How healthy is our democracy?

Is democracy working?

With much of the EU debate about it’s democratic deficit how healthy is UK democracy? Turnout even in UK general elections has decreased, from 84% in 1950 to 66% in 2015 and in elections to the European Parliament has plateaued at around a paltry 35%. Voting is of greater importance to those aged 55 plus, who in the 2015 general election averaged about 77%, than the 18-34 age group that averaged less than 50%.

These baby boomers (55 plus) have generally faired very well, building up considerable personal wealth with equity in their homes and often retiring on generous, final salary, pensions. Contrast this with the 18-34 year olds most of whom find it impossible to buy a home, many saddled with student loan debts that their parent’s generation avoided. This inter-generational unfairness has as yet failed to motivate the young into taking action and that includes voting. But who can blame their indifference as there is no party that is actively supporting their cause? Political parties formulate policy according to where the votes are so it is no surprise that many are skewed in the favour of older voters, like the triple lock on pensions. It is also a curious irony that this cohort, that has benefited most economically from EU membership, is also the group most likely to support #Brexit.

A healthy democracy is dependent on the majority of citizens being engaged in the political process but an increasing distrust of the political class and their unwillingness to address issues that are of concern to ordinary people has led to cynicism and alienation, that is particularly evident in the EU referendum debate; supporters on both sides but particularly those who want to leave the EU have insulted the electorate with ludicrously exaggerated claims and erroneous statistics leaving the electorate to fall back on preconceived opinions and prejudice rather than evaluating unbiased evidence.

The passions aroused by our membership of the EU have always been based more on sentiment than reality. The #Brexit camp make great play of the democratic deficit in the EU while happily ignoring the fact that we have an unelected House of Lords stuffed full of political appointees, not to mention Bishops and the remaining hereditary peers and of course a hereditary monarchy. They rely, as did the Scottish Nationalists in their referendum, on a mix of romantic nostalgia and archaic nationalism.

Although the emergence of UKIP clearly indicates that there has been a concern about immigration particularly in blue collar areas, the referendum was called not so much to satisfy a national demand but to resolve the long running conflict within the Conservative party and was therefore a grossly irresponsible decision by David Cameron since it might quite likely result in our #Brexit. Either way it is unlikely to heal the Tory strife, rather it is likely to amplify it.

The Labour party under Corbyn has been a disaster; the ability for anyone (from Trotskyites to Tories) to vote in the Labour leadership election after a donation of just £3.00 was not so much an exercise in democracy as either an incompetent decision by the then Labour leadership or a cynical attempt at drag the Labour party to the unelectable socialist fringe.

So we are left with a referendum that hangs in the balance but with around 6 million people still not registered to vote. Perhaps #Brexit will win, by gaining the majority of votes, that’s democracy but to have done so without most voters really understanding the issues, perhaps not a healthy democracy.

We need to talk about god

We need to talk about god

Islamists justify the brutality of their actions by citing the Quran that explicitly sanctions and even mandates many of their atrocities against non-Muslims (or more specifically, non-Sunni Muslims). Our response in the non Muslim world has been to claim that their literal interpretation of religious texts should be modified in the same way that Christianity has quietly abandoned much of the barbarity than can be found in the Old Testament.

This approach raises several problems as Islamists will inevitably challenge the authority of any non-Muslim to interfere in Islamic doctrine and most importantly because it measures one religious ideology against another and helps to validate the notion that religion per se is a natural component of 21st century society. What is required is the total debunking of all religious belief and that means we need to talk about God. Most belief in God is derived from belief in a particular religion as very few people believe in God from outside of religious conviction. Of course some people have a vague notion of there being something unknown or even unknowable outside ourselves, or that they have feelings that they describe as spiritual.

Life without God

In the UK (in common with much of Europe and Australia/NZ) religion plays little part in daily life even for those with “spiritual” leanings, the exception being within immigrant communities in these countries. However religion does play a significant role in the institutions of the State and for the UK at least in education (see previous post). Many public ceremonies include a religious element; prayers, hymns, attendance of the clergy and within our Constitution the monarch is head of the Church of England that is also the “official” religion of the UK. Religion is still a part of education with a daily “act of worship” required in every State school. Religious education is part of our curriculum and treats all religious beliefs as requiring serious study without submitting any to rational scrutiny.

So any examination of the existence of God is absent from political and educational discourse, instead we are assumed to accept that he (and it is invariably he) exists and that any discussion should be around the nature of God and how different religions interpret his commands. At which point we return to the original flaw that is the comparative merits of competing religions rather than the rejection of all on the grounds that supernatural fantasies should play no part in a modern society.

The case against God is overwhelming and well documented in books like The God Delusion but prior to a scientific explanation for phenomena when superstition was endemic it was perfectly natural for our distant ancestors to believe in creation myths and a life beyond death as their lives were powerless, brutal and short but today there is no excuse to maintain this delusion.

The atrocities perpetrated in the name of Islam cannot be overcome by military, economic or diplomatic means, they must eventually be argued out of existence using the power of reason. That means undermining belief in the pre-ordained and the supernatural, exposing religious texts as fabrications and offering an evidenced based explanation for all that religion, including Islam, once sought to explain.

