Cataloguing Humanist History

There’s a great project going on at the moment to catalogue the humanist archives at the Bishopsgate Institute. You can look at some of their items on their Tumblr page but here’s one of my favourite items so far – an old BHA festive greetings card. Those crazy cats.

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Keeping social security social (and agreeing with a Catholic Cardinal)

It was only in the second half of the twentieth century that the Catholic Church ended its opposition to social welfare and social medicine (and in some parts of the world they have still not reconciled themselves to it). But Cardinal Vincent Nichols at least is a keen defender of it, lamenting last week that the administration of our social security system has become ‘punitive’ – and I couldn’t agree with him more. But reversing this trend is not just a matter of restoring certain payments and tinkering with the admin – it calls for cultural renaissance. We need to restore the culture of our social security system as being one of mutual help driven by empathy and solidarity, and resist dehumanising economic accounts of welfare and the disruptive commercialization of services.

When my 16 year old mum told the job interviewer that the reason she wanted to work on the counter at the Social Security office was because she wanted to help people, it is possible that it occasioned a cynical moment deep inside the heart of the woman interviewing her. It was Coventry in 1970 his woman had no doubt seen and heard it all. But she smiled at my mum – all the women interviewing her did – and gave her the job. For my mum – except for long periods of unemployment in the dark 1980s and a recent redundancy – that was the beginning of a life working in one way or another within frontline social security or other public services. She has done that because she wanted to help people and she has done it well and the state and community have been lucky to have her. She gave the right answer – albeit naively – in her interview over forty years ago, but would it still be taken to be right answer today? Is it still concern and love for others that drives and informs our social security system?

My mum’s friend Tom – now just a couple of years from retirement – worked all his life for years in frontline social security in my home town of Nuneaton. His specialism was pensions and related benefits and – like my mum – his motivation and his job satisfaction was to help others. He worked in the community in which he lived and had skills and knowledge developed over decades. The office was recently closed as a result of reorganisation and Tom was reassigned to another office in a city an hour away. Shortly afterwards he was moved away from his specialism to instead spend all day every day staff making phone calls to fathers who aren’t making their child support payments. There is no time to get to know individual cases or understand them properly, time spent on the phone is monitored and meaningless targets distort the work. My own experience of the system both for myself and on behalf of others has been a similar one of targets, needless bureaucracy, private companies with little evident concern for the human person they are tasked with aiding, disengaged individual members of staff, and a thoroughly dehumanised infrastructure.

This contrast entirely with my personal experience of a public service that still seems to retain the values of those who founded it – our health service. I visited my granddad in hospital this week and was struck by the way in which the ward very much had the feeling of a community. What was it that made it so? To some extent it was helped by the cultural homogeneity of all its occupants (and I mean really homogenous – the wife of the man next door to my granddad was born two streets away from where my grandma used to live in Coventry and her 98 year old mother came down to the midlands from Durham in the same economic migration of the 1930s that my grandma’s mother did, and moved to Nuneaton to live three streets away from where my mum lived and I grew up.) and this contrasted with my experience of urban hospitals, which have felt far less domestic and less ‘owned’ by staff and patients as a result. In combination with the fact that all the staff on this ward are genuinely kind, sympathetic and thoughtful, this imprecise but genuine sense of community ownership creates a good service of which we can be proud.

I’ve written all this entirely from personal experience, but I know of course that public policies must be built on hard data. I hope that future government will do this, but I also hope that they will remember the reason why systems of social security exist and are one of the pinnacles of civilisation is that they express our obligations to each other as members of a community. The concern for others that comes from that fellowship, which should inform their mission, should also inform their shape and structure.

Is the Bible really really special?

Here’s the video from a BBC Breakfast conversation this morning about the Bible, triggered by a poll this week that showed that some children didn’t know much about the Bible.

It’s obvious why Christians believe the Bible is special – for them it is a religious document and divinely inspired. But I think many Christian advocates of the Bible who make secular arguments for its general significance have a tendency to overreach themselves – they invariably exceptionalise the Bible and make claims for its uniqueness.

The arguments are usually either that the Bible is a uniquely beautiful work, a uniquely moral work, or uniquely vital for understanding European and global culture. I think they are all problematic.

