FW: Newsline 24 February 2012

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Hemantha Wijesooriya

Feb 24, 2012, 2:29:22 PM2/24/12
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National Secular Society


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24 February 2012
In this week's Newsline
Quotes of the week
Essays of the week
Bideford – no news yet
Councillor heckled for walking out of prayers during council meeting
Mr Pickles' "community cohesion" policy is a recipe for conflict
Telegraph poll gives the wrong result – for the Telegraph, that is
Poll shows majority think councils shouldn't pray
Michael Frayn becomes NSS honorary associate
Defecting from the Catholic Church – can you or can't you?
Italy orders Vatican to pay tax on its commercial property
Vatican agitates to keep Costa Rica under its thumb
No prayers in Egyptian Parliament but daily prayers in Westminster Parliament
Secularist of the Year: hurry – places filling quickly
NSS speaks out
NSS on campus in Oxford
Letters to Newsline

Quotes of the week 
"Whenever I hear the phrase "militant secularism", I know that someone, somewhere, isn't getting their own way."
(Joan Smith, Independent on Sunday)

"For Cameron, Lady Warsi may be a useful canary: testing if American flag-and-faith culture wars might fly over here."
(Polly Toynbee, Guardian)

Essays of the Week   
Christians should unite with atheists to defend secularism
(Martin Robbins, Guardian)

The Church wins the award for intolerance
(Matt Ridley, Times)

True believers beware – supportive unbelievers are your worst enemy
(Matthew Parris, Spectator)

Bideford – no news yet
Bideford Town Council has until the beginning of March to appeal against the recent court order issued after our Judicial Review at the High Court over the saying of council prayers. The key passages of the Court Order read:

1. A Local Authority has no power under s.111 of the Local Government Act 1972 or otherwise to hold prayers as part of a formal Local Authority meeting or to summon Councillors to such a meeting at which prayers are on the agenda.
2. The saying of prayers in a Local Authority chamber before a formal meeting of such a body is lawful provided Councillors are not formally summoned to attend.

Community Secretary Eric Pickles has reacted by bringing forward the date on which the Localism Act comes into force. It gives most local authorities sweeping new powers, but does not specifically mention prayers. 
Councillor heckled for walking out of prayers during council meeting
A Cheshire town councillor who walked out of a meeting before prayers was heckled and told 'he should be ashamed of himself'.

Sandbach Town Councillor Richard Hoffmann told the NSS: "As I was leaving the room I was verbally abused by three members of the public saying I should be ashamed of myself, and that I shouldn't have stood for the council if I didn't want to say prayers."
Cllr Hoffmann has now called for the tradition to be removed from the formal business of the meeting so he "doesn't have to look the odd one out by leaving the room".
Sandbach Town Council has retained prayers as part of its formal business in defiance of a High Court ruling making it unlawful, following a judicial review initiated by the National Secular Society.
The town mayor Dennis Robinson is reported to have told the local Crewe Chronicle that removing traditional prayers would be an "attack on Christianity". He opened Thursday's meeting by saying "anyone who wishes to leave may do so now."
Cllr Hoffmann told the NSS: "As far as I am concerned, when the Mayor and their deputy is in the council chamber, and all Councillors are standing up, the formal meeting has started. I believe they have broken the law.
"My view on prayers at council meetings is that they should not be part of the formal meeting.
"I am an atheist, and strongly believe that church and state should be kept separate. If the council wants to have prayers, they should have them 10 minutes before the meeting."
Stephen Evans of the National Secular Society said: "No councillor should be subjected to such abuse for opting not to join in with the religious worship of other councillors, particularly as part of a formal council meeting."
Meanwhile, neighbouring Middlewich Town Council has confirmed that it has taken prayers off the agenda and will hold them five minutes before meetings officially starts. 
Mr Pickles' "community cohesion" policy is a recipe for conflict
Editorial by Terry Sanderson
Why is the Coalition Government increasingly embracing the policy of the US Republicans of appropriating religion for political purposes? It's not even as though it works very well for the GOP. In fact, Rick Santorum's present display of religious zealotry must surely be ensuring another term for Obama.

