Sunday, 3 October 2010

Who Knows What?

There has been a flurry of interest in and much speculation about the recent Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life survey on US Religious Knowledge. The survey asked a cross-section of the American public about their knowledge of the various doctrines, practices and beliefs of their own and other religions. It also put the same questions to those of no belief.

Many have expressed surprise at the headline finding that atheists and agnostics had better scores than religious people, especially the evangelical Protestants and many Catholics. Daniel Dennett has written an article analysing the results and suggesting explanations for this disparity.

Whilst many in the UK and Europe have no doubt expressed a little amusement at this survey, I can't help but wonder, despite the common study of comparative religion in our schools, whether our results in a similar study conducted here would differ so greatly.

I am often stunned at the complete ignorance of the diversity of belief within the various Christian denominations, and the often false beliefs about other religious groups, if people are even aware of their existence. The ignorance of beliefs within their own religion and denominations is similarly common, if my experiences are anything to go by. It seems ridiculous to me, and I'm sure to many others that people are building their lives around the profession of religious faith, whilst being less than knowledgeable about the doctrines, practices and distinctions of the group which they choose to identify with. Furthermore, the ignorance of, and misconceptions about, other religions must surely be even more widespread.

Many people will regard this as having little relevance to them and their lives, but as religious fundamentalism shows little sign of abating, and is actually multiplying in the western industrialised societies, then this is relevant to us all. Had we the proper safeguards of a truly secular society, then we could ignore this to some extent, but we do not have such a society; religious influence is embedded within the establishment of many nations, regardless of the actual beliefs of their people. Nor can we ignore the blight that such ignorance has on the lives of individuals, whether in terms of the discrimination they may face, the opportunities denied to them, and the simple pleasure and clarity of the truth, when revealed. If you are going to choose to follow a faith-based religion, and embrace it's practice with all that that entails, then surely you should at least know what that religion actually professes, and what the alternatives are?

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Josef Ratzinger's Big Fat Lie

Josef Ratzinger started his papal visit to the United Kingdom by repeating a common, but demonstrable, lie; that of the atheism of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, and sought to discredit modern atheism and secularism with this lie. He stated that he wished to extend the hand of friendship to the people of Britain, yet then proceeded to insult the majority of them, by seeking to tar British secularists, and those of no religious belief, with the same brush as totalitarian and racist Nazism. I don't know about you, but I think that insulting 58% of the population (National Centre for Social Research, 2009 - the most recent figures available) is a strange way to extend the hand of friendship (text of the speech).

Mr Ratzinger is visiting this country on a state visit, not a private or pastoral one. There are certain conventions to be observed when doing so, not least when this privilege is not extended to any other religious leader, and when it is a status dubiously conferred. He might have been expected to be more careful what he said, especially given the racist and intemperate remarks of one of his aides, Cardinal Kaspar (conveniently taken ill immediately afterwards), shortly before the visit began.

Of course, anyone may choose to advance their views with impunity, assuming they do so within the law, especially if justified by reason and evidence, but to attempt to do so when the basis of the remarks is demonstrably false, and should be known as such by the speaker, is disingenuous and offensive, and highly unwise.

Josef Ratzinger attempts to paint Adolf Hitler, and other principal Nazis, as an atheist. He seeks to associate modern atheists in Britain, and beyond, with Nazi ideology, and to distance his own religious sect from complicity with that regime, and, by doing so, seeks to advance the interests of his own Church. In doing so, he is lying, and either he knows this and seeks to deceive others, or he is deluding himself. The pope is often presented to the world as an educated and scholarly theologian, and as someone who had experience growing up under this detested regime. Indeed, we are often reminded that he was forced to serve in the Hitler Youth, and that he deserted when able to do so, and that his family opposed Nazism. So, Josef Ratzinger should, better than most, know the falsehood of his assertion, and the true nature of that regime.

Adolf Hitler was raised a Catholic, as were many of the leading Nazis, and his writings in Mein Kampf, and many of his subsequent documents and speeches, confirm his belief in a god. Indeed, he was very clear that his anti-semitism and his social attitudes were coloured strongly by the teachings and doctrine of the Catholic Church. This should be hardly surprising to Josef Ratzinger, or anyone else, since it was 1965 before the Catholic Church revoked its doctrine that taught that all Jews, past and present, were responsible for the death of Jesus of Nazareth, and that god had rejected all the Jews because of this.

The Catholic Church was not unique in this dogma at that time (the Lutherans in Germany had a similar doctrine), but it was the Catholic Church that had sown the seed in Adolf Hitler's youthful mind. It was this teaching, loudly and repeatedly proclaimed throughout the Catholic Church, which made it easy for so many Catholics (and similarly for the Lutherans), to condone Nazi anti-semitism, and for those actively engaged in the persecution of Jews, and in their later killing in the Holocaust, to do so with equanimity. The Catholic Church bears much of the responsibility for the anti-semitism of Hitler, and the Nazi party, and for the Final Solution that resulted.