Firstly, I’ve read the Bible in English and the New Testament in Greek and I can think of many works of literature more beautiful (for me, pretty much all of George Eliot, Homer, Greek tragedy, and E M Forster and a whole lot more, but tastes differ!)

Secondly, there is actually quite a lot of dubious morality in the Bible, like the endorsement of compliance in the face of oppression (turning the other cheek), an endorsement of slavery, and a lot of sex discrimination. Our moral thinking has advanced significantly since it was written and there are consequently much better morally improving stories than those it offers (in fact, there always have been).

The argument that the Bible is uniquely foundational to our culture is the strongest of all the secular arguments for Biblical knowledge, but it is overplayed. Much of our history and culture in Britain is not related to the Bible but builds on the aesthetic, legal, social, political and other achievements of cultures like Greece, Rome, Northern Europe, India, and the Arab world and we are now consciously part of a global culture that offer unparalleled diversity to enjoy and learn from.

From Tony Nicklinson to Hayley Cropper, the right to die debate is not going away

The current Coronation Street storyline has reignited the right to die debate and I had an article about it in today’s Western Daily Press:

From Tony Nicklinson to Hayley Cropper, the right to die debate is not going away, says Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association

In a few months’ time, the UK Supreme Court will give final judgement in the right-to-die case begun by the late Tony Nicklinson.

Continued after his death by his widow Jane, and supported by the British Humanist Association, the case is a landmark one. It aims to establish the right of an incurably suffering person to medical assistance in situations where they wish to end their life with dignity but are unable to do so themselves.

The debate that was reignited by Tony’s case and which his advocacy brought firmly into the nation’s newspapers is being carried into the homes of millions this week in another medium. The writers of Coronation Street are to be applauded for addressing the most pressing bioethical issue of our time with the sad end they have given to the life of Hayley Cropper. Diagnosed with terminal and inoperable cancer, Hayley will this week choose to take her own life, without the benefit of the medical assistance that she would have in more civilised countries.

Fictional though Hayley’s situation is, it reflects a reality that our politicians are ignoring with their continuing failure to update our law in this area. Cases like that of Hayley – incurably ill and destined to suffer a drawn out, painful and undignified end which she does not want – or that of Tony – incurably suffering, sustained by medical technology alone and wishing only to die with dignity – are increasingly common. With the continued advance of medicine’s power to keep us alive even beyond the point at which we find it desirable, they will only become more common. Many of us, as we watch the final moments of Hayley’s life this week, will be thinking of grandparents, parents, siblings, who are or might be in the same position, or thinking of ourselves, and how we may too one day be in it.

Up to 80 per cent of the British public already support the right to receive medical help to die with dignity. It’s a majority in favour of change greater than almost any other political issue and it’s not just humanists like the Nicklinsons or Hayley Cropper (whose humanist funeral will feature in Coronation Street next week) who support it: 71 per cent of religious people in this country do as well. This is no surprise when you consider the strong moral case that exists in favour of us, as a society, changing the law.

Firstly: a mentally competent adult should be afforded control over his or her own body. Only our thoughts are perhaps more personal and more wholly owned by us than our bodies and the right to bodily integrity and autonomy of each person is the most important guarantee we have of individual dignity.

Secondly: some people – through their condition – are unable to act on their own desires. This can create great suffering for them.

Thirdly: compassion should motivate us to alleviate suffering and we should be moved to help those who cannot help themselves. If a person is not capable of fulfilling their own legal desires and there are others willing to assist them in fulfilling their wishes, there is no obvious reason why the law should criminalise the helper.

Fourthly: the intentional ending of one’s own life is legal and, more than that, is an act that a rational and mentally competent person may well consider – in extreme circumstances – to be preferable to continued life.

Respect for the autonomy of a free individual, combined with the principle of compassion, undeniably indicates that society should provide assistance to those in positions like Tony or Hayley.

Dying is part of life – it is the last thing any of us is going to do and we are all going to do it. It should happen if possible with dignity and within our control and we have the means today to guarantee that to every person. That should include the facility for mentally competent men and women who have shown a settled determination to end their lives and who are facing a continuing existence of suffering or who are terminally ill to get the help they need. Scare-mongering has been allowed to persist exactly because we don’t think and talk about this issue enough. Hayley’s case should provoke us all to demand that politicians act now to address this issue. The continuing failure to act is a standing rebuke to our view of ourselves as a civilised and humane society.