David Cameron set the Tory ball rolling last year with his speech lauding the virtues of a Christian Society. This was followed up by Baroness Warsi's speech at the Vatican, in which she attacked the phantom menace of "militant secularisation". Now we have the Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, calling for the return of Christianity to the centre of public life.
Mr Pickles said today, as part of his new community cohesion strategy document, that:
"A few people, a handful of activists, have insisted that it isn't enough simply to celebrate the beliefs of minority communities; they want to disown the traditions and heritage of the majority, including the Christian faith and the English language.
"In recent years we've seen public bodies bending over backwards to translate documents up to and including their annual report into a variety of foreign languages.
"We've seen men and women disciplined for wearing modest symbols of Christian faith at work, and we've seen legal challenges to councils opening their proceedings with prayers, a tradition that goes back generations, brings comfort to many and hurts no one. This is the politics of division.
"Harriet Harman [deputy Labour leader and author of the Equalities Act] was leading the country down the wrong path. If we are to remain a country where people of different backgrounds feel at ease and get along, we need more confidence in our national traditions. We need to draw a line.
"Some see religion as a problem that needs to be solved. We see it as part of the solution."
The problem with this is that the latest research shows large proportions of the population of this country are not Christian — or religious at all — and they simply cannot be suddenly forced to live under a semi-theocratic regime run by Christians. The Government is heading for big problems with this. And for all his talk of including all religions, Mr Pickles' own colourful history suggests that Christianity is his abiding passion.
While I agree with the Communities Secretary that there should be some common values to live by — a shared language and respect for human rights — there cannot be a religious hierarchy that discounts the feelings of those who don't share in that faith. It is a recipe for conflict between communities that already eye each other with suspicion. We see all over the world that when religion is given power, conflict follows. We have managed to some extent to keep this kind of sectarianism out of our policy making; now Mr Pickles intends to restore it in a big way. The Government is going in completely the wrong direction with this and it is bad news for all of us." 
Telegraph poll gives the wrong result – for the Telegraph, that is
The Daily Telegraph ran a reader poll together with the story about Trevor Phillips saying that religious bodies had to obey the law if they wanted to run services that were open to the public.

The question was: "Should religion have a say over public law?" As of this morning, 23,503 people had voted as follows:
No, religion should 'stop at the door of the temple' and give way to public law 70.67% (16,610 votes)
Yes, but as a Christian country only the Christian faith should shape the law 26.07% (6,128 votes) 
All religions should have a say over public law 3.25% (765 votes) 

Poll shows majority think councils shouldn't pray
Two new polls about religion, which specifically asked a question about the Bideford case, illustrate an ambivalent reaction among the public.

