Moral, religious, psychopathic, or just human?

Glen Carrigan looks at the science of morality

Science, increasingly, is answering questions which before only philosophers could attempt

Science, increasingly, is answering questions which before only philosophers could attempt

Why doesn’t Microsoft Word recognise the word ‘Neuropsychology?’ Maybe because it’s a rather new field, although people have been musing on the workings of the physical brain for a very long time indeed – don’t worry though, we’re not trepanning people anymore!

My interest is the moral brain, how humans – and other animals to some degree – draw the distinction between right and wrong to organise society. Some argue that moral standards are axiomatic and that moral compasses come from god. There actually seems to be some truth to this, in that some absolutist standards like Thou Shalt Not Kill or the Golden Rule seem to be very intuitive – as is the notion that you’re somehow a social pariah if you play World of Warcraft. A paper by Baumard and Boyer called “Explaining Moral Religions” shows just how universal this is.

Is the Golden Rule any good though? Maybe, but you’re making your own narrow individual experience the basis for how you treat others. Wouldn’t it be better to ask them how they’d like to be treated? This should indeed be the case for issues such as assisted dying, where holding to Thou Shalt Not Kill diminishes the dignity and autonomy of a feeling, reflecting being. To hold dogmatic moral views also only works if you believe in god and that at least in some religions, you’re good to escape punishment in the hereafter, rather than for the sake of the here and now.

Far from being divine in origin, there seems to be a wealth of evidence showing us that being an individual yet social animal, with a big (relative to body size) and healthy brain, necessitates certain behaviours for us to flourish in a group. This then, gives rise to our need to discuss and reflect upon what it means to be a moral agent. You can see similar intuitive behavioural patterns to our own in other animals that operate in social groups. A wonderful example is the reciprocal behaviour of vampire bats, who seem to understand that a good deed (donating a regurgitated blood meal – stomach churning I know) deserves repayment. There is much converging evidence in evolutionary psychology that points to animals being the origin of their own ‘moral’ codes. But there are driving forces behind being a good egg other than reciprocity.

Throughout history philosophers have struggled with what constitutes the virtuous act. We notice that certain behaviours are predictable and wrong such as rape and rightly condemn people for it. We also need to accept that we make choices – if we have free will – and should be responsible for them. The fact that certain prohibitions are intuitive might suggest an in-built moral acquisition and refinement device (MARD) which is nurtured by social experience, emotion and reflection, rather than an omnipotent law giver. Perhaps we are actually responsible for the holy books that seek to have us tow the moral line – although we were managing to beforehand – in any event we seem to be the only species we know of that spends a great deal of time writing books telling ourselves to be good, that we’re special, and that we should be humble about it!

Neuropsychology can perhaps tell us a bit about this MARD and how we think, rather than what we should think here: We establish the social norms after all and what acts constitute deviance. The archetypal Psychopath seems to be deviant to many of us and this is why I study them. The fact is that we all have psychopathic traits along a spectrum; it’s just that some people have more pronounced, what the majority consider to be, morally deviant tendencies. Neuropsychology shows us that Psychopaths seem to have diminished empathic concern, as well as, fail to notice the importance of intention in a harmful act. Since it’s us that establish that intention to cause harm is worse than an accident (the difference between murder and manslaughter) we view psychopaths as morally deviant in society – perhaps their MARD is broken?

People often panic here and think that if we can predict someone will think and perhaps behave murderously then the notion of choice in society falls apart. It might, if you want Neuroscience to strip us of our humanity. In my view, although we could see why such people might be like this, that doesn’t mean they walk away scot free. What matters is that we discuss our options reflectively and organise society around us as moral beings that makes choices, with a sense of responsibility, and who can be punished for transgressions, rather than allowing my brain made me do it as an alibi in all cases where mental instability is an issue. It’s also worth pointing out that most psychopaths actually don’t run around murdering people like Heath Ledger in Batman!


Glen Carrigan is a neuropsychology researcher at the University of Central Lancashire, as well as ex-military, a qualified fitness instructor, communications specialist, youth mentor, humanist, science presenter and model who advocates social and political activism in equality and education.

Why the faithful need secularism

Jeremy Rodell discusses the meaning of ‘secularism,’ among other things. Note: this article first appeared on Sarah Ager’s Interfaith Ramadan blog.

Hundreds rally for the March for a Secular Europe

Hundreds rally for the March for a Secular Europe

What is Secularism?

Let’s start with what secularism means to secularists.

The British Humanist Association (BHA) defines secularism as ‘the principle that, in a plural, open society where people follow many different religious and non-religious ways of life, the communal institutions that we share (and together pay for) should provide a neutral public space where we can all meet on equal terms. State Secularism, where… the state is neutral on matters of religion or belief, guarantees the maximum freedom for all, including religious believers.’

The UK’s National Secular Society (NSS) adds that it’s ‘not about curtailing religious freedoms; it is about ensuring that the freedoms of thought and conscience apply equally to all believers and non-believers alike.’

So a secular state does not mean denying the role of Christianity and other religions – for both good and ill – in history and culture. It does not mean that religious people must forego their principles if they enter public life. Perhaps most important of all, it does not mean a society lacking in values. There’s a fairly clear set of liberal, human values shared by the majority in the UK and most other western countries, including freedom of speech, thought and belief; respect for democracy and the rule of law; equality of gender, age and sexual orientation and the view that fairness and compassion are virtues. Many of these values are enshrined in law.

The BHA and the NSS really ought to know what they’re talking about here. Unfortunately, many people, usually people who are not themselves secularists, use ‘secularism’ interchangeably with ‘atheism’ or ‘Humanism’.  The previous Pope even talked of “militant Secularism”, meaning “militant Atheism” (despite the fact that the weapons used by ‘militants’ like Richard Dawkins are writing books and giving lectures, not planting bombs). But you can be religious and secularist. In fact the unequivocally Muslim, anti-Islamist campaigner, Maajid Nawaz, has just become an Honorary Associate of the NSS.

The reason for this confusion is that western countries have only become secular – to varying degrees – after many centuries in which the Church was a major power in society and there were constraints on freedom of thought and expression. Much of that power has been eroded since the Enlightenment, but battles are still going on. For example, 26 unelected bishops remain sitting as of right in the British Parliament, and many state-funded schools can discriminate in their admissions simply on the basis of parental belief. It’s no surprise that the protagonists in these battles are usually churches on one side, and humanists and other atheists on the other. If you’re on the side of the churches, it probably feels that secularism and atheism are the same thing – The Enemy.