Archbishop of Canterbury in 24 hour recantation

The Archbishop of Canterbury was interviewed for today’s The Times and he seemed to give support for a relaxation if not an ending of the admissions discrimination allowed to state religious schools:

Church of England faith schools are moving away from selecting pupils on the basis of their religion, the Archbishop of Canterbury has revealed.

The Most Rev Justin Welby said that selection was not necessarily the key to good results and believes that throwing open the doors to all-comers can help the Church achieve its mission to alleviate poverty.

…”There’s a steady move away from faith-based entry tests”, he said.

Within a few hours, Lambeth Palace reacted, as The Times again reports:

Archbishop Welby later attempted to tone down his comments. In a statement, released by Lambeth Palace, he said: “I fully support the current policy for schools to set their own admissions criteria, including the criterion of faith. Nothing in my wider comments on this subject should be seen as dissenting from this policy.”

So, the Archbishop has after all failed to join the large majority of the public – 73% – who agree that state-funded religious discrimination must end – a shame, but not unexpected.

Although it may beak the record for speed this is not the first time that prominent Church of England representatives have been forced to flip-flop on the issue of school admissions. Promises of at least 25% inclusivity in 2006, 90% inclusivity in 2011 and 50% inclusivity in London have all failed to crystallise into concrete action.

This all exposes the increasingly irresolvable tension at the heart of the Church of England. Many within the Church of England want it to be seen as a fighter for the disadvantaged in society but at the same time they are members of an extraordinarily privileged denomination. This is nowhere truer than in relation to “their” schools.

Let’s firstly remember that these schools have their running costs 100% funded by the public, allowing the promotion of one religious denomination at the general expense – an enormous privilege.

Secondly, let’s never stop pointing out that state-funded religious schools – or ‘faith’ schools as they are now generally known – are a source of massive discrimination against the poor and disadvantaged in society. In selecting on religious grounds they also select on socio-economic and racial grounds. When you realise that they contain more pupils than grammar and independent schools put together, you see that they are easily the largest source of discrimination in our education system today.

The figures are stark: nationally, Church of England secondary schools take 13% fewer pupils eligible for free school meals than would be expect for schools in their areas; Catholic secondaries take 15% fewer. 51 of the 100 most socio-economical unrepresentative state schools in the country are religious ones and the Church of England – far from being the champion of the poor – is head defender of this radically unfair and divisive system.

Catholic Herald Interview

The Catholic Herald are continuing their series of interviews with people who have opposed policies of the Roman Catholic Church and Holy See. This month it’s my turn!

Final thoughts on the niqab in Britain

I don’t support a ban on all veil wearing in public. I am definitely not up for telling adult women citizens of a free society what they can and cannot wear in public.

Obviously there are some contexts when a person’s face needs to be visible for the sake of other people or for the purpose of properly doing a particular job – if that person is a doctor, nurse, teacher, witness in court, counsellor etc. (As we’ve seen in the media coverage this week, this is not actually a very controversial statement and it is agreed to be many women who do wear niqabs.)

However, if the question is whether or not the wearing of niqabs is divisive, then the answer must surely be yes. The veiling of the face is designed to be divisive – its purpose is to separate the woman behind it from other people. It is very obviously divisive between the sexes – both for what it implies about men and women. More than that, it absolutely prevents the sort of non-verbal face-to-face contact – at the school gates, at the bus stop, in the shops – between members of the same society which generates the social micro-interactions out of which cohesion is built. Today in the Sunday Morning Live green room before we went on, and while she was still unveiled, I was able to talk with and understand and connect with and like Shalina in a way that just wouldn’t have been possible if I had first met her veiled.

Yes, I agree that, in Britain, this is a very small issue affecting very few people and that coverage has been disproportionate in the media in light of that fact and yes, I agree that some participants in the debate have been motivated by prejudice and used this issue to fan the flames of prejudice.

But I totally reject that this is just an issue that should be ignored by society in general and ‘left to the Muslim community’ or ‘left to Muslim women’. We all have an interest as members of a shared society and it’s wrong to divide people up into ‘communities’ in that way or deny the universality of these debates.

