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Newsline 15 November 2013

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Baroness Warsi and her self-serving anti-secular agenda

Baroness Warsi and her self-serving anti-secular agenda

Opinion | Wed, 13 Nov 2013

Baroness Warsi, the Coalition's "Minister for Faith" is no friend of the National Secular Society. Why should she be? Her role is the very antithesis of secularism.

For a Government Minister whose brief is to promote religion in politics, she does not seem to understand much about secularism. Or if she does, then she is actively misrepresenting it. She tries to give the impression that secularists in some way seek to deny the right of religious people to express their faith and that there is some kind of repressive agenda in secularism. There is not.

Does she not know that the American constitution is secular? Is the US Government repressing religion? Or has secularism protected America from the sectarian warfare and bloodshed that has plagued Europe for millennia?

In her anxiety to promote the idea that religion and government belong together, Warsi makes statements without factual basis, distorts statistics and edits out inconvenient truths.

Her latest masterwork was a speech full of divisive rhetoric that she delivered to a "Faith in Politics" conference at the University of Cambridge Churchill Archives. You can read the whole thing here.

Let's have a look at some of what she says:

"You only have to look around this building to see the evidence. Winston Churchill's letters, speeches and papers make repeated references to faith."

This is true, but they were not always complimentary. Take this from his book The River War:

"How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries! Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy. The effects are apparent in many countries, improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live. A degraded sensualism deprives this life of its grace and refinement, the next of its dignity and sanctity. The fact that in Mohammedan law every woman must belong to some man as his absolute property, either as a child, a wife, or a concubine, must delay the final extinction of slavery until the faith of Islam has ceased to be a great power among men.

"Individual Moslems may show splendid qualities, but the influence of the religion paralyzes the social development of those who follow it. No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith. It has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step, and were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science, the science against which it (Islam) has vainly struggled, the civilization of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilization of ancient Rome."

Lady Warsi brushes this inconvenient truth aside by saying:

"Churchill may have had some interesting things to say about Islam. But I will leave it to Warren Dockter to address that issue specifically, and I am interested to read his new book on the subject. Personally, I think Churchill's own removal of his passage on Islam from 'The River War' shows that he revised and contextualised some of these views. After all, this was a man who argued for 'a spirit of religious toleration'."

Of course, Churchill wrote in other books about the evils of "Mohamedanism" which he didn't retract. Some of the things he wrote would, these days, get him locked up. That Baroness Warsi can put Churchill up as an exemplar of religious tolerance is a measure of her delusion. Or maybe her dishonesty.

Churchill was convinced that Christianity was the true "religion of peace" and, as he wrote in The Story of the Malakand Field Force:

"In each case civilisation is confronted with militant Mahommedanism. The forces of progress clash with those of reaction. The religion of blood and war is face to face with that of peace. Luckily the religion of peace is usually the better armed."

Later in the speech Baroness Warsi claims that 78% of this country "profess a religion", and that during the previous Labour governments "faith was being sidelined, even dismissed".

This claim is based on the oft-quoted comment by Alistair Campbell that Tony Blair's government didn't "do God". But to claim that Tony Blair or Gordon Brown were 'anti-religious' is manifestly untrue. Campbell was saying that the Government was secular not anti-religious – which is what Warsi would have you believe.

She now says that the Coalition is:

"Giving religion a voice at the top table. Not a privileged position, but an equal informer of the debate. This is further proof, as one commentator put it, that the Coalition is the most pro-faith government in the West."

We don't mind the Government being "pro-faith" (but not one particular faith) but we care very much that religion is an "equal informer" at the top table. We know what that leads to.

Baroness Warsi, however, seems able to edit from her memory the sour and bloody history of this country during periods when religion and government were as one.

She makes the bland claim that "people who do religion, do good".

Sometimes they do. But, as Andy McSmith points out in the Independent there are plenty that don't:

"Osama bin Laden, the Taliban, the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda and the perpetrators of the 11 September atrocities all claimed in their different ways to be doing God's work. When Bloody Mary had Protestants burned alive, or Oliver Cromwell drowned Ireland in Catholic blood, they, too, were 'doing God'."

The religious privilege on which Baroness Warsi is so keen, undermines British democracy. Even though no-one ever elected her, Lady Warsi claims to speak for the nation when she says we need more religion in schools and more public services handed over to religious groups to run.

Perhaps if she wants to keep her seat in Government she should stand at the ballot box and ask the electorate what it wants for the country, rather than relying on God to tell her what it wants on their behalf.

Change is overdue to our sectarian coronation – even the heir to the throne seems to think so

Change is overdue to our sectarian coronation – even the heir to the throne seems to think so

Opinion | Tue, 12 Nov 2013

The day after we announced that we were seeking lawyers' opinions on the Human Rights implications of the coronation and accession oaths, one of which, for example, requires the monarch to uphold the "Protestant religion as established by law", the Daily Telegraph published an article about Prince Charles's approach to religion. It seems the heir to the throne might share at least some of the NSS's view that Britain is a much more diverse society now than when his mother was crowned in 1953 and that this should be reflected in any ceremony that marks the beginning of his reign.

