Wednesday 29 April 2009

People Power

This seems like a good idea: "cc all your emails to Jacqui Smith". I wonder if it can have had any influence on the recent rethink?

Don't do anything yet but join the Facebook group to be kept informed.

Monday 27 April 2009

BBC "Thought for the Day" Complaint.

Evidently my earlier hopes that change might be on the way were not justified as far as "Thought for the Day" is concerned. I have now had a reply from Tim Davie, Director of Audio & Music. This response represents the second stage in the BBC Complaints procedure and leaves the door open to  an appeal to the BBC Trust. 

In the following analysis, quotes from Mr Davie's letter are italicised:-

Mark Damazer was expressing the views of the BBC in his letter, and I stand by those views.

This is puzzling. I complain to the BBC about a specific aspect of its editorial policy and  get  replies from employees who merely state they support the policy. Could they be expected to do anything else? It  poses the question of who creates the policy and why the complaint was not referred to them for consideration?

"contributors to Thought for the Day are chosen to balance voices from different Christian denominations and other religions with significant membership in the UK. "

Yes, we do know this. What relevance does this statement have to the essence of a complaint about  the omission of  the humanist viewpoint from TftD broadcasts.

"Speakers are expected to make brief references to their faith and its scriptures, but are not permitted to proselytise on behalf of their religion or disparage other religions."

Again this seems hardly relevant unless Mr Davie is suggesting that the  inclusion of the humanist viewpoint would, by its very nature, be  potent enough  to amount to proselytisation and disparagement of other religions .

"While debates like these are often finely balanced, I don't believe that carrying Thought for the Day in the Today programme contravenes the BBC's editorial guidelines on bias and impatiality."

Like Mark Damazer, Mr Davie does not produce any detailed reasoning as to how the TftD programming meets the BBC's own guidelines on balance but merely asserts that it does so. 

He then goes on list  the BBC's other religious output in which "atheists,  humanists and secularists are regularly heard, and religious leaders are questioned and challenged." Again this may be so but we are complaining about the privilege accorded  the religious outlook in  the Today programme. 

"And of course non-religious voices are also heard extensively across the general output . .". 

Well the situation could hardly be otherwise. This statement is almost fatuous.

Sunday 26 April 2009

The Liberal Supremacists

This is the title of an article by Terry Eagleton in  "Comment is Free" on Saturday. It is difficult to read,  the arguments somewhat confused.   I  felt it needed rebuttal but couldn't get to grips with it. However  it  has now  elicited an excellent response from Russell Blackford,  "And speaking of bullshit, try this example from Terry Eagleton".

Russell demolishes it beautifully. A pleasure to read.

Thursday 23 April 2009

E-petition to ban religious teaching in state schools - no.10 response

This petition was eventually signed by 910 people and the Government has now responded as follows:-

"A key aim of the curriculum is to promote pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development and prepare them for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of life. The Government believes that all pupils should be given the opportunity to develop their knowledge, understanding and awareness of the major religions represented in this country. Parents, however, have the right to withdraw their children from all or any part of religious education.

Religious education teaches about the concept of religion and belief – it does not indoctrinate or provide instruction in any religion. It is important because it provokes challenging questions about the ultimate meaning and purpose of life, the nature of beliefs and reality and the self. It stimulates thinking about issues of right and wrong and what it means to be human and helps pupils to develop their own values. It plays a central role in the curriculum of all schools and that is why it is part of the basic school curriculum.
Pupils learn to recognise the impact of religion and belief locally, nationally and globally. It encourages respect for those holding different beliefs. It also encourages consideration of issues around faith, identity and diversity which underpin community cohesion. This is an essential part of enabling young people to develop mature and informed views about the world around them."  

quedula says: In an ideal world it is difficult to take much exception to this but the whole essence of the government's position seems  to hang on the sentence I have italicised. Are we really asked to believe that religious education classes will always be taught by atheists or humanists and, if not, that the usual religious teacher will take much care at all to distinguish between "teaching the concept of religion" and "providing instruction" in it?

Even in the US, with a secular constitution, problems arise in the classroom as this recent case shows:-

"This past week, Judge Harvey E. Schlesinger ruled that teachers and officials at the Webster School in St. Johns County acted improperly by having third-grade youngsters practice "In God We Still Trust," composed by the country singing group Diamond Rio.  