And, although it is certainly case that many women – for religious, or cultural, or fashion-related, or lifestyle-related reasons – choose to wear veils, it is also the case that other women are compelled to do so, by direct pressure or more diffuse peer pressure or claustrophobic cultural assumptions. I know women who choose to wear a veil but I also know women – Muslims and ex-Muslims – who were coerced into doing so and struggle to break free from that was hard. People who care about human rights and sex equality should be finding ways to stand with those women, not turn away with the spurious claim that covering up is always a free choice, or that the rights of women in ‘communities’ other than ‘ours’ are not ‘our’ business.

Humanism and Feminism

Vicky Beeching has interviewed me over at her ‘Faith and Feminism’ site today. Here’s the text of it:

VB: Do you think feminism is a term and movement that would largely be embraced by humanists worldwide? Do you personally identify as a “feminist”?

AC: I don’t like labels very much but I am very happy to say I am a feminist. I want to see girls and women realise full human rights everywhere in the world on the same basis as they are enjoyed by boys and men and I want girls and women to have equal political, social, economic and legal rights. I don’t think any humanist or humanist organisation in the world would disagree with that.

VB: Is that commitment to gender equality reflected in the leadership structures of the humanist movement?

AC: It is. Even though women are statistically more likely to be religious than men in the UK and the rest of Europe, humanist organisations have a visible over-representation of women at the top. Most of the Chief Executives or General Secretaries of European humanist organisations are women. I’m the only man in the British Humanist Association’s five-person senior management team!

VB: As a humanist, do you feel this framework is more compatible with feminism than religions like Christianity or Islam?

AC: Yes, I think this is the case both in theory and in practice. In any scriptural religion, no matter how freethinking its adherents, there is always at least some small attention paid to the foundational texts. In the case of both Christianity and Islam, these contain implicit assumptions and explicit injunctions which are anti-feminist and I think that makes it harder for a believing Christian or Muslim to be 100% feminist than it is for a humanist to be.

Humanist morality places high importance on values such as the moral equality of human beings and individual freedom and it is distinguished by placing the end of moral action in the welfare of people rather than in fulfilling any divine commandments or obedience to any authority. There’s simply no basis in such an approach to morality in differential treatment of people based solely on the fact of their sex.

VB: So you think the two are not only compatible, but have shared origins?

AC: Yes. The three pivotal works of feminism – ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’, ‘The Subjection of Women’, and ‘The Second Sex’ – were all written by humanists and there is no doubt that the modern phenomenon of feminism emerged at the same time and partly as a result of the emergence of a strongly humanist culture of thought in Europe at least. With its anti-authoritarian character, far from just being compatible with feminism, I think the humanist framework is one of the factors that contributed to the birth of modern feminism.

VB: Do you think the world would be a less misogynistic place if the Abrahamic religions ceased to exist and everyone followed humanist ideals?

AC: Yes, but I also think that the followers of Abrahamic religions have been influenced in the last few centuries by humanist ideas and that, in practice, much of their morality is grounded in them rather than religious thinking. Where this is true, it leads to a very positive cherry-picking from religious texts and a revisionism in relation to them which I think will reduce the misogynistic tendencies in religions over time. Obviously progress will be uneven, but I think it will be constant.

VB: Some have argued that Feminism is ‘divisive’ as a movement whereas Humanism is ‘inclusive’. On this basis it’s been said that Feminism should be dropped and Humanism adopted instead as a better umbrella term. Do you think we still need both movements?

Well, a humanist is someone who believes that the universe is a natural phenomenon without supernatural aspects, that the morality of an action is determined by its effect on people, and that meaning is created in life by human beings, not written into the universe waiting to be discovered. A feminist is someone who believes in equal rights and treatment for women. So I think that feminism and humanism are two different types of thing, even if they overlap in the sense that their concerns are this-wordly and material.
In terms of the relative importance of the two agendas, I think adopting a humanist approach is the best long term hope for the human species and I think that humanists – to the extent that they are participants in a movement – have a vital mission in encourage a more clear-sighted assessment by all people of our current situation and future prospects.

