How predictable! ChurchAds.net comes up with a striking image for the Christmas poster campaign and the responses could have been written before they were given. First, the poster:

As I discovered last December, speak about the reality of the original Christmas events and you invite the piling of ordure on your head. After all, they say, who cares if the Nativity narratives of the Gospels get confused with Cinderella and the pantomime stories? There is something shocking about making the humanity of Jesus too real – sometimes a problem in the Church itself where a spiritualised version of the Messiah is easier to contemplate than one who had to eat, went to the loo, endured the real temptations of young men and got his hands and feet dirty in real muck.

So, this image compels the viewer to consider the reality of the Incarnation in a mode familiar to anyone connected in any way with anyone pregnant. When my daughter-in-law had her scans she texted them over to family and friends. That’s how it’s done and the good news is shared around these days. When we had scans twenty or thirty years ago they were indecipherable to amateurs like me: I couldn’t tell the head from the rear end.

So, what were the predictable responses? Look at the Times article which reported them:

John Smeaton, the director of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, said: “This advertisement sends a powerful message to everyone in Britain where 570 babies are killed every day in the womb, 365 days a year, under the Abortion Act. Whenever we kill an unborn child in an abortion, we are killing Jesus.”

Er… this isn’t an advert for SPUC or the anti-abortion lobby (although they might wish they had thought of it first). And the last sentence is simplistically contentious (although the need for a serious moral debate about mass abortion in the UK is long overdue).

Then we get the ubiquitous Terry Anderson of the miniscule National Secular Society (why is he asked about everything – because he can be guaranteed to miss the point, get irrationally cross and draw the wrong conclusions… which is great for the media):

Terry Sanderson, of the National Secular Society, criticised the image. “At first glance it looks like a poster for a horror film — perhaps The Omen VI: He’s Coming to Get You,” he said.“But it is also the kind of image widely used by anti-abortion campaigners and I hope that the Church of England isn’t trying to use its Christmas poster campaign to make a political point. If that’s the intention, we may have questions to ask at the Charity Commission… If, on the other hand, it’s supposed to make a Christian Christmas more appealing to our secular nation, I think it is likely to have the opposite effect.”

Terry! Calm down! This isn’t a Church of England poster campaign. And it isn’t remotely political. So, don’t waste the postage on your letter to the Charity Commission. (But your reaction does reveal again your lazy assumptions and prejudices – clearly not the sole preserve of religious people…) And it is not about abortion – that’s just another lazy connection based on prejudice. As for Terry’s final (subjective) judgement, well, he would, wouldn’t he?

Full marks to Ruth Gledhill for kicking off a good story, but fewer marks for resorting to the usual suspects  for critical comment. It will be interesting to see which Christians stick the boot into the campaign – and on which grounds. But, as in the past, if some people hate it, it’s a sure sign the campaign got it right.

This poster is designed to arrest the attention of the usually disinterested. It is aimed at awakening the imagination, teasing the curiosity and provoking fresh consideration of the heart of Christianity – precisely what Jesus did with parables, images and stories. No, it doesn’t cover all the bases and deal comprehensively with every theological nuance; but it gives a huge kick start to thinking about what Christmas is all about.

And that is needed as much in the Church as outside.

The National Secular Society – which seems to be a small group of angry people we would fit into Liverpool Cathedral in one sitting – has just awarded the excellent Southall Black Sisters the Secularist of the Year prize. Unfortunately, I can’t work out what the Sisters actually won. Was it money, a trophy, a bunch of flowers? I think we should be told (or, at least, I should be told where to look for the answer).

Apparently…

Southall Black Sisters was set up to meet the needs of Black and Asian women who are the victims of domestic violence or injustices in the legal system. The main aim of the organisation is to empower women in gaining more control over their lives, to be able to live without fear of violence and be able to assert their human rights to justice, equality and freedom. It is right on the forefront of the feminist struggle in this country. It celebrated its thirtieth anniversary last year, being founded in 1979 during the Southall race riots.

