Friday, 28 September 2012

Dawkins Keynote at NSS Conference

Last Saturday I went to the National Secular Society Conference in London to learn more about the state of secularism today. The venue had been kept secret until a few days before the event and I found myself wondering whether the person ahead of me a secret secularist and were they heading to the conference too? The event’s enigma was further added to by the venue itself - the Royal National Hotel - which looks like one of those hotels you get in 70’s detective dramas. Lacking cigarettes or corduroy I did my best to look shifty as I entered the hotel.

First impressions are important, and the volunteers were all excellent at getting us our name badges and showing us where to go. Delegate packs were very swanky and contained the latest NSS bulletin which I was pleased to note featured the Secularist Student Award. The stalls of various NSS affiliated groups were bustling with activity and it was good to meet so many familiar faces and a lot of younger people too - 30% of the delegates were students!

Enthusiastic intergenerational dialogue - and stall freebie art!

The talks kicked off with Ted Cantle, Professor at the Institute of Community Cohesion. He was promoting the idea of interculturalism as a replacement for multiculturalism which he said was responsible for different ethnic and faith groups leading parallel and isolated lives. Approaching communities through self-appointed “community leaders” and funding projects based on a group’s race or faith was bad for social cohesion with one of the biggest barriers being faith schools which segregate children.

Llanelli MP, Nia Griffith, was very and entertaining, bemoaning scheduled prayers in Parliament and asking “why don't we have a more secular society already? Because we have ‘tradition’.” Failure to make secularism a vote-winner means that politicians have no interest in adopting explicitly secular policies. “Principled politicians must overcome their fear of being seen as anti-religious and anti-tradition”.

“Secularism is an important pre-condition for equality” said Pragna Patel, founding member of Southall Black Sisters. “Religious groups increasingly use the language of equality and human rights when actually undermining it.” Patel was the first to break the consensus between the speakers, taking on Cantle saying his report criticised multicultural policy  too harshly in places and failed to acknowledge the positives.

Having heard Nick Cohen and Maryam Namazie several times before I decided to attend the afternoon’s “break-out sessions”. First up was Sue Cox of Survivor’s Voice, a charity which campaigns to network and raise awareness of survivors of abuse by the clergy. For me, Cox was the best speaker of the day, able to address the horror of the Catholic Church’s institutional cover-up of paedophilia by members of its clergy with passion and determination for justice whilst remaining warm and engaging at the same time. "Can you imagine a deaf and dumb abuse survivor doing the Moonwalk outside the Vatican?" she said, referring to a march earlier this year.

Cox made the somewhat surprising statement, “We don’t want your money! We want you to tell everyone you know that we exist!” I asked her about this, and she clarified that she didn’t want money for Survivor’s Voice as an organisation because some abuse survivor’s charities can end up becoming a business and she wanted to avoid that. What she did absolutely want money for, however, was a travel fund to help survivors attend demonstrations and for a research project. Survivor’s Voice are the recommended charity for this year’s Non-Prophet Week, so its good to know that every single penny will go to good use!
Agata gets her lab coat signed by Richard Dawkins

Lunch, always an important consideration at conferences, was excellent with a wide array of sandwiches including some particularly excellent beef and horseradish offerings. It was also a good chance to have chat with people including Dom, Martin and Gav from my hometown of Bristol staffing the Bristol Secular Society stall. Plenty of students were there too, with members of OX:ASH helping on the Survivor’s Voice stall and Jess Vautier and Matthew Power representing the AHS.  There were too many stalls to visit them all, though I had some interesting chats with the London Atheist Activist Group and Camp Quest, the rationalist camp for kids which inspired the AHS’ Questival for older, drunker people.

After lunch was Terry Sanderson and Keith Porteus-Wood who reported on the NSS’ current involvement in the current legal cases at the European High Court and other successes this year including victory on council prayers. Challenged on whether the NSS should be arguing more strongly against faith, the (mostly friendly) rivalry with the BHA surfaced with Sanderson joking that humanists like "airy-fairy philosophising ... almost theological."and that the NSS  "doesn’t need to debate the existence of god ... we know it's bullshit!" He justified the NSS’ approach by pointing out that institutional elements like faith schools are key in the perpetuation of religious belief, their indoctrinating effect so strong that he could still remember at least twenty hymns off-by-heart! Discussion ended on a question about what ordinary members and local groups could do to promote secular causes. For the moment, it seems like the NSS wants to keep affiliated groups at arms length, Sanderson saying that he has had experiences in the past where other secular groups haven’t fully supported the NSS' values.

Returning to the main room, it was a pleasure as ever to hear Peter Tatchell, human rights campaigner. He sought to throw wide the overall cause of human rights, characterising it as not just a secular cause, but one which also requires taking on the current economic system. Fantastically animated and radical he was critical of oppressive systems stating “organised religion is the main threat to human rights, not people of faith, who are often victims of oppression”.

