another overly lengthy blog post that is me reflecting on a few things inspired by the fear of having to make a speech at a pro-secularism march
This weekend I had to make a speech at the Secular Europe march. I worry about doing such things. Even though comedians are meant to have a desire to play Hamlet and seem wise underneath the jester garb, something inside me (my brain I presume, as there aren’t really any other organs that conjure up guilt and then mull over it) makes me feel awkward at taking to a stage with serious purpose and on a bill of people who really know what they are talking about. I became a comedian precisely because I didn’t know what I was talking about.
Something between my inability to say no and my great big ego means I usually say yes, then I stand edgily on the pavement watching a succession of people deliver fine speeches and talk of extraordinary experiences and wonder if chutzpah and jazz hands will be enough to get me through.
When I mentioned the Secular Europe march a few days beforehand, I was surprised how many people had misinterpreted what modern secularism entails. My viewpoint is that secularism defends the freedom to worship but is against religious privilege. I see it as another step towards equality, though the way its ideas are mangled by its opposition it has been seen as a bigotry, that ghastly bigotry of equality.
The bigotry of equality is what has snapped at the heels of those journalists and jocks that whine on about how “the most oppressed group now is the straight white, middle class male”. This oppression, and as a white middle class male I have felt the lead sledgehammer thwacks of it, is not being quite as privileged as before. Your privileges, earnings and access to opportunities is still more than most, but not quite as much more than most, and that is so unfair, before you know it you’ll be on the same level as the gays, the women and the blacks, and that can’t be right because you’re the sort of person a few generations ago would have been giving orders to shoot at some unarmed rabble wanting bread or salt.
I wore my intellect on my sleeve on the journey to the rally by going to the wrong but of pavement the wrong side of central London. I then swore across town, my curse words distracting tourists from the architecture and guardsmen of London they were ogling.
I heard a series of powerful speeches on suffering, oppression and the importance of freedom of expression for all and enjoyed seeing amongst the banners a balloon with “down with this sort of thing” painted on it. I had gathered my thoughts on a piece of paper and here are a few of the things I said or intended to say, I’m not sure, I get rather carried away in the moment.
The enemy of civilization is neither secularism nor faith it is thoughtlessness. We are blessed and cursed with brains so big we have to come out of the womb way too early to avoid killing our mothers and then start from a lowly position of gurgling incompetent while other animals pop out, shake off that amniotic fluid and go for a gallop in a meadow. While most animals are hardwired and ready for much of what will be thrown at them by nature, we learn, and via learning we shape our environment rather than fit into it as it is. With these brains, we have the ability to question, if we fail to do that, if we look for a high priest or elder to do our thinking for us, to instruct us and manipulate us, then we are failing to live up to our potential. “it’s not my fault, I was told to do this” is not a good enough alibi. As Stanley Milgram showed us, we can be manipulated into outrageous even murderous situations by the overbearing authority figure that we fear.
It is not enough to say I believe it because God or Christopher Hitchens or asome Mahirishi told me.
We have evolved to be capable of free thinking, your brain heavy skull caused your mother to go through agony at birth, in memory of her pain, use its contents as fully as you can. Before going on a rampage of violence and carnage because some dicks made a film, stop for a moment and think, “hang on, it’s just a film. I don’t like what it says, but it is just a film. I think I might take the handkerchief out of the bottle and put the petrol down”
I then went on about evidence based thinking for a while as gesticulated wildly.
As for faith schools, unsurprisingly I am against them. The arguments that they are providing better education (and there is pro and anti evidence for this) seems no argument at all, if faith schools are doing better then the answer is not more faith schools, it is fighting to improve all our schools. Everyone in a local area need to get involved, good schools improve the lives of everyone, this is no time to sit back and blame the teachers while sinking into your armchair, we have to stop undervaluing education and those who provide it. One of the major reasons I am against faith schools is not fear of indoctrination or creationist education, I know enough rationalists and atheist who have come out of Catholic schools, but that faith schools create another wall between communities. I was arguing with a friend who believes Muslim schools are the right way forward but also spends much of his time complaining people don’t understand Islam. We won’t gain understanding by putting the Muslims in the Muslim school, the Jewish in the Jewish schools, the Anglicans in the Anglican schools and so on. One of the greatest weapons against bigotry and intolerance is experience and interaction – the propagandists and the rabble rousers may tell you about the Gays or the Jamaicans or the Hindus or the tall or the short or the gothic, but if you have mixed with them, if you know people socially, you can question that. “you say all Belgians are like that, but the ones I know have never kept a boy in a well or cooked cats”. We are told “the multicultural experiment has failed”, I am not even sure it has really begun. In living memory, Bed and Breakfast places could still have a “No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs” above their buzzer. I fear faith schools will eventually aid divisions that some or only to keen to inflame.
