Center for Inquiry on Pope Francis: About Your Mother

From the Center for Inquiry, by Ronald A. Lindsay:

Pope Francis has given his opinion on the controversy surrounding Charlie Hebdo’s continued sharp criticism and sarcasm regarding religious beliefs. The pope has stated that there should be limits to free expression. In particular, one should not “insult the faith of others.” He analogized criticism of religious beliefs to someone cursing his mother, saying that such a person “can expect a punch.”

Pope Francis is wrong.

There’s a world of difference between criticism of a religious belief and insulting someone’s loved one. Given that he is a tireless and effective evangelist for his own faith, the pope is well aware that religious beliefs are (usually) expressly and vigorously promoted. Members of the public are told repeatedly that these are important beliefs that they should accept. Accordingly, those who find flaws in these beliefs may, quite appropriately, point out these flaws. Religious claims should be treated like political claims or any other claims advanced in the public square. They should not be immune from criticism.

But what about ridicule? Isn’t that going too far? Ridicule should be used sparingly, for practical reasons if no other. It can become tiresome. But ridicule used judiciously can often be effective in puncturing inflated claims, again, whether these claims are political, religious, or otherwise. Kim Jong-un didn’t especially care for the ridicule he received in The Interview, and he delivered a digital punch as a result, but presumably this is not an example the pope would endorse. Those loyal to Kim regard him as sacred as the prophets revered by various religions. We can’t say ridicule is permissible in one instance, but not the other.

Perhaps the pope needs to be reminded that most faiths, including Christianity, have themselves resorted to ridicule to disparage rival beliefs. St. Augustine devoted much of his monumental City of God to merciless and relentless ridicule of pagan religious beliefs. If Augustine can mock Zeus, why should the Trinity be off limits?

Of course, ridicule can be excessive or mean-spirited. The remedy for truly outrageous ridicule, however, is supplied by the marketplace. We are free to shun those who we think have gone too far, or decline to buy their magazines or listen to their programs. The remedy is not, as the pope suggests, violence, whether it is violence carried out by the state or private individuals who are offended by the ridicule.

If Pope Francis does not want religious beliefs criticized, then he should advise all believers to keep their views private—as private as his relationship with his mother. Undoubtedly, though, he will not do that, and when he does continue to make claims in public about the truths of Christianity, these claims are properly subject to criticism, whether that criticism takes the form of a scholarly rebuttal or a satirical cartoon.

IHEU: “call it what it is — Saudi Arabia’s flogging of Raif Badawi is barbarity and torture, plain and simple”

From the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU):

It is reported that officials have carried out the first 50 lashes of a 1000-lashes sentence against Saudi liberal, Raif Badawi. The charges related to his running of a Liberal Saudi website, focused on advocating greater religious freedom, which was deemed “insulting to Islam” and a threat to the state.

The order papers indicated that the lashings should be “severe”. Witnesses said that despite the severity of the beating today, Raif Badawi “did not flinch; he held the victory symbol and [a] guard had to hold his hand down“.

The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) has consistently protested the prosecution and detention of Raif Badawi, and today unreservedly condemns the punishment. (See also our recent call to action page.)

Director of Communications at IHEU, Bob Churchill, said:

“We bitterly regret and weep for the violence against Raif Badawi.

“Only yesterday it was reported that Saudi Arabia condemned the Charlie Hebdo shootings, and yet the authorities choose this week to brutalize a young man because he had the audacity to stand up and say that his countrymen should have greater liberty. The Saudi state’s condemnation of terror in Paris is hypocrisy of the highest order.

“Around the world for many months, human rights groups have been calling for reprieve, for justice. Saudi’s Western allies have largely held their tongues, calling widely for a pardon only at the eleventh hour. They failed him. We must, all together, call it what is is —Saudi Arabia’s flogging of Raif Badawi is barbarity and torture, plain and simple.

“Raif Badawi was whipped in front of a mosque in public after Friday prayers. Not only is the sentence savage, and an absolute violation of human rights and dignity, but its execution is designed for maximum humiliation, for vengeance. It is a naked attempt to intimidate all those who question authority into silence.

“King Abdullah has branded liberal values and atheist thought as acts of ‘terror’. The reality is abundantly clear today: Through corporal and capital punishment against all those branded “dissidents”, it is the kingdom of Saudi Arabia itself that acts as a terrorist. To all those who call for freedom of thought and expression, the state of Saudi Arabia is terrorist, no less than the murderers of journalists in Paris.

