“Secularism is having the courage to question everything in such a way that no one belief system — religious or otherwise — is permitted to dominate. Secularism is tolerant, critical and open-minded. Above all, secularism means keeping open the possibility that there may not be satisfactory answers to difficult questions, be they scientific, political or existential, that humanity cannot help but ask.”

Nina Power, lecturer,Guardian
“Secularism to me means the separation of state and religion. I believe in that separation almost as strongly as I believe in God. We must all live under the same laws and buy into codified human rights. Those take precedence over religious obligations.”

Yasmin Alibhai Brown, writer,Guardian

Bergoglio, in short, was digging in over-manured soil. Before the gormless acclaim him as a liberal, they should expect him to meet minimum standards. His church opposes civil gay marriage and maintains that homosexual sex is a sin.

If he were serious about stopping discrimination, he would reverse both those dogmas. He might also welcome the use of condoms because they emancipate women and protect against Aids, and co-operate with police investigations into the rape of children by clerics and compensate their victims.

To date, there is no sign of him doing any of the above. For despite all you have read, the pope remains what he has always been: a Catholic.

I know the internet went wild a little while ago about his ‘who am I to judge’ spiel about homosexuals, but I, a queer person, read it with a raised brow, not believing a word of it. It sounded to me like lip service to get people off his back. The above comment sums it up pretty succinctly for me.

The Guardian

“A wider, international perspective shows Americans to be far more ordinary in their blending of faith and politics. A brief look at Polish or Philippine politics reveals the Roman Catholic Church constantly muscling in on the political arena, and politicians of all stripes who are only too happy to kowtow to the Church’s assertion of moral authority. Before he became a would-be authoritarian, Viktor Orban in Hungary, for example, became an advocate of religious interests in politics. Ireland, Israel, and Malta are all polities that have been long dominated by religious monopolies accustomed to obtaining enormous concessions in education, the welfare state, and reproductive technologies.”

Mia Bruch & Anna Grzymala-Busse, The Guardian

Richard Dawkins celebrates a victory over creationists

Leading scientists and naturalists, including Professor Richard Dawkinsand Sir David Attenborough, are claiming a victory over the creationist movement after the government ratified measures that will bar anti-evolution groups from teaching creationism in science classes.

The Department for Education has revised its model funding agreement, allowing the education secretary to withdraw cash from schools that fail to meet strict criteria relating to what they teach. Under the new agreement, funding will be withdrawn for any free school that teaches what it claims are “evidence-based views or theories” that run “contrary to established scientific and/or historical evidence and explanations”.

The British Humanist Association (BHA), which has led a campaign against creationism – the movement that denies Darwinian evolution and claims that the Earth and all its life was created by God – described the move as “highly significant” and predicted that it would have implications for other faith groups looking to run schools.

Dawkins, who was one of the leading lights in the campaign, welcomed confirmation that creationists would not receive funding to run free schools if they sought to portray their views as science. “I welcome all moves to ensure that creationism is not taught as fact in schools,” he said. “Government rules on this are extremely welcome, but they need to be properly enforced.”

Free schools, which are state-funded and run by local people or organisations, do not need to follow the national curriculum. Scientific groups have expressed concerns that their spread will see a reduction in the teaching of evolution in the classroom.

Several creationist groups have expressed an interest in opening schools in towns and cities across England, including Bedford, Barnsley, Sheffield and Nottingham. Critics say they seek to promote creationism, or the doctrine of “intelligent design”, as a scientific theory rather than as a myth or metaphor.

One creationist organisation, Truth in Science, which encourages teachers to incorporate intelligent design into their science teaching, has sent free resources to all secondary schools and sixth-form colleges.

A BHA campaign, called “Teach evolution, not creationism”, saw 30 leading scientists and educators call on the government to introduce statutory guidance against the teaching of creationism. The group said if the government would not support the call, an explicit amendment to the wording of the funding agreement could have the same effect. Last week the Department for Education confirmed it had amended the agreement, although a spokesman denied it was the result of pressure from scientists. He said the revision made good on a pledge regarding the teaching of creationism given when the education secretary, Michael Gove, was in opposition. “We will not accept any academy or free school proposal which plans to teach creationism in the science curriculum or as an alternative to accepted scientific theories,” the spokesman said, adding that “all free school proposals will be subject to due diligence checks by the department’s specialist team”.

The revised funding agreement has been seized upon by anti-creationists who are pressing for wider concessions from the government.