Both were conducted by YouGov, but using different samples and methods of approach.
The first poll (pdf) showed that 55% of respondents were against councils holding prayers with only 26% of respondents in favour. Twenty percent were uncertain. Support for prayers was strongest among those who defined themselves as very/fairly religious (52%), Christians (46%), the over-60s (40%), those considering that Britain should be a Christian country (40%), and Conservative voters (34%).
However, irrespective of their personal view about whether it was appropriate for councils to hold prayers, 55% thought that they should definitely be allowed to hold them, rising to 78% of Christians, 76% of the very/fairly religious, 72% of those wanting Britain to be a Christian country, 67% of over-60s, and 66% of Conservative voters. Just 34% argued that councils should not be allowed to have prayers, with 11% expressing no opinion.
Another seeming contradiction that surfaced in the poll was that, although only 24% of the sample described themselves as very or fairly religious and 43% regarded themselves as belonging to a religion, 56% agreed that Britain is a Christian country and 61% that it should be a Christian country.
Endorsement of the proposition that Britain should be a Christian country was, unsurprisingly, highest among professing Christians (88%), the very or fairly religious (79%), over-60s (79%), and Conservative voters (77%). Dissentients numbered 22%, with 18% undecided.
What was especially interesting was that even 37% of those who considered themselves as not at all religious and 44% of those having no religion wanted Britain to be a Christian country. 41% and 43% respectively agreed that it already is such a country. 36% and 40% also thought that councils should be permitted to hold prayers before their formal meetings.
The irreligious, it therefore seems, can be just as equivocal about their 'belief' as the many self-identifying Christians whose lack of commitment to the faith was exposed in the Ipsos MORI poll for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (UK) published last week.
The second poll (pdf), for the Sunday Times, asked eight questions about religion, the first of which was: 'Do you think that religion is more often the cause of good or evil in the world?' Only 12% elected for good with 58% opting for evil, with the main variation being by gender (61% of men, 54% of women). 27% said that neither answer applied or both equally.
With regard to religion in Britain, 17% viewed Britain today as too religious, 36% as too secular, 31% as balanced between religious and secular, and 17% expressed no opinion. Men and the under-40s were marginally more likely to describe Britain as too religious; Conservative voters, the over-60s and Londoners as too secular.
49% agreed that religion still provides critical guidance for our everyday lives, with 40% dissenting and 12% unsure. The age cohort with the lowest level of agreement was 25–59 years (43%). While the peak of 61% among the over-60s was to be expected, less predictable was the 50% recorded for the 18–24s.
Respondents were next asked whether the Church of England continues to carry out a valuable role, a question obviously prompted by the Queen's speech at Lambeth Palace on 15 February.
YouGov's respondents were split on this issue, with 42% agreeing, 41% disagreeing, and 16% unsure. Most support for the Church came from Conservative voters (55%); least backing was found in Scotland (32%).
Since the Church of England is established (albeit only in England), it might seem slightly odd that 67% contended that religion should have no place in public life, being entirely a personal matter. 24% wanted religion to have a role in the public square, including 28% of the 18–24s.
51% assessed that religion in Britain is in terminal decline, with no great fluctuation by demographics. 24% disagreed and 26% did not know what to think.
Belief in God stood at 38%, with 21% unsure, and 33% disbelieving. Believers were twice as numerous among Conservative voters (45%) as Liberal Democrat voters (22%), and they were also somewhat concentrated in the over-60s (44%) and in Scotland (45%).
The final topic, triggered by the Bideford case, was whether local councils should be able to hold prayers at the beginning of their meetings. 53% of adults thought that they should (peaking at 66% of Conservative voters and 65% of over-60s), 32% that they should not, with 15% undecided. 
Michael Frayn becomes NSS honorary associate
The multi-award winning playwright and novelist Michael Frayn says he is "proud to have his name included" among the NSS's list of honorary associates. You can read about his extraordinary career here and if you feel like a guaranteed laugh you could do worse than book tickets for Noises Off — described as "probably the most side-splitting play ever written" — which is on at the Old Vic at the moment.

Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, said: "We are very pleased to welcome Michael Frayn to our distinguished list of supporters. His plays have ranged not only from the hilarious but also to the philosophical and deeply questioning. It is good that he shares our vision of a secular society." 
Defecting from the Catholic Church – can you or can't you?
Can Catholics defect from the Catholic Church or not? Clarification on this point is being sought by the founder of the Irish CountMeOut website, which seeks to help disaffected Catholics to debaptise themselves.

The website was temporarily suspended in 2010 when the Catholic Church amended canon law in such a way as to suggest that it was no longer accepting defections. But now co-founder Paul Dunbar has written to Archbishop Francesco Coccopalmerio, president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts at the Vatican.
Mr Dunbar is seeking an explanation of the alterations to canon law brought about by the Apostolic letter Omnium in Mentem, which came into effect in 2010.
The group was advised by a canon lawyer that the change did not remove formal acts of defection, Mr Dunbar wrote. Instead the change meant that a formal act of defection did not invalidate marriage, he added. The group was also advised by the canon lawyer that Catholics should still be able to formally leave the church either by a declaration of defection, a letter to the local bishop or an act of apostasy (a rejection of a belief).
Three questions are posed to Archbishop Coccopalmerio in the letter: Is it possible for members of the church to formally cease their membership and if so how? Does Omnium in Mentem completely remove the possibility of defecting from the church? Is it possible for people to be excommunicated by signing an act of apostasy and how would this be recorded in law?
The group wants to clarify the matter so it can reopen the CountMeOut website. There are "a significant number of people in Ireland who are interested in ceasing their membership", Mr Dunbar wrote. However the group could not do so until the current status is explained, the letter said.
The website was set up in June 2009 after the publication of the Ryan report into child abuse at residential institutions.
It offered a formal declaration form for people who wanted to leave the Catholic Church to download and send to their local diocese. The diocese would then make an annotation to the baptismal register.
More than 12,000 copies of the online form were downloaded during the 1½ years of the service.
Between 2009 and 2010, more than 500 people formally defected through the Dublin archdiocese.
When the Dublin archdiocese stopped accepting defections in 2010 due to the canon law change, it said this would not alter the fact that many people could continue to do so informally. 
Italy orders Vatican to pay tax on its commercial property
After 130,000 Italians signed an online petition calling for the Vatican to be taxed on its commercial properties, the Italian Prime Minister, Mario Monti, has said that such a tax will now be levied, bringing an end to the waivers that gave the Catholic Church millions of euros out of the taxpayers' pockets.

