man in their hearts – to which Mr Johnson replied his fear of men or God was far overshadowed by the fear of his wife.

Brian Paddick, the Liberal Democrat candidate, explained that he was a committed Christian and should he win he pledged to be the "servant of London". All of the candidates on the platform — which also included Jenny Jones for the Green party — praised churches for their work in the city.

Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, said: "We have to take into account that in election times politicians will promise anybody anything to get their vote, but it was a shame to see Boris Johnson encouraging Christians in their misguided belief that crosses are 'banned' from the workplace. It is about time politicians realised that most Christians, like everyone else, vote according to the wider issues, not according to their religion. The activists present at these hustings are unlikely to be representative of London's Christians." 

Dutch liberals drop support for abolition of blasphemy law
A fundamentalist Christian political party is holding the Dutch Parliament to ransom as it forces a backtracking on the abolition of blasphemy laws.

The Dutch conservative Liberal Party VVD (People's Party for Freedom and Democracy) has dropped its support for new legislation which would remove the blasphemy law from the statute books, according to D66 parliamentarian Boris van der Ham (D66 is another liberal party to which NSS Honorary Associate Sophie in 't Veld belongs). 

"The VVD has had doubts for some time but has now confirmed it will no longer support the legislation," Van der Ham said in a statement. "I hope other secular parties keep to their positions so there is still majority support."

However, according to the daily newspaper NRC, the bill still has to be discussed by VVD parliamentarians. A VVD spokeswoman told news agency Novum no decision has yet been taken on whether or not to still support the bill.

Commentators say the VVD's apparent change of heart is due to its reliance on the fundamentalist Christian SGP which holds the balance of power in both the upper and lower houses of parliament. 

The draft law was drawn up in 2009 by the Liberal democrats D66, the VVD and Socialist Party. However, doubts about VVD support first emerged in May 2011 because the government needed the support of the SGP to ensure majority support in the senate.

'The VVD has already withdrawn its support for further liberalisation of Sunday shopping. The party also agrees that civil servants can refuse to marry gay couples on religious grounds. Where will Liberal Mark Rutte draw the line?' the NRC quotes Van der Ham as saying.

Now the VVD has dropped its support, Geert Wilders' anti-Islam PVV could hold the key. The party said in the past it favoured decriminalising blasphemy but has since gone silent on the issue, NOS television reports.

The SGP believes the Netherlands should be governed according to Biblical principles and has two seats in the lower house of parliament and one in the senate.

The draft legislation is due to be voted on in parliament shortly. 

Poll shows Catholic Church completely out of touch with modern Irish society
An extensive survey of Irish Catholics has found widespread dissent from Church teachings, particularly on questions of sexuality.

One thousand Catholics in the Republic and Northern Ireland were surveyed in the Amarach Consulting poll.  It found that 87% said that priests should be allowed to marry, 77% said that the Church should ordain women, 61% said that homosexual acts are not immoral, and 75% said that the Church's teachings on sexuality are irrelevant to their lives, particularly the young.

The poll was confined to respondents who identified themselves as Catholics, whether or not they practised the faith. Of those surveyed, only about one-third attended Mass regularly each week (or more frequently).

The poll was commissioned by the Association of Catholic Priests (ACP), a group that has frequently called for changes in Church teaching and discipline. The survey included some questions that reflected ACP's interest in increasing the distance between the Irish Church and the Vatican.

In one set of questions, Irish Catholics were asked whether they thought the Church in their country was independent or "subservient" to Rome. Five times as many Catholics believe that the Church is subservient to Rome as those who believe it is independent, and more than one in four (28%) believe it to be completely subservient.

The poll also found considerable dissatisfaction (43%) with the new English translation of the Mass. However, only 52% said that they had heard the new translation – which shows many of them rarely attend Mass.
See also: Priest says Vatican control of Irish Catholic Church is crushing
Catholics in revolt
Huge support for silenced priest in Ireland
A church out of step with its flock is doomed
Irish Church at the crossroads – reform or bust

Survey shows belief in God declining worldwide
Belief in God is declining gradually worldwide, with faith highest among older people, a report released by the University of Chicago on Wednesday found.