They were awarded the prize for the following reason:

… because they provide a secular space where women fleeing violence or injustice – often resulting from religious attitudes – can find a safe haven… The Government’s ‘cohesion’ agenda has put an enormous amount of power into the hands of religious leaders in minority Asian communities. These are almost always very conservative in their outlook and some consider women’s rights to be unimportant. The Southall Black Sisters can provide women with some time away from this all-powerful religious patriarchy for them to sort out their problems in their own way.

This raises two intriguing questions:

1. What has any of that to do with ‘secularism’? I’d love to know the view of the Southall Black Sisters on this. But to set this against some silly prejudice about ‘religion’ just pushes the NSS into the ‘we’ve stopped thinking’ corner. Since when has defending women against injustice and violence been the sole preserve of ‘secularists’?

2. Did the NSS not check out who actually funds the Sisters? Here’s the list (as discovered by someone else):

The Bromley Trust, John Lyon’s Charity, Department of Health Section 64 Funding, The Sigrid Rausing Trust, City Parochial Foundation, Bridge House Trust, Comic Relief, London Borough of Ealing, Network for Social Change, Princess Diana Memorial Fund, Oak Foundation, Wates Foundation, Henry Smith Charity, London Rape Crisis Centre, Atlantic Philanthropies, Bloomberg.

At least three of those are Christian charities and there may be more.

So, how much financial support is the NSS providing to their award winners? Just asking.

I remember an academic friend of mine once telling me that correlations do not make for explanations. He was right and I have been cautious about statistical correlations (in particular) ever since. The phrase came to mind when I read just now an interesting article by Martin Beckford on the Telegraph website about new academic research due to be published in January by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen).

Based on the results of 4,486 interviews conducted in the respected 2008 British Social Attitudes survey, it notes:

  • 50 per cent of respondents now call themselves Christian, down from 66 per cent in 1983.
  • the proportion of Britons who say they have “no religion” has increased from 31 per cent to 43 per cent. Non-Christians, including Muslims and Jews, now represent 7 per cent of the population, up from 2 per cent, 25 years ago.
  • The steepest fall was among those who say they worship in the established religion, the Church of England, down from 40 per cent of those who call themselves Christians to 23 per cent. (“Official Church attendance figures show that average Sunday attendance was 978,000 in 2007, compared with 1.2m in 1983.”)

It then draws several conclusions:

  • More and more people are ceasing to identify with a religion at all. “Indeed, the key distinction in Britain now is between religious involvement and indifference. We are thus concerned about differences in religiosity – the degree of religious commitment – at least as much as diversity of religious identity.”
  • “The declining Christian share is largely attributable to a drift away from the Church of England.”
  • The decline in faith is largely attributable to children no longer being brought up in a particular religion. (“The results suggest that institutional religion in Britain now has a half-life of one generation, to borrow the terminology of radioactive decay… Two non-religious parents successfully transmit their lack of religion. Two religious parents have roughly a 50/50 chance of passing on the faith. One religious parent does only half as well as two together.”

Obviously, I haven’t read the report on which the article is based, but it appears to hold only one surprise… which I will come to later.

The statistical problem is simply that different surveys cover different periods of time, ask different questions and use different criteria. So it is difficult to draw conclusions that might show any degree of consistency from the various studies done. The Christian Research data of a couple of years ago was a case study in seriously questionable conclusions being drawn from selective data and based on assumptions that were questionable (for example the use of flat-line projections that assume nothing will change in the next thirty years).

But why should anyone be surprised that people who no longer belong to a church also no longer feel they should use a church’s label to describe their (lack of) allegiance? It is no surprise that the biggest loss should be recorded for the Church of England as it is the only church that does not simply count as its ‘members’ those who consciously commit to attending the church on a committed basis. Clarity in terms of specific commitment is bound to reduce the numbers, but we need to ask what story the particular statistical dynamic is telling – which might not be the obvious one.

However, as Lynda Barley says (at the end of the article):

Statistical comparisons over a long period have the drawback of ignoring recent trends.The Church of England has been carefully monitoring Christian affiliation and churchgoing following the 2001 government census result that 7 in 10 people regard themselves as Christian. Independent surveys continue to show that 7 in 10 people are Christian and approaching half are Anglican in contrast to the British Social Attitudes Survey findings which focus on religious membership.