The Vatican has been trying to negotiate a deal with the Government, but Monti's move has taken it by surprise. The Prime Minister did not inform the Vatican directly, although he told the European Commission about it before posting the announcement on the government's website.
"This is a victory for public pressure," said Mario Staderini, the leader of the Italian Radicals party. "We've managed to break down — a little bit — the wall protecting the Church."
The move is expected to narrow Italy's frightening budget deficit by €1 billion. Lately economic data revealed that Italy has officially entered a recession after two consecutive quarters of negative growth.
The Vatican had been enjoying tax breaks on property since 2005 as part of a number of financial privileges provided by the Berlusconi government. According to municipal government figures, the annual cost of the property tax could touch €711.69 million (£596 million). The Vatican owns about 110,000 properties that also comprise shopping centres and residences and their total value is estimated to be nearly €9.03 billion (£7.56 billion).
Riccardo Nencini, leader of the PSI party remarked, "Italy is a Catholic country. Christians pay taxes, but until now the Church didn't pay. It's fair that the Church pays a contribution for its commercial activities."
Tax officials would first have to determine the extent a property is used exclusively for religious purposes and tax it accordingly.

Vatican agitates to keep Costa Rica under its thumb 
The Costa Rican government is under pressure from Catholic Bishops after it proposed legislation on abortion, in vitro fertilization, and homosexual unions. In their usual bullying manner, the bishops denounced these plans as contrary to "the dignity of the human person, the nature of the family, and the values of Costa Rican society."

The bishops also denounced sex education in schools that was not infused with Catholic dogma. They said it was "graphic sexual information … devoid of moral values, with a language and methods that do not respect the natural modesty of children or the authority of their parents."
The Vatican claims that 83% of the nation's 4.6 million people are Catholic. 
No prayers in Egyptian Parliament but daily prayers in Westminster Parliament
A member of the Egyptian parliament was ordered to "stop talking and remain quiet" by the Speaker after he loudly recited the Azan, or the Muslim call to prayer, while ministers were in session on Tuesday.

Mamdouh Ismail surprised fellow MPs when he stood up from his bench, calling out "God is great … Hasten to prayer," a call usually made from the minarets of mosques.
He was met with angry remarks from the Speaker of the People's Assembly, Saad al-Katany: "There is a mosque outside for you to go and recite the Azan in and pray in if you want. This room is for discussion only. You are not more religious than us nor are you more vigilant over prayer than us," Katany added.
Ismail, a Salafi Islamist, protested at the rebuke and eventually his microphone was switched off and he didn't speak again throughout the session.
"We are not in the Vatican, this is a Muslim country, we need to pray on time," Ismail said after the session. Ismail said that politicians had been missing out on many prayers during the parliamentary sessions and this should be resolved.
Nearly a quarter of the new parliamentary representatives come from the ultraconservative Salafi movement that follows a strict interpretation of Islam. The alliance led by the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party took about 47 percent of the seats.
Contrast this with Britain where prayers in parliament are mandatory and cannot be challenged. John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, insisted that laws dating back to 1689 mean any attempt to end the prayers in the Commons would fail. Sessions in both Houses begin with prayers. These follow the Christian faith only, but attendance is voluntary.
Read more about it here in this blog by the Labour MP Joe McCarthy.
But how long can the Egyptian parliament's secular credentials last? Not long if this article is anything to go by.
Secularist of the Year: hurry – places filling quickly
The nominations are in, the decision has been made and the winner will be revealed at our splendid lunchtime event on Saturday 17 March in central London. Whoever wins the £5,000 Irwin Prize will join a growing list of worthy recipients, and now we have a second prize of £1,000, The Simon Biber Memorial Prize, to be awarded for special achievement.

