The wheels on the bus (probably) go round and round…

There’s been a story bubbling up for a while, which has reached the public conciousness this week. So, instead of writing about the substantial imminent change to my life, or stupid wars in the Middle East, I will discuss the Atheist Bus Campaign.

Back in the summer Ariane Sherine, a comedy writer and Guardian blogger, wrote an article about an advert she’d seen on a bus. The advert was placed by a religious group, and directed people to a website which as well as proclaiming the existence of God and the advantages of becoming a Christian (fair enough, I see nothing wrong with them evangelising if they want to), also informed visitors of all the horrible things in store for unbelievers.

So, she suggested a bus advert to promote atheism. A few people took the idea up, and in the autumn the campaign was launched with a target to raise £11,000 (£5,500 of which would be a matching donation from arch-atheist Richard Dawkins). Within a short space of time, it had raised £100,000 from small individual donations.

So, this week, instead of 30 adverts on buses in London, the slogan “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life” adorns 200 London buses, as well as another 600 across Britain.

So far, so good. The ‘probably’ was added in because they were advised that just saying “There is no God” would be more likely to lead to complaints, but as it goes, it does satisfy the broad atheist creed as far as I understand it – we do not believe in a god, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we believe that there is no god (and logically it can never be proven that no god exists anyway).

But yet, the complaints have come in. over 50 so far to the ASA, led by the stalwart religious nutter, Stephen Green of Christian Voice. Green claims offence, and yet he’s not above being very offensive towards Islam. He also claims that the ad makes an unsubstantiated claim, but the ‘probably’ means that it makes no hard claim in reality.

So, I was watching from the sidelines, until the Christians who seem to be able to take offence at anything stuck their oars in. Now, I have donated to the campaign.

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The godless meme

Like Unity, I’m not big on memes. But like Unity, I like this one

Q1. How would you define ‘atheism’?

The lack of belief in God/gods.

Q2. Was your upbringing religious? If so, what tradition?

No. My parents were not religious at all. My first introduction to the concept of ‘God’ was at school. Apparently I was pretty annoyed at Mum and Dad for not having mentioned this whole thing about one bloke making the whole world. It’s not as if they ‘made me’ an atheist, they just didn’t see any point discussing it, and left me to find out for myself.

As a child I was generally agnostic until I was about 11 or 12. The religion I was agnostic on would have been that fluffy Anglicanism that we English cling on to. I was a cub scout and in St Johns Ambulance as a cadet, so every week I had to pledge to God (and the Queen), and I knew that I was lying (on both counts).

Q3. How would you describe ‘Intelligent Design’, using only one word?

Mistaken

Q4. What scientific endeavour really excites you?

That’s a really tough question, as there are loads of possible answers – the Human Genome project, space travel, quantum computing….

My background is Mathematics, and so it may not be ‘sexy’ or have an immediate impact, but I’d say Game Theory is a favourite, and I can apply it to playing Diplomacy.

Q5. If you could change one thing about the ‘atheist community’, what would it be and why?

I’m not sure that there is a ‘community’, or that there could or should be one. I’d rather that atheists as individuals didn’t attack religion for the sake of it, but on the other hand I’d also want them to defend each other more robustly when the religious attack some of us.

Q6. If your child came up to you and said ‘I’m joining the clergy’, what would be your first response?

I don’t have kids, so I don’t know how I’d react. I’d like to think I’d have some clue that a child of mine was religious already, so it shouldn’t be a massive shock. I’d probably make a joke about them getting a free house.

I would not force my atheism on my kids, just as my parents didn’t force theirs on me. I would, however bring my kids up to question everything, and I would certainly make sure that they were equipped to question their own beliefs (or lack thereof). If they decide that they want to become a priest, nun, whatever, then fine. As long as they are happy, and don’t try to convert me.

Q7. What’s your favourite theistic argument, and how do you usually refute it?