Judge Schlesinger opined that students had their First Amendment rights violated when they were forced to choose between performing "proselytizing" and "sectarian" music or skipping their school assembly? He described the song as "espousing a specific religious viewpoint and attacking those who do not share in the same belief." "

Monday 20 April 2009

Religious Broadcasting continued . .

I am still waiting for responses to my complaints to the BBC about religious broadcasts. However latest developments indicate the door is beginning to open. Can they have been delaying their reply until they had something positive to say? Below are some extracts from a BHA article. The last paragraph suggests the BBC have never had a proper justification for resisting change. Perhaps the fact that they have resisted for so long, in the face of perfectly reasonable arguments, indicates the entrenched influence of the religious lobbies.

From: "New body liaising with BBC to include humanists"

"In a significant development and welcome break with past policy, humanists are to be represented alongside religions in a new body liaising with the BBC – the Standing Conference on Religion and Belief. The Standing Conference on Religion and Belief succeeds the Central Religious Advisory Committee (CRAC), but independent from the BBC, and will liaise with the BBC on matters of common concern to the BBC and religious groups and, now, humanists.

For the last six years the Communications Act 2003 has been in force which, at section 264(6)(f) defines public service broadcasting as requiring ‘a suitable quantity and range of programmes dealing with each of the following, science, religion and other beliefs...’ and at section 264(13) defines ‘belief’ as ‘a collective belief in…a systemised set of ethical or philosophical principles...’ During the passage of the Act, the responsible minister (Lord McIntosh) made it clear that this included Humanism. Nonetheless, the BBC never extended the remit or membership of its Central Religious Advisory Committee (CRAC) to recognise the BBC’s new remit of ‘religion and other beliefs’, even though that remit was reconfirmed in the Charter renewal of 2006."

Friday 17 April 2009


Some years before the World Wide Web was a twinkle in Tim Berner-Lee's eye, the power of modern communications bought harrowing images of poverty and starvation in Africa into our living rooms, somehow emphasising what a small place the world had become. This stimulated urgent appeals from Oxfam, Band Aid, Live Aid etc. Backed by popstars and the power of television these became runaway successes and raised large sums of money in relatively short spaces of time. Faced with the competing claims of mortgages and other living costs one did one's best to respond. This was a 'fire brigade' action to alleviate an emergency and no alternative solutions were available; but I am sure we all felt the disconnect between giver and receiver and wondered how much of our donation would get to the intended recipients. Which one of us who watched the reports from Ethiopia would not have preferred, had it been possible, to have immediately passed the contents of our larders through the television screen directly into the laps of the starving.

Then in 1990 came the World Wide Web and, over the ensuing years, the explosion in communications it made possible.

In 2004 Matt Flannery and Jessica Jackley witnessed the power of microfinance firsthand while visiting East Africa - Jessica working for the Village Enterprise Fund and Matt filming interviews with small business entrepreneurs - they were able to see and hear first hand how small grants of only $100 - $150 had been used to build small successful businesses which could then support a family. Microfinance is about giving poor people a ‘hand up’, not a ‘hand out’ by providing them with expanded cheap access to financial services. It recognises that people, whatever their situation, are well equipped to help themselves once they have the necessary starting capital, the 'seed-corn', so to speak, of their enterprise.

Matt and Jessica returned from Africa determined to use the internet to expand the flow of funds to microfinance institutions. Their aim was to to make it possible for donors from anywhere in the world to select the individuals, groups or small businesses they wished to help and to then follow their progress. In October 2005 the first peer-to-peer microlending website "Kiva" was announced to the world. ("Kiva" being a happy choice from Swahili embodying the meanings of "agreement" and "unity") Shortly afterwards the US weblog Daily Kos discovered Kiva and broadcast the website to hundreds of thousands of its readers. The word was out... and the rest is history.