That’s a mistake. Not only does it ignore the common ground between Christians and humanists, but it focusses on loss of religious privilege and influence, ignoring the fact that Secularism also guarantees freedom of religion and belief, and the freedom of thought and expression that goes with it. That’s important, given the realities of faith and belief in much of the modern world.

Growth of pluralism

According to the 2013 British Social Attitudes Survey, 51% of the British population are now “Nones” – people who do not consider themselves as belonging to any religion. It was 31% in 1983. Only 16% are now Anglicans, the Established Church (40% in 1983), 12% non-denominational Christians, such as African Pentecostal (3% in 1983), 9% Catholics (10% in 1983) and 5% Muslims (0.6% in 1983), with Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, Buddhists and other types of Christians making up most of the balance (all under 2%). Within each of these groups there is a lot of diversity: at least 10 different sects comprise the 5% Muslims, and the 0.5% British Jews range from ultra-Orthodox to Liberal. So we’re seeing both a big decline in religiosity and an increase in pluralism. It’s hard to imagine a more plural global city than London.

In many non-western countries, the inter-connectedness of the modern world, and wider awareness of differing beliefs – including Atheism – is also tending to increase pluralism, or at least the desire for pluralism. At the same time, it is increasingly under threat, often because of war and the active spread of an intolerant Wahhabi strain of Islam.

Secularism versus oppression

Secularism is as necessary to protect believers from other believers as it is to protect atheists.

You can currently be put to death simply for the ‘crime’ of atheism in 13 countries, according to the International Humanist andEthical Union’s 2013 Freedom of Thought Report. Saudi Arabia has now passed a law declaring atheists to be terrorists. In Mosul, in northern Iraq, there has been a Christian community for around 1600 years. In 2003 there were 70,000 Christians living there. Now ISIS have taken over and they have all fled. In Burma the government seems to be doing little or nothing to stop extremist nationalist Buddhist groups from massacring Rohinga Muslims. In Pakistan there’s growing evidence of ethnic cleansing of Shia Muslims by Sunni terrorist groups – the word ‘genocide’ is appearing – and it is illegal for Ahmadiyya Muslims to claim to be Muslim. Often they are simply killed. In Malaysia, Christians have been legally forbidden to use the word “Allah” to refer to God, even though they have been doing so for hundreds of years. In Iran there is institutionalised persecution of Baha’is .

Sadly, there are many other examples where the response to pluralism is oppression. Often it’s entwined with political power, driven by fear of losing power – or simply of change – and lack of confidence that the favoured belief will succeed in a plural environment.

Secularism is the alternative response to pluralism. Ideally it’s complemented by the type of mature democracy that avoids “winner takes all” outcomes such as we saw in Egypt under President Morsi.

The faithful need secularism because it guarantees their freedom, and in some cases their survival. It is the only alternative to oppression in a fast-changing, inter-connected plural world.


Jeremy Rodell is the chair of South West London Humanists, which he co-founded in 2007, a local partner group of the British Humanist Association. He’s a speaker on Humanism, the humanist representative on two local interfaith forums, a schools speaker for the interfaith charity 3FF (formerly the Three Faiths Forum) and has recently become a member of the International Association for Religious Freedom. He is also the humanist convenor of a local Roman Catholic-humanist dialogue group. Aside from these activities, and a business background, he works with the charity Age UK and is chair of Trustees of Eastside Educational Trust, which provides arts education to young people across London. 

 

Speculative fiction as philosophy

Graham Walker explores what philosophical lessons there are to be found in the stories of science fiction.

Science fiction is a better vehicle for philosophy than other genres, argues Graham Walker

Science fiction is a better vehicle for philosophy than other genres, argues Graham Walker. Image: Kurt Nordstrom.

Science fiction allows some of the most imaginative and visionary authors and film directors of all time to transport us to places where anything is possible and where the only rules are the rules of that fictional world’s creator. But at the same time, it is much more than this. Not only does science fiction challenge us think of the universe in new ways, it can also make us think about life from new and novel perspectives, to an extent which I would argue that non-science fiction simply can never achieve. For one, and for me personally, ‘sci-fi’ as a genre represents one of the best outlets for philosophy that is on offer today.

The basic goal of philosophy is to ask the big questions about life: what is consciousness? What is ‘free will’? What is morality and how do we be good? How best is a state run? Sci-fi as a genre is remarkable in its power to comment on all these questions, and in its ability to ask questions from unusual and innovative angles in order to genuinely problematise some of the philosophical answers to these questions that have been proposed over the ages.

What I am proposing is not a new or groundbreaking concept. Plato himself was aware of it, almost 2,500 years ago. In Plato’s greatest work, The Republic, Socrates describes the Ring of Gyges: a mythical ring which grants the wearer invisibility. By inventing this novel and impossible scenario enables, Socrates to ask genuine questions about what justice is and whether an intelligent person would act morally if he knew that he could never be caught in his immoral act. The stories of Homer, too, used the Greek pantheon in a similar manner. He paints the gods of ancient Greece as capricious and vindictive, allowing the reader to ponder why we are here and how we can make sense of a chaotic world.

Today, science fiction is still used to tackle the big questions of philosophy. The novel I,Robot by Isaac Asimov is a collection of short stories primarily exploring the nature of morality and consciousness. One short story though develops an elegant argument for how a rational thinker cold develop the idea of a higher power when they lack the necessary information to otherwise explain the nature of the world.

In my opinion, one of the most powerful sets of books (and currently films) is the Hunger Games trilogy. A dystopian fiction in the tradition of so many great twentieth century novels, The Hunger Games poses a range of powerful questions and answers. Author Suzanne Collins creates a satire on inequality, ridiculing the idea that those, literally, at the coal face work hardest and remain poor while others profit from their work. It asks what is good and evil, or right and wrong, for both the individual and the state, and it highlights the immorality and pointlessness of honour and revenge, and how greed can ultimately corrupt leaders even when they fight for a worthy cause. The writer George Orwell, who was one of the 20th century’s greatest writers of speculative fiction, posed many similar questions in Animal Farm.

It’s worth keeping an eye out as you next watch or read a work of science fiction. Be sure to ask yourself: what can aliens, superheroes and robots teach me about living well and living right?


Graham Walker is a student and blogger. Graham has studied psychology and cognitive behavioural therapy, and is currently studying for an MSc in occupational therapy. He blogs on various issues that he feels are important. You can follow him on Twitter at @think_damn_it.

See also: If you liked this post, you may like Doctor Who: Fifty Years of Humanism.

The trials and tribulations of the 26th session of the UN Human Rights Council

Fierce debate at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Photo: UN.

Fierce debate at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Photo: UN.

‘State obligations to achieve equality and non discrimination are immediate, and not subject to progressive realisation,’ wrote Maina Kiai, the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, a phrase that was to become my basic principle during the 26th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council.