I’m not sure about it. The most common one is the idea that everything has to have had a beginning, and that beginning is God. The challenge (if not a refutation), is that this is unknowable. Time could be infinite, in which case there is no beginning.

Q8. What’s your most ‘controversial’ (as far as general attitudes amongst other atheists goes) viewpoint?

Dunno. Perhaps continuing to support the Labour Party even though Blair and Brown (and most leaders in fact) have been religiously motivated in some way.

Q9. Of the ‘Four Horsemen’ (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris) who is your favourite, and why?

I’ve not read much Dennett or Harris, but what I have is a little too confrontational for it’s own sake. Likewise, Hitchens just likes to take an argument and let loose the rhetoric to show how clever he is. When I agree with CH I can nod along vehemently, and when he’s wrong (as he is on Iraq in my opinion), he’s an annoying git.

So it’s Dawkins then, by default. Actually, I’ve read The God Delusion and it’s pretty well presented (and is often misrepresented in order to demonise him and through him all atheists), so it’s not just be default. He does, however, sometimes go a little too far when speaking.

Q10. If you could convince just one theistic person to abandon their beliefs, who would it be?

I can’t think of a specific person. Perhaps a Jehovah’s Witness who’s refusing to accept life saving treatment as a result of their beliefs.

Right, there it goes. I don’t nominate people to pick up a meme (in fact, if a meme is a true meme, it would be taken up without me needing to).

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Tory communalism again

Skuds has highlighted the odd case of Cllr Carol Eade, who manages to do the same job twice for two different places, by being a Borough Councillor for Furnace Green in Crawley and a District Councillor for Eastbrook in Adur at the same time.

Like Skuds did, I looked at her page on the Adur council website here, and found a few odd things in her profile.

My interests / hobbies :

I am now entering my forth year as a Councillor and have enjoyed being involved in many of the duties. I still read Chistian books but time and circumstances does not allowed long walks anymore.

Umm, surely you mean ‘fourth’, ‘Christian’ and ‘do not allow’, Carol?


When and why I have become a councillor :

One day, after a service at the Southwick Methodist Church, I was approached by a Conservative Member who asked me to become a Councillor. The pre-requisites were a female Christian. I said that I would think about it and two weeks later the same person addressed me with the same question and also asked my husband to become a Councillor. My husband and I went along to a Committee meeting at the Civic Centre to see how things were done. We made several enquiries and spoke with other Councillors before coming to the final decision of accepting the request. We both went for interviews and were accepted to stand for election. We were both elected in 2003 for one year and again in 2004 for a term of four years.

Clearly her term still ends in 2008, and there is no mention of the fact that she’s also a councillor in Crawley on her profile (I wonder what the people of Eastbrook think of that?).

What most intrigued me was the idea that she had been approached because of her religion and gender. As ‘pre-requisites’. Obviously more important than use of the English language (of course, we all make typos). So why did she have to be a ‘Christian’? I didn’t realise that the Tories, least of all the modern Cameroony fluffy ones of today, were specifically a Christian party. I wonder if that will come as a surprise to the recent Sikh recruits to the Tory banner in Ealing & Southall, or those who fought for seats alongside Cllr Eade here in Crawley this year. One of those, Jarnail Singh, now represents Southgate, my own neighbourhood, and was backed by the local Gurdwara.

Are the Tories exploiting religion for electoral gain? Will this backfire on them at some point? Events in the Ealing and Southall by-election suggest that it already is.

A good day in court

Not only did Lydia Playfoot lose in her bid to sue Millais school for enforcing its uniform policy, but Tesco decided not to contest the suspension of the license at Downland Drive after all, and removed all the booze from the shelves ready for a 28 day dry period.

I’d have a beer to celebrate, only I’ve run out, and the local shop has just lost it’s license.

People will insist that this doesn’t happen

MCB condemns terrorism & calls for people to help the policeSecretary General Muhammad Abdul Bari said:

“Those who seek to deliberately kill or maim innocent people are the enemies of us all. There is no cause whatsoever that could possibly justify such barbarity.”