Then there was gay marriage…
I have already seen people with straight faces complain that society is now prejudiced against the homophobe , “what about the right to discriminate, eh?”
If you are against gay marriage; why? The Christian Concern man on the TV said it was because it was against his God’s words, but I wonder if he could honestly declare that nothing in his life goes against God’s words. And if it doesn’t he must live a multiple personality life like Sally Field’s Sybil because you can’t be true to all God’s words without facing conflict from snack choices to wife stoning, it would be a busy day for the men people who live in the mind of Mr Christian Concern. When did the occasional homosexual mentions become the central theme of The Bible and why did Jesus forget to mention it? I am sure there are still not enough people doing as they would be done by to get down to the small print stuff.
Some say gay marriage devalues marriage. Surely the only thing that might devalue your marriage is your behaviour within it. How does my marriage change if same sex marriages are legalized? What is the fear – “well it was very embarrassing, I told someone I was married and of course they immediately thought I was gay”. If you are worried marriage is being debased, look at some of the people getting married every Saturday. Only the other week I saw an awful woman marry a ghastly man, doesn’t that devalue marriage? The rot set in when the awful and ghastly started marrying, there’s nothing we can do about it now.
“The last thing I want is those gays having increased stability in their relationships and a greater suggestion of commitment, it will ruin my sense of disgust as I imagine their vicarious and bacchanalian lifestyle I have been told of.
If you don’t want a gay marriage, you won’t be forced to have one.
Someone else argued with me that the west and its soulless depravity was a flamboyant display of the failure of secularism. I suggested they look back to when we were a truly Christian society (there’s still quite a few bauble of faith dangling in system anyway) and see how much better it was then. Then the church going, God fearing elite were happily exploiting or ignoring any piteous child or similar member of the underclass, left to live in squalor and sold a dream that if they put up with the squalor on this go, when they died there would be a smashing place for them, so don’t make a scene now. Ealing comedies are not documentary evidence of our previous lifestyles.
The most ancient of criticisms is “how can you have morality if there’s no god.”
At the mention of that, the audience groaned, many of them clearly having had that thrown at them before. Before the worthy point the finger at the atheists, perhaps they should look to themselves and wonder how can there have been so little morality when there is God. How can any Catholic church leader declare there is no morality without god when such immorality has been committed by the very organizers of worship I presume in the sight of their god.
Here is another argument for the loss of privilege, for self-questioning and free thinking to be used to its full. Crimes within religion can occur and can be covered up because the congregation respect and fear their leaders. Certain people were given a level of power and respect which allowed them to do whatever they wished with no consequences. If it all became too much, they could just be moved to another parish. It is not a pleasant watch, but the document Deliver us From Evil shows one story of how power allows you to corrupt.
With the revelations of just how complicit senior figures in the catholic church were in sexual abuse cover up, I am, naively of course, perplexed that Cardinal O Brien believes he is still able to take some moral high ground with the reading out of letter in all Scottish Catholic churches which criticizes the Scottish parliaments position on gay marriage. I think the sorting out of non consensual sex would take moral priority over consensual declarations of love, but I am odd that way.
Such oppressive leadership by fear and epaulettes is not merely the domain of the religious; communism, fascism and any other dogmatic systems seek to shut down free thinking and incarcerate those who question it.
Healthy societies should encourage questions and public scrutiny, not fear them. I think it was Howard Zinn who said that governments fear a healthy, well-educated and interested population; they are much harder to manipulate.