His actions, once in power, confirmed his active support for the Catholic faith, giving it a privileged place amongst the religions in Germany at that time, as evidenced by the Reichskonkordat between himself and pope Pius XII. Indeed, Pius XI enthusiastically embraced the new regime, and even instructed priests throughout Germany to say prayers for the Fuhrer on his birthday, and to promote Catholic involvement in the Nazi Party. There are many photographs and films showing Catholic priests and bishops present at, and participating in, Nazi Party rallies and social events. As Mr Ratzinger alludes, some Catholic priests spoke out against the regime, but so did many other religious leaders, trade unionists, socialists, and, especially, many of the non-religious people - the atheists and freethinkers of Germany.

Some of those priests undoubtedly paid with their lives, but many more Catholic clerics either dared not say a word, despite their supposed faith, or actively supported a regime which contravened their alleged morality. Many of the other non-clerics, who spoke against the regime, also paid with their lives. However, those priests did not die because they were Catholic, or even because they believed in a god; like the others, it was because they dared to oppose Hitler's regime. This was not the act of a regime seeking to "eradicate God from society", but one determined to brook no opposition. Indeed, one of Hitlers first acts on becoming Chancellor in 1933 was to ban atheist and freethinker organisations, with the active support of the Catholic Church.

Had the Catholic Church spoken out against his obvious racism and totalitarian aspirations when Hitler first rose to prominence, then it is possible that he might have been stopped in his tracks. Their failure to do so is an obvious stain on their name, and is symptomatic of their attitude in dealing with their current crisis over clerical child abuse; namely, that the interests of the Church override all others, even at the cost of justice, morality and basic humanity. It is instructive to note that only one of the Nazi leaders was ever excommunicated by Pius XII, despite their continued adherence to Catholicism, and the clear evidence of their crimes, and that was Joseph Goebbels. His crime? Marrying a Protestant! Need I say more?

So, in repeating these lies, the pope is either guilty of a breach of his own Church's strictures, in knowingly disseminating a lie, or is guilty of misrepresentation of his scholarship and education, and is instead a woefully ignorant man, or he is seriously in denial about his own knowledge of the Nazi regime, and his Church's support for that regime. I believe him to be an educated man, with access to all the history books and the Vatican papers over many years. He grew up in a family who are reputed to have opposed Hitler. Obviously, he should be all too aware of the facts, and of his lie in asserting the contrary. Possibly he feels guilt for his own youthful experiences, the Church's complicity and the attempted cover-up and denial of them over the decades since, and feels justified by some need to blot them out of his, and the Church's, memory. However, he can hardly expect not to be called out on his lie when he repeats it in public, and to an informed and unindoctrinated audience, nor should others expect it.

It has been put to me several times over the past few days that I, and others, should not concern ourselves with this, and that we should not speak out to highlight and correct the lie. However, when someone in a position, such as the pope enjoys, of influence and supposed infallibility, commits such errors, then it is important that this is pointed out, as otherwise the lie gains currency, and this one is widespread enough already. Hitler was not an atheist. He was a Catholic, as were many of the Nazi leadership, and was supported by the Catholic Church. These are demonstrable facts. The truth does matter.

This might not concern me so much were it not for the renewed encroachment of faith-based religion, Christian, Muslim and others, on our institutions, government, services, and, worst of all, our education system, and this trend seems set to continue and expand if we do not speak out firmly. Ratzinger's lies foster a notion of the symbiosis of faith and morality, and the absence of morality without it. History and reason teaches us the contrary. We must not allow the return of the necessity of the badge of religion for election to office, as practically prevails in the US, and once did in the UK, and must boldly assert that the only protection for both freedom of religion, and freedom from it, is a secular government and institutions. Society and its governance should be based on factual evidence, reason and humanity, and not on faith, fantasy and falsehoods, or sectional self-interest.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

The "WTC Mosque" And Phoney Outrage

Well, this is the third big religious controversy of the past few weeks, so I should really do the hat-trick and, let's face it, just about everyone and their dog has had their say, but few of them were Quakers. It raises three main questions in my mind, and I will outline them briefly below.

Firstly, what is the actual nature of the proposed centre? Let's get one thing straight - it is not a mosque, and it is not at the WTC site, but two full blocks away, and it is not visible from the WTC site. It is a cultural centre, featuring eating and sporting facilities, alongside a library, seminar rooms and conference facilities, though it will have prayer rooms on the uppermost levels. Mosques don't generally have basketball courts and swimming pools, and if the presence of prayer rooms makes it a mosque, then the WTC was a mosque too, as it contained Islamic prayer rooms.

The funding of the centre, and the nature of the leader behind the project have been brought into the question. The foundation principally funding the project is run by the same Saudi businessman who is a major shareholder in News International, owner of Fox News and numerous other right wing outlets in the US, and throughout the world, who are leading the outcry against this building. Apparently, he is acceptable as a shareholder in Murdoch's empire, but not as a philanthropic funder of cultural centres.

The imam who has been accused of extremism, is the very same man consulted by both the Bush and Obama administrations, and by the FBI, on countering extremism and on cultural sensitivity towards Islamic groups and nations. Widely considered one of the most moderate imams in the US, he is acceptable to governments of both parties, and to law enforcement agencies, but is clearly not acceptable to right wing ideologues.

Secondly, should the centre be built where it is proposed, or at all? Personally, I would rather that no new churches, mosques or temples were built anywhere, and that the money was spent on secular education, rational discussion, and scientific research instead. However, rightly or wrongly, many people choose to embrace theistic religions, and they continue to have the right to build their places of worship without unnecessary interference or discrimination, and without distinction between religions. That is the mark of a free and fair society, and is the only way to truly safeguard the freedom of, and from, religion in our societies. Hopefully, one day, we will have no need of most of them, but for now we have to guarantee equality.