The report, "Belief About God Across Time and Countries" (pdf), found 13 percent of people living in the former East Germany expressed belief in God, while at the high end 94 percent of Filipinos say they have always been believers. The report said researchers found belief in God is higher among older people regardless of where they live.

"Belief in God has decreased in most countries, but the declines are quite modest especially when calculated on a per annum basis," said Tom W. Smith, director of the General Social Survey of the social science research organization NORC at the University of Chicago.

The data came from 30 countries in which surveys about belief in God have been taken at least twice since 1991.

The study found atheism is strongest in northwest European countries and the former Soviet states, with the exception of Poland. Belief was found to be increasing in Russia, Slovenia and Israel.

On average, 43 percent of those 68 and older are certain God exists, compared with 23 percent of those 27 and younger, the report said.

"Countries with low atheism and high strong belief tend to be Catholic societies, especially in the developing world, plus the United States, Israel, and Orthodox Cyprus," the study continued. "In the case of Poland, it appears that its strong Catholicism trumps the secularizing influence of Socialism."

"From 1991 to 2008, Israel, Russia, and Slovenia showed consistent movement towards greater belief," the study continued, while "ten countries showed consistent decline in belief (Australia, Austria, East Germany, Great Britain, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, Norway, and Poland)."

In the United States, 81 percent of those surveyed said they have always believed in God. The report said 54 percent of Americans younger than 28 said they were certain of God's existence, compared with 66 percent of the people 68 and older.

"Strong believers run from 60% in the Philippines down to 2.5% in East Germany, while strong atheists rise from nearly zero in the Philippines to 46% in East Germany," the study also found.
"Looking at differences among age groups, the largest increases in belief in God most often occur among those 58 years of age and older," Smith said.

Smith concluded that "This suggests that belief in God is especially likely to increase among the oldest groups, perhaps in response to the increasing anticipation of mortality."

Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the NSS, doubted the claim that people found religion as they aged. He commented: "While no doubt a few people become more religious as they come closer to contemplating death, the overwhelming driver of these statistics is that the older people were born into a much more religious society than we have today. 

Kuwait must not impose death penalty for blasphemy, says Amnesty
A proposed legal amendment that would make blasphemy a crime punishable by death in Kuwait would be a massive step backwards by the country's authorities, if passed by parliament, Amnesty International said today.

The draft law was quickly introduced and passed by the Kuwaiti Parliament's Law and Legal Affairs Committee following the arrest of a man accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad on Twitter.

Hamad al-Naqi, a member of Kuwait's Shi'a Muslim minority, is being held in pre-trial detention charged with "defaming the Prophet" in tweets posted last month. He has denied making the posts, saying that somebody hacked into his Twitter account.

Kuwait's parliament voted in favour of the amendment on 12 April. Before it is passed, the amendment must go to a second vote two weeks after the first and then be approved by the government and Kuwait's ruler Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah.

"We urge Kuwait's parliament to reject such an amendment which would constitute a flagrant breach of the country's international human rights obligations," said Ann Harrison, Deputy Director of Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa Programme.

"All eyes are on Kuwait's recently-elected legislators. They must immediately scrap any plans to introduce the death penalty for blasphemy."

Article 111 of the Penal Code prohibits defamation of religion, currently providing for up to one year's imprisonment and a fine.

Under international law, "religious" offences do not fall under the category of "most serious crimes", the minimum threshold prescribed for crimes carrying the death penalty.

In November 2011, the United Nations Human Rights Committee called on Kuwait to "revise its legislation on blasphemy and related laws […] to ensure their strict compliance with the [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, or ICCPR]" to which Kuwait is a state party.

Article 15 of the ICCPR prohibits states from imposing a heavier penalty than the one applicable at the time an alleged offence was committed. 

"If it emerges that Hamad al-Naqi's Twitter account was indeed hacked then he has no case to answer; otherwise he is being held solely for exercising his right to freedom of expression and, unless charged with an internationally recognizable offence, he must be released immediately," said Ann Harrison. "On no account should he be sentenced to death." 

Hitler, Stalin, Obama and a belligerent Catholic Church
Editorial by Terry Sanderson
The Catholic Church seems to be turning itself from being a religious body into being a rather unpleasant political party – one that is so reactionary it makes the Tea Party look like the Teddy Bears' Picnic.

