...a blog by Richard Flowers

Friday, April 20, 2007

Day 2300: Bless this House of Lords


Listening to the The Today Programme this morning, we heard their "Yesterday in Parliament" slot (interestingly banished to the UNLOVED pre-7 o'clock slot, and an hour before the more LISTENER-FRIENDLY quarter-to-eight window given to "Fart for Today"). They chose to cover my chums in the House of Lords Club who were debating the place in society for those WITHOUT religion. And I am glad that they did!

We hear an AWFUL LOT from so-called "religious commentators", and often they are demanding that THEIR opinions have got to be heard. What they don't say is that they only represent a MINORITY. There are a LOT MORE people whose religious opinion amounts to: "well there might be something to it, stands to reason."

I think that it is BRILLIANT that we are even HAVING this debate, and it shows how very far we have come from the days when your religion was picked for you by the Queen and was compulsory at all levels.

Can you even imagine them having a debate like this in TEHRAN? Or even in WASHINGTON?

Anyway, hang on to your hats because it's a BIGGIE, but it's worth the roller-coaster ride just to remember that at least we CAN discuss this like grown ups. Well, maybe not grown ups, but at least like BABY ELEPHANTS!

Lord Harrison started because he had called for the debate in the first place and he framed his remarks around the DIVISIONS that he has seen caused by religion: at school, fellow pupils excluded from Assembly until after prayers; as a parent faced with the non-choice of sending his own children to a church school or out of the district, separating them from their friends; in the House of Lords Club itself, being made to hang around outside until the godbotherers have finished their prayers. (Imagine having to hang around outside your place of work until prayers were finished!)

He would later go on to reflect on how no non-religious person is invited to the Cenotaph for Remembrance Day, and questioned the appropriateness of the commemoration for the victims of the July 7th bombings, including a prominent secularist, taking place in an Anglican Cathedral. Would Christians be happy for a leading Christian to receive only a humanist ceremony, he asked? Our armed forces, our hospitals, our prisons provide RELIGIOUS chaplaincy, but no secular support.

And of course he mentioned in passing my old bugbear of Fart for Today, and also the daily opening of Radio 4 with Prayers for Today, which apparently are increasingly being used as another bully pulpit too.

At the core of his argument is this: with religious attendance continuing to decline, in spite of their best efforts, the more outspoken leaders of the churches – and he singled out remarks from Archbishop Senti-Moo of York attacking "illiberal atheists" and "aggressive secularists" – have decided to put the blame on the non-religious rather than facing up to their own failings.

There is an urgent need to ANSWER their accusations, and to provide some BALANCE and SUPPORT for the many people for whom religion is AT BEST a nice way to get married and buried.

"the 2001 Home Office Citizenship Survey asserts, four out of five of us find that religious belief is not central to our self-identity"

Despite being a supporter of the Labour – voting "religiously" for the Government, ho ho – Lord H is "perturbed" by the "faith agenda" being actively pursued. Lord Blairimort's government fulfilled a promise to promote religious harmony by publishing a paper (yes, that's not what I'D call fulfilling a promise either) publishing a paper called "Working Together", which gave much attention to obtaining the views of very tiny faiths like the Jains and the Zoroastrians but IGNORED and OVERLOOKED the opinions of THE MAJORITY for whom "religion is perfunctory or defunct".

Even more worrying was the companion paper "Building Civil Renewal" which suggested that Civil Servants should be:

"preparing to mount publicity and media-handling strategies to answer adverse criticism from the secular quarter".

As Lord H says, shouldn't secular and humanist (and elephantist!) groups be ENCOURAGED to voice their opinions not made to SHUT UP? And isn't it ALL TOO EASY to start sticking SIMPLISTIC labels on people, thinking of their ethnicity and religious belief as interchangeable? This leads to such UNWARRANTED assumptions as "all Caribbeans are Baptists" and "all Asians are Muslims". After all, only a complete fool would testify that "all English people are PASSIONATE supporters of the Church of England". Even the BISHOPS' affections are only tepid. People are MUCH MORE COMPLICATED than that. And it also leads to the more EXAGGERATED members of a community being put forward – or more often putting THEMSELVES forward – as spokespeople because they have got the FAITH bug bigger than most.

In conclusion, the good Lord called for SEPARATION of church and state activities: schools should not be teaching religion, that should be a job for Sunday School; and isn't it about time that the Church of England was disestablished so that the Head of State – no shame on Her Current Majesty – should be allowed to keep his or her personal and private belief (or non belief) OUT of their job description.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour responded by SPECTACULARLY missing the point when she said that all the "great faiths" are all about people coming together for support and prosperity. Whether they are or aren't (and it's pretty QUESTIONABLE) is not important because you don't HAVE to be "of faith" to want to give and receive support and prosperity. So why EXCLUDE people from the national debate just because they don't sign up to one of your clubs?