Anyone with a paypal account and internet access can donate through Kiva and millions in the developed world have already shown they are very willing to afford at least the minimum amount of $25. The individual donor chooses an entrepreneur according to gender, sector or region and their donation is then pooled with others and passed on as a repayable loan. The only element of charity in the transaction is the loss of interest suffered by the donor which, of course, as rates stand at present, is negligible. The lender is kept posted at regular intervals of the progress of the chosen business, and when the load is repaid at a previously agreed date the donor can choose whether to retain it, relend it, or donate it to Kiva.

A further interesting feature of Kiva is that one can choose to lend as part of team self-selected by a common interest or other grouping. All sums lent by each member of the team, irrespective of its destination, adds to that team's total, thus introducing a minor element of competition. There are thousands of teams to choose from or one can start one's own.

Since its birth Kiva has grown from a small personal project to one of the world's largest microfinance facilitators, connecting entrepreneurs with millions of dollars in loans from hundreds of thousands of lenders around the world. The top lending team with, at the time of writing, $429,425 to its credit, is called the "Atheists, Agnostics, Skeptics, Freethinkers, Secular Humanists and the Non-Religious". It would be good to keep them top. Their next "Loan-a-Thon" Day is on July 1st. and the team have set a target of loaning $1,000,000 before the end of 2009.

The empty name of God

A C Grayling always puts it so much better than I ever could:-

"The basic doctrines of the major religions have their roots in the superstitions and fancies of illiterate peasants living several thousand years ago’

What religious people mean by “god” means nothing to me beyond an incoherent cluster of concepts from which the aforesaid folk choose the subset most convenient to themselves.

But the word brings to mind the man-made phenomenon of religions, whose net effect on humanity now as throughout history has been, by a considerable margin, negative. It would be so just because of the falsity of belief; and the consequent absurdity of behaviour premised on the idea that there exist supernatural agencies who made this very imperfect world, and who have an interest in us that extends to our sex lives and what we should and should not eat on certain days, or wear, and so on. But it is worse than false: it is far too often oppressive and distorting as regards human nature, and divisive as regards human communities.

It is a frequent source of conflict and cruelty. Monstrous crimes have been committed in its name. And more often than not it has stood in the way of efforts at human liberation and progress."

(Opening paragraphs of a New Statesman article)

quedula says:
. . . and religion is even now wasting our (homo sapiens') valuable time; always inviting us to look backwards; not to learn from historical facts but to dwell on largely mythical happenings whose truth or falsity, notwithstanding centuries of study have never been revealed and never will be. Yet there are still theological colleges in England receiving public funding. Has not the time come to put an end to this nonsense? Should not mankind be putting all its efforts into planning for its future on this planet and possibly beyond; for continuing its existence, expanding its knowledge and providing answers to questions we have not yet thought to ask?

Thursday 16 April 2009

Religious Broadcasting

There seems to have been an awful lot of religious broadcasting this Easter. Even allowing for the fact that it is the festival of the pagan goddess Eostre, I sometimes wonder if the Religion & Ethics Department of the BBC is on some kind of desperate mission to rescue the fast-vanishing minority christians sects, especially the Church of England, for which Easter seems to have acquired some significance other than reasons connected with the season.

The BBC claims it is dedicated to providing a balanced output but religious broadcasting is not normal entertainment or documentary programming, it is propaganda, and as such it is not capable of being balanced by non-religious broadcasting, i.e by such as Eastenders, Match of the Day, Holby City, Film 2009, etc, etc. As propaganda it can only be properly balanced by anti-propaganda, i.e. anti-religious programming.

To effect this a sea-change increase is badly needed in the amount of time dedicated to atheist, humanist and rationalist philosophies but the fact that "Religion" & "Ethics" are bracketed together in the same Department might make this very difficult to achieve. It seems to suggest that religion & ethics are somehow equivalent; i.e. two sides of the same coin; when you are doing religion you are also doing ethics. Many of us, viewing the havoc that has been and continues to be wrought in the name of religion would fundamentally disagree with this.

It is long overdue for the BBC to recognise the very significant number of its licence payers who want no truck with organised religion and have every right to expect their own views to be at least equally respected and allotted proportionate air-time. It is evident that the Religion & Ethics Department, as presently constituted, is incapable of providing this and urgently needs reform.
(Delightful Image thanks to Thalia Took. It was either that or a Crucifixion scene - no contest)

Tuesday 14 April 2009

The Danish Cartoon

Limited editon signed prints for sale from The International Free Press Society. Probably a good investment @$250 each and funds go to support the defence of free speech internationally.