Can’t argue with that, can we. However, I bet you that I read in the next few days several people saying things like “so where are all the ‘moderate’ muslims who are publicly disassociating themselves from terrorists” or even “with the silence from the muslim community, are all of them in sympathy with the bombers?”.

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Tories just like the SWP?

Cosying up with moralistic muslims, I mean. New Gold Dream looks into the past of new ‘Community Cohesion’ Shadow Cabinet member Sayeeda Warsi. She likes Tory policy because of the homophobia and uptightness about sex education. She’s also been quoted in the Times making numbers up concerning detention of terrorist suspects and stirring up tensions in Yorkshire:

She had believed that her detention statistics were correct at the time she wrote the Awaaz article, she said, adding: “I don’t believe that I have to justify everything I write, line by line and word by word.

“It may offend people sometimes but I will speak from the heart and speak the truth. And if speaking the truth is upsetting community relations, then I hold my hands up to that.”

So, she may spout rubbish, and it may upset community relations, but she believes in the essential truth of it. I wonder how much ‘truth’ she will speak in her new role?

Still she was on the Cameron A-list for Commons seats, but the latest elevation will mean she gets a peerage instead. So yet another person will get a seat in the House of Lords and to serve on a front bench without ever having been democratically elected (yes, I know that the same is true of government ministers, and I’m no happier about that)

[hat tip: transpero.net]

Unity on the Ring Thing

In an earlier post, I mentioned that the parents of Lydia Playfoot, the ‘Silver Ring Thing’ girl, were somewhat involved with the running of the Silver Ring Thing in the UK.

In a sterling post, Unity from Ministry of Truth explains in full detail that involvement, along with a few more details about the case and the organisation.

But there’s more. He also uncovers (with help from Tim Ireland the history of one Denise Pfeiffer, who appears to:

1) be involved with the PR firm which works for the Silver Ring Thing,
2) have been actually working for the Silver Ring Thing in 2004 as ‘Assistant National Director’,
3) be such a rabid Michael Jackson fan that she was charged with making obscene phone calls to the man who accused MJ of abusing his son (she was deported from the USA for that),
4) be the current or ex-girlfriend of one Clive Potter, BNP parliamentary candidate and a man heavily involved in the Solidarity ‘Trade Union’ and the Christian Council of Britain (both BNP fronts),
5) have, along with Potter, been involved in National Front activities in 2000 against the Leicester Mardi Gras,
6) be a lingerie model (at least in 2006)
7) work for ‘mediamarch’, an organisation which calls for lots of censorship
8) claim to be an ‘asexual’ and adult celibate

Blimey!

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The Silver Ring Thing Ding Dong

Odd case this one – a girl suing her school (which she’s leaving this year having finished her GCSEs) because they banned her from wearing her ‘Silver Ring Thing(tm)’ Ring. The SRT is a movement, not a religion. Check out the main website and its Vision and Business Plan. It is also a very odd idea. I have no problem with the idea of abstinence, although equally I don’t think it’s a big sin to have pre-marital sex. I think that making kids proclaim it with a ring is bizarre. But encouraging pledging kids to meet up and date but not go beyond a certain point, while expecting them to abide by their promise is startlingly naive and a recipe for failure. That’s not just my opinion, as a study from Texas bears out

The school concerned is Millais, in our neighbouring town of Horsham. Millais is an all-girls school, twinned with Forest Boys school. In three months time, most of the able students (and we can assume, I hope, that Lydia Playfoot is able) go on to do their A and AS levels at Collyer’s Sixth Form College.

I happened to go to Collyer’s myself, and the Millais girls were suddenly, at 16, among the testosterone-filled boys from Forest, not to mention the worldly lads from Tandridge (Horsham’s mixed school) and a few chirpy Crawley wide boys. A real test of anyone’s pledge of abstinence that, I think.