In the weeks leading up to the Council, the international media was dominated by reports of state-sanctioned abuses of human rights, making apparent the gulf between the discussions on the promotion and protection of human rights in Geneva, and the reality on the ground. Despite legally binding instruments establishing rights standards existing for more than sixty years, the global situation of human rights is deplorable. The assertions made by scholars that States ‘usually obey’ (Koh, 1997) international rules, and that ‘almost all nations observe almost all principles of international law almost all of the time’(Henkin, 1979) are, in the words of Marc Limon, Director of the Universal Rights Group, ‘somewhat utopian’; in mine, frankly untrue. ‘It’s the implementation, stupid!’ wrote Limon – and how right he is. With this in mind, I arrived in Geneva with several statements to deliver on behalf of the British Humanist Association, urging state co-operation with human rights mechanisms and adherence to international law within a range of contexts.

The session had a large focus on women’s rights, with specific panels addressing women and development; child, early and forced marriage; and violence against women In addition, a resolution was passed on combating gender based violence, and there was much positive discussion about the inclusion of a gender-specific goal in the Post-2015 Development Agenda. There is international consensus that sustainable development cannot be achieved without female emancipation, and the link between good governance and equality is widely documented: public policy is instrumental in ‘transforming the institutional norms and practices’[1] and in combating the ‘myriads of social pathologies’[2] which legitimize and perpetuate inequality. Despite this, women suffer systematic and legally enshrined discrimination throughout the world, which contravenes both Council membership obligations and international law.

‘Quite plainly, Mr President, there is no excuse for the persistence of state discrimination against women… Legal inequality legitimises gender-inequitable attitudes and patriarchal dominance, which are manifested in acts of psychological, physical and sexual abuse against women,[3] and contribute to the widespread culture of impunity. How can such issues be challenged when domestic authorities classify women as second-class citizens?’

Although there is, undoubtedly, much to be done by way of implementation of existing UN guidelines, I am pleased to announce that a resolution ‘accelerating efforts to eliminate all form of violence against women’ was passed: this is the first time it has been recognized as a specific human rights violation, and will therefore shape future discourse. Furthermore, the central nature of women’s rights in Post-2015 discussions gives me hope that there will be increased UN monitoring, targets and indicators on women’s rights, shining a brighter light on this than ever before.

Freedom of expression was in focus during the June session, both inside and outside the Council. During the campaign against Twitter censorship in Pakistan, a copy of the campaign letter (signed by the BHA, among other organisations) was hand-delivered to the Pakistani delegation in Geneva. In an oral statement, I raised the issue of blasphemy laws, addressing Pakistan’s attempt to silence their citizens as symptomatic of a wider issue, which has now given rise to a myriad of human rights abuses:

‘The recourse to justice for those accused of blasphemy is, at best, skewed; at worst, non-existent. Arbitrary arrests[4], mob violence[5] and extra-judicial killings[6] are common consequences of blasphemy allegations. Lawyers refuse to take defence cases, for fear of reprisals[7]: unsurprising, given that in the past month, the lawyer on a blasphemy case in Saudi Arabia is now in jail[8], while in Pakistan, lawyer Rashid Rehman, who said that defending someone accused of blasphemy was akin to ‘walking in to the jaws of death’[9], has indeed been murdered[10].’

During the Interactive Dialogue with the outgoing Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Frank La Rue, I once again raised the issue of blasphemy, citing Raif Badawi’s case, and shining a light on the gulf between the Saudi Arabian delegation’s words in Geneva, and their government’s actions at home:

‘During the 25th Session of this Council, the Saudi Arabian delegate reiterated the importance of the Rabat Plan of Action, and stated that the country ‘exerts its supportive efforts domestically’[11]. Why, therefore, does Raif Badawi remain in jail, convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to ten years and 1000 lashes for establishing a liberal website[12]?…May we remind States that membership to this Council obliges them ‘to uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights’[13], not just in platitudes, but in practice.’

We were not the only NGO to raise Badawi’s case, and a close friend and colleague spoke on behalf of the US Center for Inquiry (CfI), calling for his immediate release. Throughout her speech, the Saudi Arabian delegation made repeated (and increasingly desperate) interruptions, saying to the Vice President ‘I told you to shut her up!’ (video). The USA, Ireland, France and Canada all intervened, emphasizing her right to speak, and she was indeed allowed to continue. Ironically, Saudi Arabia’s attempts to silence her generated a huge amount of media attention, and in turn have raised the profile of Badawi’s case.

Outside of the Palais des Nations, the Saudi delegation’s attitude was mirrored by the Egyptian judiciary, with far greater consequences. The guilty verdict delivered to three Al Jazeera journalists, and eleven others in absentia, was absolutely galling. The trial was farcical, the evidence laughable, and the consequences all too serious. While speaking to the Egyptian ambassador, horrified at the verdicts and referring to the wider clampdown on dissent, which has seen 16,000 people incarcerated, I received innumerable platitudes – that the case can be appealed, that Egypt has an independent judiciary, and that the Government are in fact concerned about the harsh nature of recent verdicts, but cannot intervene with the judiciary as that would be authoritarian, and against the principles of democracy that they stand by. If only that were true! I can but hope that there will be an appeal, and that with sufficient international pressure, the innocent journalists will be freed.

Cases such as this appear in the media every few months, reminding us that freedom of expression, which we take for granted, is a luxury, if not a fantasy, for many. In May, I spent a month travelling around Vietnam, and – please bear with my tangential story – after a chance meeting with an local man, some friends and I had dinner with him. Over the course of the evening, he spoke to us about the human rights situation in Vietnam, focusing on the absence of freedom of expression. As he spoke about the political prisoners, incarcerated for their liberal, democratic thoughts, he was constantly looking over his shoulder, his eyes darting around the streets. When asked what was wrong, he said he was checking for secret police. This stunned me: I had been travelling around his country, visiting towns and commenting on their beauty, going to museums, thinking I was learning about the culture, when underneath it all lay a police state.

I told him I would try my best to raise the issue at the UN, and am incredibly satisfied to say that I did so, raising the broad legal framework that is invoked to eliminate dissent, and the role of incarceration, ‘police intimidation, harassment…[and] prolonged detention without access to legal counsel’[14] preventing potential critics from or punishing them for speaking out. However, I can’t tell him that I did: email traffic is monitored, he said, and it would be dangerous for us to communicate. After I spoke, the ex-Ambassador of Vietnam to the UN in Geneva took the floor: so disheartened by the gross violations of human rights by his government, he sought political asylum in Geneva, and bravely condemned his previous colleagues and country. He confirmed that Vietnam is a police state, with 1 in 18 people working in state security. The courage of both men is astounding, and I am incredibly honoured to have met them.