This year the prizes will be presented by Nick Cohen, author and journalist, whose new book in defence of free expression, (ironically entitled You Can't Read this Book) has had glowing reviews.
Meanwhile, illusionist Neil Edwards will be challenging our powers of rationality with his amazing feats of magic that appear to defy all laws of physics. We can reveal that they have, in previous years, reduced famous professors of science to near apoplexy.
Secularist of the Year is also a chance to meet fellow secularists from around the country, some of our honorary associates and other prominent secularists.
If you'd like to join us for this convivial event in glamorous surroundings, tickets are now on sale. A welcome cocktail, a three course meal with tea or coffee and all the entertainment are included in the price of £45 (£15 for students with identification). You can book online or by post to NSS (SoY), 25 Red Lion Square, London WC1R 4RL. 
Today: The State, Religion and Education. Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, presented by the Nottingham Secular Society, Friday 24th February, 2012. 7:30pm for 7.45pm prompt start. A rare opportunity to hear one of the UK and Europe's foremost secular campaigners. At The Nottingham Mechanics, 3, North Sherwood Street, NOTTINGHAM. NG1 4EZ. Members £1. Supporters/visitors £3.

Next Tuesday: Marlene Dietrich – the world's most glamorous atheist. Terry Sanderson reprises his popular show looking at the life and times of Marlene Dietrich, using generous clips from her movie career, then accessing rare archive newsreel he pays a moving tribute to her medal-winning war work as an anti-Nazi during WWII. The show culminates with a screening in full of her fabulous one-woman show recorded in Sweden in 1963 and featuring Burt Bacharach and his orchestra. The evening is presented as a fundraiser for the NSS. Conway Hall, 25 Red Lion Square, London WC1R 4RL, Tuesday 28 February 2012, 7.30pm. Tickets £10
Read an article about this show at Studio magazine.

Defence of human rights at work and elsewhere. Talk by Chris Purnell, barrister and chairman of the South Place Ethical Society. Thursday 8th March from 3pm to 5pm at the H.G. Wells Centre, St. Mark's Way (5 minutes walk from Bromley South Station).
NSS speaks out
Once again, there have been too many media appearances and newspaper articles to include in their entirety. But some of the highlights included Keith Porteous Wood on Sky News, Terry Sanderson on Radio 4's Call You and Yours programme and excellent newspaper articles by honorary associates Joan Smith, Polly Toynbee and Nick Cohen.

NSS on campus in Oxford
Over the last fortnight, University campuses in Oxford have been the venue for a couple of friendly battles between secularists and those who want religion to play a greater role in politics.

Two weeks ago, Keith Porteous Wood led the charge at the Oxford union for a motion This House Believes That the Dividing Line between Religion and Politics Should Shine Brightly – which was won comfortably. Keith's colleagues on the front bench were Lord Warner of Brockley, and Neil Dewar, the student who wound up so well for our side.
We should perhaps also thank Alan Craig, leader of the Christian Peoples Alliance Party, who wound up for the opposition. He started by attacking the NSS over the Bideford Judicial Review, implying that it would stop grace being said at Oxford Union dinners.
This displayed surprising ignorance for a supposed politician (our action was against a council conducting public business, not against a private club) or perhaps his remark was not made with sincerity. He surprised many by quoting at length from the Bible.
Also on his side were: a Federal Judge on the US Court of Appeals, who had to find, despite his own religious views, against a judge displaying the Ten Commandments; a law professor; and the Director of Studies at theology think-tank Theos.
On Thursday, Keith was one of four panellists in a less formal debate held as part of Oxford Reason Week. The Motion was: Does institutionalised religion inevitably lead to intolerance and hatred? Although arguing that the motion set the bar rather too high, he was happy to argue that the more institutionalised religion became the more intolerant it was likely to be. With him on the panel were a Christian who is interested in Buddhism, a humanist and Quaker – who turned out to be the most supportive fellow panel member. There was no formal vote, but the work of the NSS, particularly over Bideford, was warmly applauded. 