Of course, Prince Charles would probably want a "multi-faith" coronation, whereas we would like a properly secular one that placed any religious element the monarch wanted in a service supplementary and separate from the constitutional investiture.

Back in 2008, Rowan Williams, the then-Archbishop of Canterbury also seemed to be in agreement that "it wouldn't be the end of the world" if the Church was disestablished. He told the New Statesman: "I think that the notion of the monarch as supreme governor has outlived its usefulness. I believe increasingly that the church has to earn the right to be heard by the social world. Establishment is just one of those things that make it slightly harder."

This legal and constitutional element of the coronation should be carried out on secular premises, perhaps in Buckingham Palace or Westminster Hall, and then if Charles wants to go to church or mosque or temple there's no reason why he shouldn't. But that would be his personal choice in his own time and would have no constitutional significance.

A secular coronation would take into account not only the fact that some 7% of the population are of faiths other than Christian, but also that a third (more by some measures) of Britain now regards itself as non-religious. Indeed, as NSS researcher Barry Thorpe has found, Britain's current investiture of a monarch with such overt religious associations is an anomaly within the context of the rest of Europe.

We could retain the pomp, the Golden coach with its liveried footmen and the fireworks and the red-coated soldiers with their plumed hats. It seems Britain likes a touch of Ruritania from time to time when we can wave flags and watch a grand procession.

But if we are to retain a monarchy in this country (and many think we should not, although that is not part of the NSS's agenda) and the monarch is to be head of state, then he or she should not also be ex officio head of the Church of England, or any other particular religion or denomination. That would be a worthwhile step closer to asserting we're all included as equal citizens and our religion (or lack of it) has no bearing on our constitutional status.

There are all kinds of complications involved in the monarchy's relationship with Scotland and with the Catholic Church. These are anomalies that have accumulated through history and realistically are unlikely to be corrected before the next coronation. It would all be made a tad easier were Scotland to opt for independence (not that we are advocating that).

The Church of England, of course, does not want any change from the situation as it was in 1953. Its reaction to the newspaper reports of our legal consultations were spiky and had a sort of panicky ring to them. Instead of justifying their continued presence on the establishment they launched a rather pathetic attack on the NSS.

Attacking their critics is an easy way to avoid a question they would prefer was not asked. But if Britain is to enter the 21st century as a modern democracy, it is an essential question and a debate that must be had.

Our questioning of the legality of the coronation oath certainly seems to have started that debate among some, with even the rattled Church of England source saying he feared legal action could be feasible. Some of the thousands of comments from people "below the line" of the newspaper reports were not very well informed. However, most came down as either seeing this as "yet another" attack on their religious beliefs from the NSS (it is not) or recognising that the world has changed significantly since 1953 and our constitutional arrangements must change with it.

Is the NSS attacking the monarchy? No. Is the NSS attacking the Church of England? No. Each could go about its business unhindered after the changes were made.

We are simply asking that the next coronation is much more inclusive and echoes the reality of modern-day Britain – which is no longer one nation under God. It is one nation under many gods –and for an increasing number, no God at all.

A search for truth, or a trojan horse for religion in schools?

A search for truth, or a trojan horse for religion in schools?

Opinion | Tue, 12 Nov 2013

Alistair McBay questions the objectivity of a new educational resource that claims to "review, objectively and dispassionately, the case for the existence of God".

A new DVD resource was launched this week at the Scottish Storytelling Centre that claims to review, objectively and dispassionately, the case for the existence of God. It examines three fields – the cosmos; life and evolution; and the mind and consciousness. A ten minute preview is available here.

The resource, under the heading "The God Question", claims to review the evidence for and against the existence of God and to leave viewers to draw their own conclusions, with its producers insisting that "we do not seek to influence the answer". It has been commissioned by a Scottish charity called the Search for Truth Charitable Trust, whose chair, Professor John Spence, claims "no funding partners at any stage attempted to have any influence on the editorial content on the series", although he provides no information as to who these funding partners are. Interestingly, its two charitable objectives as listed on the Scottish Charity Register are "the advancement of education, the advancement of religion". Production of the website is by Sanctus Media, a specialist company serving the Church and charity marketplace operating from a base in St. Andrew's Church, Bo'ness, Scotland. Production of the DVDs and teaching materials is by Kharis Productions, set up in 2002 by Iain Morris who has produced materials for Christian ministries such as the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association – for which he produced more than thirty documentaries.

So given the provenance of the product, the issue of neutrality and whether the opposing arguments — and indeed the evidence — are presented dispassionately and objectively will be a key test, and the tests appear quite quickly on the website. As an example, the homepage states that "Science is unable to explain why consciousness exists or what it is". But you won't find a sentence that says just as bluntly that neither does religion. Likewise, the introductory page to the Cosmos section states "In the series' first episode, high profile atheists and theists battle to establish whether the science of the cosmos appears to bolster the case for atheism or to herald its demise". This suggests that the pre-existing cosmological case is one that supports theism and the existence of a creator, and it's up to the atheists to disprove it. Balance or bias?