The argument against the specific location seems to be that it is in some way disrespectful to those killed in the September 11th attacks. Those who died included approximately 60 innocent Muslims who either worked at the WTC, or were passengers on the aircraft. There were no objections raised when an Islamic prayer service was held at the actual WTC site in memory of those victims, as required by Islamic practice, shortly after the attacks. There were Islamic prayer rooms within the buildings destroyed, despite the previous attack on the WTC in the 1990s. Are these individuals not disrespected by the hatred being shown towards their fellow American Muslims?

I do not attribute sanctity to a place in this manner; humans have died horribly in almost every square mile of this planets surface at some point or other, and often on a larger scale than this. Yet, if you call for such respect, then you have to honour all the victims, not just those you happen to like, or identify with. Critics of the centre will, no doubt, point to the religion of the attackers, but do we then ban churches from Oklahoma City, because Tim McVeigh happened to be a Christian with a persecution complex? Al-Qaeda attacked the WTC, in the name of a twisted and perverse interpretation of their religion; they did not act in the name of all Muslims, nor pretended to, and certainly not in the name of American Muslims. I'm no great admirer of Islam, but I would not think for one moment that the attack represented all Islam, a tortuously fractured and diverse religion, as is Christianity.

Furthermore, if this site is to be regarded as sacred, why then is it not disrespectful for the strip clubs, fast food joints and tacky discount stores to operate within a similar distance of it, and much more visibly than this centre will?

This area of Manhattan has a large Muslim population, who were directly impacted by the attacks and their aftermath, just as much as any other American. It is a neighbourhood that already has several mosques. It is a population eager for understanding and openness with their fellow Americans. What place in America would be more suitable for a centre whose intended purpose includes building bridges, promoting reconciliation and resisting extremism?

Thirdly, why has this controversy come to the boil in the last couple of months? This centre at Park 51 was first publicly proposed more than a year ago, and virtually no disquiet was expressed at that time. Indeed, it was broadly welcomed, and there was even an appearance on a Fox News show last autumn (I'm sure you can still find the clips on YouTube somewhere), where the host was warmly supportive of the centre and had a friendly interview with the imam's wife, a modern American lady, whose appearance tells you much about how liberal this imam is. She was very careful to explain that this was not a mosque, but that it was a cultural centre designed to promote understanding, and to combat any potential extremism amongst the Muslim community.

So what changed? Why did the right wing media and blogosphere

That these charges are demonstrably false does not, of course, matter to Republican and conservative demagogues, nor does the harm that this has done to the unity of the nation, and to America's image abroad, with potential consequences for Americans, and other western citizens, in the Islamic world. Their narrow self-interest and any potential electoral advantage to be gained is all that matters.

America was founded, not as a Christian nation, as the right wing there love to assert, but as a nation that guaranteed freedom of religion, and freedom from it, and which has secular values at the very heart of its constitution. It goes against the very raison d'etre of the country to oppose this centre, and to stir up hatred and division in the manner of the current Fox News agenda. The WTC site should be a memorial to tolerance, unity, and to the folly of hatred, not a symbol of division and intolerance. Until the world is ready to move on from supernatural superstition and tribalism, then tolerance and equality continue to be our best defence against the hatred and intolerance so often promoted and committed in the name of theistic religion.

Ironically, the last Republican President, George W Bush, whatever his actions abroad, seemed to have an instinctive understanding of this in the domestic sphere, and demonstrated that in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, in a manner which seems alien to his political successors.

Some Thoughts On Book-Burning

Whilst I am in the blogging frame of mind, there is a further issue which has been dominating headlines recently, and which set my thoughts in motion. I refer to the furore over Pastor Terry Jones and his proposed burning of 1000 qurans in Florida. Whilst, the majority have seen through Mr Jones as the attention-seeking nonentity and charlatan that he undoubtedly is, there have been many voices raised in defence of his right to do as he pleases with respect to the qurans, which he has presumably acquired legitimately.

The arguments made are generally that in America he has the freedom to express his religious belief, and exercise his freedom of speech and expression, as he wishes, especially in regard to his own property, and that such rights should be sacrosanct. Furthermore, it has been argued that no-one has the right not to be offended by someone else's lawful actions. These arguments are true - up to a point. However, having the freedom to exercise your rights does not make it either sensible or responsible to do so.

Should individuals, such as western troops serving in, or tourists visiting, Afghanistan and other Muslim countries suffer harm as a result of a quran burning, then the fault certainly lies with the perpetrators of such an act, and not with anyone burning the book. Yet to go ahead, knowing that such acts are possible, requires that there is an imperative that outweighs such potential harm to others. Some may regard that imperative to simply be the free exercise of their rights, yet I think most would look for more than that.

Terry Jones asserts that he wished to do so to "send a message" to the Muslim world. However, he seems incapable of articulating that message clearly beyond some vague platitudes about setting down a marker, an assertion that "Islam is of the devil", and a late and spurious attempt to link it to the proposed building of an Islamic community centre in the vicinity of the former World Trade Center site. If you're going to put other peoples lives at potential risk, you ought to have something better and more concrete than that.

