Religious vested interests, perhaps?

Might I suggest that job security might be on the minds of ‘Religious Education’ teachers calling for even more religious teaching in schools?

Developing young people’s “religious literacy” would help to make them less vulnerable to radicalisation, a conference will hear later.

“Good religious education has never been more needed,” Ed Pawson, chairman of the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education, will say.

But pupils will miss out unless the government addresses a shortage of RE teachers, he will warn.

The government said training bursaries would help to recruit more RE staff.

Might I also suggest that this time could be far better spent on countering the hateful, sexist, homophobic and brutal stone-age teaching of major religions?

The government said RE was a “vital part” of its plan to prepare young people for life in modern Britain by helping children to develop an understanding of the different faiths and cultures which make up our society.

Further, couldn’t the time be best spent on core life skills, so that children can leave school being able to read, write and deal with numbers? Personal finance, for example. More time on careers planning? Sex and relationships education.

In fact, on reflection, I can think of dozens of activities that would benefit schoolchildren far more than time spent learning about myths, legends and superstitions.

How about religious teaching is kept to the home, church, synagogue and mosque? Radicalisation won’t stop when kids spend more time learning about religion.

It will be countered when their own parents and religious ‘leaders’ stop filling their head with medieval nonsense and they realise that nobody has a right not to be ‘offended’.

Because “god” says so?

I came across some pretty slipshod and childish arguments from Tanya Gold in The Guardian this morning.

And the article has (predictably) unleashed a torrent of comments as a result – not all of them logical or even coherent. But that’s the internet for you. It was enough to prompt me to write about it here, despite the high risk of being accused of all kinds of dastardly intolerance.

Her central thesis in this article is: banning of male circumcision is anti-semitic by default. She decries those who would put female genital mutilation and male circumcision in the same category and argues that continuation of male circumcision is essential for the continuation of Judaism.


What she neatly side-steps – and many commenters helpfully point out – is that “because my god says so” is not really an acceptable argument in any adult debate. If you want to lop pieces of yourself off as a demonstration of your religious affiliation, then I’m all for your freedom to do it. When you are old enough to understand the long-term consequences of this act.

But if you choose to do the same to an infant, who has no say in the matter and no conception of what it is to believe in a god, then I believe you’ve overstepped the mark.

Children have no say in what family they are born into. They have no say in what religion (if any) they have imposed on them. As they grow, they develop their own outlook on the world and maturity and life experience may combine such that they leave the beliefs of their parents behind.

They may decide to take a different life path in terms of political affiliation, career focus or indeed religious belief. All are up for discussion, debate and conscious decision.

Except, if as a baby, religious believers decided to take a piece of your genitals off to appease an all-knowing and all-loving “god”.

That, as you might imagine, is quite hard to change. And serves as a constant and visible reminder to you of what you are supposed to believe in.

The central fear – it strikes me – of religious people who want to impose religious marks on infants is that, if given the option to experience it as an adult instead, their son or daughter may well refuse and instead, walk away from that religion. So, the logic appears to be, get ’em before they’re old enough to say no.

As secular thinkers have frequently pointed out, there is no such thing as a religious/Christian/Jewish baby. They are the child of religious parents. When they’re older, then they’ll be religious. Or not, as the case may be.

I don’t think it’s helpful to resort to accusations of anti-semitism (and worth noting that “Islamophobia” is a term distinctly lacking from her piece, although male circumcision is routinely practiced as part of that faith) and her constant referrals to the fact that the politician who wrote this report was German is just childish.

It’s also unhelpful to simply say male circumcision and female genital mutilation are one and the same in terms of impact on the child. But I’d argue that it’s a spectrum of impact and they’re both at the negative end of the spectrum.

I’m no expert on children’s health and would never claim to be, but I am simply seeking to point out that using illogical, ancient religious (fear-based) arguments in support of circumcision, while wildly throwing around accusations of intolerance, does nobody any good. To me, this fits into the same category as limiting the rights of women, affording second-class rights to “non-believers” and shielding your children from scientific facts that fly in the face of ancient and inaccurate religious dogma.

It simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

It’s 2013 and I firmly believe that using religious belief to side-step concerns about the wellbeing of children is just plain wrong. I’m a secularist and believe that everyone has the right to practice their belief system in peace. But if tenets of that belief system impact the lives, peace and wellbeing of others, well then…you and I will disagree.