For instance, the Conference of Catholic Bishops in the USA has declared a fortnight-long "Fight for Freedom" campaign starting on 21 June. 18,000 parishes are to be called to "energise Catholics" against what the bishops see as a Government attack on religious freedom. It is particularly concerned with the Obama administration's mandate that religion-controlled hospitals and universities supply insurance cover for procedures that the Vatican finds morally unacceptable.

This is a risky move by the church which faces humiliation if it fails to bring the Government into line. There is also the slight problem of opinion polls showing that American Catholics in general are completely out of sympathy with the Church's teachings on contraception. One recently showed that 89% of married Catholic women used artificial birth control. A Pew research poll also showed that a significant majority of Americans think religious bodies should stay out of politics.

Despite the Government offering exemptions from the Department of Health and Human Services mandate (HHS mandate) so that the Catholic Church will not have to pay for contraception or anything else that it finds unacceptable, the bishops will not relent. Their ultimate aim is to scupper the provision of contraception for everybody under this new health scheme.

This is not a campaign based on rational argument; it is framed in hysterically emotional terms. Some of the bishops seem severely in need of Prozac to calm them down (although they probably have moral objections to that, too).

The campaign that the Church has stirred is extremely powerful. If you enter "HHS mandate" into Google, you will find page after page of petitions, propaganda, ranting and railing against the mandate.

And it's soon going to get a whole lot worse. To give an idea of the kind of overwrought rhetoric we can expect over the next few months, let's start with Bishop Daniel R Jenkey of Illinois who spoke at an event called "A Call to Catholic Men of Faith". 

According to Jenkey, the Health and HHS mandate can never be accepted: "No Catholic institution, under any circumstances, can ever co-operate with the intrinsic evil of killing human life in the womb. No Catholic Ministry – and yes, Mr President, our schools and hospitals are ministries – can remain faithful to the Lordship of the Risen Christ and his Glorious Gospel of Life if they are forced to pay for abortions." He called on American Catholics to vote "with their conscience" in the presidential election – that is to say, against Obama. "This fall," he said, "every practicing Catholic must vote, and must vote their Catholic consciences, or by the following fall our Catholic schools, our Catholic hospitals, our Catholic Newman Centers, all our public ministries – because no Catholic institution, under any circumstance, can ever cooperate with the intrinsic evil of killing innocent human life in the womb."

The bishops said that the Church had survived thousands of years of persecution and will survive Obama – but it will take "heroic Catholicism, not casual Catholicism".

Warming to his topic, the hysteria rises: "The church survived barbarian invasions. The Church survived wave after wave of jihads. The Church survived the age of revolution. The church survived Nazism and communism. And in the power of resurrection, the Church will survive the hatred of Hollywood, the malice of the media and the mendacious wickedness of the abortion industry."

Bishop Jenkey then said: "May God have mercy on the soul of those politicians who pretend to be Catholics in church, but in their public lives, rather like Judas Iscariot, betray Jesus Christ by how they vote and how they willingly cooperate with intrinsic evil."

Jenkey recalled in detail other leaders that have "tried to force Christians to huddle and hide," including Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.

"Hitler and Stalin, at their better moments, would just barely tolerate some churches remaining open, but would not tolerate any competition with the state in education, social services and health care," he said. "In clear violation of our First Amendment rights, Barack Obama — with his radical, pro abortion and extreme secularist agenda — now seems intent on following a similar path."

The American bishops suggested that Catholics should not be expected to abide by laws that go against the "religious conscience", and this was supported by the Vatican. In a speech at the Catholic University in Milan, a senior Vatican official, Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo, said that there should be stronger protection for both the Catholic Church and individual Catholics when they are faced with laws that conflict with the "moral norms".

Lajolo said that it was "essential" that "the freedom of the church and of its institutions to live and act in conformity with its own religious conviction is always guaranteed." He called for "conscientious objection" to be enshrined in civil law."

A New York Times poll in March showed about 51 per cent said that employers who object on moral or religious grounds should be able to opt out of providing birth control for their employers. Forty per cent said no.