A proper secular society gives people rights to freedom of religion, freedom of conscience and freedom of speech. It is not a threat to anyone of faith, unless their mission is to ensure their faith and their people are superior to all others and deserve rights above all others not of their persuasion. There will always be those who think some people are more equal than others.
Damn it, I think I might be some sort of utilitarian.
“The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.” John Stuart Mill
and of course, I ended with this
My tour continues, next up Exeter, Brighton, Lincoln, Oxford as well as an angry show at Norwich. All dates here
Well Said. You have said all the things that I try to say myself but I am so inarticulate. Thank you for putting my thoughts into words.
thank you. I am glad it made some sense
For some more sense (+ pictures!) check out theoatmeal.com ‘how to suck at your religion’ comic.
Thanks for another thoughtful post Robin.
I think you come at this in the right way. There isn’t going to be some kind of Gotterdamerung when right thinking liberals put an end to this religious nonsense once and for all. It’s going to be around for a good while yet. Not much of a civilisation if people aren’t free to hold daft ideas. We just don’t want those daft ideas going unexamined and undebated because they have become locked into our institutions and thereby given unmerited “respect”.
I sometimes wonder why those in the CofE are so keen on being established. Other denominations seem to do fine without the Queen in charge while CofE congregations these days seem to consist of four old ladies and a dog. Despite all the harm that religious ideas do, I have a lot of sympathy with the men and women working in the church trying to do good for their communities. Sometimes I think I would have made a good vicar, if only the entry criteria didn’t insist on all this believing in God business.
And thanks for the Sagan vid. As an orator, he sets the bar wonderfully high
You were one of the stars of the event. Good work! Thank you for your insight and humour. After the event I wondered exactly what the march was about – not in a critical way but just wondering. http://www.somethingsurprising.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/thoughts-about-secular-europe-march.html
Brilliant. Love it.
Only the best comedians know the truth of knowledge – their epistemology is pure which means their satire hits subjects perfectly. It is this kind of comedian that can change ideas – progress towards equality while humiliating the haters through dismantling their ludicrous prejudice. I put you firmly in this category, Robin – the more people like you and Gervais, the better – unafraid to satirise the indefensible madness of our hierarchical society – the rich constantly screwing the poor, the privileged constantly gathering more and more privilege at the expense of everybody else. As a liberal I do expect a certain amount of opposition, and I wouldn’t have it any other way – but it seems the right wing is growing and sometimes I feel so oppressed I (on behalf of others) I can’t concentrate on my work (this happened the other day – I was thinking about all the murder in response to the US video – I just can’t believe what goes on sometimes – but it’s grass-roots that will make the difference – i.e. no faith schools, for a start). It feels so hopeless sometimes – which is why you and all like you should be up there talking reason. The more secularism is normalised by sensible, articulate good people – THE BETTER!
How about – “The more secularism is articulated by sensible, normal, good people – THE BETTER!”
I love how Robin can articulate such a reasonable argument for secularism. Wish I could have been there on Saturday – wish the whole world could have stopped stoning and burning and bombing for a few hours to hear it too.
I agree with what you are saying, what you have talked about happens in all areas of society at all levels on a myriad of topics (is that a good start?).
My only problem is…well it’s not a problem it’s more of a query, or maybe it’s a point of thought, I dont know what it is, but it came to mind when reading. It’s about boxes and people liking to put themselves in boxes in order to seperate themselves from others e.g. educational segregation.
I did a days work experience at a primary school, the kids were about 7 and they were all sat on the carpet listening to a story, none of them had been told where to sit, they just sat on the carpet when they were told to sit. Good kids.
This was my main observation during the whole day: all the white kids sat in a bunch, all the black kids sat in a bunch and all the indian kids sat in a bunch.
They formed groups without any instruction.
I found that quite interesting.
Would that suggest that it’s human nature to find common points of separation in order to feel part of something? Therefore, if people did not use religion in order to separate themselves they would merely choose something else, so there would always be some reason to discriminate or fight as humans are a very volatile and destructive race.
Sometimes I think believing that there will ever be an equal society is as naive as believing there will ever be a society without God. Neither you nor I will be alive when God has become a fable and society is equal. But it’s good for someone to have something to work towards.