Letters to Newsline
Please send your letters for publication to let...@secularism.org.uk. We want to publish as many letters as possible, so please keep them brief: no more than 250 words. We reserve the right to edit. Opinions expressed in letters are those of the writers and not necessarily those of the NSS. You can also join in live debates on our Facebook page.

From Tim Hudson:
The past fortnight has been a torrid time for secularists; and it might seem that our opponents have prevailed, so vociferous have they been in all the media. But we should take heart. Never have the arguments against us seemed so feeble or so desperate. Richard Dawkins has been attacked on the one hand for not being able to remember the exact title of Darwin's On the Origin of Species, and on the other because one of his many 18th-century ancestors benefited financially from slavery (might not the same apply to most of us?).

Our Head of State, who never normally engages in public controversy, has claimed — not very convincingly — that the Establishment of the Anglican Church protects everyone including the non-religious (though Establishment only applies to England, not Scotland; and especially not to Wales or Northern Ireland, both of which places did away with it long ago). Baroness Warsi's anti-secularist tirade, as she set off for a meeting with that well-known reactionary despot in Rome, meanwhile sounded completely unhinged. And a chief argument for maintaining council prayers turned out to be tradition; though if that had been the criterion in the past neither Christianity nor Islam would ever have got started.
I really believe that a corner has been turned. Congratulations to the NSS for keeping up the fight!
From David A. Lord:
Do prayers have a 'use by' date? I don't know, because I don't use them: but I presume not. Therefore, in this debate over Christian prayers at council and parliamentary meetings, surely a simple solution for those of religious faith is to hold their apparently vital prayer meetings after formal business is complete. Then, rather than having other members be excluded or exclude themselves, like naughty children, from part of the formal meeting agenda, the religious could 'remain behind' (like naughty children) to complete their prayers for future guidance. Of course, a council might need to charge a rental for the use of council facilities for these non-council matters: or the group could simply adjourn to their own, often-empty, traditional clubhouse.

From John Matthew Bostock:
Over the years various scientific studies have shown that prayer has no effect when properly tested. Now there is a huge opportunity to use the evidence of Government and Council meetings over which prayers have been said and look at the outcomes.

Were prayers said before the Iraq debate? Did Council planning actually benefit from the prayers said before any decisions?
These and many millions more actions have been preceded by prayer; is the country, town or county, borough or district in a better state now than would have been the case? I think the state of this country and its environs speaks for itself. No one is listening.

From Nicholas Gacoine:
The Today programme interlocutor engaged on an entirely empty and prejudicial "debate" about both the place of the church (with some specific reference to the CofE) in society, and the position of people who were entirely falsely described as "militant secularists". There was also the assumption, clearly assumed and taken-for-granted, that "secularist" = "atheist".

Let's see shall we? A militant Christian; right, we know what they look like: Timothy McVeigh, St Dominic, St Cyril of Alexandria, Jean Calvin who were all murderous bullying thugs.
A militant Islamist; right we know what they look like, and I don't think I need to elaborate?
A militant atheist or even secularist (Quakers are secularists, for instance) ...
It is quite possible to be a religious believer, and simultaneously a secularist. The founders of the Rebellious American Colonies were all nominal Christians, but they were all also secularists, as they did not want any one sect or group to take over religious practice in their country. Your present author happens to be an atheist, but the distinction is an important one.
If anyone can actually produce a real militant secularist, I would be most interested. I might even apologise.
In the meantime, I would be very much obliged if these people, and most importantly, BBC interviewers would desist from deliberately spreading malicious falsehoods about people who are merely pointing out that "the Emperor has no clothes".
There are, of course, underlying reasons for all this deliberate or otherwise deception of the listening public. It started with the attempt by certain religious believers to have a well-known author murdered. By continuing to threaten, with violence and murder, they have managed to obtain a spurious "respect" for their particular religion, unfortunately aided by some people who regard any criticism of said religion as "racist".
And the BBC are deliberately colluding in this disgraceful censorship, suppression of freedom of expression, and deliberate propagandising (a word invented by the catholic church!) of false and misleading misinformation. They should stop this immediately, and start broadcasting statements that have at the least some vague vestige of truth and accuracy in them, especially when it comes to their own presenters
See also: Why we should take accusations of "militant secularism" seriously

From Tristram Wyatt:
Having a 'debate' between a Methodist and a C of E Bishop about secularism on the Today programme was absurd. The question is not about atheism but secularism.