Local church counts of worshippers throughout October for the last nine years record 1.7 million individual Church of England worshippers each month in each year. At the same time, it has been ordaining some 500 new clergy each year.

The Church of England doesn’t really ‘do’ membership. Signing up to the Electoral Roll can say various things about the commitment or ‘belonging’ of someone. Even paying regularly by Gift Aid doesn’t really tell us a great deal about belief or commitment. It is notoriously difficult to say who is and who isn’t a ‘member’ of the Church of England’; all we can say is that the Church is there for everyone who wants it – a unique vocation of service to the whole community.

The surprise is simply that Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, is still being consulted for a view on such research. He said:

Last week at a gathering of faith leaders at Downing Street, the Prime Minister said that Christian values were ‘at the heart of national life’. This research shows that this is simply not true. This report shows more clearly than ever that Britain is a post-religious society and policy should reflect that.

Two responses: (a) Mr Sanderson would say this regardless of the ‘evidence’ put to him. If you said the sky was blue he would claim this as evidence of the death of Christianity in Britain. (b) ‘Christian values’ are not the same category as ‘membership’ or ‘commitment’ – which makes his statement a good example of a non sequitur. Even if the conclusion were to be right, you couldn’t draw it from this evidence or the Prime Minister’s statement about ‘Christian values’. Is his ideological prejudice so powerful that it blinds him to anything good about Christian (or other religious) contributions to society?

And, in the light of other discussions going on on this blog, just to confirm that this appears to me to be a good example of good reporting – summarising and bringing to the attention of a wider audience some research that is worth discussing and doing so in a clear and comprehensible way.

(17 December addition: See excellent comment from George Pitcher, too, at www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/columnists/georgepitcher/6830892/The-lost-Christians-have-found-new-homes.html)

Two stories grab the eye today: (a) the rejection by the BBC Trust of a series of complaints about the lack of non-religious contributors to the Radio 4 Today programme’s Thought for the Day and (b) the launch of the new atheist poster campaign.

The BBC Trust said of the former that only allowing religious contributors on the slot did not breach editorial guidelines on impartiality. It did, however, state that the slot must comply with requirements of “due impartiality” and that any future complaints on broadcasts during the slot would be judged on a “case-by-case basis”. This follows 11 complaints about TFTD and a single complaint about BBC editorial policy on non-religious programming. The Trust added that it was a matter for the BBC executive board as to whether the remit of Thought for the Day should remain the same or be changed in the future.

It was the response by Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, that was odd. He said the NSS was “very disappointed” by the decision and would continue to campaign to “open it up” to other groups – understandable and fair enough. But then he stated:

Every edition of Thought for the Day is a rebuke to those many people in our society who do not have religious beliefs. It says to them that their ‘thoughts’ are not worth hearing and that somehow religious opinions are more worthy of a special, unchallengeable platform. This is so blatant an abuse of religious privilege that we cannot simply let it pass. We will be looking at other ways of challenging this unjustifiable slot.

Er… so is it the ‘slot’ that is unjustifiable or its unique character? Make up your mind.

I can think of several reasons for some people not liking TFTD, but to see this ruling as a ‘rebuke’ and to speak of ‘abuse’ is just weird. The NSS will continue to huff and puff, but their case might hold more weight if it were presented in a more rational way.

You can’t accuse Ariane Sherine & co of poor presentation. Their new poster campaign continues where the imaginative ‘atheist bus’ adverts left off. The bus campaign was wonderful in that it kept people talking about the probability of God and was at least a funny, clever and engaging way to have a go at religious advertising. The new campaign poster looks like this:

It looks nice and simple, doesn’t it? It sounds perfectly reasonable, too. “Let’s not indoctrinate our children into any particular worldview, but let’s let them grow up to make up their own mind.”

Er… how? On what basis? With what information and experience? Even the statement is based on the assumption that the tabula rasa assumption about the human mind and character is universally and self-evidently ‘true’. Now, that is weird.