There are 2.7million people in England (depending on who you ask) and 7.7 BILLION (a million million) people in the world.
What is equal?
Is it 7.7billion people agreeing with the opinions of 2.7million people?
Are you simply wishing the United Kingdom to be equal or the entire world?
What exactly is it that you want?
Personally, I think, rather than trying to make people equal we should be focussing on understanding our differences then maybe we could all accept each other a little better.
Just for the record, the United Kingdom has a population of about 60 million (so England alone probably at least 50 million). Not sure where your very specific 2.7 million comes from (it may be the number that goes to church).
Like I said “depending on who you ask” hence why I said it and the figure was just England, like I said 🙂
It’s called the dark figure of statistics
(the number wasn’t really relevant)
Why? Fear, born of insecurity. Go with what, or rather who you know. It is natural, but in your case also an indication of the type of family, community the children come from.
Fear? Really? They’re kids, kids from a multicultural society (Bristol is very multicultural due to our fantastic efforts in the whole slave trade thing, bloody dicks, uh I mean bloody docks!) they were 7, they had been in class with each other for at least 3years, they knew eachother, what was there to fear?
I was there and you rounded off the speeches very well. And as a bonus it was an opportunity for me to verify that you really do have tiny thumbs.
I once had to take a newspaper off a man on the tube because he repeatedly kept hitting me on the head with it whilst reading; i had alerted him to what he was doing but he continued. i told him i would return it to him but in the meantime i did not believe he was responsible enough to have one in civilized society. i would apply the same to these religions and their herd.
You put that magical pale blue dot at the end of some great words and the very inspiring words of everyone else before on the day. This was only my third event like this that I’ve been to since becoming a member of the BHA and what is really dawning on me is how I am walking away obviously ultimately alone but very much encouraged as an individual – as opposed to being told we’re not and horribly restricted by those beliefs. Listening to you read Carl Sagan’s words felt properly magical, almost spiritual, but as you put it about Darwin, we can walk away and think about it ourselves, see it and continue to question, test and judge it for ourselves in the reality all around us. That magic of reality, and funny too to read why you were late and to be surprised that you might be nervous. It’s all great stuff and I’m so glad I did those seven hours National Express for three hours there on Saturday 🙂
You were a brilliant speaker Robin! Thought we might see you at the Pod Delusion afterwards 🙂
Hi Robin, excellent article thank you 🙂
One important point you have missed regarding faith schools is this – if you support faith schools in principal – you support the teaching of children things which you do not think are true.
For example – If you are a Muslim and support faith schools you must support teaching that Jesus was in fact the son of God to children in Christian schools AND the teaching that Jesus is a prophet of Islam in Islamic schools.
It is a logically untenable position. If we applied this to other school topics it shows just how absurd the situation is.
The only sensible position is that all children should learn from the same curriculum. The only way to have this is a fully secular curriculum where children learn about all the major religions. Apart from solving this logical conundrum it is also the best way to promote inclusion and foster understanding of different faiths.
Hmm, you argue that the various cultural groups must be integrated in schools in order to promote understanding and then demur at the idea that the multicultural experiment has failed. OK, I think it is fail-ing rather than fail-ed, but you seem to be arguing both sides of the coin.
Multiculturalism supports persistent separateness, and I agree with you whole heartedly in arguing for integration. You can be sure that, whatever ethnic background and whatever faith people hold, growing up in a common environment (in education, sports, the arts, business etc) will result in common culture that will defuse (and diffuse) the tensions which repeatedly surface.
And another thing…. no, really, I just wanted to add that I think it is important to disassociate schools from a faith “ethos” for another reason: Your friends went to faith schools and grew out of it as I did myself, but why (within faith schools) should rational thinking be the preserve of those who can overcome the obstacle of faith indoctrination?
sorry, that is my fault for using language against preconceived definitions (which is pretty dumb) – I see multiculturalism as a mixing of cultures but an acceptance of individuality too. mixing in schools, then the differences in culture thriving beyond that
I agree with jil. Brilliant. I’m no academic… I often say who should we trust more, someone who is moral because they are given a set of rules to follow and fear the ‘wrath of god’ or someone who is moral because they choose to be… It’s a no brainer
Ok so I didn’t know what secularism was so I went to good old google and put in ‘define: secularism’ and this is what it gave me…
‘A doctrine that rejects religion and religious considerations’
So asked my boyfriend what he thought, he is athiest, degree educated, went to school, loved school, never been picked on etc (e.g. not like me – so much for a fear of the unknown and like going for like!)