Secularism proposes treating all religions and none as equals, by taking religion out of law making and removing privileges for religion, particularly those enjoyed by only one.
Why did you not have the President of the National Secular Society, Terry Sanderson, or one of their Honorary Associates as one of the interviewees?
Ed writes: Despite their having several chews at this, the Today programme has assiduously avoided involving any spokespeople from the NSS.

From Keith Smith:
So Lord Carey wants Christians to be prepared to "die for their faith" in the "war against secularism" – really ? A war ? Whatever happened to rational argument and discussion/debate?

From Matthew Thompson:
I've just seen this website for something called the Cambridge Interfaith Programme Summer School.

As you can see, it begins "Calling emerging religious leaders around the world – this July, the Cambridge Inter-faith Programme will bring students from Islamic, Christian and Jewish backgrounds to Cambridge University's beautiful Madingley Hall, for a three-week programme of immersion in inter-faith education and encounter." As the summer school is free and the contact email address for it ends cam.ac.uk, I take it the university is picking up the tab.
From Alan Jones:
If the people who run councils are so lacking in confidence to run the area they are responsible for, that they need the help of a God our ancient ancestors invented, they should not be there.

In reply to the member who has a dilemma when grace is said at a meal the answer is quite simple – walk out as I have done. I need religious friends like I need a hole in the head.
If it happens again I have vowed to return after prayers in my freethinker cap and one of my anti-religious tee shirts. My favourite is "Evolution made humans out of monkeys, it takes religion to make monkeys out of humans". I keep them in my car for such occasions.
Incidentally how about this one for an NSS slogan: "Come take your place in our pews, and hear our heretical views. You were not born in sin so lift up your chin, you have only your dogmas to lose." (Taken from Truth and Error by A W Gomes. If we're going to be labelled militant why not live up to it?)
From Derek Ruskin:
No one it seems, other than me, has pointed out that Baroness Warsi's trip to the Vatican (with her accompanying melee of seven government ministers) is a dreadful misappropriation of taxpayers' money!

I wonder if the two openly gay government ministers, accompanying her to see the Holy Father, will ask Warsi to put a word in for them at her local mosque, and also, whilst at the Vatican ask the Pope for forgiveness for their sins of 'disordered' sexuality (to quote the Catholic stance on homosexuals).
I will post a freedom of information request for the amount this farcical trip has cost and post the results here if I ever get an answer.
From Neil Barber:
Sayeeda Warsi proclaims that religion should have "A proper place in the public sphere". Why does it seem necessary for the religious to have a public expression and endorsement of their beliefs at all? They appear to have overlooked Jesus' instruction that his followers should not pray like 'hypocrites' (i.e. actors) in the open but should pray in secret (Matt. 6:5). 

In the minds of all but the most unthinking of believers there must be a quiet voice of doubt. Is it possible that unless they have some sort of group entertainment of belief that voice becomes a roar?
To avoid this, they routinely employ other believers in what become god dominated institutions so as to minimise the event of ever having to rub up against someone who pokes at that self-doubt. They insist on the right to impose religion on intellectually defenceless children and to have religion timetabled into public life which they call religious freedom. Their shrill cries of "aggressive atheist" again are a response to the comfort they need to feel from the idea that they are a majority established institution. I would ask of Sayeeda Warsi: Is your religious conviction so weak that you can't do it on your own?
From Jeff Clarke:
I didn't hold my breath when Em-baroness-ment Warsi descended from the Disneyesque realms of Pope and arch illusionist Maestro Benedetto in Rome, doubtless wearing a halo. I did, however, break the habit of a lifetime the other day when I switched over to BBC3. At 9.00pm was broadcast My Hometown Fanatics, when plucky Stacey Dooley returned to Luton to explore 'the prevalence of extremism in her home town.'