Education free of supernatural fantasy

Keep god out of the classroom

The current attempt by Nicky Morgan, education minister, to curtail legitimate requests for information regarding the selection of students for Faith Schools should not obscure the even larger question of religious indoctrination in all other schools. About a third of all State Primary schools are designated to have a “religious character” and for the vast majority this means CofE. These are not Faith schools but “regular” Primary schools.

Many of us have no option but to send our children to one of these schools yet in the last Census over 30% of Cambridgeshire parents declared their religion as NONE! Although religious education is mandatory it’s not a National Curriculum subject. Instead it is the responsibility of the local Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education (SACRE) to determine its implementation along with a daily act of worship.

Cambridgeshire SACRE continues to resist our request to include a member of the Cambridge Secular Society on its committee. Of particular concern is the treatment of children whose parents have requested their absence from acts of worship. This can be embarrassing for youngsters who may feel that they are being punished by schools that have no stated policy for this eventuality.

Even the new Cambridge University Primary School that one might imagine would be the bastion of rational education, free of supernatural fantasy, has incorporated SACRE into its curriculum and has not responded to our request for information regarding its inclusion. If you are concerned about religious influence in your child’s school please support our Religion in Schools Campaign.

Supernatural fantasy

Santa

Like many children I believed that Santa Claus was responsible for my Christmas presents. My parents colluded to preserve this supernatural fantasy until such time as I posed the inevitable question; “it wasn’t Santa, it was you, wasn’t it?” whereupon they acknowledged their part in this innocent fabrication. No harm done, perhaps, but my transition from believer to skeptic included an intermediate period in which, although my doubts were increasingly supported by evidence, like noticing different Santas in each department store or seeing one of Santa’s presents in my mum’s shopping bag, I clung on to the fantasy as long as I could as it was such fun, and an integral part of that pleasurable holiday period. Eventually I came to terms with the fact that Santa was just a myth, just a nice fantasy, the truth had become too strong to resist.

I had been raised in a nominally Christian household and for a time was sent to Sunday School, I imagine in order to teach me some “moral” values. But a few years after my epiphany with Santa I turned my attention to God. My spiritual indoctrination had not been very intense, probably, as I learned many years later, because my mother had been fighting her own doubts but couldn’t bring herself to “come out” as a full blown atheist. Sadly until her death she wanted so much to believe and craved the reassurance and certainty that she imagined faith would have given her. For me it was simpler, having disposed of Santa, God was next in line. I hadn’t been suffused with Christian culture or spent much time in church being indoctrinated and this was the threshold of the 1960’s, I was part of that generation that sought to challenge all assumptions and sweep aside the stuffiness and uniformity that had prevailed during the postwar period. In those heady days I naively imagined the religion was in terminal decline, at least in England and assumed that by the age that I am today it would be of interest only to historians, psychologists and anthropologists, how wrong I was.

Religion is on the agenda

Religion is once again on everyone’s agenda due to the rise of militant Islam. The reasons for this will be the subject of another post but for now the imperative is to confront this threat not by offering potential jihadi’s a counter narrative based on an analysis of their sacred texts which is doomed to failure particularly if its is undertaken by non-Muslims. The solution, although long term, is for us to challenge all supernatural fantasies, that means all gods, all sacred texts and all customs and traditions that support them.

Western governments are loathe to do this as like my mother they that believe that Judaeo-Christian heritage that is embedded in our culture and history is somehow related to our acquisition of moral behavior. Nothing could be further from the truth, Christianity has usurped for itself a product of human development that has occurred without any need of divine intervention and has contributed to much of the misery that has enveloped humankind over two millennia.

Sadly I don’t see any appetite from politicians to adopt this policy particularly in the USA where it would be political suicide or even in the cynical UK where politicians are allowing and even encouraging the establishment of Faith schools that further embed a belief in supernatural fantasy. Even in non-religious schools these irrational beliefs are maintained by acts of worship and religious education that allows ancient myths to be regarded as fact. However as individuals it is important that we make a start by promoting the rational/skeptical mindset wherever we can, at home, at work, in forums like this and other social media and most important of all, in schools so please join our campaign for faith-free education.

The origin of morality

Psychologist Steven Pinker in a TED debate with philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein who argues that reason is the key driver of human moral progress. This is a wonderful debate with brilliant animations but it ignores the single most important fact that evolution not philosophy is the primary driver of moral progress.

Morality and the family

The family, although primarily an evolutionary adaptation, is a principal provider of stability and continuity as three or four generations of consanguineous individuals typically coexist. This is reinforced with the addition of relatives by marriage, the extended family, the inheritance of hard-wired memories in the form of photographs and artefacts belonging to our ancestors and also by the use of the family name. The family group is the basic building block of all human societies, no matter where in the world you were born and whatever your economic circumstances. It provides the security and stability necessary for the next generation to flourish. We are programmed to love and care for our children (or they would not survive) and in return they love us. Many of the most significant components of human behaviour like empathy, altruism and tolerance, are acquired and then constantly reinforced within the family.