This reminds me of the Fart for Today nonsense spouted an hour after the Today in Parliament report on this very debate. Mr John Bell, the ding-dong from the Iona Community, made the UNWISE and rather TASTELESS decision to try and claim some kudos for religion from the HORRIBLE MASSACRE of students in America. Pointing out the HEROISM of elderly Jewish Professor Liviu Librescu who gave his own life in order that students might escape through the window whilst he blocked the door with his body, Mr Bell said: "look, you see! Religion, it's not just about sticking by your own group!"

Never mind that Mr Bell has no power to look into the mind of Professor Librescu (a man described as "devoted to science" by the the Jerusalem Post) to know whether or not it was his religion that inspired him to act so SELFLESSLY and BRAVELY, this is just ONE EXAMPLE – anecdotes do NOT make evidence.

It MAY be true that religion inspires you to look after others of all faiths or none… though a number of RELIGIOUS WARS, from the Crusades to Northern Ireland to the mess that used to be Iraq, suggest that the OPPOSITE might be true.

(Usually, the religions trot out the excuse that "ahh, those were POLITICAL CONFLICTS just dressed up with religion", but that won’t hold water in this case, as the religion is SPECIFICALLY used to dress up the conflict IN ORDER to get your side to stick only to your group and to hate the other side MORE!)

This sort of CHERRY-PICKING to prove your points really gets my goat! Religion does not come out UNIVERSALLY well from that dreadful situation, given that the killer himself is reported to have been obsessed with Christianity and identified himself with Mr Jesus. It is probably more difficult to score points for yourself by referring to THAT, though!

Back in the House of Lords Club, Liberal Democrat Lord Willie Goodhart rose to support Lord Harrison's remarks about religion in education.

"As I get older I simply get more convinced that there is no credible evidence for the existence of God and see no merit in believing the truth of something not supported by evidence."

He recalled a trip to the then Soviet Union and being asked by a fearsome Russian matriarch: "do you believe in god?" "Well, no not really," he had replied, so she offered "Why do you not stay in Russia then?" He didn't feel the need, was his answer. A roundabout way of saying that he has never felt oppressed for his non-religion.

Although accepting that we come to an education system already comprised of many CofE and Catholic Schools – and if we were to start from scratch, like getting to Tipperary, we wouldn't start from here – but he suggested that we should say this far and no further, and say "no" to any more faith schools.

Then the Archbullock of York Dr John Senti-Moo stood up to answer.

He said:

"For me, religion is a narrative we all inhabit that makes sense to us of what would otherwise be nonsense..."


It OUGHT to go without saying that this is FATUOUS and SILLY, redefining "RELIGION" so broadly that you can include anything you want to. It OUGHT to go without saying, but unfortunately it appears that it doesn't, so THANKFULLY, Mr Chris and Mr James have both said it.

One of the PROBLEMS with the small communion of NUTTERS who are trying to seize control of church so that they can push their WACKY views is that they think they are SOOOOO clever with their little MEMES trying to insinuate some dumb idea into the way that people think in order to wedge minds open to their influence.

They THINK they are so clever, but it only shows that they have no IMAGINATION and only ONE hymn sheet to sing from!

Science takes the chaotic facts of life, the universe and everything and presents an explanation that tries to give us a sense of order and understanding. Religion turns it back into nonsense.

Before that, he had begun with a TELLING little homily, which I think is worth reporting to you IN FULL:

"Twenty-seven years ago I was chaplain to a young offenders remand centre, Latchmere House. Every inmate was asked to declare his religious affiliation, and four young men were registered as having no religion. One Sunday, all the inmates were offered the chance to go to worship. The four young men with no religion declined the offer, while their fellow inmates on the A wing took up the offer. The prison officer, not wanting the four men to remain locked up in their cells, asked them to clean the toilets on the wing. The following Sunday, our four non-religious young men took up the offer to go to worship. The prison officer was puzzled why they had opted in this week. “Why are you going to chapel?” he asked. The four replied, “Sir, we didn’t like the ‘No Religion’ place of worship”. Crudely as they put it, those four young men were saying in their naivety that we are all essentially religious."
Crudely put, your very eminent worship, I think that the young men were telling you that they did not like BEING LOCKED IN A TOILET for expressing their lack of religion.

In order for you to draw the opposite conclusion from this lesson I think suggests that you are either: stark staring BONKERS; completely INSENSIBLE to the Human condition; or a TIME TRAVELLER from 1973…BC!

"For me, this is not a human-centred universe," continued his grace. "Religious and non-religious people need to recognise the absolute mystery of existence."

Why SHOULD non-religious people have to recognise ANYTHING that he fantasises may or may not be the centre of the Universe?

