T + 641 Enquiry Conference Part Five (PG)

Posted by raetsel at Saturday, June 19, 2010

This is the final part of my write up of the Enquiry 2010 Conference and one that highlights two of the most important areas where religious practices have a real and negative impact on people's lives. So even if you haven't been following this series of posts I would ask you to read this one.

It is rated Potentially Gruesome for a discussion of delicate surgical matters.

Maryam Namazie

Maryam gave a very impassioned talk about the rise of Sharia or Islamic Law in the UK. You might be forgiven for thinking that Sharia Law has no relevance to the UK and only applies to countries like Saudi Arabia or Iran, like me, you'd be wrong.

I had a vague recollection of some arbitration matters that could be dealt with under private arrangements such as Rabbinical Courts for religious jews and recall the Archbishop of Canterbury getting into hot water when raising the subject of Sharia Law in the UK. However Maryam's talk really opened my eyes.

The 1996 Arbitration Act allows for parties to voluntarily agree to have a legal dispute decided by a body other than a court. The use of this is supposed to be prescribed to certain limited areas of civil law and specific circumstances.

However Muslim Arbitration Panels (MAPs) that operate under the act and can make legally binding agreements and so called Sharia Councils that, though not formally recognised, operate in the UK are being used to override the rights of women in matters of divorce and childcare.

At one level there is the whole issue of consent and whether women in close knit religiously based communities are truly free to consent to have their legal disputes settled by one of these bodies. Maryam gave lots of examples where pressure was brought to bear on young vulnerable women scared of being outcast from their community and family or even threatened with physical violence to make them submit to a Sharia Council or MAP.

Even if you disregard that serious issue the whole concept upon with these bodies operate is incompatible with basic human rights and moral principles of justice.

To give some examples from the One Law for All campaign site:-

  • Under Sharia law a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man’s
  • A woman’s marriage contract is between her male guardian and her husband ( the woman cannot not sign the contract).
  • A man can divorce his wife by simple repudiation, whereas a woman must give reasons, some of which are extremely difficult to prove.
  • Child custody reverts to the father at a preset age, even if the father is abusive.
  • Women who remarry lose custody of their children.
  • Sons are entitled to inherit twice the share of daughters.
It seems hard to believe that these things can be going on in the UK but they are.

Maryam and the One Law for All campaign have a petition that people can sign to call for an end to these practices and a change in the law. I urge you to sign it.

Dr Anthony Lempert

Dr Lempert is a GP in Powys, Wales and co-ordinator of the Secular Medical Forum (SMF). This is a campaign body with a membership of UK Healthcare professionals that seeks to ensure there is a secular approach to healthcare in the UK.

Dr Lempert was an engaging speaker and with a careful balance of humour and reasoned argument he spoke on a number of matters relating to healthcare where religious beliefs of either healthcare professionals or people other than the patient themselves have a deleterious impact on the patient.

In a wide ranging talk he covered a lot of the obvious areas that might come under scrutiny in relation to religious practice such as abortion, the right to die with dignity and contraception.

One surprising fact he stated was that hospital chaplains are funded by the NHS not by the churches they represent. This is done at a cost to the NHS and therefore the tax payer of around £35 million a year. I naively assumed that these posts were funded by the church.

One of the main areas he concentrated on and that I would like to highlight here is what the forum calls, perhaps somewhat euphemistically, Religious Surgery on Children.

The practice of Female Circumcision or what is more rightly called Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is a barbaric practise that is carried out on young girls & women for supposed religious and cultural reasons. It was made explicitly illegal in the UK in 1985 but as the SMF point out:-

Some British girls of Muslim parents are still being sent back to the countries of their parents' origin for this dreadful procedure to be done. And, many believe it is even performed secretly in this country. Female genital mutilation (FGM) has been illegal in the UK since 1985 and the law was updated in 2003. It remains unclear why there has not been a single successful prosecution in all that time.

Dr Lempert then went on to discuss the issue of male circumcision, something that is performed on boys of religious jewish parents before the child is 8 days old and on many muslim children in early childhood.

There are medical reasons for a circumcision to be necessary but they are relatively few, these religious circumcisions are completely non-theraputic and this irreversible operation is being performed on babies who can in no way be considered to have consented to this elective procedure.