As a European with a good knowledge of history, I am acutely aware of, and deeply discomforted by, our past record with regard to book-burnings. The Inquisition, Witchfinders, Hitler, Stalin, and Franco are just the best known of those who have indulged in this practice, and it is hard to think of a single example of a case of book-burning which has reflected well on the perpetrators or their beliefs. It is almost exclusively the act of the bully, the tyrant and the anti-intellectual.

Whilst it is difficult to rationalise my opposition to the simple act, rather than to the many past perpetrators, nonetheless I can not dispel that discomfort. No doubt the ideas essentially exist independent of the material copy of the book burned, and will continue to flourish, providing it is not the only copy. I am not similarly troubled by the idea, suggested elsewhere in the blogosphere, of downloading a copy of the quran to an e-reader and deleting that to convey the same "message". No, it is something about the symbolism of the act of burning which troubles me. Perhaps it is the similarity to the past burning of heretical people and not just heretical texts, or maybe it is the visceral nature of consigning something to the flames. It is somehow satisfying that Pastor Jones was ultimately stopped in his tracks by the local fire code.

There is also the feeling, that I embrace, that there are far more effective ways to deal with texts that we deem evil, incorrect or misguided. Far better, I would suggest, to read the book, understand its flaws, and then expose them to the metaphorical heat of our thoughtful and crafted criticism and ridicule, because, though the ideas will survive the burning of the physical book, they will not so easily escape a well-worded and argued demolition of their fallacies, and a rebuttal of their justifications.

I do agree with some supporters of the quran-burning that the so-called sacred text should be treated no differently from any other book, and I do not regard the undoubted harm that this, and other religious texts, have done justifies its singling out for burning either. It is precisely because of that harm that it is important that we are familiar with its contents, and the fallacies and untruths within it. How else are we to counter it, and other such books, religious or otherwise?

I have never understood the concept of an actual physical book being inherently sacred. I do not think that many, if any, Christians, Muslims or adherents of any other mainstream religion would regard the paper as having intrinsic sanctity, or the ink, so is it to be asserted that it is the specific pattern and order of the shapes, in the form of letters, printed in ink, onto the paper of the pages, which somehow magically confers sanctity on the physical entity of the finished book? This is clearly supernatural nonsense! The sanctity only exists in the mind of the beholder, and is not intrinsic to the physical article. As such, can a non-believer profane it?

Indeed, it is in the Quaker tradition that we regard no book as inherently sacred; not even the bible amongst Christian Quakers. The earliest Quakers, though, undoubtedly, almost exclusively devout Christians, and avid readers and quoters of the bible, a book that may have been the only one they had access to, did not regard it as inherently sacred. Early Quaker luminaries, such as George Fox and William Penn, often read widely, and included many works of philosophy, science and religious criticism amongst their libraries, as well as the quran and other non-Christian religious texts. They considered the search for truth and enlightenment to be a constant and unbounded one.

Modern Quakers look for wisdom and guidance in a wide array of sources, Christian or from other faiths, religious or secular, and have continued the long tradition of embracing science and reason. They are also generally all too aware of the many fallacies, contradictions and untruths contained in so many of the "great" spiritual works. And you can be pretty sure that Quakers aren't in the habit of burning books!

The Papal State Visit To Scotland And England

Tomorrow sees the first ever state visit by a pope to the United Kingdom. This raises many ethical and political questions, which I feel compelled to find time to comment upon.

Firstly, why is this designated a state visit at all? John Paul II was not accorded this "honour" in 1982. The pope is not even a real head of state; the UN does not recognise him as such, and who else should be the independent arbiter of such a status? He is simply a leader of a religious sect, a small minority within this country. No other religious leader has been, or should be, accorded this status, and I suspect that none of them would either expect or accept it.

His purpose in visiting is not a diplomatic mission, befitting such a status, but to recruit and retain members of his religious sect in this country. It is essentially a marketing and public relations exercise. Why then is he accorded this status which entails great expense to the taxpayers of Britain at a time when the country is about to be faced with the most drastic public spending cuts in our history? Would these millions not be better spent on some of the priorities which his religion is supposed to espouse, such as alleviating suffering or poverty? Furthermore, why are the taxpayers of Britain, less than 9% of whom have any affiliation to the Catholic Church, never mind an active membership of that Church, expected to foot the bill?

It also seems rank hypocrisy for a religious leader, who should be an example of humility, simplicity and personal sacrifice, to be sanctioning spending at these levels for a public relations exercise, rather than using such funds for the purposes his church is supposed to embody. Just ask yourself, especially if you are Christian, is this how Jesus of Nazareth would have behaved?

It is a favoured question amongst Christians today, and as the pope declares himself to be his representative on earth, then it is a most valid one to ask on this occasion. And I am only being partly facetious when I ask whether a man who is "god's representative on earth", and who believes in the power of intercessionary prayer, should need such security arrangements at all. Where is his faith?

Why are these invitations issued without the consent of our elected representatives? It is stated that he was invited by the Queen, though this probably means the previous Prime Minister, in reality. Why was this, and all such invitations, not debated in our Westminster Parliament? Why is he visiting Scotland without the Scottish Parliament debating it? Foreign relations are a reserved matter for Westminster, but the policing costs of this visit are the responsibility of the Scottish Government, so why was our Parliament not consulted? Should there not be proper accountability for such matters?