Catholics for Choice, the liberal voice of Catholics, was quickly on the scene. Jon O'Brien, its president, said in a statement: "The bishops have failed to convince Catholics in the pew to follow their prohibitions on contraception. Now they want the Government to grant them the legal right to require each of us, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, to set aside our own guaranteed freedom from government-sanctioned religious interference in our lives."

The editors of Commonweal, a liberal Catholic magazine, said the bishops "vastly exaggerate" threats to religious liberty. In addition "the tenor of the bishops' statement runs the risk of making this into a partisan issue during a presidential election in which the leaders of one party have made outlandish claims about a 'war on religion' or 'a war against the Catholic Church'."

And in Britain the Catholic Church has also adopted an increasingly belligerent tone. In both Scotland and England, where the Governments are consulting on the introduction of marriage for same-sex couples, the bishops and cardinals have delivered overtly political messages in their campaigns.

The church's representatives are pretty ruthless in their pursuit of their goals and use the language of extremism. Their rhetoric, when they aren't getting their own way, is sometimes brutal, and yet any attempt to reply will be condemned as "anti-Catholic", a similar trick to that used by the proponents of "Islamophobia" to silence critics.

But what the Catholic Church hasn't yet learned is that the more they rant and rave like this, the more extreme their demands and the more political they become, the fewer followers they have.

The Pope, from whom all this authoritarianism ultimately emanates, doesn't care. He has said he would prefer a smaller church with a more obedient flock than one made up of "cafeteria Catholics" who pick and choose which teachings they like.

I'd be happy with that, too, because then we could once and for all ditch the myth that the hierarchy of the Catholic Church is in any way a source of compassion or humanity.
See also: Catholic parishes refusing to embrace bishop's bigotry

Student Secularist Award announced
The NSS in collaboration with the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies (AHS) is proud to announce a new prize for AHS members: The Student Secularist Award. We are funding the prize to encourage even more secularist campaigning by students.

NSS President Terry Sanderson said: "I hope this award will go some way to providing an extra boost and impetus to the campaigning of secular students around the country. This is such an important area – maybe even a training ground for the next generation of professional secular activists. I'm sure we're going to see some imaginative nominations for the prize and I look forward to hearing about their efforts."

The total prize fund is worth £250 and representatives from winning societies will be invited to attend Secularist of the Year 2013. The winners will be chosen by a panel from the NSS and the AHS and prizes will be presented at the AHS National Convention 2013.

To win the award, student groups can do anything from debating secularism in a unique and exciting way, to running an effective secularist campaign, to organising a big event to inform people about secular issues – check the AHS webpage for how to enter

Liberty elections
Elections are being held for council members for Liberty. The only NSS member we are aware of standing for Council is an existing Liberty Council member, Mazin Zeki.

Richard Dawkins on BBC4
NSS Honorary Associate Professor Richard Dawkins is the subject of the third episode of Beautiful Minds on 25 April at 9pm on BBC4. He reveals how he came to write his first book The Selfish Gene, a work that was to divide the scientific community and make him the most influential evolutionary biologist of his generation. He also explores how this set him on the path to becoming a spokesman for atheism and rationalism and the kind of opposition this provoked. There is more on the programme here and you can watch clips from it here and here

NSS speaks out
Lord Carey's ridiculous claims of Christian persecution gave us the opportunity for a quote in the Telegraph and the Guardian, Daily Mail, Belfast Telegraph, Huffington Post, the BBC and newspapers around the world.

On the Scouts issue, Keith Porteous Wood gave an interview to BBC London 94.9 and BBC Northampton and we were quoted on the BBC website. He also spoke on Radio Somerset about the imposition of VAT on the cost of improvements to listed churches. (We want a level playing field for all listed buildings whether religious or not).

Talk: Cutting Religion Out of Medicine. Starting from the extraordinarily easy-to-forget premise that medical practice should focus on patients and not on other people's religious beliefs, Dr Antony Lempert discusses various aspects of health, life and death, and promises lots of talk about sex during his lecture. He may even produce his erotic award at an appropriate moment during the evening. Falkender Room, Commonwealth Hall, 1–11 Cartwright Gardens, London WC1H 9EB, Wednesday 25 April, 6:30 PM. Full details.

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. You can also join in live debates on our Facebook page.