Dr Lempert put this into perspective in the following way. Imagine a proud Liberal Democrat couple have a baby boy and they take him to their doctor and say as part of raising their child that they would like the doctor to tattoo the word "Lib Dem" on the baby's forehead. What would the doctor's reaction be? Image the reaction if the same couple said actually they wanted their little boy to be tattooed on his penis.

Luckily the tattooing of a minor is completely illegal in the UK but a far more irreversible operation is not illegal. It doesn't even have to be performed by a doctor. It can be performed by religious figures as long as they don't claim they are doctors. They are also not required to keep any record of what they have done or any follow up on the outcome of their operations that can sometimes quite literally be performed on the kitchen table.

You may be thinking, well this is not very satisfactory but there is no real harm done. However to quote again from the SMF.

Research published by Sorrells et al in 2007 confirms ..... that the foreskin contains several of the most sensitive areas on the penis. Many men are too embarrassed to speak out about the harm done to their most intimate body parts in the name of their parents' religion. It is not they who should be ashamed. Scarring, infections, pain on urinating and psychosexual difficulties are not uncommon results of ritual childhood circumcision.

It is hard to get figures on the number of children that get adverse reactions in part because, as stated earlier, non-doctors performing this operation do not need to keep any records, but even if it only affected a few there is no reason to allow this completely unnecessary surgery to take place on babies who may not even grow up to have the same religious beliefs as their parents.


I must first begin with an apology for not writing up the talks given by Professor A C Grayling and Dr Gijsbert Stoet. They both gave very interesting talks. The 1st on the nature of proof when it comes to God and why it is irrational to believe in a supernatural being, the second on the role chaplains and was there a need for humanist chaplains.

To purvey the subtlety of Professor Grayling's arguments or the detail of the wide ranging areas Dr Stoet covered would take up a lot of space and I fear I may have already gone on too long about the conference on this blog.

However to summarise, it was a very enjoyable and informative conference and I met some very interesting people. Some people may think my active interest in atheism and humanism is just an academic exercise or a personal matter but I hope this post in particular has shown that there are issues that affect the wider public and in a 21st Century liberal democracy such as the UK they deserve to be given proper scrutiny.

The public practices of people of religious faith cannot be given special treatment or be impervious to being held up to the standards for other practice just because they have an imaginary friend that they say tells them to do it.

T + 639 Enquire Conference Part Four

Posted by raetsel at Tuesday, June 15, 2010

More write-ups on the talks I heard at the Enquire 2010 Conference

Dr. Evan Harris

Until the recent election Dr Harris was the MP for Oxford West & Abingdon and a prominent figure for science and secularism in the UK parliament. Unfortunately he lost his seat by just 176 votes.

Part of his talk was about the reasons why he lost his seat and how his views on secular and science topics might have affected that. He was subject to some particularly nasty smear campaigns, some more subtle and clever than others, from non-political party organisations such as animal liberationists and pro-life (anti-abortion) movements.

His main regret was that instead of ignoring this negative campaigning, having been advised it would back fir,e he did not start to actively counter it with proper explanations of his position on the issues and the reasons why. He plans to campaign to regain the seat at the next election.

Evan Harris is a very effective speaker and there was a lot of obvious warmth in the room for him and his situation. Having dealt with the reasons for his defeat he used the issues raised there as a means to layout the current legislative position for the topics related to the conference themes of atheism, humanism and secularism.

Dr Harris did not expect abortion law to be changed in the current parliament and felt that the current climate in relation to assisted dying and some high profile cases and court rulings might mean there could be some movement in a positive direction for that.

The biggest issue he felt was the use of loopholes in the Equality Act and other legislation that allows religious organisations ( such as churches ) and organisations with a religious ethos ( such as faith schools ) to discriminate against people for their gender, sexuality, beliefs and even lifestyle.

The UK is in fact in breach of EU directives in relation to equality in employment and infraction proceedings are being taken against the UK Government, who under Labour were contesting them. The key issue is the wide ranging exemptions that are being claimed in inappropriate circumstances.