But I don’t think that the feminist mission, in a world where women and girls are so disproportionately exploited, brutalised and discriminated against should be seen as any less necessary. Eradicating inequality between men and women may be only one aspect of a broader humanist mission but it is certainly an aspect that is important enough to be considered exceptional, and that fact that it can be a matter of consensus between humanists and those with other approaches to life makes it a tactically sound aim to prioritise.

VB: Religion could be said to enhance feminism as it adds a dimension of Divine value to the human person who is made in the image of God. Within Humanism people could simply be seen as cosmic accidents. Does this not diminish the worth of people and therefore women?

AC: There are many children now living who were ‘accidents’ in the sense that their conception was unlooked for – but a great many of them are no less loved or valued for that. Conversely, there are people in the world today and were millions in past generations deliberately bred for the short hard life of a slave – their life is no better for their having been intended creations rather than ‘accidents’. I think the same reasoning applies to human beings – I see our ‘accidental’ nature (or not) as irrelevant to the question of worth.

However our species began, human beings now exist in relation to one another and I think it is those relationships that generate value and worth. It’s not the image of any god that I see in the face of another human being but my own image – I see the humanity I share with them. When I think about equality for women in the abstract I think of my grandmother: denied a university education because of her sex; my mother: paid unequally with make colleagues; my little niece to whom I want no door ever to be closed. I certainly don’t need any extra-human, immaterial, divine reference point to encourage me to value my fellow human beings.

When is a national church not a national church?

The Church of England has released its 2011 attendance figures today. My response below was posted on Huffington Post:

It’s not surprising that the Church of England tried to put a brave face on it, choosing to headline a tiny increase of 4.3% in christenings, but the Anglican church attendance figures for 2011 published today pose a serious challenge for any church defending its position as the national, established, top religious organisation.

The figures showed that, although decline has slowed slightly, 98% of people in England didn’t go to a Church of England on an average Sunday. Only 5% went at Christmas – a time when large numbers of non-religious “cultural” Christians can be expected to go along, dragged by relatives or just to feel a nostalgic Christingle. The Church of England married only a minority of couples, and conducted the funerals of only a minority of the dead. (66% didn’t have an Anglican funeral which, given that the older demographic is a last bastion of Anglicanism is, on its own, a revealing fact.)

In terms of raw numbers, the Church of England only just stayed ahead of the Roman Catholic Church in England in terms of worshippers and – although numbers are more difficult to determine – the average number of people attending mosques on a weekly basis was not that much lower.

Attendance figures are of course only one part of the picture but in terms of belief and identity the non-religious nature of our population is similarly clear. The British Social Attitudes Survey has shown that most people don’t have a religious identity, and 80% don’t have an Anglican one and religious beliefs such as in Jesus or the God of the Christian Bible constitute a minority view.

These figures shouldn’t be cited in any sort of demographic one-upmanship and it is no doubt the case that they represent important services given by the Church of England to its members. In an ideal world, that could be the end of it. Good for the Church of England we might say, still struggling on, albeit as a minority concern, giving good services to those who want them.

But the Church of England is not just an NGO or voluntary association like any other. It is part of our state. It is an established church with constitutional power and privilege and its members have privileges and rights in law and policy that their fellow citizens in the majority don’t have.

In 2011 the Church of England may only have had 2% of the population worshipping each Sunday, but it controlled nearly 30% of our state schools – totally funded by public funds – containing just under a million children. In many of those schools it had the privilege of controlling admissions and the curriculum, in all of them it had the privilege of controlling employment. Although a minority religion which only 20% of people identify with, its representatives continued to have the 100% unique privilege of automatic seats in our Parliament and it received almost monopoly public funding for its mission in state funded social institutions like our prisons and hospitals.

Today’s figures help illustrate the disparity between the Church of England’s legal position and the social reality of England today. By throwing it into such sharp relief, they may help to bring the more just secular constitutional settlement that our diverse and increasingly non-religious society needs.