Throughout the session, informal consultations take place regarding the resolutions that are tabled that session, which are then adopted or rejected in the last two days of the Council. It is with sadness that I report the adoption of a regressive resolution on the protection of the family, its innocuous name shrouding a far darker intention to roll back progress on the rights of individuals and minorities. A number of States continued to oppose the resolution, with the UK Mission making a powerful, impassioned intervention in the moments leading up to the vote. The passage of the resolution, which excludes the rights of LGBT and threatens the rights of women and children, is a major blot on the Council’s record. However, some positive steps were taken, including the announcement of a Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea, and the adoption by consensus of a resolution reaffirming that the rights enjoyed by people offline must also be protected online.

The end of this session also marked the end of Navi Pillay’s period as High Commissioner for Human Rights: she is a remarkable woman, who, through her office, has made great steps for human rights worldwide. She will be greatly missed.

Looking ahead to September, it is clear that our fight for human rights for all is far from over: much remains to be done. While the Session may have been peppered with disappointments, the determination of human rights defenders continuously surfaced worldwide, in the face of brutal adversity, and one must take great comfort and inspiration from that. I look forward to the next meeting of the Human Rights Council, and will walk in to the building with renewed passion and steely resolve.

‘I think right now is the moment…We don’t know what is it the moment of, and maybe something much crazier will happen. But really, we see the sunshine coming in…Our whole condition was very sad, but we still feel warmth, and the life in our bodies can still tell that there is excitement in there, even though death is waiting. We had better not enjoy the moment, but create the moment.’

Ai Weiwei


Notes

[1]‘Gender Equality, Poverty Eradication and the MDGs: Promoting Women’s Capabilities and Participation, Gender and Development Series #13’, Naila Kabeer. Economic and Social Commission in Asia and the Pacific, 2003; quoted in

 ‘Gender Equality in the Post-2015 Agenda: Where Does it Stand?’, Alexandra Spieldoch, 2013, p.5  http://www.boell.org/downloads/Spieldoch_Gender_and_Sustainable_Development.pdf

[2]http://www.opendemocracy.net/arab-awakening/oguz-alyanak-funda-ustek/inconvenient-truth-about-child-brides%0A

[3] ‘Practices stemming from gender inequality and dominant ideals
of manhood were associated with partner violence perpetration, such as gender inequitable attitudes…’ p.69, ‘Why do some men use violence against women, and how can we prevent it? Quantitative findings from the UN Multi Country Study on men and violence in Asia and the Pacific’, 2013 http://www.undp.org/content/dam/rbap/docs/Research%20&%20Publications/womens_empowerment/RBAP-Gender-2013-P4P-VAW-Report.pdf

[4] All arrests under blasphemy laws are, according to international law, arbitrary. However, the already unjust law is often employed falsely, due to failures in investigative process, , or to settle personal vendettas. Further, a recent mass arrest in Pakistan only cited 8 of the 68 accuseds’ names.

[5]http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304655304579550030970480094

[6] Murder of an atheist blogger in Bangladesh http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/listeningpost/2013/05/2013511988676973.html ; murder of defence layer Rashid Rehman in Pakistan http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-27319433. At least 52 people accused of blasphemy in Pakistan have been lynched since 1990, according to ‘Blasphemy Laws in Pakistan; Historical Overview’, Centre for Research and Security Studies (CRSS). Quoted in many media outlets such as http://tribune.com.pk/story/433305/crss-report-52-murdered-in-two-decades-over-blasphemy/; http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/05/08/us-pakistan-blasphemy-idUSBREA4709N20140508

[7]http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-27319433

[8] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/elham-manea/waleed-abulkhair-imprison_b_5267086.html

[9]http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/08/world/asia/pakistani-activist-shot-dead-aided-blasphemy-suspects.html

[10] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-27319433

[11] ‘My country exerts its supportive efforts domestically to combat the phenomenon’, Meshal Alotibi, 12th March 2014, http://webtv.un.org/meetings-events/human-rights-council/regular-sessions/25th-session/watch/clustered-id-contd-sr-on-religion-and-protection-of-human-rights-22nd-meeting-25th-regular-session-of-human-rights-council/3329494304001

[12]http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-27318400

[13] Paragraph 9, A/RES/60/251 (Human Rights Council Founding Resolution) 15th March 2006

[14] http://www.hrw.org/world-report/2014/country-chapters/vietnam?page=1

Parenting without religion

Aniela Bylinski discusses her journey to Humanism.

A parent's work is never done, the saying goes. Photo: Marina del Castell.

A parent’s work is never done, the saying goes. Photo: Marina del Castell.

As a new parent in 2009 my world opened up to a new way of life. I had a baby which was reliant on me for food and shelter, care and affection.  After a few months of getting to know my baby and getting into a new routine which worked for both of us, well mainly her, I started to think about what I was going to tell her, what my truth was, and what her truth might one day be.

I made conscious decisions to be her sole carer for the first 12 months at least, and to support her emotionally and physically as much as I could, without taking away her independence.  I also reflected on my own childhood and made decisions about which bits were good or bad, what I might use myself or not.

People around me were having their children christened and becoming part of a church or religious community, but that is not what I wanted for my children or my family.  I would have liked to have been able to find a community which was consistent with my non-belief in god but unfortunately it did not exist, or so I thought.

I was asking myself questions about morality such as; if I don’t believe in god then how will I fit in with other families, how will my children be perceived?  What will I teach my children about telling tales, being good and working hard, what difference will it make if they are bad, if god didn’t exist?  If I don’t have my child christened what will that mean for her and her school place?

I decided that I did not want to be peer pressured into supporting a community which I did not agree with, just because it was the only one available.  I had difficulty articulating my non-belief without offending people and decided to research other options which could be available to me.

I did know that I wanted my children to grow up to be open minded, critical thinkers, to question what they were told and not just accept things as a fact.  I didn’t want to put any fear into them and didn’t think they had any sins which they needed to be cleansed of from birth.  I knew I wanted them to be brought up to use logic and reason.  But where was the community in the UK in 2009 which could provide this for me?

I looked around on the internet and found some fantastic books to read ‘Parenting Beyond Belief’ and ‘Raising Freethinkers’.  These books were like a breath of fresh air, they explained how you can raise children with ethics and values confidently, without a god, they explain how you can talk to your children about death without a heaven, and they give good examples of how to tackle religious holidays. The list goes on; disciplining, sex education etc. There are loads of practical guides and exercises which you can use to teach your children how to wonder and ask questions.  It also gives permission to say ‘I don’t know’ and gives you the opportunity to explore the world with your child.  These books gave me the confidence to go out into the world of religion and say I’m not religious, my children may or may not be and that’s OK.