Isn't that just petulantly demanding that he have his own way? He asks why should anything exist at all but then says well the answer's god and you've all got to accept it. Dressing it up as "MYSTERY" doesn't help – for some of us a "MYSTERY" is something to work out, not to preserve!

"For me, the greatest danger we face in this country is the ethical and spiritual problems associated with the concepts of law and freedom."

Well he's RIGHT… except that his answer seems to be MORE LAW and LESS FREEDOM!

"It is a problem for the individual, who swings uneasily between the seemingly old-fashioned moral imperative of a higher authority and the seemingly legitimate demands of their own physical and moral nature."

Spot how he uses "seemingly" as a synonym for the word "NOT". To Mr Senti-Moo, letting people make up their own minds about things is BAD NEWS!

Still, it is GOOD that his grace is there in the House of Lords Club defending "the seemingly old-fashioned moral imperative of a higher authority" with his record of attending, er, 3% of votes. Spoken in nine whole debates he has. Including this one.

He goes on to quote approvingly the warning of another Archpilchard, Mr Stuart Blanch (and well you might):

"we may die the death of those who, in the pursuit of freedom, undermine the law"

and his solution

"…learn from the past and take more seriously than we sometimes do the accumulated wisdom of a peculiar gifted people—the people of the Bible"

That would be the accumulated wisdom that says it is okay to sell your daughter into slavery or to stone someone to death for working on Saturday or to expect a lady to keep silent in Church (hang on, some of them still believe THAT!).

He concluded with a warning against "The severance of law from morality and of religion from law".

This is just more typical religious DOUBLETHINK!

He is trying to imply that MORALITY and RELIGION are one and the same, and that ONLY the religious have a handle on morality.

This is PARTICULARLY ironic in the weeks following the anniversary of the abolition of slavery, because 200 years ago it was the people with MORALITY who won the case AGAINST the people who were basing their argument on RELIGION. Today it is OBVIOUS to us that slavery is just WRONG, and yet at the time, if it had been based on the RELIGIOUS arguments, then the pro-slavery people would have won!

Morality is GREATER than religion, we all have our own MORAL SENSE – otherwise how could we look at the Bible (say) and decide that the LAW in LEVITICUS that says

"eating prawns is an ABOMINATION"

is a rather out-dated guide to the inadvisability of eating seafood in the Sinai area.

Just because there are things that are moral in religion ("thou shalt not kill" is a GOOD example!) does NOT mean that EVERYTHING in religion is moral, nor that NOTHING moral comes from OUTSIDE of religion.

Trying to say that it does, well that is EXACTLY the sort of EXCLUSION of non-religious people that Lord Harrison was worried about in the first place!

How do you follow that? Well, Baroness Flather managed to, with the almost totally fatuous remark: "As we have heard, all religions are essentially good, we all know that. It is the followers who are a problem."

On the other fluffy foot, she did point out "the intent to dilute very important factors such as our wonderful anti-discrimination legislation. In trying to pander to the faith communities our Prime Minister is willing to sacrifice parts of it, which is a very dangerous thing to do."

Pandering to faith communities was, she diagnosed, the problem of the "Blairimort decade" and she too agreed that children's education should not be separated out by the faiths of their parents.

The Bishop of Worcester then went into a flight of fancy concerning the silly legal device that requires that in order to start the debate, Lord Harrison had to put a motion to the House calling for "papers". What, mused the Bish, would such papers contain.

As he said himself: "I am not quite sure what I am saying".

In the end it seemed he decided that he would like to see the papers drawn up for real, for all that they would contain truces and compromises and bitter battles, as they could be a manifesto for how we go forward.

Declaring his interest as chair of the all-Party humanist group, Lord Macdonald of Tradeston also welcomed the debate. He used his contribution to call on the BBC to broaden their religious programming to include humanist and secularist points of view.

He was followed by Baroness Byford who spoke first about Alcoholics Anonymous' "Blue Book" and the USEFUL power of believing in something greater than yourself to help you overcome a seemingly insurmountable addiction. She then told the House about the terribly sad death by suicide of her son.

"All I would say to those who will follow me is that we do need to have some faith, some hope for people, because, without that, other people like my son—who could not find it; it was not that he was not used to it, but he could not find it—will not lead fuller lives as they might otherwise do."

As I said, I think it is very SAD about her son, but I do not think that the will to live can or should come only from believing in a religion. Indeed, it seems that religion was not enough, but really I am in no position to tell. As I said before, one example does not make for evidence one way or another no matter how sad it makes us feel.

Later, Baroness Rendell of Babergh spoke wistfully of the passing of faith into sentiment, and of the impossibility of belief when confronted, as Darwin was, with the reality of nature in all its cruelty and imperfection. The world, she felt, was not noticeably better but neither was it any worse for the passing of god, and at least we still retained the beauty and music of a religious past.

She was followed by former Archbeard of Canterbury, Lord Clarey.