But, even so, the idea that a ring (a corporately produced one at that) is a religious symbol on a par with the Sikh kara bracelet is ridiculous. The kara is part of the central core of Sikhism, one of the ‘Five Ks’. While it is disputed, the Islamic practice of hijab has a real history. Millais would allow the wearing of a crucifix, a real Christian symbol, so it’s not like Christians are being persecuted or anything.

The fact that her parents are themselves heavily involved in the Silver Ring Thing in the UK suggests to me that this is not about her rights, as much as it is about their campaign. Now that is a true religious tradition – the use and control of the young to further the ends of the people running it.

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Arise Sir Salman

Not being a great fan of patronage and peerage, I’m not usually enthused by the Honours Lists. They are a way to recognise valuable individuals, particularly the local charity workers who may otherwise be unknown. However, it also means the usual list of old polticians, civil servants, military officers and employees of the Royal family getting a gong simply for having done a job.

This year’s Queen’s birthday list saw the knighthood of Salman Rushdie. It would be unremarkable for an esteemed author (not just a Booker, but the ‘Booker of Bookers’) to be honoured, except of course that there is more to his history.

When The Satanic Verses came out, he was accused of blasphemy (how a non-Muslim can be accused of blasphemy seems odd, surely any member of a religion that denies Allah’s place as the indivisible god of all creation is also a blasphemer). Famously, the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini condemned him to death in a fatwah.

Of course, this sort of thing undermines the idea that Islam is a religion of peace, or that it is robust enough to withstand criticism. Like the Danish cartoons affair of 2005/6, a deliberately provoked overreaction led to violence.

Today the Pakistani parliament did their best to calm tensions – by condemning the knighthood in a debate which included a government minister suggesting that it could justify suicide attacks. The Muslim Council of Britain called it an insult.

The real insult is actually the idea that people of a faith can dictate to everybody else what to read, what to say, or what to think.

While I have no problem with Muslims as people, and regard all religions as equally valid, I think that one’s beliefs are ones own affair, and should not be imposed on other people simply because they stem from a religion. That includes institutional control like a theocratic government and most definitely includes the threat of violence (or the justification of violence).

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Theo Hobson – pretentious and cowardly?

Reminding me why I don’t really intend to submit more pieces to the Guardian’s Comment is Free, along comes Theo Hobson with his: Atheism is pretentious and cowardly

A few choice quotes (as if the title wasn’t enough):

Atheism is pretentious in the sense of claiming to know more than it does. It claims to know what belief in God entails, and what religion, in all its infinite variety, essentially is. And atheism is muddled because it cannot decide on what grounds it ultimately objects to religion. Does it oppose it on the grounds of its alleged falsity? Or does it oppose it on the grounds of its alleged harmfulness?

For someone who thinks that atheism misunderstands what a belief in god entails, Theo seems to miserably miss the point about what atheism entails. The ultimate objection to religion, for most if not all proclaimed atheists, is that we don’t believe in a God or gods. After that comes the point when we notice the harmfulness of religion (and atheists and heretics have often felt that first hand in the dim and distant days of history).

Atheism is the belief that the demise of religion, and the rise of “rationality”, will make the world a better place. Atheism therefore entails an account of history – a story of liberation from a harmful error called “religion”. This narrative is jaw-droppingly naive.

Well, the last sentence is true, applied to Hobson’s text itself. Atheism is simply the lack of belief in a God(s), or the belief in a lack of God(s). While many atheists may wish that everybody else believed the same as they do, what most of us really only want is for the religious to stick to their own affairs and stop telling us what to do, based on their own beliefs. We don’t want to ‘impose’ atheism on people, or even necessarily ‘liberate’ them from religion, we just don’t agree with Christians and the other theists who believe in a variety of gods, some of whom seem to have determined that people who don’t worship them in a particular way are doomed to Hell, and should be repressed here on earth in the meantime.

