‘New Humanist’, a quarterly journal of ideas, science and culture from the UK’s Rationalist Association, is the T-bone steak of Humanist journals. It’s beautifully presented, meaty, and nourishing. It has a tremendous mix of articles.
One that caught my eye in the summer 2014 edition, is Without God, is there something missing in our lives? by Peter Watson. It looks at peculiar suggestions by Terry Eagleton, Roger Scruton and others that without religion we miss out on something. Happily, Watson agrees with me that we do not. How could not believing in leprechauns deprive one of anything? In fact, as Watson concludes, ‘there is something missing in our lives only if we think there is’. And he offers André Gide’s insight about the independence of things, the voluptuousness of objects, as all that there is – and that, indeed, is plenty. Gide, to whom touch was the most important of the senses, said: ‘Only individual thing exist…things in themselves hold forth, accessible to everyone, all that life has to offer.’
There is also an interview with Peter Tatchell, who welcomes Britain’s new same-sex marriage act as a historic victory but which, he argues, isn’t quite equality. He finds shocking that the legislation has an explicit ban on the Church of England or the Church in Wales conducting same-sex marriages, which Tatchell sees as an attack on religious freedom. He is also campaigning for civil partnerships to be extended to heterosexual couples, which some see as more egalitarian and modern and free from the patriarchal burden of marriage.
‘Islam is not a race. It’s a belief system.’
Tatchell, who challenges discrimination against believers as well as challenging religious superstition and privilege, says that the term Islamophobia is often used to intimidate and silence valid criticisms. ‘That’s a de facto attack on free speech,’ he maintains. ‘I’m also highly critical of the frequent attempts to characterize criticism of Islam or various extremist groups as racist. Islam is not a race. It’s a belief system.’
British PM’s faith ‘comes and goes’
A short article asks ‘Is Britain a Christian country?’ and notes that the British PM David Cameron wrote an article recently for the Church Times saying that it was. However the Church of England’s own figures state that 800,000 people attended church regularly in 2012 – half as many as went in 1968. And it quotes Cameron who had previously said of his own faith that it was ‘a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it comes and goes’.
Another article on the school girls kidnapped in Nigeria by Islamist extremists Boko Haram notes that the name of the group roughly translates to ‘Western education is forbidden’
Larking about on the Ark
A wonderful article about Noah’s Ark by Myra Zepf sees the terrible tale as: ‘A genocidal tale of epic proportions, designed to obliterate mankind and all living creatures, including babies, woolly mammoths and ickle bunny wabbits.’ She asks why the creator couldn’t have sent a plague to harm only the evil-doers, or shot a few precision-targeted bolts of lightning instead; and wonders why this tale of vengeful genocide has morphed into bedside reading for toddlers. However she suggests there are endless hours of fun to be had wondering how Noah built an ark half the length of the Titanic without saws, hammers or nails. And that ‘minor detail of how he collected the estimated 1,877,920 species from around the world, including penguins from Antarctica and kangaroos from Australia. And where did the floods, which were higher than Everest, drain to? She also revels in contemplation that Noah and his family had to be the human hosts for tapeworms, lice and scabies, and must have had malaria, dysentery, sleeping sickness and toxoplasmosis.
There’s a brilliant article too by Jonathan Rée which looks at Bertrand Russell, who died in 1970, aged 97. It looks at his privileged background, his mathematical brilliance, his denunciation of Christianity, his pacifism, his friendship, and falling out, with D.H.Lawrence and Wittgenstein, and his brief periods in prison.
Venomous racism underpinning colonialism
An excellent article by Kenan Malik looks at the origins of the First World War and shows shocking racism as at the heart of the colonial world structure in the years leading up to the war. Robert Knox in his 1850 book The Races of Man chillingly wrote: ‘Destined by the nature of their race to run, like all other animals, a certain limited course of existence, it matters little how their extinction is brought about.’ At the turn of the century, future US president Theodore Roosevelt wrote in The Winning of the West about the struggle between whites and the ‘scattered savage tribes, whose life was but a few degrees less meaningless, squalid and ferocious than that of wild beasts.’ Roosevelt insisted that the elimination of such peoples would be ‘for the benefit of civilisation and in the interests of mankind’, adding that it was ‘idle to apply to savages the rules of international morality that apply between stable and cultured communities.’
The London Times editorialized in 1910 that ‘The brown, black and yellow races of the world’ had to accept that ‘inequality is inevitable’ because of the ‘facts of race’.
Malik shows that racial ideology provided the ‘moral’ grounding for imperialist expansion, together with economic and political necessity. In the mid-nineteenth century Britain’s navy was as large as all other navies put together. Between 1874 and 1902, Britain added 4,750,000 square miles and 90 million people to her empire.
Malik notes of the Opium Wars that they were the nadir of British 19th-century gunboat diplomacy. When the Chinese Emperor cracked down on the British trade of opium, four months later the British gunboats arrived: ‘Britain launched a war in effect to enforce its right to be China’s pusher of choice.’
Yes, all of the above and much, much more in the summer edition of New Humanist
Another excellent publication is ‘Ethical Record: The Proceedings of the Conway Hall Ethical Society’. Its May 2014 edition has a superb record of a lecture by Paul S. Braterman, Professor Emeritus, University of Texas, on creationism, intelligent design and the assault on science.
Braterman opens by urging people to support the BHA campaign to combat creationism, including creationism in publicly funded schools in the UK. His lecture proceeds to show why such action is necessary, looking at documented efforts by creationists to present themselves as offering an equally plausible explanation of the universe to school children in State-funded schools.
He notes that there are different varieties of creationism, the most virulent being Young Earth creationism, based on biblical literalism. Then there is Old Earth creationism, which tries to reconcile biblical stories with reality by regarding ‘days’ of creation as indefinite periods. Third comes Intelligent Design. Fourth is epistemological creationism (we’re so brainy, we can’t be the result of natural selection). Fifth comes God of the Whole creationism: the deity made the universe and its laws. There are also others which don’t fit neatly into any of these categories and, observes Braterman, ‘individual creationists often move between these, making rational discussion difficult’.
How should we respond?
Braterman suggests we ask creationists whether they accept the fact of common descent and what age they assign to the earth. He urges us not to be complacent but he doesn’t favour debating with young earth creationists as it can lend them visibility. He is pleased that the Vatican has accepted the material fact of evolution and notes that the Church of England has formally apologised for its treatment of Darwin.
The Open Society, Journal of New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists, March 2014, is mainly devoted to the issue of religion on schools, a situation we are very familiar with in Ireland.
Report by Joe Armstrong