The UK is one of the least religious countries in the world, survey finds

From The Independent, 13 April 2015:

The majority of Brits are atheist or agnostic, a poll has found, with only 30% of the population describing themselves as religious.

53% of respondents said they were “not religious”, though only 13% said they were a “convinced atheist” and the remainder said they “did not know”.

The survey, carried out by WIN/Gallup International, questioned 63,898 people around the world (around a thousand per country) creating a ranking of countries by their religiousness.

Out of 65 countries, the UK was sixth from bottom, vastly less religious than Thailand (94% religious) and Armenia, Bangladesh, Georgia and Morocco (93%).

Read more…

NSS: Even the chief architect of the expansion of religious schools is now having doubts

From the National Secular Society, by Terry Sanderson

With the public, of all faiths and none, increasingly recognising the problems caused by faith schools, NSS president Terry Sanderson calls out politicians who complain about religious separatism on one hand while deliberately promoting it on the other.

Tony Blair, who was the chief architect of Britain’s dangerous “faith school” experiment when he was Labour Prime Minister, now appears to be having doubts about it.

Speaking at a session on world education at the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai in March, Mr Blair said that intolerance must be “confronted” wherever it is found. And school is a good place to do it.

Asked whether, in general, faith schools can lead to greater segregation, Mr Blair replied: “That’s a very good question, and it’s one I ask myself often because faith schools are a big part of the UK system, a lot of people like to educate their children in those schools because sometimes they have a stronger ethos, a stronger kind of grounding in values and so on.

“I think what I would say is faith schools only work if they’re also integrated in the education system, it’s very important that young people, even if they’re taught in a school of a particular faith, are taught about other faiths, are taught in what I would say is a constructive way”.

He went on: “This question of what I call education for the open mind, is really, really important now”.

So, there we have it: Mr Blair thinks that “faith schools” only work if they are integrated into the education system”. The problem with this is that they are integrated into the education system and, as far as community cohesion is concerned, they are a disaster.

Even in community schools, that are supposedly free from a particular single religious influence, it isn’t difficult for religious zealots to gain influence. We’ve seen it happen in some Muslim areas when determined Islamists have overwhelmed community schools and tried to impose a “religious ethos” that wouldn’t be out of place in Saudi Arabia.

We are told that these schools are now returned to their original purpose of giving children a balanced education – indeed, a committee of MPs is now saying that there was no problem in the first place. But can we really dismiss the testimony of parents at these schools who were interviewed at the time and expressed their alarm at what was happening? Were the newspaper investigations that found evidence for the plot all made up? Were those teachers who were fired to make way for more Islamically pure replacements telling lies? And if there was no problem, why was the whole board of governors fired?

Read more…

Terry Sanderson is the president of the National Secular Society. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the NSS.

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.

Media coverage of BHA’s letter in response to the Prime Minister

The British Humanist Association organised an open letter which was published in the Telegraph on Easter Monday, challenging recent statements by the Prime Minister which referred to Britain as a ‘Christian country’. The letter’s lead signatory was BHA’s President, the physicist and broadcaster Professor Jim Al-Khalili, and it was co-signed by almost sixty other public figures – including Nobel Laureates, peers, philosophers, campaigners, authors, broadcasters, and academics.

The story was then picked up by hundreds of media outlets both in the UK and around the world. Several of the signatories appeared on TV news programmes, and BHA’s Chief Executive, Andrew Copson, spoke on different local radio stations including Radio Shropshire. A selection of TV and radio clips can be found here.

David Cameron fosters division by calling Britain a ‘Christian country’

Letter from some public figures in the Daily Telegraph on SundayMonday, 210 April:

SIR – We respect the Prime Minister’s right to his religious beliefs and the fact that they necessarily affect his own life as a politician. However, we object to his characterisation of Britain as a “Christian country” and the negative consequences for politics and society that this engenders.

Apart from in the narrow constitutional sense that we continue to have an established Church, Britain is not a “Christian country”. Repeated surveys, polls and studies show that most of us as individuals are not Christian in our beliefs or our religious identities.

At a social level, Britain has been shaped for the better by many pre-Christian, non-Christian, and post-Christian forces. We are a plural society with citizens with a range of perspectives, and we are a largely non-religious society.

Constantly to claim otherwise fosters alienation and division in our society. Although it is right to recognise the contribution made by many Christians to social action, it is wrong to try to exceptionalise their contribution when it is equalled by British people of different beliefs. This needlessly fuels enervating sectarian debates that are by and large absent from the lives of most British people, who do not want religions or religious identities to be actively prioritised by their elected government.