More importantly though the books lead me to Humanism and in particular the British Humanist Association.  When I visited the website it reinforced what I already felt about living a life using logic and reason, to benefit the whole of humanity, I know now this was my truth.


Aniela Bylinski Gelder is a married mother trying to raise children to be open minded, free and critical thinkers. She previously managed large environmental projects, as well as campaigns and communications for an environmental protection department.

No such thing as an atheist child?

9-year-old Alex, and his father, Ian, write for HumanistLife on the subject of ‘atheist children.’ 

Alex (age 9⅔) with his father, Ian (age 36)

Alex (age 9) with his father, Ian (age 36)

byalex

I think that children should not think they have to be the same religion as their parents if they don’t want to be. There is no point in following the rules of a religion you don’t believe in. A person has to decide that they believe, not just in a god but in the rules that go along with it.

I think a child isn’t really religious until they say so themselves, and they actually know enough about the religion they say they follow. Sometimes I think that children my age at school feel they have to belong to a religion. This might be because of where they were born or the colour of their skin. They feel they belong because they go to a place of worship with their family, not because they have thought about it.

I think of myself as an atheist now but I might change my mind. As I get older my ideas might change and that’s okay. But I don’t think my little brother (who is 5) is old enough to decide his religion because he doesn’t know enough yet.

byian

The recent arguments about whether a child starts life without religious belief – not starting as an ‘atheist baby’, despite the misquoting headlines – are neither new nor original. As a parent I would argue that human beings may start off credulous, but that we are not born with a specific religious faith. Believing what we are told by our parents may have sound evolutionary value but it means that we may not think critically about the things they teach us.

I’m trying very hard not to be guilty of this myself. I consider myself mostly atheist, but certainly agnostic, and to start with I was very careful to discuss religion with my kids in terms of ‘Some people believe…’ rather than as fact. This was made more difficult when I found that some of their teachers were describing religious stories as historical events. So now our kids are growing up asking questions and being told what we believe, always being promised that they’ll be able to make up their own minds.

I should point out that I’m not always so truthful. We’ve had childhood stories including the usual Santa Claus and Tooth Fairy myths. We’ve discussed how revolving doors are powered by mice (hence the squeak) and my surgical scars being the result of sword fights or a shark attack. Or a sword fight with a shark. But once they were old enough to ask about religion, they were old enough to be told what we consider the truth.

I see ‘agnostic’ as a default setting. I think it’s interesting that we often don’t see it as a neutral one, seeing as most religious people are unbelievers for every faith but their own. My own feelings about young people having the right to choose their own beliefs should be clear from the YAH4schools campaign I accidentally started. I think freedom of religion is hugely important – which is why I think we should question whether identifying a child by their parents’ faith is meaningful. I suppose a lot of it comes down to whether we think religious belief is something based on feelings or on thoughts. But this is about whether a young person can or should be considered to have a religious faith. I’m not young, so I asked someone who is. My son’s words above make me very proud.


Alex‘s dad, Ian Horsewell is a science teacher, and the originator of the Young Atheist’s Handbook for Schools campaign, which came to fruition in April this year.

‘Protecting the family’ and polluting the council

Amelia Cooper, representative of the British Humanist Association, writes from the 26th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council.

The Human Rights Council meets three times a year, and during each session, States are able to propose resolutions that offer guidance on enhancing the human rights situation worldwide. Such resolutions are not legally binding; however, they (should) aim to reaffirm State commitments to existing treaties, encompass the nuances of developing situations, and recommend a specific course of action to be taken such that the enjoyment of human rights worldwide can be advanced.

Unfortunately, a resolution currently on the table stands in stark contrast to these idealistic clauses. An Egyptian-led initiative, backed by a ‘core group’ of supporters including Bangladesh, China, Côte d’Ivoire, El Salvador, Mauritania, Morocco, Namibia, Qatar, the Russian Federation, Sierra Leone, Tunisia and Uganda, has addressed the international community’s need to ‘protect the family’.

This seemingly innocuous – and almost quaint – title shrouds an insidious agenda designed to undermine the principles of equality and universality that the Council is founded upon, and which, if adopted, threatens to undo the decades of progress that has been made towards equality for women, the rights of children, and, most notably, will exclude the rights of LGBTI persons. Bob Last, of the UK mission wrote that:

‘Of all the resolutions the Council could do without, the most disingenuous is the Egyptian led resolution on the ‘protection of the family’. This is widely seen as a counter strike to the Council resolution on sexual orientation’.

The notion of protecting the family as a unit is, in itself, at odds with the human rights approach. Every individual has human rights, and families are comprised of said individuals: it is therefore legitimate to ask, first and foremost, whether a resolution proposing the protection of a family unit even has a place within the Council’s mandate’[1].

The title of the resolution implies that ‘the family’, which is later defined as ‘the natural and fundamental group unit of society’, is under threat and must therefore be guarded: this sentence in itself is testimony to the exclusive nature of the resolution. For what is, in modern society, ‘the family’? It certainly isn’t the nuclear family of past centuries, by which I mean a man, woman and their biological children. Today’s notion of a family is pluralistic, including step-parents and siblings, adopted children, same-sex parents, single parents, and families headed by grandparents to name but a few.

However, the use of the singular ‘family’ suggests that there is a superior familial structure that must be protected from these new-fangled units, and the suggestion made by a number of States to include previously agreed UN language, stating that ‘in different cultural, social and political systems, various forms of the family exist’ had not yet been added to the text. The protection of this ‘family’ will not only exclude different familial formulations, but will enshrine gender stereotypes (the father as the breadwinner and head of the family; the mother as the caregiver) which could be used to undermine the equal societal participation of women.

Furthermore, the title echoes the language used to justify the spate of anti-homosexuality legislation in Russia, Uganda and Nigeria: criminalizing the ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships’ is done with the intention of ‘protecting’ children, and given that the resolution states that the family has the ‘primarily responsibility for…[the] protection of children’, it seems that the core-group believes that the family itself must now be protected from anything non-traditional. Please, international community, think of the children!

It is a painful moment when you realize that, within the mechanics of the Human Rights Council – which I have held for so long as a “global good-guy” – a delicate balance must always be found between States who want inclusion and equality, and those who, quite simply, don’t.