“Our thoughts and deeds today are focused on Raif, on his family and young children, and on his lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair who is likewise jailed merely for his defence of human rights.”

Saudi Arabia was criticised by IHEU and many others in the past year for new “terror” regulations, which labelled the advocacy of liberal values or of “atheist thought in any form” as acts of “terrorism” against the state. Executions have been on the rise and the judiciary appears to have been increasingly keen to recent months to harshly punish anyone branded a “dissident”.

As the attack on Charlie Hebdo has proved this week, images can be powerful…

BBC The Big Questions: Should humanists have the same rights as religious people?

In this episode, one of the three questions discussed was the rather oddly phrased “Should humanists have the same rights as religion?”

Humanist marriage was the main topic discussed, but whether humanism should be on religious education syllabuses was also touched on.

Amongst the contributors are Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association and Julian Huppert MP.

You can find the link here to watch the programme for 30 days after broadcast.

You may wonder why the question even needs debating in the 21st century. You may be puzzled by the rant by one person that humanism is the work of the devil, but as another speaker said, that shows why we need to keep the right to mock.

Tom Pride on reasons why the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo deserved to die

From the excellent satirical blog, Pride’s Purge:

Darwin Festival in February in Shrewsbury

Darwin during the Shrewsbury Flower Show, August 2014  © Richard Burnham 2014

Darwin during the Shrewsbury Flower Show, August 2014 © Richard Burnham 2014

The SHG doesn’t hold a meeting in February, as there is a wealth of events at the Darwin festival in Shrewsbury, Darwin’s birthplace. Of particular note is the memorial lecture that some of the group attend.

Sunday 15th February 2015, 14.30. The Darwin Memorial Lecture: “A ‘brilliant blunder’? Darwin and Mendel revisited.” by Dr Gregory Radick

A long tradition holds that Charles Darwin blundered badly on inheritance and how it works. He wrote at the same period when Gregor Mendel, the “father of genetics,” laid the foundations for what later scientists judged to be the correct account. With February 2015 marking 150 years since Mendel presented his views, this lecture will explore the questions of what Darwin believed about inheritance, how he came to think about inheritance in the ways he did, and why we might lose more than we gain if we classify his efforts under “brilliant blunder.”

Greg Radick is the Professor of the History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Leeds. His main area of research is the history of biology and the human sciences from the eighteenth century to the present, with particular emphases on Darwinism, genetics and animal behaviour. His books include ‘The Simian Tongue: The Long Debate about Animal Language’ and ‘The Cambridge Companion to Darwin’. Since 2012, he has been Editor-in-Chief of the journal Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences.

Promoted by the Friends of Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery. TICKETS £10. See more details at http://www.theatresevern.co.uk/shows/talks/darwin-lecture-2015/

National Secular Society on churches, charity and the conferring of privilege

There are many ways to do good, including campaigning for human rights and equality over discrimination and prejudice, but charitable work is not a bargaining chip for special privileges, argues Alistair McBay.
Recently some Christian leaders in Scotland angered at secularists challenging their privileges have responded by pointing out the National Secular Society and other secular groups don’t run care homes, or operate food banks, or run adoption agencies. Secularists have been the target of this ill-informed sniping from both the Free Church of Scotland and the Church of Scotland, and Anglican and Catholic leaders have made similar attacks in the past. So here is an attempt to set the record straight on a few points.
First, let’s deal with the obvious. The NSS is not a registered charity, it is a not-for-profit campaigning organisation. It would be more accurate for the churches to compare us not with themselves, but to the Christian not-for-profit think-tank Ekklesia, which is also a campaigning group, not a registered charity, and doesn’t run care homes or food banks. Perhaps the Christian Institute might be another more appropriate comparator – it is a registered charity but which spends its funds on campaigning for ‘Christian influence in a secular world’, and not on food banks.
So while it is true that the NSS runs no care homes or food banks, the religious leaders who condemn us for failing the vulnerable can be accused of the very same. For example, they have never campaigned for equality for the LGBTi community. In fact, they continue to campaign for LGBTi rights to be restricted and for Christians to be able to practise discrimination and prejudice against them through exemptions from the Equality Act. They also campaign to retain the legal right to exclude children and teachers on the grounds of their parents being of the ‘wrong’ religion or no religion. There is not much charity in evidence here – just the demand that Christian belief be seen to confer a right to discriminate against, segregate and exclude vulnerable groups.
I know of no secular charity that prostitutes its charitable works as justification for retaining special privilege in society – that seems to be the sole prerogative of some religious groups. All over the UK, every day of the year, people of all religious beliefs and none perform selfless works and activities to raise funds for those worse off in some way, or give up their valuable personal time as volunteers to make better the lives of others less fortunate. Yet the only people who consistently brag (sorry, bear witness) about what they do in this regard are church leaders looking to leverage this work in exchange for power and privilege, and to champion their allegedly superior belief system.