Secondly, we come to the question of whether a pope should be invited to visit this country at all. Here, I tend to think that the Catholic Church should be free to invite their leader whenever they wish, as should any religion wishing to so do, but that the entire cost of such a visit, and its security, should be met in full by the body inviting him, and not by the rest of the British public. I would not invite anyone to visit, and then expect someone else to pick up the bill, or even part of it, and especially not without even asking them first.

My personal feelings about the harm of faith-based religion to both individuals, and to society in general, are just that - my personal beliefs and opinions - to which I am entitled, and which I hope others will share, but which I have no right to compel others to share, or be unreasonably impacted by. The same should apply to the followers of such faith-based religions, and their beliefs and opinions. The only way to ensure freedom of, and from, religion is if the state has no role or connection to it, as wisely recognised by the authors of the US constitution, and so no leader of a religion should be accorded any such status by the state.

There should also be a proviso that there are no legitimate grounds on which to deny entry to the particular individual leader. There is precedent, with several extremist Christian and Muslim leaders denied entry in the past, and any individual guilty, or even suspected of, serious crimes may also expect to be denied entry, whether they are revered by some British residents or not.

Thirdly, we come to the question of an invitation to this particular pope. It is well-documented that this pope, prior to his elevation, had intimate knowledge of, and involvement in, the cover-up of child abuse by priests throughout the world, and including some resident in British-governed territories. His actions not only denied the judicial authorities the chance to investigate and bring to trial many of these individuals before their death, but, more importantly, denied justice to the many thousands of victims. Furthermore, he kept silent about known abusers and allowed them to continue in their abuse, having removed them to other parishes, a process in which he was involved, condemning still more children to such abuse. He put the church before vulnerable children in a way which seems most unChristian to me. It is also against the laws of this and many other countries. Again, is this what Jesus would do? Is this what the Church is supposed to be for?

However, with the advent of diseases such as AIDS, and our knowledge of how best to prevent their spread, then such opposition becomes even more deeply immoral, and tantamount to genocide. And this particular pope has compounded this doctrinaire death sentence with the spreading of lies about condom use. In the face of all scientific evidence, he has promulgated a message that condoms actually increase AIDS transmission, and that they contain holes which allow the virus to pass through. These lies condemn many more uneducated Catholics in developing nations to a long, lingering death, with further deprivation and stigmatism to them and their relatives and dependents, as many will believe his words in preference to those of the health professionals. These same concerns apply to many other sexually transmitted diseases, and the suffering and stigma they bring. Again, is this what Jesus would have done?

The Church, under Joseph Ratzinger's visible and vocal leadership, continues to preach a message of hate and discrimination against homosexuals, bisexuals and transgendered people across the world. Whilst their influence has waned in Europe, they continue to inspire acts of hatred in many places, and especially in Africa. Such discrimination and incitement to hatred is illegal in Britain, and has been used as grounds to deny entry in the past. I see no reason not to apply such a sanction as long as the Catholic Church continues to be prejudiced in this manner.

And it's not only minorities that the Catholic Church discriminates against. Women make up a majority of the British population, but they are second-class citizens, according to the Catholic Church. Not only do they not have the right to make decisions over their own bodies and their reproductive function, according to Josef Ratzinger, but they are apparently incapable of performing the functions that men can in terms of officiating in the Christian religion. The pope prefers bronze age misogyny to female equality. He prefers his Church to wither due to the lack of male clerical recruits, rather than admit female priests. This is despite the evidence that women are more active in the Catholic Church than men, and form the majority of the Church's adherents, yet he seems oblivious to their passion.

Whilst Catholic nuns hardly have a spotless record regarding emotional and physical abuse, female priests would still have been far less likely to sexually abuse children, and their presence and potential would have relieved the pressure on the Church to keep abusive priests, due to the current low recruitment level. However, Ratzinger and his acolytes recently confirmed the depth of their prejudice in asserting that the ordination of women is a "crime" as serious as the sexual abuse of children. The blind faith and dogmatism that characterises much of Church teaching, and this area in particular, harm the Church's own interests but, more importantly, discriminates against, and belittles, the majority of the human species.

The Church's doctrinaire adherence to clerical celibacy has no grounding in scripture that I'm aware of. The suppression of powerful and healthy emotions is obviously going to cause problems for many individuals, male or female. This surely is part of the cause of the many scandals of emotional, physical and sexual abuse that have rocked the Catholic Church across the world over the past century. This continuing and perverse denial of an essential part of human identity ensures not only the low recruitment of clerics to the Church, causing the need to retain abusive priests and members of religious orders, but is, itself, a primary cause of the abuse. Furthermore, the pastoral mission of the Church is compromised and discredited by the complete lack of experience of clerics in this fundamental area of human life and relationships.

Finally, the Church all around the world continues to solicit funds to build and decorate church buildings in even the poorest communities, taking resources from many who can scarcely feed themselves and their families, and yet the Church is one of the wealthiest institutions in the world. Its leaders live a very comfortable life, and are surrounded by artifacts and buildings worth many billions of dollars or pounds. Is this what Jesus would have intended for his followers? It is estimated that the Church has within its power the ability to remove global poverty almost at a stroke if it liquidated its assets. What would the figure portrayed in the bible, and supposedly the source of their religion and faith, have done with all that wealth? He certainly would not have wasted tens of millions on state visits!