The existing text of the resolution had frustrated and saddened me in equal parts, but it seemed that the implications of homophobia, sexism and patriarchy simply did not satisfy some members of the Human Rights Council. On Friday, ‘the Pakistan representative elaborated that the definition of family is well known to be “a man, a woman and his [sic] children.” The delegate made clear that the resolution was essential “to protect against any pollution of the family through new ideas about family structures not recognised in law’[1]. At the following negotiations, which I joined on Monday, the delegation of Pakistan intervened with a proposal to make explicit this bigotry, the inclusion of a paragraph:

“Acknowledging also that the right to found a family for a man and a woman implies also the possibility to procreate and live together as a married couple.”’

While we celebrate the progression of rights for LGBTI people at home, and the international community continues to recognize that any laws violating said rights stand in stark contravention to human rights law, it is easy to forget that there is a strong, reactionary backlash against equality for all. The laws passed in Uganda, Nigeria and Russia are not rare, nor are the mindsets that they reflect. ‘Homosexual acts’ are still punishable by death in 7 countries, and in over 70 countries, LBGTI persons can be legally prosecuted by virtue of their sexuality or gender identity. This resolution is just one brick out of many attempts to build a wall against equality for LGBTI.

The response of the pro-equality States during them meeting was tactically (and at times painfully) cordial’[1], as they named a host of alternative family structures, without an explicit mention of sexual orientation or gender identity. However, the UK mission’s blog post (mentioned earlier) and one of their tweets shows that the pernicious agenda of the resolution is well-recognised: perhaps their silence on LGBTI is to prevent a controversy that may swing other States away from an inclusion on the pluralism of modern families.

The resolution will be voted on at the end of next week, and it will be a crucial moment for not only LGBTI rights, but the very principles of non-discrimination in international law. Resolutions are constantly formed out of ‘agreed UN language’, and to allow the inclusion of anything with a vague semblance of Pakistan’s suggestion would be a major setback to international discourse. I have my fingers crossed that the next draft will enshrine, rather than undermine, equality, and that the pernicious agenda of this resolution can be shelved once again.

Notes

[1] http://www.article19.org/join-the-debate.php/155/view/

Latest figures showing agnostics and atheists outnumbering Christians in the military does not tell the whole story

Defence Humanists has been campaigning for a representative of non-religious people at Remembrance Day for over five years now. Photo: Phil Parsons

Defence Humanists has been campaigning for a representative of non-religious people at Remembrance Day for over five years now. Photo: Phil Parsons

Recent Ministry of Defence statistics reveal that the number of non religious personnel is growing. Atheists and agnostics will outnumber Christian personnel by 2032. The military losing its faith is no bad thing. Indeed, it is a reflection of our changing society and move away from the knee-jerk reaction of many to list ‘C of E’ as their religion on joining the forces. The UK as a whole has growing number of non-religious people. The British Social Attitudes survey shows 48% of the UK population is non-religious, so these figures are not surprising. The military should be a cross-section of society. This should be the case in other areas such as race, sexuality, and gender. Indeed, the military has taken steps to recognise other faiths but continues to drag its feet where non-religious needs are concerned. The prevailing attitude seems to be that the non-religious do not require recognition. Perverse myths prevail in the forces, such as you will be last to be considered for time off at Christmas if you are not religious, or an unpleasant duty will be arranged for you if you refuse to attend a church service. Such attitudes, combined with a “cultural” link to Christianity mean the numbers of personnel listing their religion as Church of England will invariably swell. This is indicative of the military’s general ‘it’s just what you do’ desire to fit a uniform, overtly conservative pattern.

But this is changing. Service personnel no longer chose religious affiliation by default. The number of atheist and agnostics is not just a growing trend, it reflects the number of personnel who are making an actual informed choice. The number of non-religious in the forces is likely greater than reported, for the reasons stated above. Church of England dominance as the state religion, from school onwards, influences our identity to the detriment of society, creating a false bias. The military loves uniformity, and encourages homogeneity, leading to an erroneous pull towards Christianity as a default setting, rather than an informed choice.

The forces need to adapt and cater for the non-religious. This matters because there are several issues a lack of faith affects. Pastoral support is provided invariably by padres and chaplains. They do an excellent job, but if an atheist civilian would not turn to a reverend in time of trouble, why should the atheist soldier? Denying oneself support in what is undoubtedly a stressful profession is a disgrace, and the MoD should be providing pastoral support that accommodates the full spectrum of beliefs represented in the forces. There is a pressing need to provide impartial humanist ‘chaplains’ for secular support.

I’m a former RAF officer and I served from 2008 to 2011. It was a short career but I’ve had over a decade of forces involvement. When I joined the regular forces I chose the non-religious oath which raised some eyebrows; I’m fairly certain I was the only cadet out of 120 who didn’t swear on the Bible. Apparently ‘it’s not what you do’. I chose to serve my country without a need to serve god, and the promise I made was a solemn one.

The Defence Humanists has campaigned for the past five years for humanist, non-religious representation at the Cenotaph this, and every, Remembrance Sunday.  Everyone who has served our country deserves to be recognised. The service should be a secular one, with provision for all religion or belief groups. The growing number of non-religious personnel has already made a Christian service redundant. The military cannot continue to sit on its hands and say, ‘we’ve always done it this way’. These latest statistics demonstrate our case is a valid one, and all other elements of service life need to reflect the growing non-religious population.

The Defence Humanists was established in 2011 and is an expanding section within the British Humanist Association, with over 300 members and supporters, outnumbering Sikhs and Jews combined in the services. The number of non-religious personnel is significant. Matters of faith and belief are personal, and should be respected. But above all, the most important defining characteristic is the choice our armed forces personnel made to join up and serve our country. Whether you serve a god or not is arbitrary. The change in the military demographic reflects our dynamic society. This is progress. This is a positive change, and the military needs to recognise it.

Humanism and Culture

by Mike Flood

MKHumanist LogoIn May, Milton Keynes Humanists held a meeting on ‘Cultural Diversity,’ at which we explored various ways in which social scientists had attempted to describe and classify different cultures. We were particularly interested in the work of Geert Hofstede, and we thought it would be fun to see how our group scored on the different dimensions of culture that he has identified. For a small fee (20), the Hofstede Centre will analyse your preferences and predilections and tell you how much (or how little) you diverge from the norm. And you can choose another country and the Centre will give you advice on how to avoid potential intercultural pitfalls if you were to venture there.

We were curious to see how our collective response — albeit from a small, self-selected group — would compare with the UK as a whole. It also led us to speculate on whether specific cultural traits make some countries more or less likely to embrace Humanism (or organised religion for that matter).