If the poster was asking us to bring up our children to be able to think intelligently about human meaning, experience, morality, etc., then I am all for it. But to suggest that you can bring children up with no philosophical input, no pointers, no assumptions about reality, no priorities, no account for the values, beliefs and experiences of their parents and others is just irrational.

Or, to repeat the obvious: to not tell a child that there is a God is not to leave that child philosophically neutral, but to positively indoctinate the child into the assumption that there is no God. Why is that more rational or less bad?

Anyway, I welcome this new poster campaign and hope it will get people talking in the same way as the bus poster. Whatever conclusions we come to.

Apparently some Christian doctors  are fed up with the nonsense about health workers not being allowed to pray or offer spiritual care of patients. Or are we supposed to call them ‘clients’ now? Stories have emerged in the last few years of nurses getting into trouble for offering to pray with sick patients.

Well, according to the BBC website:

Doctors are demanding that NHS staff be given a right to discuss spiritual issues with patients as well as being allowed to offer to pray for them. Medics will tell the British Medical Association conference this week that staff should not be disciplined as long as they handle the issue sensitively. The doctors said recent cases where health workers had got into trouble were making people fearful.

The problem is, according to the doctors:

The General Medical Council code suggests that discussing religion can be part of care provided to patients – as long as the individual’s wishes are respected. But at the start of this year the Department of Health issued guidance warning about proselytising. It said that discussing religion could be interpreted as an attempt to convert which could be construed as a form of harassment.

The debate goes a bit further before (inevitably) the tiny National Secular Society gets invited to put its oar in:

We have to be very careful about how we tread on this issue. If we say it is ok for doctors and nurses to provide spiritual care and pray for patients it can all too quickly get out of hand and we will have staff preaching on the wards. The risk is that it makes patients feel uncomfortable. They may feel compelled to say ‘yes’ thinking their care will suffer. Really, it is an infringement of their privacy. I think we should be very clear that patients should have to ask for this, not offered it.

But Joyce Robins, co-director of Patient Concern said:

Most complaints from patients are about being on a conveyor belt of care. They don’t rate with staff as real people. Offering to say a prayer is a warm and kind thought. Most patients will accept it as such. It is no more offensive than being offered a sleeping pill. You can say thanks but that sort of thing isn’t my cup of tea. But if Christian doctors see this as an opportunity to promote their faith to people at a time when they are particularly vulnerable, that is totally unacceptable.

Two things spring to mind here. First, proselytism in such circumstances has never ever been advocated by any Christian with a shred of sensitivity or good theology. But for doctors or nurses to hold back from taking seriously the spiritual needs of patients is a nonsense of the first order. That is like treating a patient as ‘the cancer in bed one’ or the ‘broken leg in Ward C’ instead of a fully human being whose spirituality influences their mental and physical wellbeing.

Secondly, the NSS just doesn’t get the blindingly obvious fact that negation of a religious worldview does not leave some neutral territory occupied by atheists or secularists. This nonsense really needs to be knocked on the head. Take away a religious/Christian perspective and you are left with a particular perspective on life, death, illness, being human and so on that is positively shaped by particular assumptions  – that are no more valid or invalid than Christian /theistic assumptions.

Of course doctors and nurses should be free to pray for patients where such is requested or where the appropriateness is evidenced by the case history and what is known about the patient. Of course no one should be forced to accept prayer inappropriately. Of course the patient should be protected from mad people – be they religious or atheist. And of course Terry Anderson and the NSS should realise how out of touch they are – speaking only with the authority of a few thousand people on their register.

I would love to see a National Secular Society response to the article by Paul Vallely in June 2009’s Third Way (which doesn’t seem to be available online just now) entitled Being Reasonable. In it he questions why bodies like the NSS ‘spend almost all their energy on rubbishing religion rather than telling us what distinctive insights humanism has to offer contemporary society.’ He decries the ‘false polarity between an intolerant rationalism and an oppressive religiosity.’ He concludes with an appeal for ‘an articulation from the British Humanist Association and the National Secular Society of the distinct contribution that humanism can make to modern moral dilemmas.’ He goes on:

The challenge to them is to set out that vision in entirely positive terms which can be comprehended in common by those of all faiths and none. They must do it without constantly resorting to negatives, statements of what they are against or contrasts of the things their vision is free from.