"It is clear that some faith schools are ignoring the regulations and are continuing to teach myth as though it were science," Dawkins said. "Evolution is fact, supported by evidence from a host of scientific disciplines, and we do a great disservice to our young people if we fail to teach it properly. "

A spokeswoman for the BHA said: “The government’s new wording is quite wide and in practice could prevent those who promote extreme religious or particular spiritual or pseudoscientific approaches from including them as part of the school curriculum as science or as evidence-based.”

The Guardian

Thanks to pintucks for the submission :) 


Muhammad cartoon row: student atheist society claims victory

A university atheist society which sparked a global debate over the publication of a cartoon depicting Jesus and Muhammad on a webpage has declared a victory for freedom of speech after its student union backed away from a demand that the cartoon be removed.

The University College London's Atheist, Secularist and Humanist societygarnered high-profile support from the secularist Richard Dawkins after it refused the student union’s request to remove an image of Jesus and Muhammad sharing a pint from a Facebook page advertising a social event.

A spokesman for University College London's student union said the request to remove the cartoon remained in place, but that decisions regarding advertising for events remained at the discretion of individual societies. “Society presidents take responsibility for their own publicity, and it is not vetted by UCLU prior to distribution,” the union said. “They are provided with equality training prior to running a society, to help them understand the balance between freedom of expression and cultural sensitivity.”

But the atheist society took the move as a climbdown and thanked the thousands of secularists who signed a petition in its support.

In a statement on its Facebook page, the society’s president, Robbie Yellon said: “University College London Union has recognised that mistakes were made and that the initial correspondence with our society was flawed. The union is to review its stance on such matters and has said that this will not happen again. They can no longer call on us to withdraw the image. We welcome these developments, which set an important precedent for other universities. We also feel it appropriate to recognise the swift response of the union, which certainly helped us reach this positive conclusion.”

A spokesman for the students union said that the atheist society had agreed to show more consideration about how it advertised social events, but because of the union’s procedure the society could still face disciplinary action.

"If people continue to complain then we are going to follow normal procedure," said James Skuse, the union’s democracy and communications officer.

He said disciplinary action, which could entail forced resignation of committee members, or disaffiliation from the union, was “one possibility out of many”.

The atheist society used the title page from a comic book, Jesus and Mo, by a pseudonymous British cartoonist called Mohammed Jones, on Facebook last week.

Following complaints from students it was advised by the union on Tuesday that it would be “prudent” to take the cartoon down. The society refused, launching an online petition to “defend freedom of expression at University College London” and criticising “attempts to censor” the society.

By Thursday morning the petition had nearly 3,000 signatures, including that of Richard Dawkins, who left a comment stating: “Jesus and Mo cartoons are wonderfully funny and true. They could offend only those actively seeking to be offended – which says it all.” It also received support from the British Humanist Association, the National Secular Society, the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies and the New Humanist magazine. The society said it had been astounded by the “unending support”.

The student union said it had “a duty to foster and encourage freedom of expression among our members, ensure diversity of our membership is recognised and pursue equal opportunities for our members”.

The society had been asked to remove the advertisement “because UCLU aims to foster good relations between different groups of students and create a safe environment where all students can benefit from societies regardless of their religious or other beliefs”.

The union had a duty to ensure students were not harassed because of characteristics which may make them appear different to others, including race, gender, religion, nationality or sexual orientation.

The atheist society said it would resist any disciplinary action. “Unfortunately, the union has considered the possibility that posting the image might have constituted an act of bullying, prejudice, harassment or discrimination,” it said. “We firmly believe in the protection of our fellow students through university and union policy; however we cannot accept such a suggestion.”

The society’s president, Robbie Yellon, said he believed disciplinary action was unlikely and dismissed the idea that the society could be guilty of bullying or harassment. “As far as I, and the society, is concerned, that’s an absolutely shocking accusation. If it does happen we will face it and do everything in our power to fight it.”


Christopher Hitchens dies aged 62

Celebrated journalist, writer and unshakeable secularist has died from complications of oesophageal cancer

The writer, journalist and contrarian Christopher Hitchens has died at the age of 62 after crossing the border into the “land of malady” on being diagnosed with an oesophageal cancer in June 2010. Vanity Fair, for which he had written since 1992 and was made contributing editor, marked his death in a memorial article posted late on Thursday night.

The reactions to Hitchens’s illness from his intellectual opponents – which ranged from undisguised glee to offers of prayers – testified to his stature as one of the leading voices of secularism since the publication in 2007 of his anti-religious polemic God is Not Great. The reaction from the author himself, who after a lifetime of “burning the candle of both ends” described his illness as “something so predictable and banal that it bores even me”, testified to the sharpness of his wit and the clarity of his thinking under fire, as he dissected the discourse of “struggle” that surrounds cancer, paid tribute to the medical staff who looked after him and resolved to “resist bodily as best I can, even if only passively, and to seek the most advanced advice”.