I am reluctant to blow the trumpet of liberal Quakers in this regard. Our faults are many and manifest, but we have always avoided clergy and leaders, believing all people to be equal, both in the running of our Society and in their potential. We avoid ostentation in consumption and lifestyle, and especially in our buildings, and we hold ethics to be central to our practice, with little, and preferably no, regard to dogma or doctrine. That has been our way for several centuries, and we continue to hold to it.

Even as a nontheist Quaker, I am certain that the professed teachings of Jesus of Nazareth are better embodied by that approach than by the practice of the Catholic Church and its leadership, past and present, which represents much of what is wrong and harmful in organised, faith-based religion. I am dubious of the historical veracity of Jesus of Nazareth, or at least the version of him described in the bible, and am downright sceptical that we can know what he actually said on any specific subject, if he did indeed exist, as described or otherwise. His reported teachings do generally embody some worthy values, though I would suggest that these are derived from the human mind and not some supernatural entity, and can impart something of value to society, but you will not find them embodied in this Catholic Church, this pope, or this papal visit.

In conclusion, I would suggest that a papal visit should never have the status of a state visit, it should be paid for by the Church and its followers, it should be in keeping with its professed mission, and this particular pope should not be considered a fit person to be given entry to Britain. Or at least that is my personal opinion, somewhat coloured by my Quaker ethics.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

The Protection Of Secularism

It has become a commonplace in recent years for religious leaders, particularly Christian ones, to bemoan and denigrate the supposed rise of secularism within the UK, and many other European countries. Alongside this assertion, there is a general perception amongst many devotees that religion is widely persecuted and marginalised within our society.

The latest example of this came in the opening address of the recent papal visit to Scotland, when Josef Ratzinger made the following comment "Today, the United Kingdom strives to be a modern and multicultural society. In this challenging enterprise, may it always maintain its respect for those traditional values and cultural expressions that more aggressive forms of secularism no longer value or even tolerate. Let it not obscure the Christian foundation that underpins its freedoms; and may that patrimony, which has always served the nation well, constantly inform the example your Government and people set before the two billion members of the Commonwealth and the great family of English-speaking nations throughout the world."

It seems that these religious leaders, supposedly educated men (and, yes, they pretty much are all men), lack even a basic understanding of the meaning of the concept of secularism, and have a distorted view of the place of religion within society, or that which it should have. Why do they view secularism as such a threat? Is religion, particularly Christianity, really marginalised within our society? Or is it simply that this is the only way they can comprehend the growing rejection of religion in general, and their particular religion, by the majority of our population?

"Secularism is the concept that government or other entities should exist separately from religion and/or religious beliefs.

In one sense, secularism may assert the right to be free from religious rule and teachings, and the right to freedom from governmental imposition of religion upon the people, within a state that is neutral on matters of belief. In another sense, it refers to the view that human activities and decisions, especially political ones, should be based on evidence and fact, unbiased by religious influence."

These are the opening lines of the Wikipedia entry on secularism, and represent, to my mind, a pretty fair definition of secularism as I understand it.

It should be noted what it does not say. Secularism is not anti-religion. It does not advocate the end of religion. It does not deny people's right to religious belief. It does not advocate one belief over another. Indeed, as recognised by the writers of the US constitution, it is the one and only guarantee of religious freedom for all. What it does do is to seek to remove religion from those areas and processes which are common to all, regardless of their religious belief, or lack of it.

The common values and ethics of our society predate monotheistic religion, and possibly all religion, and certainly the specific ones followed today. Indeed, many of the moral laws espoused in the religious texts are repugnant to civilised societies today. Many people live good and exemplary lives without religion, or even any knowledge of it. A secular society safeguards those common values, embodies them in its laws and structures and prevents the imposition of specifically religious values upon those outside of that, or any, religion.

In the upper house of the Westminster parliament in London, 26 Anglican bishops sit, ex-officio, and contribute to the debate of all legislation passing through the parliament. Iran is the only other country in the world where clergy sit, as of right, within the nation's legislature. There are also at least two rabbis sitting in the House of Lords, primarily due to their rabbinical status.

One third of all schools in England and Wales are now faith schools, predominantly Church of England and Catholic, but also including Jewish, Muslim, and other Christian denominations. The first Sikh faith school recently opened too. These schools are allowed to discriminate to varying extents in their admission policies and receive state funding whilst doing so. They teach to the national curriculum, but are allowed to interpret that from a religious perspective. Hence, we see ridiculous situations where science classes are taught by the same teachers who later tell the children that evolution is wrong, and science is inferior to faith and scripture, in their religious classes (see Richard Dawkins recent Channel 4 documentary on faith schools).

They have relative freedom to indoctrinate children with their own belief and value systems, regardless of whether those children come from believing families or not, and in many places families have little other choice of quality schools. This situation is set to become more dominant, as the new government at Westminster seems determined to hand control of more schools to religious groups, including many less mainstream groups. The best education system in the world is that of Finland; it is also one of the most strictly secular.