It is from within this family setting that we first develop a moral awareness and concepts like fairness and justice. We have developed institutions of government and civil society that recognise fairness as a necessary component and we have created laws that prohibit discrimination and guarantee rights. It is reason that enables us to understand the origin of morality, but it is not the cause.

Incitement to commit atrocities is not confined to the Koran

Although the Koran has been blamed for inspiring Islamist terrorists to commit the most barbaric atrocities, the Judaeo-Christian religion too is well versed (literally) in incitement as the graphic below illustrates. Many people are surprised that the religion that is celebrated by most of the developed world harbours similarly revolting instructions. Of course the New Testament distanced itself from most of these horrors by replacing them with fresh supernatural fantasies albeit with occasional references back to the Old Testament. This Dutch video is worth a look as is shows how how ignorant most of us are about what we are led to believe is the moral authority of “our” church.

A Constitution fit for purpose

Gun control in USA

In 1791 a second amendment was added to the United States Constitution; “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed“. More than 200 years later this short sentence is still being used to obstruct all attempts to impose any control over the ownership of firearms in the USA. A few days ago 14 people were brutally murdered by a man and his wife who owned an arsenal of assault rifles and hand guns sufficient to arm a “militia”. On average 88 people are killed by guns every day in the USA, more than 20 times the average of other developed countries. The National Rifle Association along with many US politicians oppose even the most modest control of gun ownership, citing this text as their justification and even recommend more rather than less guns as the solution to this horrific problem.

The attacks on America in 2001 by Islamist terrorists and the numerous attacks since culminating in a campaign of grotesque savagery by so called Islam State has also been justified by citing text, this time not a political document but a religious one, the Koran.

No doubt those die-hard fanatics in the US Congress would be affronted by this description of them but their justification that a text written at a period in history that bears no resemblance to our own should still hold sway, makes them common bed fellows with the Islamists who justify their actions on a somewhat older text. An enlightened society would of course reject both and support policies that are of benefit to all humankind. If America has any right to claim leadership of the “free world” then it must at the very least ban all multi-shot weapons and in the long term the ownership of weapons altogether. If the wise counsel of the founding fathers was available today do we really think that they would support the right to bear arms, I think not.

 

Countering Radicalisation

If triangles had a god he would have three sidesCountering Radicalisation is a noble aim but until supernatural belief of any kind is eliminated from schools children will be subject to religious propaganda. Even seemingly innocuous events like the celebration of the nativity or Easter encourage children to believe in myths and half-truths and the assumption that there is some celestial ringmaster to whom they owe obedience. Only in a rational, secular learning environment will it be possible to challenge extreme Islamist beliefs. The fantasies inherent in all religious belief must be confronted by schools even at risk of offending parents and the scientific explanation of phenomena taught so that they understand the origins of life on Earth and how human societies have come to be. Religion should be explained as cultural/religious conditioning (some might say brain-washing) that has methods of self-perpetuation that ensnare each generation: rites of passage ceremonies, modes of dress, genital mutilation, dietary exclusions, sacred texts etc.

Acts of worship to a non-existent deity (of whichever kind) are a dangerous delusion. Few sights are more pathetic than a hall full of children praying or a teacher telling her class to pray for particular person or cause. The psychology of belief is well understood and yet our education system not only allows it but positively encourages this deception, either because they too are under it’s spell or because they think religion is good for us and will impose moral constraints on our behaviour. Moral authority must not be associated with religious belief, what more evidence is required: the extreme savagery of IS, the despicable conduct of Catholic priests and its cover up by the Vatican, the inter-communal violence in the sub-continent or the centuries of religious persecution that has bedeviled the continent of Europe for a millennia?

Islamism is the result of the inability of large numbers of Muslims living in the West to accept that their beliefs are subservient to the mores and laws of the state in which they reside. Of course their right to hold religious belief (however irrational) must be tolerated in a pluralist, secular society, but they cannot expect it to be respected any more than my promotion of atheism should be. Countering Radicalisation cannot simply be about offering a different narrative to those at risk, it is their very belief system that is the problem.

Atheists have morals, why is that a surprise?

30 Days to prove it

People cling to religious belief for many reasons and one of them is that it provides them a moral framework to live by. Without it, so they would say, there is nothing to stop them reverting to savagery. Putting to one side the savagery that religions have (and still do) inflict on each other, it reveals a profound misunderstanding of the origins of moral behaviour that is simply part of our human evolutionary development. Nine years ago the film maker Morgan Spurlock produced a brilliant episode in his 30 Days series in which an atheist mom went to stay with a devout Christian family for 30 days.

Impervious to reason

At the end of the 30 days the atheist mom was joined by her husband and children, the Christian family were amazed to see that they shared many of the same values as the atheist family, the main difference being that for the atheist holy books and supernatural happenings were not necessary. The Christians were forced to rethink their opinion of atheists but not to the extent that it weakened their own faith and this is the conundrum, religious belief cannot be contested by rational argument, it resides behind a firewall that is impervious to reason, that is why it is called faith.

Check out this film it is well worth watching