The UK law and (EU directives to some extent), allow for key posts in a religious organisation to discriminate on grounds of gender, sexuality, belief etc. This is the exemption that means the Catholic Church can discriminate against women for the job of Priest. For organisations with a religious ethos such as charities or faith schools it is also allowable for key posts to be discriminatory however this is being widely used to allow faith schools to insist that for example even classroom teaching assistants in a faith school sign a statement of religious belief and must follow a lifestyle that is deemed appropriate.

Thus a gay person would be discriminated against not only if they didn't sign the statement to say they were christian, catholic muslim etc but even just on the basis that if they had a partner they would be in breach of the lifestyle clauses.

This is clearly a breach of the EU directive and even, arguably UK law and uses the exemptions far too widely.

As Dr Harris put it the fact that teacher's classroom assistant goes about perfectly legal activities such as living with someone of the same sex should have nothing to do with helping with the pottery class.

Dr Harris is hoping that a case can be brought to court where such discrimination can be successfully challenged and the precedent of case law could then be used to stop the loophole. He would also like the UK to stop contesting the infraction proceedings from the EU and change UK law with primary legislation. However given the Conservative Party views on Europe this seems unlikely.

T + 634 Enquiry Conference Part Three

Posted by raetsel at Saturday, June 12, 2010

Continuing my write up and review of the talks given at the 2010 Enquiry Conference.

Norman Ralph

Norman was the founding president of the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist & Secular Student Societies and the topic of his talk was "Is Atheism Past it Sell By Date?"

Norman now works in the marketing and customer relations department for O2 and his talk focused on the image that atheism and humanism has and how it might be better "branded" and "sold".

He stated that according to various polls and studies done the typical atheist or humanist is a while male with a good education and probably over 60. However with various studies claiming that well over 60% of the adult UK population have none or no really strong religious views there should clearly be a much wider representation of ages and backgrounds within the atheist/humanist movement.

Andrew Copson commented that membership of the BHA has two real spikes in the age demographic, the under 30s and the over 50s but between 30 and 50 they had many fewer members. Half joking I suggested that people between 30 and 50 were too busy concentrating on paying off their mortgages.

He also spoke about the established practice in marketing of developing fans rather than customers. Fans are much more loyal and enthusiastic about a brand than mere customers and are more likely to tell other people about the service or products from the brand and more forgiving of mistakes the brand might make.

The example he used was Coca Cola but as was pointed out by members of audience the apotheosis of the cultivation of fans is of course Apple, manufacturer of the iMac, iPod, iPhone and the latest holy tablet, the iPad.

This led to an entertaining little discursion into the analogy of the religious and non-religious with the PC v Mac debate. One suggestion was that the religious zealots were akin to the Mac users where as most people without strong views just used PCs because it was obviously easier. Norm countered this by saying that the religious zealots were in fact Linux users and they were passionate, would admit no other operating system could be better and yet it basically didn't really work.

I would take issue with that of course as a former Linux proselytiser though I did eventually convert to the church of Apple.

Overall Norman's talk didn't have any real answers and was more a pointing out of the issues and a general call to say "something must be done."

I pointed out that one of the problems could be that atheism in particular is just seen as being against something rather than being for something and it is harder to sell a negative in that way. Humanism probably has a more positive message.

The other point I thought of later and discussed with Andrew Copson at lunch was that Norman's approach and analogies were all with brands and companies that were related to products and the natural analogue would be to other successful movements like the environmental movement. Andrew pointed out that as little as 20 years ago if you were a "green" then there was a stereotype of being a sandal wearing hippy type whereas today people gladly and even proudly say of course they are green and do their bit for the environment. If the same point could be reached with Humanism we would have come a very long way indeed.

Chris Worfolk

The topic of Chris's talk was "Inside the Evangelists Lair: Encounters with the Christian Union" it gave some background to the Christian Union and its current day activities on University campuses today where it is often the largest and most active of student societies.

The Leeds Atheist society was founded by Chris in part in response to the activities of the Christian Union.

Apart from providing a lot of autobiographical information about Chris's involvement with atheism and humanism the talk didn't really come to any hard conclusions about the Christian Union.

Professor Chris French

Professor French is Professor of Psychology at Goldsmiths College, University of London and co-editor of "The Skeptic (UK)" magazine.