In terms of the proportion of the population that say they are humanists, I understand that Norway is top of the world table, followed by the Netherlands and the UK; in terms of sheer numbers, it is India. However, counting humanists is fraught with danger as there is no consensus on how to define a humanist: should one include only self-professed humanists (as in India, where humanists are closely linked with the pro-democracy and pro-human rights movements), or only paid-up members of humanist groups; or should we also include people who hold broadly humanist views but who do not think of themselves as humanist? And if this last category, how do you count them? Polls suggest that 47% of Chinese think of themselves as ‘convinced atheists’ and 31% of Japanese,[1] but we don’t think of China and Japan as being particularly ‘humanist’ despite the strong influence of Confucious.

What is Culture?

Culture is an intriguing phenomenon and not something anyone can satisfactorily measure. It is specific to a particular racial, religious, professional or social group, or to society at large. It is something that is learned not something we are born with, and in this respect it is unlike human nature (which is universal and inherited) and personality (which is specific to the individual and both inherited and learned). In essence culture is “shared knowledge used by people to inform, influence or govern their behaviour and determine how they see and experience the world”. It is transmitted through social and institutional traditions and accepted norms to succeeding generations; and paradoxically, it is changing constantly whilst many of its characteristics remain the same.[2] One can however compare cultures in respect of defined characteristics, like individualism or assertiveness, or whether people have a tendency to express their feelings in public. And this is the approach that Hofstede pioneered back in the 1960s.

Humanism & Cultural DiversityHofstede’s Dimensions of National Culture

Professor Hofstede started on this line of work when he was asked by IBM to try to find out why company HQ was getting such divergent feedback from staff in its regional offices. The company wanted to better understand how culture was influencing workplace values and performance. Hofstede analysed data from more than 70 countries and proposed that the values that distinguished cultures could be understood in terms of four basic dimensions — ‘Power Distance’ (PDI), ‘Individualism’ (IDV), ‘Masculinity’ (MAS) and ‘Uncertainty Avoidance’ (UAI). These are briefly described in the box below. Some years later Hofstede added two more, ‘Pragmatism’ (PRA) and ‘Indulgence’ (IND), following research by other social scientists.[3]

Hofstede scores each country on a scale of 1 to 100 for each of these six dimensions. He has found, perhaps surprisingly, that the relative scores turn out to be quite stable over time despite the many uncertainties. The forces that cause cultures to shift tend to be global or continent-wide so if countries’ cultures shift, they shift together and their relative positions remain the same. Moreover, individual country scores do seem to correlate with other data, for example, Power Distance with income inequality; Individualism, with national wealth; Masculinity, related negatively with the percentage of national income spent on social security; Uncertainty Avoidance, associated (in developed countries) with the legal obligation for citizens to carry identity cards; and Pragmatism, connected to school mathematics results in international comparisons!

British Culture

If you look at British culture through the lens of the Hofstede 6-D Model you find that we have high scores on INV, MAS and IND — indeed, at 89 the UK is amongst the highest of the individualistic scores. The figure for Masculinity (66) is lower, but Britain is still ‘highly success oriented and driven’; and the figure for INV (69) suggests that we ‘exhibit a willingness to realise our impulses and desires with regard to enjoying life and having fun.’

By contrast, Britain sits in the lower rankings of PDI (35); and we also have a low score on UAI (35), which means that as a nation we are ‘quite happy to wake up not knowing what the day brings’ and ‘make things up as we go along’; we are also ‘comfortable in ambiguous situations — the term “muddling through” is a very British way of expressing this’. With the sixth dimension, PRA, the UK has an intermediate score (51), which suggests no dominant preference, neither a strong desire to explain as much as possible (normative), nor people believing that “the challenge is not to know the truth but to live a virtuous life’ (pragmatic).[4] Interestingly, the profile for the UK is remarkably similar to that of Norway and the Netherlands with the one major exception of Masculinity (UK, 66; Norway, 8; Netherlands, 14).

Milton Keynes Humanists

Milton Keynes Humanists is a typical BHA group: we have a mailing list of around 70 and an average turnout at monthly meetings of between 20 and 25; and we are gender-balanced, with significantly more older than younger people. We also have a (younger) virtual community on Facebook which can reach over 150 — 55% of the 110 individuals who have so far ‘liked’ our site and under 45.

We invited 30 of our regulars to fill out the Hofstede Centre’s questionnaire and 15 obliged. The survey measures personal preferences against 42 pairs of statements which one is asked to score on a scale of 1 to 5. It is a little disconcerting to find that the two opinions sometimes refer to rather different issues, for example, ‘Most people can be trusted’ (1) is paired with ‘When people have failed in life it is often their own fault’ (5); and ‘People who live a totally different life than me are interesting’ (1), with ‘Strangers have to earn trust before they will be accepted’ (5). However, the organisers advise you to “listen to your heart rather than your head” when making a selection.
We registered as a ‘long term visitor’ in respect of our ‘other country’ (rather than ‘student’ or ‘negotiator’) and completed the form on line. The Centre then compared our preferences with the UK as a whole (our ‘home country’) and the country we selected, Romania (as explained below). And by return we received a report with a histogram (note ‘You’ = MKH) and a set of specific, cultural pitfall-avoiding recommendations based on the answers we submitted. In our case, ‘you may wonder why people (from Romania) either try to structure their life as much as possible or are fatalistic’ and ‘you may be confronted by people who first behave very kindly and who then suddenly behave as if a curtain has been closed or a glass wall has been erected between them and you’, and many more observations, words of advice…

MKH, Romania & UKTo prepare our group’s profile we averaged the scores and chose the closest integers; and where the average was X.4, X.5 or X.6 we made an assessment based on the score chosen by the majority. We are not making any great claims for this exercise, only that our results are interesting and deeply thought-provoking. For example, it turns out that our members are close to the UK norm in three of the Hofstede dimensions (PDI, PRA & IND) but 45% lower in Masculinity, 19% lower in Individualism, and 34% higher in Uncertainty Avoidance. Whether the gender make-up of our small sample (60% men; 40% women) significantly influenced the results is not clear. And we should also repeat the Centre’s caveat that one’s scores are ‘only an approximation on Hofstede’s dimensions and not scientifically valid, because culture does not exist at an individual level’.

Humanist Friendly Cultures?

And what about Romania? We chose it because, according to Gallop’s ‘Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism’, it is the most religious country in Europe, with 89% of the population thinking of themselves as religious. The next two European countries for which data is available turn out to be Poland and Serbia, and their scores on the Index are 81% and 77% respectively. What was fascinating was then to discover that the national profiles of these three countries were also remarkably similar:[5] they all scored much higher on Power Distance and Uncertainty Avoidance than the UK, Norway and the Netherlands, and very much lower on Individualism and Indulgence. So might this spread of characteristics be somehow linked to a propensity to religiosity; and what might this tell us about the prospects for humanism and humanist organisations in such countries?