Any offers?

This morning the BBC took a late decision to drop the heavily-trailed interview between John Humphrys and legendary DJ Andy Kershaw. Kershaw’s private life has been pretty disastrous in the last couple of years and he was now ready to speak openly about his troubles and his recovery. The programme he was to do this on was Radio 4’s On the Ropes, in which people talk about how they got through some difficult personal times of life.

kershaw1I was looking forward to hearing Kershaw in the repeat this evening, but it is not to be. Apparently, the decision to pull the programme was taken because it might compromise the legal arrangements between Kershaw and his ex-girlfriend who now has sole custody of their children. He has no access to them. His behaviour has been pretty bad and he has displayed the desperation any of us would feel if we had led ourselves down such a dark alley. It would have been good to hear his story from his own lips and give an opportunity to the public to encourage him in his recovery.

Andy Kershaw has proved to be a fantastic broadcaster, introducing millions of people to world music and stamping everything he did with his distinctive northern voice. His personal fall from grace deprived us all of some great insights into music and culture. No doubt there are those who will now scream at me, ‘Consider his estranged ex-girlfriend and kids who have had to be protected from him!’ Fair enough; I am not excusing his behaviour. But I sometimes wonder if (like with the case of Erwin James/James Monahan) the same people would feel better if these guys fell back into their problematic behaviour and lifestyle and continued to waste their lives. I prefer to celebrate the small steps such damaged people make into becoming positive members of society again. Why do we find people’s struggle for recovery or even ‘redemption’ so deserving of our sneering contempt?

This is pertinent today for a second reason. Yesterday the press were given access for the first time into the Family Courts in England. Hitherto they have been banned on the grounds that children needed to be protected from exposure to and by the media. In other words, the vulnerable had to be protected by law from being further abused by some of our less reputable journalists. Those journalists who went to the courts yesterday reported their disappointment that little had changed, that although they were granted access, they were not allowed to report what they saw and heard – even anonymously.

The response has been interesting – and, I think, worrying. Apparently, freedom to report proceedings in these courts would help expose injustices and make everything transparent – which is taken for granted to be a ‘good thing’. Why? And ‘good’ for whom?

Why do we allow the media to assume that they have the right to see and hear everything in our society? Why should there not be areas of life from which the media are prevented from going? Where did this ‘right’ to access come from? And why does the ‘right to access’ – based on an assumption that transparency is always in and of itself good – trump the right of a child to be protected from exposure by the press?

The Family Courts deal with some of the hardest and most complicated human judgements we can imagine. I have met judges whose commitment to this work is exceptional and admirable – who do not make judgements in a cavalier way and who try in the most difficult emotional circumstances to do what is right. They admit to the probability that they will sometimes get things wrong and recognise that the cost of doing so will be high for those who suffer as a consequence. Can someone tell me how allowing reporting of these proceedings and putting the process and people under media scrutiny will enhance the prospects of vulnerable children having a happier life.

I might be wrong in this and be missing some obviously crucial factor. But when I look at the tabloid newspapers in particular, with their lust for sensation and brutality whatever the cost to the ‘victims’, I feel no shred of confidence that allowing them access to sensitive court proceedings will do anything other than add to the scale of human misery that these ‘organs’ specialise in.

I have just been pointed towards the latest statement by the National Secular Society about what they call ‘de-baptism’. Oh dear. You would think that they would pay just a smidgeon more attention to accuracy on the grounds that it is always wise to (a) know your subject and (b) get your facts right. Otherwise you risk looking a bit stupid. It begins as follows:

‘Despite a letter from Lambeth Palace telling the NSS that it would not sanction any form of official ‘debaptism’, one diocese is bucking the trend. The Diocese of Croydon…’ It later goes on to state: ‘So now John Hunt is the first person in Britain to be officially debaptised by the Church of England. But the “in this particular case” rider in the Church message seems to suggest that he might also be the last.’