Richard Dawkins, never one to mince his words, challenges those who would call him a “dick”

The conference was rounded-off by Richard Dawkins, who took to the stage with his characteristic pro-rationalist zeal, opening by countering Phil Plait’s plea to atheists to “don’t be a dick”. “I try to convince fence-sitters, those who haven't thought and those who don't realise there's a fence to sit on!” he explained, adding that the “battle for acceptance of evolution is part of a wider war for critical thought.” He went on to justify why Mitt Romney’s Mormonism is fair game for criticism in a political context, exposing some of Mormonism’s crazier beliefs, such as magic pants, along the way. Some of the material didn’t quite work, with a description of Muslims wearing “bin bags” resulting in an audible sharp intake of breath from the audience and a slightly excruciating parody letter of a Tony Blair Faith Foundation fundraising letter raising a few quizzical eyebrows. Then again, it would be easy for Dawkins to just play the hits, so it’s always refreshing to hear some new stuff even if it doesn’t quite work.

Overall, the conference was excellent and additional fun was to be had to head to the pub with people afterwards to discuss our favourite speakers of the day, somehow ending up at the ethics of bestiality. Looking back at the day, if there were one criticism I would make it would be the strong dissonance between who secularism is for and who owns it. Whilst there were many statements reiterating how secularism protects freedom of religion as well as freedom from religion there were no explicitly religious speakers. Is authentic secularism is an atheist-driven secularism? Does platforming Dawkins make a strong statement to this effect?  Segregating education and other public services by faith is a bad idea - surely there must be religious voices who would agree with this idea, especially from religions which have not enjoyed traditional privilege in the UK? What did you think?

Monday, 17 September 2012

March and Rally for a Secular Europe 2012

March and Rally for a Secular Europe 2012
Photo: Mary G

Secularism received a bashing from Eric Pickles this week, declaring the National Secular Society to be "intolerant" and characterising secularism as a doctrine which would ban "discreet religious symbols for reasons of political correctness." Pickles additionally deserves a gold-medal for his Olympian display of mental gymnastics when stating that privileging the Christian churches with "a particularly strong claim to be heard" somehow benefits everyone else. So you can imagine my surprise when I attended the March and Rally for a Secular Europe last Saturday, with people Pickles would probably call "militant secularists," all of whom were concerned about equality for all rather than the strict control of iconography in jewellery.

Posing for the camera
Photo: Amber W

I headed down with Jenny B and there was a good turn-out of people I knew through the AHS and other organisations including the BHA and NSS. Arriving late, we hurried to put up my placard with its rubbish joke which had started out as "I don't believe in miracles, since you came along ..." but that was technically inaccurate (secularism is a political statement advocating separation of church and state and is neutral when it comes to metaphysical claims) and the only thing worse than a rubbish joke is an fallacious rubbish joke! Alternatives I had considered included "Schools for Education, not Faith Segregation" and "Get Your Hands Off My Glans!" with an angry penis backing away from a circumcision blade. I think everyone was relieved that I'd not chosen the latter!

Numbers were down on previous years with only a few hundred turning out and the rally confined to a street down the back of Kings College London student Union. The 2010 March and Rally for a Secular Europe attracted 20,000 people for "Protest the Pope" when pontiff visited the UK. Perhaps future protests need a narrower theme, though it's hard to beat the Pope for a symbol of the worst of patriarchal religious control over people's sex lives and ecclesiastical displays of wealth and power.

The speakers covered a wide range of issues of religious privilege. Sue Cox, clerical abuse victim and a leader of Survivor's Voice was characteristically enthusastic, thanking the march attendees and hailing the event as "the yearly shot in the arm which keeps me going." Survivor's Voice is an important charity supporting those who have been abused and subsequently forced into silence by the Catholic Church cover-up and the AHS will be helping to raise money for them through this year's Non-Prophet Week.

Peter Tatchell, Human Rights Campaigner, made his case strongly, criticising the promotion of inequality by religious organisations whilst acknowledging the diverse views held by individual adherents.
Tatchell: "Religious organisations are biggest threat to equality for women & LGBT people ... but there are also people of faith who have stood alongside us for secularism and equality."
It was disappointing that there was only one speaker of faith (Mejindarpal Kaur, Legal Director of United Sikhs) at the event and no visible representatives from other faith groups. There was one guy wearing a t-shirt saying "Young Earth Creationist: Trolling Your Meeting," but he looked pretty godless to me! Perhaps it is understandable that the two most advantaged groups - Anglicanism and Catholicism - do not come out force, after all who would want to campaign against their own privileges removed? Having said that, if those religions can only maintain their position with state-support then that must represent a certain lack of confidence in the underlying tenets.

Robin Ince ended the rally with a broad speech, expressing surprise at how secularism and equality could be twisted to be presented as somehow anti-theist and lancing the moral pomposity of organised religion.
Ince: "The question is not how you can have morals without god, but how religious organisations can be so immoral with Him."
Similarly, he expressed incomprehension at how faith schools could possibly be considered as a way of promoting diversity
Ince: "The biggest enemy of bigotry is to mix with the people that other people are trying to make you bigoted against."
He's put the text online here, but I recommend watching the video to get the full effect with wild gesticulations and physical passion filling his words with sincerity, warmth and humanity.

Robin Ince - Speech at the Secular Europe march
Video: Matryer

It turned out to be an excellent day, with the Pod Delusion's 3rd Birthday party neatly rounding off proceedings with a healthy dose of skepticism, music and fire! For those who can't wait for more secularism, there's the Secular Conference next weekend in the Conway Hall with an all-star line-up including no less than Richard Dawkins himself.

If there was a single take-home message, I think it's that framing the removal of religious privilege as a form of oppression is a simple misrepresentation of what secularism is. Secularism means equality for all, protecting both freedom of religion and freedom from religion.