He sought to frame the debate in terms of the difference between those who believe that the Universe has a Creator and those who don't.

This comes down to a rather stunted form of the Argument from Design i.e. "Golly, isn't the Universe nice, God must have made it."

We could play a game of SPOT THE SYLLOGISM if you like!

But then his lordship resorted to the SINGLE MOST ANNOYING PHRASE in the lexicon of the shy-sky-fairy-believer (yes that IS supposed to be annoying in return!) He said:

"I find that some atheists seem to be unaware that their beliefs, too, are at best a faith."

Personally, my Lord, I find that you seem to be unaware that your belief is at best A LIE.

As a militant atheist baby elephant, I do NOT say that there CANNOT BE A GOD; I say that I will not believe in something when there is NO EVIDENCE that there IS one.

I do not invest "faith" in NOT-believing in "god" any more than you, Lord Clarey, invest faith in NOT-believing in Odin, Sutekh or Cuddly Cthulhu!

The evidence for the existence of the Universe is ALL AROUND YOU, Lord Clarey, should you ever bother to stick your pointy head outside your IVORY TOWER (and WHERE did you GET the IVORY, I want to know!!!). But the evidence for the existence of a Creator is REMARKABLY ABSENT, particularly when you consider the VAST SCOPE of places in which you could look for Him.

I will HAPPILY be convinced if the DIVINITY would care to stick his head visibly above the HEAVENLY PARAPET, but so long as my choice is that he either does not exist or is actively hiding from me, I will choose to err in favour of the former assumption.

And – because I know it is NOT a matter of "faith" – I accept that that it IS an assumption. None of this "I just KNOW" rubbish for me!

In the meantime, science has shown us many explanations for why the world is the way that we see it. We should keep looking for MORE answers, not crawl away into a Bible!

Lord Clarey DID accept that there was BAD RELIGION around. He could hardly look at Iraq without HAVING to! "The same could be said of Christianity in the past," he added. And the PRESENT, Lord Clarey if you don't mind looking at America's "god told me to do it" MONKEY-IN-CHIEF.

So his argument was basically, we can't cover that up, but the majority of religious people are GOOD and SAINTLY even if we never ever hear about them because of all the shouting from the OTHER kind of religious people and so you should excuse us all the BAD things we do because of that!

But, while there might be one or two nice atheists, on the whole they're just evil.

"…if I may be a little provocative, in my opinion, atheists are not renowned throughout the world for their commitment to the very poor, the starving and the needy. Whereas, as I have already indicated, believers have made and are making an effective contribution throughout the world, it will not do for others to rubbish that and then do little to make up for what they feel are its inadequacies. "

"It is not my intention to score points," he finished!

Rather than BLOWING my own top SKY HIGH, I will merely report the words of kindly Baroness Murphy who felt compelled to reply to Lord Clarey.

"I was going to remain rather calm throughout this, but I was rather offended by the comments of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey, about the role that people without faith have played in doing good in the world. He is entirely and wholly wrong. We feel just as passionately as those who have faith about ensuring that society is just."

She went on to speak of her experience as a community psychiatrist in inner London in the 1980s and 90s and how mentally ill people were left to live in the street because they could not follow the religious edicts of the available shelter.

I think Lord Clarey would count the people running that shelter as "doing good" when in fact they were doing real and terrible harm.

You see the thing is, Lord Clarey does NOT really KNOW how much good in the world is done by atheists, humanists, secularists or other non-religious folks. He doesn't know because they just get on and do it because it is the RIGHT thing to do; and they don't go and build enormous great CATHEDRALS with most of the cash and then sing Songs of Praise to themselves about it!

More people spoke before Lord Joffe added his contribution. Speaking as an atheist, though he said he had always admired the Church of England, particularly the courage of its clergy in South Africa, he talked about his experience introducing the recent Assisted Dying Bill.

"I thought that the church’s attitude would be similar to the way in which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester spoke earlier in this debate: calm, thoughtful and constructive. However, I was quite wrong. Compassion and respect for the views of the majority on suffering did not figure in that debate on the part of the opponents."

He went on to describe how the religious community mounted, ultimately successfully, their largest ever political campaign to defeat the bill. Quite flattering, he said, in light of the many wars and famines of recent history on which they might have campaigned.

The question, Lord Joffe wanted to ask, was: who did the church leaders think they were representing? When research showed that even 80% of Catholics and 80% of Protestants supported the bill, just whose will was being imposed on the majority?

More people spoke before it got to the end, and Lord Harrison – as convention dictates – had to withdraw his motion, in spite of what the Bishop of Worcester had said.

He thanked everyone for their contributions, in particular Baroness Byford and Lord Joffe, but in the end gave his prize for best speech to the Bishop of Worcester.

The prize was a China Teapot... in orbit somewhere between Mars and Jupiter.

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