Sunday 12 April 2009

The Atheist Bus Campaign

Sadly the Atheist Bus Campaign is now over. It was a great ride. After appealing to raise £5500 it topped out with a staggering £153,516.51. This included a farewell £1000 from Simon Bishop who helped so much to give the campaign its amazing legs.
There is still time to donate to the Campaign against Faith Schools which has also reached its target of £30,000. This closes on April 25th.
After that its "The Next Stop". See link in my sidebar.

Saturday 11 April 2009

New R C Archbishop avoids the Question

From a Telegraph Report of BBC Radio 4 Today.
(My italics)

In defending the Pope's recent remarks about condoms made last month en route to his first Papal visit to Africa. Archbishop Nichols said: "What he actually talked about was the need to humanise sexuality and I think to some extent he was speaking up in protection of African women."
Asked if he would advise a "married, faithful, Catholic couple" not to use condoms where one had HIV/Aids, the Archbishop said: "That is a very sensitive point and there are different views on that."
Pressed to give his view, he said: "That is not what this public debate is about...that is the point I would rather pursue, that we really do have to raise people's expectations of themselves.
"Today is Good Friday. What do we celebrate today? We celebrate this enormous gift of God's love to us which teaches us how much dignity we have and we have to encourage as a society people to live off their best instincts, their best generosity and not constantly be portraying our society as degraded and in need of Elastoplast all the time."

So exactly what instincts would he advise the "married, faithful, Catholic couple" to live off? Doesn't his flock deserve to know?

Preacher says atheist ad campaign backfired

So says a "Top Papal Preacher" in Vatican City reported by Reuters UK. Amongst the usual RC blather we have this priceless remark:

"Suffering is certainly a mystery for everyone, especially the suffering of innocent people, but without faith in God it becomes immensely more absurd".

On the contrary, by the standards of any reasonably sane person the appalling suffering that is visited at random on some helpless, innocent people make the idea of a loving god completely absurd.

Ah, say the priests, "The ways of god are too mysterious for us to know". I prefer to rely on the principle of Occam's Razor and opt for the more obvious explanation. There is no god that has ever taken the slightest interest in the human race or ever will.

Friday 10 April 2009

BBC Complaints Update.

It is now over 2 months since I instigated an appeal to the BBC Trust over lack of balance in the "Thought for the Day" slot. I am still awaiting the second stage response from the Director of Audio & Music and have sent him the following reminder:-

Dear Mr Davie

Complaint against the “Thought for the Day” slot.

I understand from the BBC Trust that my letter of complaint to them of 9th Feb 2009 has been passed to you and that you had agreed to provide a second stage response.
I would be grateful if you could confirm receipt of that letter and, perhaps, give some indication of when I might expect a reply.

I am also still awaiting a response to my email to the Religion & Ethics Department. This was on 8th March. See earlier posts.

Thursday 9 April 2009

The Green Custard Attack.

Leila Deen has been cautioned for her action in throwing green custard in Peter Mandelson's face in protest at the proposals, which he strongly supports, to expand Heathrow Airport. She belongs to the group "Plane Stupid". Her action has attracted a lot of criticism but she is a young woman who obviously feels she has a big stake in the future of the planet. Her activism is her version of service. Does Peter Mandelson have the same stake in the future? Is he serving anyone except himself? Does anyone expect us to believe that if Leila had stayed at home and written him a polite letter it would have made any impression at all on him or gained any publicity for her cause.

Praying to God is like talking to a friend

New Scientist article of 08 April 2009 by Andy Coghlan
IS PRAYER just another kind of friendly conversation? Yes, says Uffe Schjødt, who used MRI to scan the brains of 20 devout Christians. "It's like talking to another human. We found no evidence of anything mystical."

Schjødt, of the University of Aarhus, Denmark, and colleagues, asked volunteers to carry out two tasks involving both religious and "secular" activities. In the first task, they silently recited the Lord's Prayer, then a nursery rhyme. Identical brain areas, typically associated with rehearsal and repetition, were activated.