Professor Jim Al-Khalili
Philip Pullman
Tim Minchin
Dr Simon Singh
Ken Follett
Dr Adam Rutherford
Sir John Sulston
Sir David Smith
Professor Jonathan Glover
Professor Anthony Grayling
Nick Ross
Virginia Ironside
Professor Steven Rose
Natalie Haynes
Peter Tatchell
Professor Raymond Tallis
Dr Iolo ap Gwynn
Stephen Volk
Professor Steve Jones
Sir Terry Pratchett
Dr Evan Harris
Dr Richard Bartle
Sian Berry
C J De Mooi
Professor John A Lee
Professor Richard Norman
Zoe Margolis
Joan Smith
Michael Gore
Derek McAuley
Lorraine Barratt
Dr Susan Blackmore
Dr Harry Stopes-Roe
Sir Geoffrey Bindman QC
Adele Anderson
Dr Helena Cronin
Professor Alice Roberts
Professor Chris French
Sir Tom Blundell
Maureen Duffy
Baroness Whitaker
Lord Avebury
Richard Herring
Martin Rowson
Tony Hawks
Peter Cave
Diane Munday
Professor Norman MacLean
Professor Sir Harold Kroto
Sir Richard Dalton
Sir David Blatherwick
Michael Rubenstein
Polly Toynbee
Lord O’Neill
Dan Snow

The Telegraph has published an article on this:

David Cameron is sowing sectarianism and division by insisting that Britain is still a “Christian country” an alliance of writers, scientists, philophers and politicians has claimed.

In a letter to The Telegraph, 55 public figures from a range of political backgrounds accuse him of fostering “alienation” and actively harming society by repeatedly emphasising Christianity.

The group, which includes writers such as Philip Pullman and Sir Terry Pratchett, Nobel Prize winning scientists, prominent broadcasters and even some comedians argue that members of the elected Government have no right to “actively prioritise” religion or any particular faith.

Read more…

Simon Nightingale on faith

s_nightingaleSimon Nightingale recently gave this talk on Radio Shropshire on the Sunday morning ‘Pause for Thought’ slot. The podcast link has now expired.

I had some difficult drafting this talk about belief, because the ethos of Shropshire Radio’s Pause for Thought is that one should provide some insight from ones own religion (or world stance/philosophy in the case of humanism and maybe Buddhists) and that this should be for all listeners. We are specifically forbidden to preach or to criticise other religions.

Humanism is almost alone in rejecting “faith” (belief with very little evidence) and especially “blind faith” (belief with no evidence or even evidence to the contrary). However faith is rather precious to those that have it and they don’t like it criticised. So I talk about belief in a flat world rather than faith in the truth of Genesis, parting of the Red Sea, virgin birth , miracles, resurrection, Mohamed’s miraculous flight from Mecca to Jerusalem, gods with the head of an elephant, alien invasion by Thetans, Jesus’ visit to North America, and … the list seems endless. All are examples of faith, if not blind faith.

I also wanted to say that just because an idea seems incredible, evidence may show it to be true, for example, relativity and quantum mechanics. Occasionally science has had to make a fundamental paradigm shift and accept what previously it rejected – in fact this is really very rare.

When I say that Derren Brown admits it’s all a trick, I imply that, if instead he’d claimed to be a prophet, he might con an awful lot of people. That’s why claims that seem magical need the most careful scientific scrutiny to check we’re not being hoodwinked. James Randi, the famous magician, has offered one million dollars for anyone who can prove under proper experimental conditions, such supernatural phenomena as dowsing, homeopathy, mind reading, prayer or spiritualism. As a humanist and a scientist, I (sort of) keep an open mind on these as I know of no convincing evidence either way. Their fantastic claims would be easy enough to prove with properly conducted research – but most believers don’t seem interested in scientific proof (or in James Randi’s million dollars!), because they have a faith that does not require evidence.

I end by suggesting that we should not reject the incredible, but that we look at the evidence – of course most religions are not interested in providing evidence; they just ask you to have faith too.

The name for not having a religion

I think I was fortunate in my ‘spiritual’ upbringing. My parents sent their children to a Congregational Sunday school, but they never showed any evidence of religious belief and I suspect that was mainly to get us from under their feet on Sunday morning. (This was in the days when children could be trusted to walk a couple of miles by themselves.) And, conveniently, we could collect the ice cream for Sunday lunch from the sweetshop on the way home. I can remember very little of the experience that had anything to do with religion, although I enjoyed the social side of it (including quizzes led by our young teacher instead of bible lessons!) and discussions on all sorts of things, including psychic phenomena and non-belief. I read plenty of books, including Bertrand Russell. I had a sort of kind of type of vague sixties view of a supernatural being until my late teens. And then it just went.

Before I went to University, I discovered the local Young Humanist group, and on going up I found that the university Humanist Group was one of the largest and most active student societies. It had a major speaker every week and a Sunday afternoon discussion. I even joined the committee for a while, although I drifted off as I followed other interests.