And please don’t expect me to walk on eggshells around those beliefs. I can respect you without respecting your religious beliefs.

Now crisps. What next?

In an episode worthy of the best Monty Python sketch, a group calling itself “Protect the Pope” has intimidated Pret a Manger so much that they’ve withdrawn a range of crisps for sale.

Funnily enough, I thought I was living in a democracy in the UK, not some form of medieval theocracy. Courtesy of The Independent:

The sandwich chain Pret A Manger has caved into religious protests and withdrawn its new Virgin Mary crisps. The own-brand variety was pulled from the shelves after a campaign led by the Catholic organisation Protect the Pope. Catholics had complained the name was offensive because of the reference to Christ’s mother, despite it also being the common name for the non-alcoholic version of the Bloody Mary cocktail.

They’re even flavoured the same as a Bloody Mary and there was no religious iconography on the packaging (that’s “pictures”, for you poorly educated scared religious zealots). Will “Protect the Pope” now visit every bar in the UK protesting every time they encounter “Virgin Mary” on the cocktail list?

Here’s a thought, guys. Instead of kicking up a fuss about packets of crisps in your efforts to “Protect the Pope”, how about reflecting on the massive child abuse committed by the very same religion you’re trying to foist on the rest of us. It’s not the pope that needs protecting, it’s the children exposed to the hate-filled nonsense you’re peddling.

Here’s another thought. You can certainly be offended at what a business like Pret does. What you don’t understand is that you don’t have the right to force your ideals on the rest of society. Take all that pent-up frustration that we’re not living in a fundamentalist state and do something useful with it. Something that might go so way to make up for the untold hurt and suffering your clergy inflicted on children all over the world.

I’m sure if you weren’t so selective in your interpretation of the bible, you might find a few passages about turning the other cheek, helping the poor and needy and so on.

An utter nonsense

I’m sorry to say even the BBC jumped on the bandwagon today and trumpeted “British Airways   discriminated against Christian”. To me, it demonstrates that they – and most other media outlets – missed the main lesson shared in Strasbourg today – it’s not acceptable to use your own religious belief as an excuse for discriminating against others.

Forget the BA employee and her medieval attachment to a religious icon. Let her wear her cross. She’s a distraction, as far as I’m concerned. Let’s focus on the other cases heard at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg today.

They included someone who refused to conduct civil partnership ceremonies for gay couples and a counsellor who refused to counsel gay couples. Both of these people lost their cases, upholding the law that makes illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.

Let’s celebrate this common sense decision and challenge the belief that Christians are somehow discriminated against in this country. There is absolute freedom of religion, but there is no freedom to use your archaic beliefs to restrict the rights of others.

Isn’t it interesting though, that with all the chaos and disaster in this world, even in this country, it’s the fact that two people of the same gender want to express their love for one another that has the religious so up in arms.

Your conscience versus my rights…

Yet another example of a service provider’s “religious beliefs” and “conscience” preventing them from providing a key healthcare requirement to a member of the public.

The 29 year old woman was reportedly “stunned” and “gobsmacked” when she asked for the pill (for which she had a prescription) and was told that she would have to go to another shop in town as the pharmacist wouldn’t fulfil the prescription because she had religious objections.

The mother says just moments before she was refused the pill, the same member of staff had served methadone to a heroin addict.

It’s an unclear and emotive issue, but quite simply I’d argue that if Boots want to allow their employees to exercise their conscience, they need to ensure that at least one member of staff per shift is prepared to fill all doctors’ prescriptions and provide a full service to the public. Otherwise, they need to make it clear to customers that they reserve the right to refuse service, depending on the personal perspectives of their employees.

And the public can make up their mind as to whether they want to spend their money at Boots.

What if you don’t live in a major city? What if there is only one pharmacist in town? Why should their belief in one particular religion prevent you from accessing medication that a doctor has approved?

I’d argue it’s wrong. Quite wrong.

Food for thought: Secularism 2011

I almost didn’t go to the National Secular Society‘s 2011 Conference on Secularism. But I am so glad I did.

A nasty bout of insomnia meant I wasn’t at my best first thing yesterday morning. I had to peel myself out of a comfortable bed to race over to Holborn in record time. Amazingly, I was only 10 minutes late.