Contributors are colour-coded on the The God Question website using purple for theists, green for atheists and grey for neutrals, and are a fascinating mix. For conspiracy theorists who like that sort of thing, there are 10 green atheists, 23 purple theists, and 19 grey neutrals.

From the green side we have the late Christopher Hitchens, the inevitable Richard Dawkins, UCL evolutionary biologist Steve Jones, the author of The End of Faith Sam Harris , the sceptic Michael Shermer, author of Genesis Revisited – A Scientific Creation Story, and the philosopher Daniel Dennett.

Ranked against in the purple patch are the Christian apologist William Lane Craig, the former Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks, Rev Dr John Polkinghorne, Rev Professor Michael Reiss, and Dr William Dembski, labelled as an American philosopher, theologian, a supporter of the Intelligent Design (ID) movement and Senior fellow of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture. We also have Dr Kenneth Miller, an evolutionary biologist who sees no conflict between his Catholic faith and his science, but who argued cogently and successfully for the plaintiffs in the celebrated Kitzmuller versus Dover Area School District case in Pennsylvania in 2005 concerning the teaching of ID in Pennsylvania schools. In the process he completely exposed the scientific fraud in the controversial ID book Of Pandas and People and in 2011 was presented with the Stephen Jay Gould Prize by the Society for the Study of Evolution.

One might raise an eyebrow or two at the categorisation of the neutrals, although as the definition of 'neutral' is not given, one has to exercise caution as to its exact interpretation. For example, one of the most celebrated neutrals here is Dr John Rutter, of choral music fame. A Fellow of the Guild of Church Musicians, in 1996 the Archbishop of Canterbury conferred a Lambeth Doctorate of Music upon him in recognition of his contribution to church music.

Another neutral is Professor Michael Ruse, who is in fact a self-proclaimed atheist and Dawkins critic (in so far as the latter's God Delusion is concerned) who is labelled as taking the position that the Christian faith can be reconciled with evolutionary theory.

The teaching resource has already found favour with the Church of Scotland, with the Reverend Sandy Fraser commenting: "Even the Humanist Society of Scotland should approve the open-ended approach of this resource and its emphasis on making up your own mind from the evidence presented."

So, is The God Question objective and dispassionate, and does it do exactly as it says on the tin? What evidence is being presented for the existence of a deity, and how is it being presented? If science can't explain consciousness, is the viewer railroaded into believing that religion does? Is the study of cosmology heralding the demise of atheism? Is a question framed in this manner balanced or biased?

It seems to me that the proponents of creationism and ID and from an exclusively Christian platform (immediate evidence of bias?) have got their wish after all – to get their position into schools under the 'teach the controversy' banner and what appears to be the pretence of open-mindedness and an evidence basis. In fact, the Church of Scotland urges its readers in its Life & Work magazine this month: "Why not, as a gift from your church, present the DVDs and a class set of Study Guides with Leader's Manual to your local school?" Isn't it appropriate at this time of year to ask if turkeys vote for Christmas?

I wonder if the use of these materials will be controlled and restricted to classes on religious and moral education (RME) or if time will be given over in the science curriculum to debate these issues. Just this month in a letter to the Scottish Secular Society, Alasdair Allan, Minister for Education in the Scottish Government stressed that "Creationism is not a scientific theory and is not a topic within the curriculum framework in Scotland". I do hope that holds true, although I fear the producers of this package could easily fool educators into believing that their approach is unbiased and evidence-based. We shall see.

Alistair McBay is the NSS spokesperson in Scotland. The views expressed in our blogs are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the NSS.

Egypt ranks worst for women’s rights in the Arab world

Egypt ranks worst for women’s rights in the Arab world

News | Thu, 14 Nov 2013

The Thomson Reuters Foundation has released the findings of its third annual poll of women's rights in the Arab world.

Turkish court lifts ban on hijabs for lawyers at bar association

Turkish court lifts ban on hijabs for lawyers at bar association

News | Tue, 12 Nov 2013

The Turkish Supreme Court has lifted the ban on female lawyers wearing hijabs when registering with the Turkish Bar Association.

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NSS Speaks Out

The NSS's campaign to de-religionise the cenotaph and Remembrance Day ceremonies was covered by the Mail on Sunday. The Sunday Times (subscription) carried a story about the NSS's questioning of the Church of England's domination of the coronation oath.

The Remembrance Day story was subsequently taken up by the Independent and the Guardian, who also covered the coronation oath. The story then appeared in newspapers around the world including The Australian.

Terry Sanderson was interviewed about the coronation on BBC Radio Leeds. He also spoke about about the Archbishop of Canterbury's claim that he has a right to interfere in politics on LBC radio.

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