From Mary Morgan:
I am concerned that Cardinal Keith O'Brien and other Church leaders are encouraging Christians to wear a cross at work. Demonstrating one's faith may appeal to the individuals but it will at some point, affect those whom the individual works with and works for.

If, as a patient, I were talking to a nurse or doctor who wore a cross prominently, I would immediately decide that some areas may be 'off limits'. Equally a teacher wearing a cross would be making a real statement which could easily be seen to exclude large numbers of the population.

Workers within education, health and social care are encouraged to be and to appear to be non-judgmental. They are paid to do a job and support all members of society. During work times they should leave their personal opinions and attitudes at home.

From Juliet Green:
My son attends our local state primary school, which happens to be Church of England – and happens to be 'outstanding' in the eyes of Ofsted. I have been generally pleased with the school, and although an atheist, have felt comfortable with the notion that he will be bright enough to decide for himself about religion.

I found it disconcerting, however, when he came home asking me what 'crucify' meant, and quite worried when I heard about the Easter service in which the children were told about the death of Jesus and afterwards the tale of a local girl, aged 9, who'd died suddenly following a headache, (no doubt with the message that, like Jesus, her spirit had lived on after her death).

I was still feeling uncomfortable about it all when I suddenly remembered walking past a Catholic church in a nearby town, in which a life-size, colour sculpture of Jesus dying on the cross was positioned a few feet from the entrance to the adjoining primary school.

I suddenly made the astonished realisation that here in the UK, where we have decided collectively that young children should be protected from images of violence and cruelty, pictures, sculptures and vivid descriptions of a man being tortured to death slip the net of censorship. Where else in a young child's life would he or she be allowed to see such images of brutality and sadism? Whilst traditional fairy stories are becoming increasingly (and arguably overly) sanitised, this particular story of torture and death is without shadow of a doubt, Certificate 18!

When raising the issue amongst friends on Facebook, the split was clear: the Christians argued that the image was central to their faith and that anyway, children aren't nearly as upset by violence, etc., as we think they are. The atheists, on the other hand, agreed with my view, that the story of Christ's bloody demise is unsuitable for children and in fact, unsuitable for public display even for adults without our consent. It was disappointing that the debate became split along religious lines, yet perhaps inevitable. I had been hoping for a more objective discussion about the inconsistency of British censorship laws.

I feel strongly about this, though. I feel quite passionately that a secular country in which the vast majority of people are not Christians should not publicly display religious imagery which could cause offence and which runs counter to our otherwise strict laws of censorship. I believe that while crosses are acceptable symbols of a minority faith in our country, crucifixes should be banned in public places, and that the horrific details of Jesus' death should not be described to primary school children.

From Michael Igoe:
I'm deeply concerned that Channel 4 television has allowed early evening broadcasts from believers in diabolic possession in the last week, perhaps, allegedly, causing illness.

This is just the right time for impressionable young people to be exposed to arrant nonsense. "Exorcism", especially of conditions like epilepsy, is first condemned, that we know of, in a treatise in early Greek from around 400 BCE. Yet, thanks not least to the NT's references to 'casting out demons', the idea lingers on, millennia later. Two RC clerics are serving a long sentence in Germany for supposedly "cleansing" a teenage boy and assuring him his medication was no longer needed. A short time later, a violent brain seizure left him dead.

I've twice, a known agnostic, been offered "exorcism" of the same condition and indignantly refused. A main danger among others: "possession" is easily seen as punishment for some imagined wrongdoing, leading to community rejection. I lost my career in education for just that reason, in the UK.

Most absurd must be the Muslim contribution: djinn (or a genie) may "possess" a woman if it fancies her or if she doesn't say the name of God while undressing. How can any rational, sane person believe this misogynistic drivel? But a troubled young person's another matter, especially if exposed to religious faith. If he/she realises too that he/she is gay, you have a really potent mix. From our indignant (on cross-wearing) clerics not a word of refutation that I know of. And this practice is spreading, in the US not least.

What's next? Trials of heretics?

From David Eppel:
Normally this is a forum for religionists to make fools of themselves but the latest offering about exorcism, which has been exposed as utter rubbish, has been given credence. Thursday's offering in particular is like a comedy sketch, talking about djinns, these islamic demons that can possess a person if they take too long getting dressed or undressed without invoking the name of gods. Even better, by dropping a heavy weight on a child djinn! That's a spirit that has no physical form, this is interesting stuff!