The Druids of Britain were recently recognised as a religion by official bodies in the UK, and would, if their financial turnover was higher, now have access to the many financial privileges accorded to religion in respect of exemptions from taxes, and also in regard to discrimination and employment laws. Hence, all taxpayers, regardless of belief, subsidise the promulgation of religion within the UK. Non-religious belief groups or philosophical societies are not accorded such status, despite there being little fundamental difference between them, other than an intrinsic belief in the supernatural. Furthermore, there are specific categories of "hate crime" in law in Scotland and England which protect against religious hatred and sectarianism. There is none against the hatred of those with no belief, or who hold other philosophical doctrines.

Does this sound like a government system or society that is essentially or aggressively secular, or which is marginalising religion within the UK?

The religious upheaval accompanying the Civil War and the overthrow of the English monarchy, allowed considerably greater freedoms, but these were still bound in the puritan and protestant mainstream. Those seeking to step outside that mainstream were subject to swift and severe sanctions. A secular society, protecting the freedom of religion, would have been embraced enthusiastically by them, as it would later be across the Atlantic, and would certainly not have been seen as necessarily anti-religious.

Quaker preachers were often pelted with dung, stones and rubbish when they attempted to address crowds. They were subject to imprisonment for their preaching, and many were impoverished or even martyred for their beliefs, and for their refusal to recognise the established church, or to accept the strictures placed upon them. They demanded freedom of religion, and paid a heavy price for doing so.

My own relative, John Kelsall, was sentenced, in 1684, to transportation to the West Indies for Quaker preaching, but died of yellow fever in the barbaric Newgate Gaol in London before he was placed on the ship. This was not uncommon, and some were even executed for preaching Quaker belief and practice. Quakers were often treated appallingly in prison, in considerably worse conditions than the common criminals This was real persecution and marginalisation. Many fled to the safety of the United States, eventually founding the state of Pennsylvania under William Penn's leadership, whose Quaker-inspired constitution was one of the bases of the later US constitution. Others knuckled under, and gave up their belief, at least in public, rather than suffer the continued discrimination.

Quakers were not alone in facing this repression, particularly in the aftermath of the Cromwellian Commonwealth, when all but the established church faced not just religious persecution due to doctrinal concerns, but also faced doubts about their very loyalty to the restored crown, due to their perceived involvement in the regicide of Charles I. Quakers, and other non-conformists, were excluded from receiving higher education and from many professions (law, medicine, politics etc), and were often socially excluded too, resulting in the isolation, exclusion and impoverishment of many Quaker communities. It was this which later lead to the prominent role played by Quakers in the development of chocolate and biscuit manufacture, flour, seed and grain trading, textiles, finance, iron and steel, engineering and science. The discrimination gradually eased over succeeding years with the passing of the Toleration Act in 1689 and other later measures, as Quakers and other non-conformists became less vocal and obvious, and as their threat to society and the established church was perceived to have diminished.

Catholics, however, faced far greater discrimination, and it was 1829 before they were granted freedom of worship, though systematic discrimination continued well into the next century. Catholics are still specifically excluded from the succession to the British crown, as is any member of the royal family married to a Catholic. Jews have faced racial and religious persecution for much of the last two millenia, and no less in Britain, at times, than elsewhere. Those seeking to practice the older pagan religions would, if identified, be routinely accused of witchcraft and satanism, and tortured and executed. A secular society would have ended the persecution of these groups, long before that actually happened, and the full weight of such a state would prevent similar oppression from arising again. It is ironic, given our history, that a visiting pope should speak against such protection.

Indeed, it is a measure of the arrogance of some of the Christian denominations, and the Church of England in particular, that they expect the automatic continuation of their primacy, even if they seem largely unaware of its actual extent and context, within our increasingly multicultural society, and that they see the robust criticism of that position, and of their beliefs, as persecution and marginalisation. They seem to view any move to equality of religion, and of non-religion, within our societal structures as a diminution of their rights and a marginalisation of their beliefs. It also points to their ignorance of the very real persecution of the past; much of it undertaken by their own denominations. What these people frequently refer to as persecution is actually offence taken at other people exercising their rights to equality and to freedom of expression. No-one has any right to freedom from offence or criticism, nor is offence or criticism the same as persecution or marginalisation.

It is important to all the citizens of this country that we establish and maintain a truly secular system and structure of civil government in the UK, in order to ensure the freedom of all to practice the religion of their choice, or none, and to do so in the manner of their choosing, subject to equality for all beliefs and the freedom of all from the imposition of any one religion or faith. This does not mean that religion may not be criticised, ridiculed or offended. It means that all the common institutions impacting on our lives should do so impartially, without fear or favour. It means that policy and law should be arrived at rationally, and based on evidence, rather than prejudice and superstition. That is true religious freedom, and true protection of religion. Religious leaders should be embracing secularism, not denigrating it. Secularism protects them, and their followers, from discrimination and hatred, and from the dominance of other religions, or alternative interpretations of them. Tolerance and diversity demand no less.

The current Society of Friends in the UK embodies the true spirit of religious freedom, embracing a great diversity of belief, from the traditional protestant Christian belief of its founders, to Judaic, Buddhist, pantheist, deist, pagan, humanist, naturalistic, agnostic and even atheist beliefs. The ethical values and religious practices shared by members of the Society are independent of any particular faith belief. This is typical of the liberal branch of Quakerism; that which is endemic in Britain and Europe, and practised by a minority of those identifying as Quaker in America and other parts of the world.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Unfit To Govern?