Romania, Serbia & PolandAnyone carrying out a more rigorous analysis of the factors that make for strong humanist cultures might want to take a closer look at countries with the least institutionalised religious privilege, greatest religious tolerance, liberal legislature, etc. And in this respect we can recommend the International Humanist & Ethical Union’s recent Freedom of Thought Report[6] as a good starting point — the report actually accuses the UK of ‘systematic discrimination against humanists, atheists and the non-religious’ noting that there is an established church; systematic religious privilege; discriminatory prominence given to religious bodies, traditions and leaders; discriminatory tax exemptions; state-funding of religious institutions, including faith schools which have powers to discriminate in admissions or employment, etc. Indeed, the UK is much lower ranked than countries like Jamaica, Niger and Sierra Leone, which are described as ‘free and equal’ — at least in respect of legal discrimination. To be fair, the IHEU does point out that some countries may do better because there is less information about them, or their legislation has not been put to the test.

So Britain has a growing humanist community despite — or is it because of? — ‘systematic discrimination’. Apparently IHEU is looking to include an assessment of cultural discrimination in future versions of the report. We await this with great interest!

Alternative Models of Culture

We have focused in this paper on Hofstede’s 3D Model, but readers might like to explore an alternative (and equally illuminating) model of culture by Richard D Lewis. This one assembles countries into a triangular matrix based on whether people are data-, dialogue- or listener-oriented. According to Lewis we Brits are very definitely ‘data-orientated’, whereas say Southern Europeans and Hispanics are ‘dialogue-oriented’, and people from Asian cultures, ‘listener-oriented’.[7] Quite how MK Humanists would perform on this analysis is hard to know but from the experience of our meetings we would probably turn out to be ‘linear-active’ — we ‘talk half the time’, are ‘polite but direct’, ‘confront with logic’, put ‘truth before diplomacy’ and make ‘limited use of body language’!

 

Notes

[1]      Global Index of Religiosity & Atheism, Win Gallup International Poll, July 2012, http://www.wingia.com/web/files/news/14/file/14.pdf.


[2]      National Center for Cultural Competence, Georgetown University, http://nccc.georgetown.edu/


[3]      Geert Hofstede, Gert Jan Hofstede, Michael Minkov (2010): ‘Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind’, McGraw-Hill


[4]      For a more detailed analysis of the Centre’s ‘Culture Compass Survey’ for the UK to http://geert-hofstede.com/united-kingdom.html


[5]      The Hofstede Centre allows you (for free) to compare up to three countries (http://geert-hofstede.com/countries.html)


[6]      International Humanist & Ethical Union, Dec 2013.


[7]      Richard D Lewis (2005): ‘When Cultures Collide: Leading Across Cultures’, Nicholas Brealey Publishing

 


Mike Flood is Chair of Milton Keynes Humanists. He works on grassroots development in low-income countries.

Lessons from the Birmingham affair

Several lessons can be drawn from the so-called ‘Trojan Horse’ affair, including

  1. that religious extremism is completely different from terrorism and that politicians who used the Birmingham schools story for political ends have a lot to answer for
  2. that we need to watch for hijacking of schools by religious (or any other) extremists for their own religious ends, and
  3. that the activities condemned in these non-faith schools are exactly what are praised in faith schools

…which must raise questions about faith schools: what is so different about a narrow Jewish or Catholic ethos and curriculum from what devout Muslim governors were trying (admittedly unlawfully) to impose on their Birmingham schools?Politicians like Liam Byrne use this last point to argue that maybe these schools should be converted to faith schools so as to legitimise what they are doing: one moment what Park View school does is deplorable, the next it is spot on.  But this reminds us that the whole debate about faith schools is marked with dishonesty by their defenders.

The research is clear - 'faith' schools do in fact operate harmful admissions biases. Pictured: the Fair Admissions Campaign website.

The research is clear – ‘faith’ schools are more socio-economically compared to the local average. Pictured: the Fair Admissions Campaign website.

When the Fair Admissions Campaign shows indisputably that religious schools discriminate in their admissions against poorer families (as measured by eligibility for free school meals), the Catholic Education Service uses phony stats to fend off the criticism.  When the BHA tweets that if people are worried about the intense religiosity of the Birmingham schools, they should pay attention also to faith schools, the Church of England’s PR man the Rev Arun Arora treats this one tweet as the sum of BHA policy and writes a column ridiculing us, whereupon friendly columnists echo him in their own names.

The Church of England in public defends its schools with a pretence of selfless service to the general interest while in private  pursuing an aggressively expansionist policy as its last hope for survival, using the bait of places in its schools to induce parents into church.

But these sponsors of religious schools paid for from the public purse and the politicians who defend them are guilty also on another count: their refusal to engage with the arguments of principle in favour of reform.

In this they differ from many proponents of Jewish or Islamic schools – before learning to be more circumspect, Ibrahim Lawson said on Radio 4 that the purpose of his Nottingham school was indoctrination. The churches do not admit that their real aim is to recruit a new generation to join their congregations. That they enjoy limited success, that some Anglican schools are largely full of pupils from Muslim families, that they often provide a good education, that their version of indoctrination is subtle and muted – these are mitigations but not answers to the principled objection to faith schools that they do not respect the autonomy of children and their own rights under the Convention on the Rights of the Child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

Defenders quote against this the European Convention on Human Rights that ‘the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religions and philosophical convictions” —  and this is indeed a necessary defence against an over-mighty state imposing a totalitarian education on everyone.  But the Convention does not help them: it protects the private or joint endeavours of parents but it does not require the general public to finance churches in their self-promotion.

Nor do the churches face up to the implications of public finance for denominational schools in an age of human rights and non-discrimination.  If Catholic schools, why not Muslim and Hindu?  If Anglican, why not Buddhist and Sikh?  or Seventh Day Adventist? or schools to propagate the teachings of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi?  Or indeed Steiner schools based on their founder’s racist and anti-science writings?  All these now feature in the publicly funded school system.  Supporters of Church of England schools now have to defend also these more dubious enterprises.

But our arguments of principle go beyond objecting to indoctrination of children. These schools are inevitably divisive, and they increasingly balkanise the population.  They are a relic of the sort of divisive multiculturalism that was such a mistake of the Blair government.  Time and again it has been shown that it is necessary only to divide people into groups for them to form loyalties and hostilities, and when the divisions are based on rival religious claims they are all the more dangerous.  It is no answer that these divisive schools have occasional visits to each other – children need to be educated alongside each other every day, to learn about and from each other, not to be thrown into occasional artificial encounters.

But do not expect the churches to provide a defence on principle of religious schools any time soon.