What sort of message is that? It is sick, evil and a disgusting use of privilege to terrify impressionable young minds, whilst these perverts enjoy this abuse of privilege.

From Rodney King:
What a great letter from Mike Nason last week. A reading of the Oxford illustrated book of British History proves him correct: the population of England fell steadily after the arrival of St Augustine, who declared that 'curiosity is a disease that must be eliminated'.

Imagine if the people of Canterbury were today told to build a vast Abbey at the same time as the Cathedral and dozens of churches, the drain on resources would and did create a human disaster.

These now useless monuments to ignorance were built by a population one tenth of that today and without machinery; the stone used came from France. 600 years after the arrival of christianity the population of Britain was half what it was under the Romans, mainly due to famine and disease. The churches, monasteries and Abbeys controlled most of the land around and still do, and the Abbot of St Albans was a particularly harsh land owner.

The Church of England still owns 300,000 acres of land in England. Its investment fund runs to £9 billion and includes the largest shopping centre in Europe. Everything they have was fraudulently obtained from the people and should be taken back. Does anybody know who exactly is 'The Church Of England' and what happens to all this money?

The principle upon which this system of extortion is based was set out by Jesus when he told his disciples to say to any householder or town that refused to give them food and lodging that 'his house and town would suffer a worse fate than Sodom and Gomorrha', Mathew 10.

I was born in St Peters Grove Canterbury, in my grandparents' house as were all my siblings. Because the Cathedral occupies most of the town and runs the schools, our lives and education were poor. Three of us left school at fourteen to work underground at Chislet Colliery. I knew all the hymns, psalms and prayers and precious little else. During my long life I have learned to detest religion in all its forms and firmly believe that christianity set us back 1000 years and was the biggest disaster ever to befall mankind.

From Nigel Sinnott:
I am not quite sure whether I agree or disagree with Robert Jamieson (Newsline, 13 April), or a bit of both, about "militant atheism". After all, I have called myself a militant atheist for more than half a century!

I am not irritated when I hear the words "militant atheism", so long as they are not in the context of denigration. But I agree that Europe and the Middle East have had to put up with many centuries of militant Abrahamic religions.

A militant atheist is not necessarily a bigot who is an atheist, but is an atheist who is not prepared to fawn, cringe and grovel when faced with the "church militant" or with religious triumphalism, whether Christian or otherwise. A militant atheist is one who is prepared to speak out against religious privilege and presumption and stand up for the rights of non-believers and other minorities, especially when these are threatened by religious arrogance. A militant atheist, like a good professional soldier, displays aggression with restraint and when appropriate; he or she is not a bad-tempered lout. A militant atheist is someone who has the courage and honesty to admit to atheism, even if this means social or financial disadvantage.

A militant atheist can be contrasted with the reverent, fawning unbeliever, who cynically thinks that "faith" is good for keeping women, children and the "lower orders" docile.

From Keith Smith:
Prayers at Council Meetings — for goodness sake — why do Councillors need prayers to help them decide who gets their bins emptied and when? Even the founding fathers of the USA declared when they were formulating the Constitution that they did not need "external help". Mind you – things have regressed a bit in the USA since!

From David R. Amies:
There can be no doubt that those who wish to say prayers at every turn have every right to do so. Those of us who find these prayers, be they before council meetings, grace before public dinners and so on objectionable, should get up when the chaplain or other official begins to intone and leave noisily and obviously.

As soon as the incantations are over, we should return equally noisily and retake our seats.

A few such demonstrations of our distaste will make it obvious that not everyone is in thrall to the prayer-sayers or the sentiments they express.

For far too long all those who chose to invoke gods behave as if such calls should be specially privileged and respected by all. Demonstrations of contempt for such assumptions are likely to bring about second thoughts.

From John Griffin:
We have once again a complete distortion of scientific findings, aided and abetted with stances like that of the BBC with its documentary presenter and Christian proselytiser Bettany Hughes. We are seemingly genetically hard-wired to be religious. Writing as a committed evolutionist and psychologist, what a load of rubbish!

Simple evolutionary findings are that we are 1) hard-wired to attribute 'agency' to any object and 2) hard-wired for group interaction.