On this day in 1681 Charles II, king of England, granted a charter to William Penn to found a colony in America. Penn named this colony partly for his family, and partly in recognition of the wooded beauty of this new land he sought to colonise. Thus was born the colony, and later state, of Pennsylvania.

He aimed to attract as many of his fellow religionists, the Quakers, to his new colony as possible, but it was his stated intent that this colony should be a haven for all fleeing religious persecution, and that all should be free to practice their religion, without fear or favour from it's government. The constitution and model of government he set up embodied many of his own values, and those of the Quakers, and had a profound influence on the later American revolutionaries (along with the writings of another great American Quaker, Thomas Paine), and played a significant part in their thinking when they wrote their own constitution a century later.

The Quaker role in the colony's government was short-lived, however, as they quickly recognised that the exercise of power tended to corrupt, and made it hard to live a virtuous life. They also regretted that their time was no longer spent in the pursuit of a life lived to their own high ethical standards, and that they spent their time instead in the squabbles and politicking of their legislature, divorced from the simplicity and everyday life that inspired their beliefs. The political realities, especially of sharing power with non-Quakers, made it seem impossible for them to function in accordance with their beliefs. And so they left, and returned to a life away from politics and government.

I have often wondered if they were right to make that withdrawal. Whether they were right to put aside the good influence that they undoubtedly had, and the good works they were able to undertake, in order to maintain their personal values unsullied. Were their values more important than the common good? How would the colony have developed under their continued influence? Is it possible to maintain virtue and ethics while exercising power?

The simple answer is that no-one knows, but that does not free us from the temptation of speculation, and I would certainly like to think that they would have resisted many of the pitfalls of our own politicians, despite the ever greater temptations and burdens placed upon them. The examples of unvirtuous behaviour in office, of corruption great and small, of the surrender of values and ethics to the political system, are so commonplace that the more cynical amongst us may well be justified in thinking that no-one can resist the blandishments of power. And the policies pursued may have served the people a little better if imbued with a little more of the Quaker virtues of integrity, equality, community, simplicity and peace.

It is certainly educational to watch the progress of our young politicians as they climb the ladder, and see the gradual transformation as they rise ever upwards. I have known a few of the current politicians at Westminster and Holyrood at various stages of their careers, from student days right through to parliamentary duty and even to ministerial office. Many have never been exactly virtuous or ethical; indeed they may be characterised as political creatures with all the political arts well in evidence. Others give hints that they may still have sight of some of the principles and ethics which first motivated them, and can still surprise us with their willingness to act accordingly.

I wonder whether, like the Pennsylvania Quakers feared, it is impossible to stay in contact with one's core values and the life experiences that motivated them when physically removed from the community, and ordinary life, as politicians necessarily are when conducting their legislative duties. Is it possible to maintain that mental awareness, whilst physically absent? Surely it should be, though it probably takes real effort, awareness and conviction to do so. Do our politicians have what it takes? Did they ever? Have any politicians ever?

I was shocked recently by reports originating in a TV reality show on Channel 4 (Tower Block of Commons), which placed a number of our Westminster politicians in tower block housing estates, to witness at firsthand the lives of some of the poorest and most deprived communities in our country. They were obviously shell-shocked at the extent of that deprivation and at the reality of the people's existence. Their naivety was outrageous, considering these were elected representatives, supposed to be representing their constituency in parliament. They are supposed to represent ALL their constituents, so how come they were so seemingly unaware of the housing, poverty, ill-health and lack of opportunity of a significant part of that electorate they represent? How did they become so isolated and divorced from that reality? And how can they possibly make policy, and act in the interests of their constituency, when they are so ignorant of it?

People have long suspected that their politicians had little idea of how many, if not the majority, live their lives. How could they have, in view of some of the pronouncements they make and some of the policies they espouse? How could they, when they live in the Westminster bubble, with so little contact with ordinary life? They never meet most of the underclasses and the deprived; they don't tend to go and see their MP, if they even know who they are, and they usually only get visited by politicians on stage-managed and ruthlessly choreographed photo-opportunities.

When we take this in conjunction with the ongoing scandals over politicians expenses at Westminster, and the inept way that has been handled, then it is clear that radical changes are required to make our parliaments truly representative, and to restore public confidence in politicians as people, and in their ability to act effectively in the interests of all our people.

As we approach a general election (probably only a few weeks away now), then it is difficult to see how the political parties will achieve this. They seem ill-equipped to do so, and it is even questionable if they yet properly understand the nature and depth of the problem, and the strength of feeling in the country about it. There is little evidence that change will happen, and that has consequences that few can wish. An electorate that does not believe in the system, and in politicians, is unlikely to vote, or to engage with the system at all. It is hard to achieve anything socially if politicians can not engage with the public. That alienation has severe implications for the stability of the system and our society, and can only lead to greater breakdown and dysfunction, and to extremes being given an ear.

I hope that those Pennsylvania Quakers may one day be proved wrong, but the odds seem stacked firmly against it at present, and there is little evidence of any rational basis for that hope.