Humanism, prophecy, Sci-Fi

It’s not often get to sound off on my twin loves of Humanism & Sci-fi so three cheers for Samira Ahmed giving me chance in an article she wrote for The Big Issue:

It was foretold that to base a story on prophecy is lazy. But I’m noticing it more and more in a lot of places it shouldn’t be –in science fiction and fantasy, where anything is possible and imagination should be able to do better than expect you to believe that someone is just special.
There’s the BBC’s Merlin which is rather like Harry Potter. We’re always being told Harry Potter/Merlin is special. He’s the chosen one. Yes he does brave things, but quite frankly, none of them seem as important as the constantly repeated message from everyone he meets that he is THE Harry Potter/Merlin, destined for success and greatness simply because of his birth.
Prophecy is what ruined the second Star Wars trilogy. Remember how well the original Star Wars film started? Luke Skywalker is a bored farm boy, who chooses adventure and finds he can be a great warrior. Then we start getting hints of how his sister might be a great hope, too, just because she’s his sister. By the second trilogy we’re all supposed to accept that it’s special Jedi particle levels in your DNA that get you chosen for training school, and his dad is “born” with great power. Anakin is even born of some implied Virgin birth.
And The Matrix – a wonderful premise just underminded enough to be really annoying, by the idea that the coming of Keanu Reeves “Neo”/The One (get it?) has somehow been prophesied. By who? And how would it be true in a machine world ruled by aliens?
That’s not to say prophecy can’t play an important part in great fantasy fiction, but only when it is treated with ambivalence; as something to be fought for or against. Shakespeare’s Macbeth is told by the witches that he will be king. But is it the hearing of the prophecy that awakens the desire in him?
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is, according to Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association, a “fantastic satire on the idea of prophecy.” The high school girl born to fight the forces of Darkness, who dies early on as the prophecy foretells, but is revived by simple first aid resuscitation. “It’s clever because whatever happens you can always twist the facts to say the prophecy was true all along.” The animated film Kung Fu Panda is an even more recent and empowering play on the idea.
Copson thinks it’s no coincidence that Buffy’s creator, Josh Whedon, is a prominent Humanist, as was Star Trek’s Gene Rodenberry.
Captain Kirk was always encountering worlds where computers had gone mad and gained control and needed to be re-set to liberate a superstitious population. (Top tip: This can be reliably done by getting Mr Spock to ask the Master computer to calculate to the last possible digit the value of Pi.)
But look what happened to Star Trek. Fed, I think, by a post-colonial guilt for the treatment of Native Americans, in the 90s it fell increasingly in thrall to superstition. A Native American first officer in Star Trek Voyager has visions which get taken seriously. And let’s not mention the Bajorans of Deep Space Nine – a tribe ruled by “prophets” who live in a wormhole. For Copson it’s a strange development: “30 years ago we had science fiction that was rational and progressive. But more recently it’s irrational, mystical aliens with ancient wisdom.”
Perhaps the most annoying “prophecy” of recent fantasy fiction has been Sam Raimi’s original prequel The Great and Powerful Oz. It starts promisingly – Oz is a carnival huckster on the run, but once he arrives in the magical land it turns out he is fulfilling a prophecy about a saviour from the air. It’s especially infuriating because Frank L Baum’s many Oz books are delightfully unreliant on lazy storytelling. A salesman in true life, his all-American fantasy is rooted in reality. Unlike Tolkein’s universe, Oz is a land of working farms and market towns. Everyone has a job – the scarecrow, the tin man, even witches are off selling spells. The Wizard is a fraud. And Dorothy Gale is an ordinary girl with no special powers, just her own courage. In contrast to the catfighting women of the new Disney film, his books actually turn into a feminist utopia, ruled over by Ozma.
In fact lazy prophecy based story telling seems quite a modern invention. The great myths of world cultures are full of prophecies and curses made by capricious gods, but how heroes react to them is what makes for compelling story, character and tragedy. Great heroes like Hector of Troy, sometimes find themselves on the losing side.
My favourite prophecy-defying hero is Karna from the Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata; often compared to the Iliad. (These cartoons are from the Amar Chitra Katha comic book version.) He is the greatest and noblest warrior, but is cursed and rejected because he is illegitimate and was raised in a low caste. Karna fights on the losing side in the battle of Kurekshetra. Lord Krishna exploits his generosity, getting the god Indra to ask Karna to give away the divine armour that protects him. Karna does so knowing it will doom him. The story haunts me still because it’s about a great soul defying fate, prophecy and still choosing to do the right thing. In an India still cursed by caste discrimination Karna is widely regarded as a great role model. Perhaps modern science and fantasy fiction could do with taking more inspiration from the past.