The issue came up a while ago as to whether I’m an “atheist”, but I don’t see any reason to call myself that. I don’t like the word. It’s defined by theists, to imply an opposition to their own point of view, regarded as some kind of standard. I simply don’t have a religion. My own lack of belief in any god or supernatural power is exactly the same as my lack of belief in fairies, tree-spirits, ghosts or interstellar teapots. What all these have in common (apart, perhaps, from the teapot) is that people have expressed a belief in them, without presenting any evidence at all. But I don’t call myself an ‘afairyist’ or ‘aghostist’.

There is always the possibility that there is some first cause, ground of existence, transcendent force, Supreme Being or what-have-you, but as it never seems to make its existence known by any effects in the real world I just remain ‘agnostic’ to it.

All the arguments for the existence of God, whatever their merit, are really irrelevant to the real world. People do not practice ‘faith’ or believe in ‘God’ – they practise specific religions, which make very specific assertions about what their god is and what he wants from humans: he was crucified and rose again, he wants you to fast every year and to pray five times a day, or not to work on a Saturday, and always to regard other religions as mistaken. As far as I know, no theologian has ever been able to make that leap by argument from ‘God’ to any specific god that people really believe in. There is only one argument that really matters in religion, and that is ‘my revelation (or my teacher’s revelation) is better than your revelation’. It is at root a remarkably self-centred attitude. I would like to think that one need not be concerned about convincing people to abandon their beliefs, only to convince them not to force the beliefs on other people. However, because of the nature of theistic belief, anyone who believes something different, even another theistic doctrine, will always be a threat and a source of ‘offence’.

In organised religion, this is backed up by force and ultimately violence: ‘God’ threatens retribution if you don’t behave as he wishes, but since he unaccountably fails to do this, it must be enforced by old men, often with beards. And, if that doesn’t work, the young men will come and get you on their behalf.

I guess that, like most people, I could describe myself using various terms. I don’t believe any ontological claim without good reason – that probably makes me a ‘sceptic’ (this is entirely different from denying that something exists, either without evidence or disregarding good evidence). My attitude to discovering what exists is both ‘critical rationalist’ (after Karl Popper) and ‘scientific’. To the (considerable) extent that religious people try to force their beliefs on others, I am a ‘secularist’, that is, someone who thinks that people should be entitled to their beliefs, but that no religion should be an organising principle for society.

It seems clear that the origin of moral beliefs is based on people’s shared humanity, with an innate core of (not necessarily consistent) emotional responses that originated from our evolution as a social species. These beliefs are modified and added to (and not infrequently perverted) by religion and culture. Equally it is possible to modify them and add to them through rational thought, based on what best benefits individuals, society and the wider environment on which we are all dependent. I’d call this a form of ‘humanism’.

Richard Burnham

How I lost God

Picture the upbringing. Daily bible reading (very selective) and prayers at home. Daily prayer and homilies at school. Church on Sunday. Social life revolving around the church. Harvest suppers and silly games. Visits to hear Billy Graham and Gladys Aylward and the like. Embarrassment on the toilet because God sees us everywhere – all the time. I still remember the terror I felt when one day I accidentally dropped my Bible.

Every letter received was carefully perused by my parents. I was never sure what they expected to find. A school friend lent me a copy of a Bertrand Russell book and its reading was forbidden.

We were aware of other beliefs. Jews were nice people but misguided, Catholics superstitious and, oh, the parental pursed lips when I came home saying I had learned who Mohammed was!

On to university and boyfriends and some debate. I heard the question, “Do you believe in God?” It is hard to credit but it had never occurred to me that there were people who did not. (I know – I find this hard to believe as well.)

I stopped attending church simply from boredom at first, but retained some type of unconsidered beliefs. I married in church but, becoming increasingly doubtful, faced down opposition and did not have my daughter christened. She was brought up without god at home, but he was still a big presence in both her primary and secondary schools. I felt a vague permeating sense of guilt. Should I at least take her to church to give her the chance to make up her own mind?

Years and years of slow decline in belief followed. I read the parts of the bible that had not been selected, and realised what a vicious and vindictive god I had worshipped. Yet I still missed the ritual, the carols at Christmas and the ready-made social life. The whole package is very hard to shake off, especially the feeling that is instilled that those who do not believe are wicked.

I cast around for something else, but I will spare you the details!

I had heard of Humanists, but had met only one or two and knew next to nothing about them. I started reading and talking, and realised this is where I fit. Humanists believe that as we only have one life it is essential to make it the best we can. For ourselves, and of course for others. It came as a massive relief and a revelation akin to St Paul’s that it really is OK not to believe. That there are thousands of people who do not and with better education these numbers would undoubtedly grow.

I feel sad for those who retain weird beliefs, but I understand how easy it is not to question. It is their prerogative to go on believing, but they have no right to inflict this on others in any way, particularly on children.

Helen Taylor