Some will quibble with the above definition. Atheism is just the rejection of God, of any supernatural power, they will say, it entails no necessary belief in historical progress. This is disingenuous. The militant atheists have a moral mission: to improve the world by working towards the eradication of religion.

Quibble? No, it’s plain wrong. Atheism has no moral basis, it has a logical one. ‘Humanism’ has a moral basis, but that’s not what Hobson is attacking. As for the word ‘militant’? My goodness! While we are talking about R Dawkins, C Hitchens and AC Grayling, all they do is write and talk. Real militants use violence. That’s what ‘militant’ means – warlike, aggressive.

Let me take a step back, and ask a rather basic question. What is this thing that the atheists hate so much? What is religion? Believe it or not, I don’t know the answer. Indeed it seems to me that anyone who does claim to know is underestimating the complexity of the topic considerably. If the atheist deigns to define religion at all, he is likely to do so briskly and conventionally, as belief in and worship of some species of supernatural power. It’s a terribly inadequate definition. Dictionaries would do better to leave a blank, to admit ignorance.

Well, if a theologian doesn’t know what religion is, then who does? I despair…

In reality, “religion” is far wider than a belief in a supernatural power. This is only one aspect of what we mean by “religion”. For example there is surely something religious in the communal ecstasy of a rave, or a pop concert, or a play, or a sporting event, or a political rally. Some would say that these events are quasi-religious, that they echo religious worship, but are distinct from it. But how on earth is one to make the distinction? Is a yoga class “religious”?

What a load of piffle! A political rally as a religious experience? I suppose that makes the Communists and any other political movement you care to mention religious then? If a sporting event leads to violence, is it religiously motivated? The communal ecstasy of a rave may well be due to very real ecstasy, the drug MDMD, rather than some religious feeling.

What about a performance of a requiem? What about Hitchens’ own belief in the saving power of literature? In practice, “religion” cannot really be separated from “culture”.

Yes, it can. For example, street culture is rarely about religion.

The fact is that the relationship between religion, morality and politics is infinitely various and complex. The critic of religious abuses must be specific, particular. He must focus on particular practices, particular institutions, and explain why they have a detrimental effect on society. But the militant atheist cannot humbly limit himself to the realm of the particular; he necessarily lapses into sloppy generalisation.

‘sloppy generalisation’? Of course Hobson doesn’t dare do that, not even in the same sentence as criticising the fictional ‘militant athiest’ of it. Oh, he does.

I consider the atheist’s desire to generalise about religion to be a case of intellectual cowardice. The intellectual coward is one who chooses simplicity over complexity and difficulty. The militant atheist chooses to uphold a worldview of Animal Farm crudity: atheist good, believer bad.

Nope. If anything, it’s ‘atheism correct, theism incorrect’. But there is not really a moral imperative there. For Christians, it certainly is ‘Christianity good, everything else bad’, for Muslims it’s ‘Islam good, everything else bad’.

Is it intellectual cowardice to accept that we do not go to an afterlife, that this is all we have, the life we see? I think not. When you think about it, it’s a scary thought. The less brave prefer to cosset themselves in myths and dream of an infinite life of happiness, and the religious creeds promise such a life – if you just follow our rules…

There’s more – such as ad hominem attacks on Christopher Hitchens (at least one of which didn’t get into print as an editor snipped it out). But essentially Theo Hobson accuses the atheist (not always being careful to distinguish between the ‘militant’ variety and the general common-or-garden unbeliever) of pretentiousness while waffling on about how all culture is essentially religious, because some of the feelings in a big group of people are like the same feelings as we get in a church. He accuses them of intellectual cowardice when he hasn’t even got the courage to tell us what religion actually is. He attacks generalisations while concocting a picture of rampaging atheists in jackboots, stomping all over the poor fluffy religions and tarring all who choose not to believe in a God with the same brush.

Unsurprisingly, the comments below the article are heated and reactionary.

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