Born in 1949, Hitchens was sent to boarding school at the age of eight, his mother deciding: “If there is going to be an upper class in this country, then Christopher is going to be in it.” This resolution pursued him to his time at Oxford, where he confessed to leading a “double life” as both an “ally of the working class” and as a guest at cocktail parties where he could meet “near-legendary members of the establishment’s firmament on nearly equal terms”.

After he graduated in 1970 with a third-class degree, the doors of Fleet Street opened wide for Hitchens, who followed his friend James Fenton into a job at the New Statesman. He began a lifelong friendship with Martin Amis and quickly gained a reputation as a pugnacious leftwing commentator, excoriating targets such as the Roman Catholic church, the Vietnam war and Henry Kissinger in dazzling essays, news reports and book reviews.

A resolution to spend time at least once a year in “a country less fortunate than [his] own” spurred him to witness the stirrings of revolution in Portugal and Poland, as well as counter-revolution in Argentina. His mother’s death in Athens, killing herself in a suicide pact with her lover, saw him reporting on the overthrow of the Greek junta in 1973.

Expeditions followed to Romania, Nicaragua, Malaysia and beyond. Hitchens travelled to post-war Iraq in 2006, Uganda in 2007 and Venezuela in 2008. A report for the New Statesman from Beirut brought rare praise from his father, a former navy officer who telephoned to say the piece was “very good”, and that he “thought it rather brave … to go there”. This validation was all the sweeter for a son who believed he’d always disappointed his father “by not being good at cricket or rugger”.

New York offered an escape from the contradictions of the British class system that Hitchens grabbed with both hands, when the offer of a job on the left-leaning weekly magazine the Nation came in 1981. Columns for Slate.com and Vanity Fair followed, with Hitchens consummating his love affair with American life when he took US citizenship in 2007.

Meanwhile he maintained an intense rivalry with his younger brother Peter, who followed him into journalism but found his place on the opposite side of the political spectrum, working first for the Daily Express and then the Mail on Sunday. Both downplayed talk of a rift, but Peter confessed in 2009 that they were “not close”. “If we weren’t brothers we wouldn’t know each other,” he said.

One of the many issues that divided the brothers was the 2003 Iraq war, with Peter arguing that the war was “against Britain’s interests”, while Christopher supported a war that he suggested would stop Saddam Hussein using the country as “his own personal torture chamber”.

His advocacy for the Iraq war was only the latest of Hitchens’s positions that many on the left found uncomfortable, and led to a chill in his relations with Gore Vidal, who had once nominated him a “successor, an inheritor, a dauphin or delphino”. But Hitchens’s opposition to what he called “fascism with an Islamic face” began long before 9/11, with the fatwa on his friend Salman Rushdie, imposed by the Ayatollah Khomeini, whom Hitchens accused of “using religion to mount a contract killing”, after the publication of The Satanic Verses.

Religion, or at least a fierce aversion to it, fuelled Hitchens’s ascent towards celebrity, particularly in his adopted homeland, after the publication of God is Not Great in 2007. In it he argued that religion is “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry”, notching up sales of more than 500,000 copies.

Hitchens gave short shrift to the “insulting” suggestion that cancer might persuade him to change his position where reason had not, arguing that to ditch principles “held for a lifetime, in the hope of gaining favour at the last minute” would be a “hucksterish choice”, and urging those who had taken it upon themselves to pray for him not to “trouble deaf heaven with your bootless cries”.

Writing in his 2010 memoir, Hitch-22, Hitchens said that he hoped and believed his “advancing age has not quite shamed my youth”, disavowing the “‘simple’ ordinary propositions” of his younger days in favour of the maxim that “it is an absolute certainty that there are no certainties”.

"One reason, then, that I would not relive my life," he continued, "is that one cannot be born knowing such things, but must find them out, even when they then seem bloody obvious, for oneself."

The Guardian

Such sad, sad news. I’m going to miss the ol’curmudgeon and his remarkable brain. 


“To see British politicians adopting the Christian right’s misogynistic and anti-sex attitudes is frankly terrifying; a lot scarier — funnily enough — than the thought of an earthquake sent from God.”

Hadley Freeman, Guardian
“To see British politicians adopting the Christian right’s misogynistic and anti-sex attitudes is frankly terrifying; a lot scarier — funnily enough — than the thought of an earthquake sent from God.”

Hadley Freeman, Guardian