Firstly, there is no Diocese of Croydon. Croydon is an Episcopal Area in the Diocese of Southwark.

Secondly, John Hunt cannot be the last to be ‘officially’ debaptised because he isn’t the first either. ‘Debaptism’ is not possible. From the point of view of Christians, baptism is something that happened and there is no way of ‘un-doing’ it. From the point of view of atheists, nothing happened at baptism anyway and therefore there is nothing to ‘de-do’. Sticking John Hunt’s note in the register is not ‘de-anything’; it is simply a note in a register that has no effect whatsoever other than to make him feel better that he has been heard.

Is this really so hard to understand? We truly need to put the reason back into rationalism.

The media have been running a range of variations on a single theme during the last couple of weeks. It is time it was realised that it is a non-story aimed at getting lots of publicity for a marginalised minority. Some people want to be ‘de-baptised’ and the media are lapping it up. Well, by ‘lapping it up’, what I really mean is that they have re-hashed a story put out by the BBC for which I did a half-hour interview resulting in a seven-second broadcast and there is even a marked similarity in the wording in several of the printed or online versions I have read. In other words, a single non-story is turned into a story by one media agent milking another – and so it goes on. Exactly what Nick Davies is questioning in his Flat Earth News.

baby-cryingThe campaign, being promoted mischievously by the National Secular Society, is to put pressure on the Church of England to allow people to be ‘de-baptised’. You can read the details elsewhere, but there are several matters arising from this debate that need a more cogent airing. So, here goes.

1. If an atheist believes baptism is just a load of voodoo and that nothing happens, what is there to ‘de-do’ (if you see what I mean)?

2. One of the criticisms of the Church is that babies or children who are baptised without their consent are somehow being indoctrinated into something sinister and that this infringes their human rights. Apart from the obvious retort that we do lots of things to young children without their consent (like feeding them, dressing them, cutting their hair, making them go to school, telling them off, not letting them play on the motorway, etc), this betrays a pile of dodgy assumptions. For example, it assumes that life is neutral and children are born as blank sheets. Apparently, if you bring up a child in a family shaped by a ‘religious’ world view, you are damaging them psychologically; but if you bring them up in a ‘non-religious’ context, they will grow up free and able to make their own mind up about the meaning and purpose of their life.

What utter nonsense. The atheist assumes a worldview and brings up the child in a non-neutral context in which certain views of the world, meaning and morality are being represented – and into which the child is being indoctrinated. That is to say, the atheist’s world view is not neutral and, therefore, not inherently preferable to that of a theist. Both assume and construct world views and bring up their children within them; but neither is neutral.

So, the atheist does not simply protect the child from something ‘extra’ that is dangerous to an otherwise neutral way of seeing and being, but is shaping that child’s world view according to other assumptions about the way the world is and why it is that way. I fail to understand why people who claim to be ‘rationalists’ become so irrational that they cannot grasp this obvious fact.

3. I am hearing allegations that the EU is protecting the ‘evangelical noises getting louder and louder’ by its legislation and that this is a bad thing. Well, I don’t know about that, but I do know (because I was marginally involved in it) that there was a long and protracted attempt by elements in the EU (France in particular) to remove from the putative European Constitution any reference to the Christian history of Europe. How stupidly irrational and illiberal is that?

martin-luther1As I have observed elsewhere, it is impossible to understand the history (and, therefore, the present – to say nothing of the future) of Europe without understanding its Christian history – for both good and ill. Germany – including Hitler, etc. – cannot be understood for one second without an appreciation of the Reformation. I could go on, but I begin to lose the will to type at this point…

So, we need to challenge the so-called ‘myth of neutrality’ – not on privileged religious grounds, but on grounds of intellectual and rational consistency. And theists need to be more confident in seeing off the arrogant assumptions of the campaigning atheists who betray a little more blind faith in their own assumptions than is healthy for their own internal consistency.