I then spent the rest of the day listening to passionate, thought-provoking speakers talking about incredibly relevant national issues which I think can be summed up as: the influence of religion on national life. A topic like secularism can be dismissed as a theoretical or abstract concept – these speakers ensured that everyone understood the impact of religious or superstitious thought on society in very real terms.

A couple of talks stood out for me in particular. Dr. Antony Lempert from the Secular Medical Forum spoke eloquently about his family’s experience of trying to secure a religion-free education for his daughter. It highlighted  the influence that the established church has on education in the UK but also the fact that parents seeking a non-religious education for their children are starting from a disadvantaged position.

This cuts to the heart of the secularist agenda. It’s not about attacking religion or denying anyone their religious freedom. It’s about ensuring that everyone, regardless of their religious belief or lack thereof is viewed as equal before the state.

Dr. Edward Presswood gave a very entertaining presentation on the impact of superstition in the NHS, illustrating that avoiding numbering beds in a ward as “No. 13″ is the thin end of a wedge which also includes paying religious chaplains significantly more than nurses and providing Homeopathic Hospitals.

There were of course dissenting voices. Baroness Mary Warnock emphasised that she believed there is a place for an established church in the UK, drawing murmurs of disapproval from many in the audience. She pointed out that she enjoys ceremony and religious music and that national religious ceremonies give the public a necessary excuse to come together as a community.

I would argue you can do all of these things without having the Church of England in its privileged position, leading national prayer. But dissent is what a conference like this is all about. If I wanted to sit in an audience and agree with every word that was said, I’d be in a church!

Sue Cox, from the Survivor’s Voice Europe, was simply an inspiration. I wish I could have made it through the crowd at the end waiting to congratulate her and just shake her hand. Anne Marie Waters from the One Law for All campaign pointed to the very real dangers of permitting concurrent legal systems, based on religious dogma, to sit alongside the existing UK legal system. They are inherently biased against the rights of women and undermine the cohesion of the country. Her passion and belief were infectious.

What followed were three excellent hours of debate… in the pub! Meeting presenters and other attendees, we continued to discuss the points raised. Not always agreeing, we respected each others positions. The common thread, regardless of party politics, was a desire to see a more level playing field and the removal of unwanted religious influence on our lives.

My thanks to the National Secular Society for a thought-provoking day, to the speakers for sharing their expertise, and to the other attendees for fuelling such positive debate and conversation afterwards. It is impossible to effectively summarise all of the content from the conference in a single blog post, so I’ll be returning to some of these themes again in the future.

Pope? Nope…

Have you heard? The Pope is coming to the UK! Oh happy day. I can’t wait.

Or can I…?

I was originally going to avoid passing comment on the Pope’s impending arrival in the neighbourhood, but recent articles defending him and his church have prompted me to put my thoughts down.

Bur first, a disclaimer. I was raised a Catholic and educated in a Catholic school. Mind you, by the time I was a student there, most of the priests were purely ornamental, having passed responsibility for day-to-day education to ‘lay’ teachers. I have long since removed myself from the Catholic Church, not as a result of a sudden awakening , or any single event I experienced. It was a slow, gradual realisation that I fundamentally disagreed with much of what was said and done by the church and could no longer consider myself a member.

I’m not, on the other hand, vehemently anti-religion. I believe that everyone has the right to respect, though their beliefs certainly do not. I don’t want someone else’s religious or spiritual beliefs to impact my freedom of thought or action. What they do themselves is none of my business.

So, about this visit. Here’s why I feel it’s inappropriate to fete the pope and his entourage. He presides over an organisation that has shielded child-rapists from the civil powers in a range of jurisdictions over a period of decades (that we are aware of). Even when made aware of these crimes, he has failed to act decisively and has instead raised a smokescreen of vague language, seeking to somehow implicate homosexuality in the paedophile scandals. Even now, senior clergy are attempting to silence the victims of these crimes. Bishops, Archbishops and Cardinals are doing their very best to sweep this child abuse under the carpet.

This article, in today’s Evening Standard (a newspaper of such quality that it’s given away for free) set my teeth on edge. It equates criticism of the Pope with attacks on members of the church as a whole. I don’t blame all Catholics for the child abuse scandals. But I blame every Catholic who silently obeyed orders from the clergy to ignore complaints from children, to shield paedophile priests or to avoid involving the authorities.