In the second, they improvised personal prayers before making requests to Santa Claus. Improvised prayers triggered patterns that match those seen when people communicate with each other, and activated circuitry that is linked with the theory of mind - an awareness that other individuals have their own independent motivations and intentions (Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsn050).

Sunday 5 April 2009

Sentamu urges St. George's Day Holiday

The Archbishop of York has said that making St George's Day a public holiday would promote unity in England.
Dr John Sentamu asked an audience in Oxford: "Has the time come to make the Feast of St George, the Patron Saint of England, a public holiday?"
He said people needed to be more confident about their Englishness or risk extremists filling the vacuum.
"The truth is an all-embracing England, confident and hopeful in its own identity, is something to celebrate."

I believe this is the first time a public figure has spoken out on this subject so let's hope the message is getting through notwithstanding the foot-dragging of no.10.

Faith Schools - Good News!

The Campaign against Faith Schools has now reached its target thanks to the heroic intervention of champion donor Simon Bishop. The amount raised now stands at £30,004. This spoilt my little scheme for every previous donor to give a few pounds more but I'm a very forgiving kind of person.

Friday 3 April 2009

Campaign against Faith Schools

This Justgiving Appeal closes on April 25th. At the moment it is £2270 short of the target of £30,000. If everyone of the 844 unique donor names donates another £2.70 it will get there. To be on the safe side I am going to round mine up to £3.

Thursday 2 April 2009

Did Darwin Kill God?

BBC's 2 Darwin season has provided some excellent, largely scientific expositions on Darwin and his theory but for the latest, screened on 31st March, it decided to smoothe any ruffled religious feathers with an unscientific look at an unscientific question (It depends what you mean by "Kill" and "god"). For this it parachuted in as presenter one Conor Cunningham. the Director of the Department of Theology and Philosphy at Nottingham University who, surprise, surprise, concluded after an hour of speaking in hushed tones and looking very sincerely into the camera that, no, Darwin did not kill God. Bearing in mind that God provides both Conor Cunningham's comfort blanket and bread & butter this is hardly 'end of the world' stuff.

To give him credit Conor did put his cards on the table right from the start. He is a Christian who accepts the Theory of Evolution and will have no truck with Creationism or ID. This being known, one could sit back and enjoy the ride which was a fairly useful review of the various interpretations of Genesis over the ages and it was evident that if all modern Christians had stuck with the philosophers of the early Christian era there wouldn't be any of the present fuss. Where Conor sees a real threat to "god" is with the subject of "memes" and its proponents the feared "Ultra Darwinists". Dr Susan Blackmore (one of these presumably) hove on the scene with a twinkle in her eye to discuss the subject of "memes". This was at a railway station if memory serves me correctly; perhaps to give the impression that she was in a hurry. At any rate she wasn't allowed to get very far. The conversation was obviously not going in a helpful direction.

I am a little hazy on the subject of memes. These are little packets of inherited information which may be subject to evolution by natural selection. Memes might be selfish and intent on colonisation. You and I and Conor may not exist at all except as collections of memes. This raises the disturbing question, 'can God exist without Conor Cunningham to believe in him?' Personally I think he worries unecessarily. Believers are adept at shifting the goal posts. Has he considered that God might be the sum from minus to plus infinity of all the memes in the universe? I would have liked to express this as a mathematical equation in the integral calculus but html doesn't do a sigma symbol. (I think)

Wednesday 1 April 2009

BBC Religion & Ethics Department

I still have had no reply to my email of 8th March. I will give it a few more days before instigating a second complaints procedure.

C.of.E on brink of 'losing' 24 million 'members'

"In the modern era of human rights, how long can a religious body continue to claim privileges based on a religious ritual carried out on babies when most of those babies once grown do not continue to practise the religion? Or does Anglicanism at that point become a matter of ethnicity rather than faith?

Given the growing militancy of the National Secular Society and of the human rights lobby, I can't see this situation lasting. It can't be much longer before the established Church is shrunk down to its true size, without losing any 'real' members but perhaps losing some of its status. And only God knows where that will leave the '80-million strong Anglican Communion'."

Extract from an article by the Times Religious Correspondent, Ruth Gledhill.