He said he agreed that there should be no consideration for a belief system in a schooling environment and rhetorically asked why a child who was non religious had to eat religious food if they were in a predominantly religious school and why a non religious person was not catered for in a religious school when a religious person was catered for in a non religious school (he’s a foodie). He said it in such a way that I was unsure if what he was saying was racist, or whatever the ‘ist’ or ‘ism’ is against religion, as I have no idea what we are and arent allowed to say anymore, ever, as it’s very hard to know.
My answer: A school, like any other organisation is a business, why would any business waste money on something that nobody wants? Why would they buy food for kids who will not eat it?
That’s just a waste of money that would be better spent on educational goods, isn’t it?
If a religious school gets kids to school and they learn things to make them well educated and a better person who can contribute to society, what’s wrong with that?
Obviously if they are not taught science (my worst subject) at all then that is a problem and if they are taught falsehoods then that is also a problem, but if they are not and they get a well rounded education, what difference does it make?
Do tell me, I’m not arguing, I just don’t fully understand the problem
So what really hacks me off, as a Christian, is when self confessed atheist comedians start making more sense than an increasingly ghastly religious leadership… You had me at “The enemy of civilization is neither secularism nor faith it is thoughtlessness…”
Great post Robin. The most depressing thing about studying all this sort of stuff for my PhD is that literally none of the arguments have changed from the other side for 150 odd years. I’m reading stuff from the 19th century which could be printed by Christian Concern and Lord Carey today.
I agree with Jill, Robin just puts everything you want to say into a well constructed, humorous, eloquent series of words. Why can’t can’t this stuff fall out of my mouth when I need it most?
Such a relief to read something so rational in these crazy times. Thanks Robin.
Thank you. i find writing these blog posts really helps me work out what I actually think about things so I am glad they are of use to other people too.
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(Except that I didn’t read all of it because it does go on somewhat …) I loved this. Absolutely right on every count as far as I got. Well written too, which is another thing I value.
Yours, etc, a committed, though admittedly minimalist and highly sceptical, Christian.
PS Loved Phil Davis’s comment, which seems to be from the same place as mine!
you are right, my posts are often too long, i start writing and then blah blah blah. will start doing them as cliffhanger two parters
Thank you for a lively and interesting post, ticks most of the boxes for me.
On the morality front, there is a massive (and incorrect) assumption that all Christian/religious teaching is ‘moral’. This includes the line that we humans have dominion over the fish and the fowl, with the consequent thoughtlessness (to borrow your word) that leads to leisure hunting (foxes and pheasants eg) and general extinction of other creatures.
How much more moral would our society be if one of the underpinning foundations was that we are related to all other living organisms, and should show them respect?
This is such a brilliant post Robin, I’m glad it focussed on what is important for real freedom and equality. I’ll be off to cathc up on all the old post’s I’ve not read yet!
That is a wonderful article Robin. I cannot believe, in 2012, that the Catholic Church is still arguing against gay marriage while seeking to cover up the extremely important issue of child abuse, which, it appears has been going on for an awful long time. I honestly believe that we cannot hope to live in a free, egalitarian society, until we cease attaching labels to people, and treat everybody as individuals. Sadly, I still think we are a long way off from this…
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“The enemy of civilization is neither secularism nor faith it is thoughtlessness.”
Brilliantly put. A great article, thoughtful without being confrontational, and I love the Sagan quote. Wish I’d been at the march to hear you speak.
We seem to share similar preoccupations – I wrote a piece on the strained relationship between religion and secularity a few months back: http://incoherent.net/2012/07/what-if-god-was-one-of-us/
This is a wonderful post, and I agreed with every word! Your posts always make me smile, and as far as I can recall I nod along to everything you say.