It is always silly to get into the numbers game, but sometimes you just can’t help it. So, when the National Secular Society has a hissy fit about the Church of England claiming to speak for the whole country and cites (without ever giving evidence for its claims) the ’emptying pews’, it is tempting to ask why there are over a million people in church each Sunday and only 3000 members of the NSS. We know numbers don’t prove anything much: Hitler packed them in at Nurenberg, but this apparent endorsement says nothing about the validity of his ethics.

Anyway, I was having a quick look at the sometimes-interesting online version of New Humanist magazine to see what recent dissing of the C of E has been going on. Much to my surprise I found the following reference to the C of E’s decision to Twitter its Lent stuff under the heading Twits from the Church of England: ‘I don’t know exactly when the C of E Twitter launched, and I’m not setting myself up for a fall by saying they won’t overtake us, but at the time of writing they have 201 followers to our 527. If you’re on Twitter and not following us, we’re on there as @NewHumanist – we promise there’ll be no preaching from our tweets.’ Two issues here:

c-of-e-lent1. Why do they think all we do is preach? And why do they think so many people are so stupid as to be preached at? Why do they have such a low opinion of people’s general intelligence and ability to form their own opinion? I think we treat people with a bit more respect.

2. Notwithstanding the disclaimer, there is a presumption that nobody will be interested in what the C of E might Twitter. So, I made a phone call to find out how many people are now following the C of E Twitter stuff. The answer? 1172. Which is double the 527 quoted by NS magazine. But, maybe their numbers have grown, too.

Anyway, it’s all good fun, isn’t it? But, I’m not sure who the greater twit is in all this.

I have just recorded an interview with the BBC about elements of the National Secular Society‘s campaigns against religion in general and the Church of England in particular. Then I was sent a copy of the press notice issued by the NSS yesterday in response to the announcement made by Southampton University Hospitals Trust that people will be asked whether they have “any faith needs that can be supported during their stay”.

secularismThe NSS responded thus: “This sounds like the chaplains touting for business. It is a gross misuse of scarce National Health Service resources and an intrusion into the privacy of individuals who are coming to hospital for medical treatment… How on earth have we reached the stage that you can’t even go to hospital for treatment without having religion foisted on you like this?”

Oh dear. Here we go again. I would love to be able to have a rational discussion in rational language with rational people, but this sort of stuff should make any decent secularist despair.

1. The description about ‘chaplains touting for business’ is just cheap and silly as well as ignorant.

2. Who decides what counts as ‘gross misuse’ of resources: the majority of the country’s people who claim some sort of religious belief or the little huddle of the NSS who try to speak for everyone?

3. Since when has asking a question been tantamount to ‘intrusion into privacy’? No one is required to answer and the question itself does not suggest it must be answered affirmatively. It appears from this that the hospital trust is mature enought to allow adults the freedom and dignity to make their own mind up whereas the NSS thinks people are inherently stupid and vulnerable and need to be protected from a question. How liberal/rational is that?

4. Asking this question is, apparently, having ‘religion foisted on you’. Is not having the question asked tantamount to having secularist assumptions foisted on you? Do they really have such little regard for the integrity and intelligence of ordinary people?

5. There is an assumption that human beings are simply a body/mind duality – very platonic, but not how most people see themselves. Is it really the intention of the NSS to deny people the right to be treated as ‘whole’ beings – spirituality included – presumably on the grounds that the NSS knows better than the people concerned what is good for them? Isn’t that what we call ‘patronising’?

I draw attention to this simply because some of us are well up for a good rational debate about all sorts of things: the constitutional place of the C of E, the secular myth of neutrality, the role of bishops in the legislature, etc. But this will require a more rational language from the secularists of the NSS. I know they are a campaigning body, but issuing silly and patronising press notices does nothing to encourage a proper debate.

andrew-marrAndrew Marr, presenter of the BBC’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, has raised some of these questions very well in relation to Darwin. His basic point is that some secularists are behaving very religiously/evangelistically in relation to their atheism – and shouldn’t they see what they look like? (See also the interview with Tony Blair on the same subject.)