Continue reading here.

Engaging Issues in Church Stretton

DSCF1767-edited This is to draw your attention to a series of events in Church Stretton, which cover topics that may well be of interest to humanists. According to its description, there are forums, lectures, questions and discussion on faith and society issues. National speakers are often invited to lead the sessions about science, religion, culture and society.

Unfortunately this post appears too late to inform you of the talk on “Prisoners and Human Rights” by Peter Pack of Amnesty on 6 January, but the next talk is on Tuesday 20th January: “It’s democracy, Clem but not as we knew it”: Democratic participation and accountability in contemporary UK politics with Dr Stuart Wilks-Heeg (University of Liverpool), who explores whether the UK has become more, or less, democratic since the 1940s. And ponders what the politicians of the immediate post-war period might make of modern British democracy.

Dr.Stuart Wilks-Heeg is Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at the University of Liverpool. He took a lead role in the 2012 Democratic Audit of the UK.

7:30pm in the United Reformed Church building on the High Street, Church Stretton, SY6 6BY.

All are welcome, a contribution of £3 towards expenses is requested from those who attend. More detail on these events is available from David Howard, 01694 722904.

National Secular Society on how new Government-backed council prayers bill will undermine religious freedom

From the National Secular Society:

Council prayers: Local Government (Religious Etc. Observances) Bill

We would like to see local government meetings conducted in a manner equally welcoming to all attendees, regardless of their individual religious beliefs or lack of belief. We therefore argue that religious worship should play no part in the formal business of council meetings.
What’s the issue?
The Local Government (Religious etc. Observances) Bill[1] seeks to make provision for the inclusion of prayers or “other religious observance” or “observance connected with a religious or philosophical belief” at local authority meetings.

The Private Member’s Bill, sponsored by Conservative MP Jake Berry, seeks to negate a High Court ruling [2] that “The saying of prayers as part of the formal meeting of a Council is not lawful under s111 of the Local Government Act 1972, and there is no statutory power permitting the practice to continue.”

The judgement followed a Judicial Review initiated by the National Secular Society to challenge the practice of saying prayers as part of the formal business of council meetings in Bideford Town Council (Devon).
The ruling was an important step in recognition of secularism as a basis for equality in public life and public office. Simply, it ensured that all elected councillors, whatever their religious beliefs, would be treated with equal respect at council meetings.
If the Local Government (Religious Etc. Observances) Bill were to become law, it would enable a majority of councillors to impose their beliefs on other elected councillors who do not wish to participate. As well as those of no belief, this would of course include those of another faith to those of the prayer being recited.
Furthermore, for local democracy to be representative, we think it is important for local councils to resist practices that deter full involvement from all sections of the community they serve.

Why worship should play no part in local authority meetings
Given that the role of local councils is to represent and serve all people in their area equally, it is inappropriate for them to appear corporately to subscribe to any religious beliefs, far less to one faith in particular.
The imposition of prayer gives the impression of the body identifying with a particular belief or range of beliefs. This can alienate those who do not wish to pray, or make them feel they are not full or legitimate councillors. It may also deter prospective councillors/candidates.
Mr Justice Ouseley, the Judge in Charge of the Administrative Court at the High Court, stated in his ruling that the 1972 Local Government Act did not give councils the power to introduce a religious dimension to their meetings:
“I do not think that the 1972 Act, dealing with the organisation, management and decision-making of local Councils, should be interpreted as permitting the religious views of one group of Councillors, however sincere or large in number, to exclude or, even to a modest extent, to impose burdens on or even to mark out those who do not share their views and do not wish to participate in their expression of them. They are all equally elected Councillors.”
The Local Government (Religious Etc. Observances) Bill would overturn this ruling, in order to allow one group of councillors to impose their religious practices on other elected councillors.
In our view, permitting acts of worship to be imposed on councillors in a secular council chamber, as the Bill seeks do, is incompatible with religious freedom and inimical to ensuring our local councils are equally welcoming to all sections of society.
Local authorities have a statutory duty to advance equality of opportunity between people who share a protected characteristic and those who do not
Within each local authority area there will be a diverse range of religious beliefs. If enacted, this legislation can be expected to increase the incidence of religious observance (predominantly, but not exclusively, Christian prayer) during formal council proceedings, potentially generating unnecessary sectarian conflict.
We note that the average age of councillors increased from 55 in 1997 to 60 in 2010 and only 4 per cent came from an ethnic minority background[3]. It is important to make local democracy as open and inclusive as possible. The presence of predominantly Christian prayers may be seen as alienating for some who are not Christian. This is equally true for non-believers forced to sit through Christian prayers, as (for example) Christian councillors forced to sit through Islamic ones.