Highlight here was the young lady being harangued by benefit claimant, religious hate preacher and Muslim fundamentalist buffoon, Anjem Choudary. She was assured by him that she and all disbelievers — that is most of the taxpayers supporting him — would rot in hell for not being Muslims. She stood her ground despite the flood of verbal effluence whilst an equally rancorous sidekick jittered a threatening finger directly before her nose. We were also treated to the marchers with their hate placards that included 'Death to the British Police.'
It was later explained to her, however, that Islam is a 'religion of peace.'
Perhaps there was some misunderstanding over this latter assertion on my behalf. When I watch the news, much of the peace-loving Islamic world seems to resonate with shots and explosions. Perhaps they meant 'pieces' rather than 'peace,' as the True Believers accomplish a re-run of medieval Christianity but with bigger and better weapons. 
And here are we Atheists and Secularists being accused of aggression and intolerance!
From Dael Gabriel:
If we fail to win our right to not observe christian prayers, maybe we should adopt a secular prayer for ourselves. Perhaps an intonation throughout prayers – a dedication of our beliefs, we could repeat as our own prayer, "there is no such thing as god" as a mantra while others pray to such a mythical being. I do not wish to offend those who for some reason or another ascribe to such illogical beliefs, but maybe we should take the "prayer" space for ourselves and reiterate our total non belief in such a deity by repeating said mantra for the duration of their own prayers, professing belief. In this way everyone's personal belief space can be realised and acted upon within one's own sphere of consciousness. Do we believe that the god squad would allow us to profess our unbelief during their sacrosanct "prayer" time? If not, they are guilty of intolerance and by not allowing us to use this wasted time to profess our own non-belief, they destroy their own argument as to why there should be any prayer time allowed in civic meetings.

From Barry Thorpe:
A tentative suggestion for Ray Ward re grace at dinners (Newsline, last week): ask the organiser/chair to make the announcement, with emphasis on inclusivity, etc, as follows: "Those who wish to say grace, please stand, otherwise please remain seated."

From Fiona Weir:
Ray Ward should — nay, must — try to persuade the organisers of the groups whose lunches or dinners he attends to have a secular Grace instead of a religious one. "For what we are about to receive, may we be truly grateful" is what I'm most used to hearing.

If this is not sufficient, the Chairman can ask the guests to pause and acknowledge their gratitude — but not to any deity — for being able to share good company and good food, whilst remembering others not so privileged. I certainly managed to persuade a local society of the fairness of this to all the guests. If anyone wishes to add a silent word to their own god that's fine.
Of course, that's what the councils could be doing: having a moment of silent calm for members to compose themselves before concentrating on the business of the meeting. Everyone could be in the chamber for that.
From Sue Cauty:
My advice to "Sharon" and to Ray Ward is "go for it"! An upgrade of beach-front chalets at a local resort here in Fiji, managed by my nephew, invited local regulars to the opening. Around 150 of us were seated in a marquee beside the beach, facing the sea, and a preacher-man was facing us. My heart sank. Until you have heard a Fijian preacher-man you ain"t heard nuthin!" After the usual interminable rant and ramble he yelled "Let us all stand and thank the good Lord..." and to my horror my husband on my right, and a good friend on my left, both atheists, stood up! I"d expected a prayer, but had not expected to be made to make a show of it. So, for the first time in my life, I remained seated. Admittedly, it was anger at being manipulated that motivated me, but wow! did I feel great when it was all over. It felt right and good that I had stayed true to myself. And I hope that my small silent protest might give others the courage to follow suit. It"s only difficult the first time and it"s not painful, I promise!

From Paul Braterman:
In the last Newsline, you describe the Rev. Holloway, of Desmond Parish Church, as "an opponent of Darwin's theory of evolution." Not so. He is a denier, not an opponent, of the well-established fact (not theory) of evolution, which in typical Creationist fashion he refers to as "macro evolution". Darwin was a long time ago, and referring to modern life science as "Darwin's theory of evolution" is like referring to modern molecular science as "Dalton's theory of atoms". It is inaccurate, unhistorical, and plays into the hands of the enemies of knowledge.

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