Attribution of 'agency' means that we treat any object, especially a moving one, as having purpose – that is, until we ascertain whether it is a threat, food or otherwise. The alert and initial attribution is genetic, the interpretation cultural (learnt from others, and not genetically transmitted). Our 'group-ness' is similarly genetic (the lack of it is considered a pathology).

The two together are nothing to do with religion (which is of course a human artefact) but are the traits of survivors. Our ancestors — as opposed to their co-existents who did not survive to reproduce — were the slightly jumpy, anxious ones who huddled and muddled in groups.

Being a congenital scaredy-cat is a survival positive. You also have to remember that at least twice our Homo sapiens population bottle-necked at under 10,000 individuals total in the whole of Africa, probably split into small groups with minimal contact; the traits got bottle-necked too.

Religion, originally probably shared common animism (see 1 above), became a factor in group dynamics and remains so; it is only the power of institutions that determines its form and extent. This is all purely cultural, and reproduced through generations culturally, not genetically.

The fMRI, transcranial magnetic stimulation and other such findings are evidence that perception can be altered by altering the physical condition of the brain. Psychoactive drugs do the same job. We do not call the brain areas where drugs work 'LSD structures' or talk about 'cocaine genes'; why attribute 'religion' to the centres when magnetic stimulation operates? There is no 'God gene', simply a system with an 'agency' attribution bias, and one shared with other animals.

From Dennis Penaluna:
Recent correspondents to Newsline about gay marriage might be interested to know that in 1587 a decree, Cum frequenter, issued by Pope Sixtus V, made it absolutely clear that men who could not produce viable sperm were not allowed to marry. The Roman Catholic Church claimed to have dumped this doctrine in 1977:

"The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has always taken the view that those who have undergone a vasectomy or are in similar circumstances should not be prevented from contracting marriages."
This, as David Ranan says in his book, Double Cross – Code of the Catholic Church (which is really worth reading) was a "Lie".

In 1984, in the city where I live, Nottingham, a diocesan marriage tribunal, (who needs sharia law?) under the guidance of the catholic bishop, James McGuinness, decided that an ex-soldier who was paralyzed and therefore unable to produce babies, should not be allowed to marry. Such was the local outcry and utter disgust at this decision that the bishop ran backwards at a rate of knots and allowed the young man his marriage.

Perhaps Roger Titcombe should offer himself for ordination – he'd do extraordinarily well I'm sure, and Backward Running Bishops should be declared an Olympic sport!

From Barrie Singleton:
Many thanks for publishing my follow-up letter to Peter Frost's about tax exemptions for the religious. I was interested to read Nick Ratcliffe's well-expressed letter on the same subject. I hope that your publication of our letters is the start of some sort of clearing house for information (of such exemptions) provided by the members and that you then ensure publication. I look forward to future letters. With many thanks for your hard work.

From Alan Jones:
Unlike Robert Jamieson I am not irritated by the words "militant Atheism": I find this accusation an opportunity to describe in detail the militant past of the Christian Churches which Robert also mentioned.

However I used to be irritated by homosexuals hijacking the word gay because as an ex big band now pub singer I felt the need to rewrite lines with that word in, but now I am rewriting new verses  and sometimes whole songs, so thank you chaps. I never knew I had this ability.

The cross has been in the news a lot lately, but I am doing my bit to ridicule this fashion or proselytising statement, by wearing three large nails in a v formation with one down the middle welded at the tips with the heads linked to a necklace to bring home to cross wearers the true nature of this adornment. 

From Tamer Shafik:
ERA (Egyptian Renaissance Alliance): we are group of Secularists, Rationalists and Atheists in Egypt. After the rise of Islamists in elections and the fear of a theocratic tyrant state being forced upon us, we created our group to promote secularism and counter Islamists full control of Egypt.

Unfortunately the government is cracking down on civil organizations limiting our access to funds and thus limiting our access to a wide audience. A permit for a free-thought NGO is highly unlikely during these days. We created a CafePress shop with some designs for various items! Although we don't control the price and most sales profits goes to, we are satisfied with this markup and this is the only legal idea to raise funds without facing a govt. crackdown.

Please take a few moments to support our shop!

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