Religious freedom
The supporters of this Bill claim it increases ‘religious freedom’. We think the opposite is true. The Bill undermines religious freedom by enabling the majority of councillors to impose their beliefs on other councillors. Secularism is a necessary adjunct to any democracy that supports equality for all.
The absence of prayers from the formal business of local authority meetings does not impede the religious freedoms of believers or deny anybody the right to pray. The current legal position simply prevents local authorities from summoning councillors to religious observance at council meetings and imposing it on those that do not wish it.
It is important to note that religious freedom is not just for believers. It also includes non-believers. Religious freedom protects both “freedom of religion or belief.” This protects an individual’s rights to manifest their religion, but does not extend to allowing believers to impose acts of worship on those that do not share their faith. This may also be regarded as basic good manners. Secularism does not seek to interfere with believers following their faith in any way, provided that it does not impinge adversely on others.
Councillors are free to meet and pray before their meetings, but formal acts of worship should not take place as part of the official business of local authority meetings. In this way, meetings can be conducted without anyone feeling compelled to participate in prayers, or feeling excluded, or that they have to absent themselves from any part of the meeting.

Social Cohesion
Separating acts of worship from the formal business of council meetings creates a neutral space and removes an unnecessary barrier to local democracy being equally representative of all sections of society.
Acts of worship can alienate councillors who simply do not wish to participate in public religious activity. This was the experience of the late Clive Bone, a councillor who assisted the NSS in our High Court challenge of the inclusion of prayers before meetings of Bideford Town Council by being a party to the case. Cllr Bone felt uncomfortable in refusing to participate, and said the worship created an unwelcoming atmosphere for non-religious councillors, and that he was aware of it putting off potential councillors from standing.
This was also the case for Cllr Imran Khan, a Muslim and Conservative councillor on Reigate and Banstead Borough Council in Surrey, who asked for Christian prayers to be separated from full council meeting as he felt it was wrong that he was forced to stand outside the council chamber while prayers were being said. After speaking out on the issue, Mr Khan was not reselected by the Tories to contest the seat and claimed the prayer row had “a big influence”.[4]
Before the High Court ruling in 2012, a number of local authorities introduced multi-faith prayers. Such initiatives, though often well-meaning, became cause of tension, rather than cohesion.
When Portsmouth Council allowed for a Muslim Imam to say a prayer during a meeting, a local councillor was accused of “disrespect” after excluding himself from the meeting while the prayer was said. The councillor told local media: “I don’t feel it’s appropriate for Muslim prayers to be said, as I don’t feel we worship the same God as Muslims, so I left.”[5]
Similarly, councillors in Shropshire called a fellow non-religious councillor “disgusting” after he wore headphones during a prayer held during a council meeting.
If successful, this new legislation could re-open the door to such unnecessary conflict and sectarianism at council meetings.
Community cohesion is best served by local authorities moving away from divisive practices, such as religious worship, that deter full involvement from all sections of communities they serve.
In a religiously diverse nation, where large sectors of the population do not hold or practise religious beliefs, local authorities should perform their civic duties in a secular manner without privileging or identifying with any particular religious position.
Get involved!
Using the arguments set out in the briefing, please contact your MP and ask them to ensure local democracy is inclusive and secular by opposing Jake Berry’s Local Government (Religious Etc. Observances) Bill.
1 http://services.parliament.uk/bills/2014-15/localgovernmentreligiousetcobservances.html
2 https://www.secularism.org.uk/uploads/bideford-judgment-final.pdf
3 http://www.local.gov.uk/local-government-intelligence/-/journal_content/56/10180/100325/ARTICLE
4 http://www.surreymirror.co.uk/Muslim-councillor-deselected-Horley-prayer-row/story-15669740-detail/story.html
5 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-hampshire-12284894

Web: secularism.org.uk email: enquiries@secularism.org.uk Tel: 0207 404 3126

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