Tag: religion

The Weekly Rage

Every week I listen to the Sunday programme on Radio 4, largely through inertia. Most weeks it manages to wind me up. I was a bit worried that I may be repeating myself here, so regular is the rage that I thought I must have written about it before. It turns out I have, but on a different topic.

The specific cause of my ire this week is the Church of England, the Equalities act and the inadmissibility of gay bishops. Forced by the Equality Act 2010 the Church has sought legal advice on how it should treat its gay clergy, it turns out they think that they may be obliged to accept gay bishops but that they can demand that they are celibate. You can read the BBC report here.

Why should this concern me, as a British atheist? Several reasons:

  • the Church of England is an established church, it takes (unelected) part in our legislation through the Lords Spiritual, it has a special position in teaching our children;
  • the Church of England claims moral authority, it specifically claims that it’s views on morality are superior to mine because they are faith-based. See the Bishop of Oxford’s comments this week on the Today programme;
  • I am ethnically Christian and English, so their position reflects badly on me;
  • the church’s position puts us all on shaky ground when we argue against inequality in other communities.

The Church could take a principled position that any group should be able to follow it’s faith: that the BNP should be allowed to exclude non-Caucasians from their number, for example. It could take the principled position that it should be subject to the same laws as the rest of us, without exemptions. It choses to do neither of these things, it choses instead to lobby for exemptions from the law and work out the minimum they can get away with in complying with that watered-down law.

What is the Church trying to tell us through this position? That the gays are OK, but not for them and not for positions of power?

Can you imagine a company, such as the one that I work for, demanding of it’s employee’s that they not only reveal their sexual orientation but also their sexual activity and if they confessed to the wrong sort of sexual activity they should be denied promotion?

God and the scientist

Recently I observed that Stephen Hawking* had introduced God into his book “The Grand Design” as a way of gaining sales. Last weeks story on Hawking and God irritated me for two reasons. Firstly, the idea that a new idea that Stephen Hawking has introduced in his forthcoming book either proves or disproves the existence of God is fatuous nonsense. Secondly, revealing some intellectual snobbery on my part, this is a popular science book – such an important idea would have been published in peer-reviewed literature first – most likely Nature! On the first point Mary Warnock covers the philosophical side of this well in a short article in The Observer this week, in summary: proof / not proof of the existence of God is a hoary old chestnut.

As an atheist and scientist, I’m quite clear that my demand for evidence for the existence of God is what makes me an atheist. You don’t need evidence if you have faith. Although many scientists are atheists, this is by no means a pre-requisite. Many scientists in the past have been professed strong religious beliefs, no doubt in large part because of the spirit of the time they lived in. It’s only for particular variants of theism and particular topics that the two things are in direct collision: Creationism and the study of evolutionary biology are not happy bedfellows. The degree of cognitive dissonance required to accommodate a religious view of the world and a scientific view is really rather minor. Many scientists in the past have seen their scientific work as revealing the mechanism that God has created.

A further element to this is the degree to which modern cosmology requires a degree of faith. As an experimental soft condensed matter physicist the world of cosmologists is very far away. The things I study are essentially testable in the lab, you can put your hands on them, prod and poke them. Modern cosmology has a large degree of internal logical consistency and mathematical beauty, but it has close to zero contact with observations. At times it feels like any experimental test is wilfully pushed into timescales, or size scales that are simply impossible to observe (and not just impossible in practice, but impossible in principle). This is not to say they are wrong, but simply that their correctness must be taken on faith.

*Pointless name dropping/anecdotage: I had dinner with Stephen Hawking at Gonville and Caius College, he’s not very dynamic.

Bashing the bishops

I’m sorry, I try really hard to be a quiet little atheist and not cause needless offence, but sometimes the perfect storm hits and I go a bit “Richard Dawkins”.

The spark that lit my ire today was on Radio 4’s Sunday program. It was the juxtaposition of the reports on further problems the Catholic church was having with covering up child abuse by the priesthood with a complaint that Catholic adoption agencies, unlike any other adoption agency, should be allowed to discriminate against gay couples because they didn’t think any gay couple was suitable to look after children.

Can you hear the sound of me bursting a blood vessel here?

This isn’t an isolated incident either, also in the news today: a  letter by six bishops to the Daily Telegraph complaining of the treatment of a nurse who was asked to remove her crucifix necklace, or wear it  inside her clothing. The hospital involved has a policy on uniform which excludes the wearing of necklaces, this seems quite reasonable in my view. I don’t want anyone’s necklace dangling in my wounds, regardless of the form it takes. Now it may be that necklace wound dangling isn’t a problem, and the whole policy is pointless. But that isn’t the argument that the bishops are making, they’re happy with the idea that any random atheist should be prevented from wearing, for example, their bourbon chocolate biscuit necklace but the same rule applied to a Christian is a great offence. It’s a dogmatic position too, wearing the necklace inside her clothing (an entirely acceptable solution I would have thought) is not acceptable to the bishops either.

These aren’t isolated incidents, there are exceptions in law covering the slaughter of animals for both halal and kosher slaughter. So whilst it’s a illegal to slaughter an animal without first rendering it unconscious if you’re a Christian or an atheist, as a Jew or a Muslim it becomes legal. What part does the slaughterer’s religion play in the cruelty or otherwise to the animal? Also in the news recently were the ceremonial daggers worn by Hindu’s. In this instance a child was withdrawn from school for continuing to wear his ceremonial dagger, personally I think banning children from taking knives of any sort into schools is a fairly good idea and once again notice the dogmatism – a compromise solution of a knife welded into it’s scabbard was not acceptable.

We have a wide range of laws which restrict our behaviour for one reason or another, some of those laws are good and, no doubt, some of them are bad. My argument is that no behaviour is unacceptable for one person but acceptable for another simply on the grounds of their religion.

Thank you for hearing my rant!