This is not about criticising the religion itself. It’s about  pointing out the weaknesses in the global organisation that represent the religion. I reserve the right to critique any belief in a god or gods. I don’t see why I should accept such beliefs as valid. And, despite what the fragrant Rosamund Urwin has to say in this evening’s Standard, I’m quite happy to turn my secular perspective on any belief system.

I’ll say it again: this is not about being anti-Catholic or anti-Christian. It’s about being able to stand up and say I don’t agree that the Pope should be free to visit the UK and not have to see or hear the many thousands of people here who want to protest against his views, his administration and the impact his religious doctrine has had on children all over the world.

It would appear that Urwin doesn’t want any form of protest:

Catholicism’s critics have only one focus now: the Pontiff’s state visit to our country in just over two week’s time. This should be a cause for celebration. Instead, if the anti-Catholic campaigners have their way, the trip will be marred by vuvuzelas, protesters and blocked streets.

That’s what is known as a free and open democracy. The very opposite of how the Catholic Church is run. The people of the UK do not live in a theocracy and are – at the time of writing – quite free to protest about things with which they disagree. (I would also ask: why should his arrival be “cause for celebration”?)

To those who plan to protest the Pope’s visit, I say: go for it. Let him know you disagree with what he has done and what he continues to do.

However, I can’t help but wonder if a much more powerful sign would be to refuse to acknowledge his present at all. Instead of standing on the streets shouting, you could perhaps do something more positive to undermine his influence. Give your time or money to one of the many charities that looks after the people whom he shuns. You may like to consider The Albert Kennedy Trust.

I’ll leave it up to you.

You’ve been a very naughty boy…

I had to remind myself what year it was the other day. I’m not losing my mental faculties, but was slightly worried that I’d either been plunged back into the dark ages or had somehow missed some sort of fundamentalist religious coup. Why? Well, it would appear that one Cherie Blair was taking religious belief into account when sentencing a man for a violent crime. That is, she spared him a jail sentence because he believed in god:

The former prime minister’s wife, who sits as a judge as Cherie Booth QC, told Shamso Miah that she would suspend his prison sentence because he was a “religious man”.

Miah, a devout Muslim, had been convicted of breaking a man’s jaw with two punches after a dispute in a bank queue in East Ham, London. The 25-year-old had gone to the bank from a local mosque.

Miss Booth, who has made no secret of her strong Roman Catholic faith, appeared to indicate that she was taking into account Miah’s religious beliefs as she opted for a lenient sentence.

“I am going to suspend this sentence for the period of two years based on the fact you are a religious person and have not been in trouble before,” she told him at Inner London Crown Court.

“You caused a mild fracture to the jaw of a member of the public standing in a queue at Lloyds Bank. You are a religious man and you know this is not acceptable behaviour.”

This is wrong on any number of levels. Firstly, religion (or more accurately, professed religious belief) should have no bearing in a trial that does not have matters of religious belief at its very core (e.g. a religiously-motivated hate crime, religious discrimination claim etc.). This man, muslim or not, was guilty of a violent physical attack on another person and should have felt the full force of the law. Cherie Booth decided she knew better and spared him prison time because he was a “religious person”.

Secondly, as an atheist, should I be worried that the converse will also be true in future court cases? Will a lack of religious belief condemn me to a harsher punishment? Should I decide to stoop to Miah’s level and knock six bells out of someone on the street, will I automatically go to jail because I don’t go to a church/mosque/temple?

Finally, and most worryingly, is this evidence of a new trend of legal decision-makers projecting their own religious beliefs into the sentencing process? Will co-religionists go easier on convicted criminals because they believe in the same imaginary friend? Will they use the same “you should have known better” argument as Booth?

Shouldn’t this logic work in reverse if they really believe in what they profess? That is, as a convicted violent criminal, a religious man who claims to know right from wrong, you should know better and as a result I’m sending you to jail.

The bottom line: in a secular society, citizens should stand equal before the law, irrespective of where they thing we all came from and where we’re going to.

I’m happy to learn that the National Secular Society has made an official complaint to the Office for Judicial Complaints. I don’t anticipate Cherie Booth making any form of apology – I’m not even sure it’s possible without adversely impacting the conviction in this case. But I also don’t think we should sit silently while religion’s influence is felt in secular offices such as the court room.