His talk was on the psychology of anomalous experiences. These he defined as being encounters with bizarre and unusual phenomena which includes but is not limited to things often called paranormal experiences such as ESP, psychokenesis etc. and also including things like near death experiences and claims of alien abduction.

He was a very polished and entertaining speaker and clearly knew his subject very well. He looked at some of the possible psychological causes of why people might believe in the paranormal as well as describing some of the problems of doing research in these areas when often there are only eye witness accounts of what happened.

He gave some simple practical demonstrations of what were in essence psychological or straight conjuring/mentalist tricks where you could easily ascribe psychic causes to them but actually had simple mundane explanations.

In the area of the problems of eye witnesses he explained a very interesting experiment he conducted. Before describing this I would ask you to think of a clock with Roman Numerals on it, if possible think of an actual clock you are familiar with such as one in your house or on a public building you know well. Without looking at the clock, if it is nearby, think about how the numbers 3, 4 and 5 are represented.

Like most people, myself included, I suspect you think the 3, 4 and 5 are represented by III, IV and V however next time you are in the presence of a clock with Roman Numerals the chances are very high that the 4 is actually shown as IIII .

The experiment that Professor French conducted was to take three groups of people A, B and C. Group A was shown a kitchen clock with Roman Numerals and where the 4 was shown as IIII and asked to look at it for 60 seconds without being told why. The clock was then taken away and the group was asked to draw the clock from memory as accurately as they could.

The same was done with Group B but they were told at the outset that after the 60 seconds they would be asked to draw the clock.

Group C were presented with the clock and told to draw it whilst it was in front of them.

The results showed that the majority of people in groups A and B drew the 4 incorrectly as IV and with little difference between the results of the two groups it shows that even when people know they will have to recall something from memory later the extra attention they might therefore pay actually makes little difference to the accuracy of their recollections.

As expected the vast majority of group C drew the clock accurately. However if after drawing the clock you took it away and the drawings people had done and then asked them how the 4 was represented, even though they had just drawn it as IIII a couple of moments ago many people said it was shown as IV.

This goes someway to show the difficulties with relying on eye witness testimony where people can only tell you what they think they saw or what they believe they saw and as this experiment shows that can often be clouded by what people expect to see.

I could write at even greater length about some of the other topics and experiments Professor French packed in to his one hour talk but I think I have gone on long enough. Suffice it to say there are lots of rational reasons why people may believe they have seen something anomalous or paranormal when in fact they haven't at all.

Far better to come and hear him speak for yourself. He is due to give a talk to the
Birmingham branch of the The Skeptics in the Pub on the 14th July at 19:30 in the Victoria Pub in central Birmingham. I'll be going along for sure even though I suspect the talk will be the same as the one I have just reported it is well worth a second viewing.

T + 632 Down and Dirty

Posted by raetsel at Thursday, June 10, 2010

I went to the Transplant clinic yesterday for the first time since I started reducing my ciclosporin dose and also the first time since my consultant moved to another hospital.

I was seen by one of the other consultants whom I had seen once before when my original consultant was on maternity leave. I asked her, the new consultant, if this was a permanent transfer or if she was just a caretaker manager for me and she confirmed that she will be my consultant form now on.

Sorry if that all seems rather badly worded, it is one of the consequences ensuring the blog remains anonymous with respect to the medical staff and indeed anyone who isn't friends or family. That is fairer to them and gives me more freedom to speak my mind about them as well should it ever come to that. I'm pleased to say that my care has been excellent and I am very grateful for that.

So to the business of the consultation itself. It was relatively short as things are still heading on track and my GVHD is so far behaving itself as I reduce my ciclosporin dose. To that end I am reducing my dose further to 30mg twice a day and going back in six weeks for my next review. ( If I extrapolate from that then in about 24 weeks from now I should be off the ciclosporin completely but lets not get carried away.)

As I was with a new consultant I thought I would just go over my current regime to check she was happy with everything that I was doing. That is basically the precautions I outlined in my blog post the other day. The excellent news is that she said I no longer need to follow the clean diet and I can eat what I like and where I like. Subject of course to the same sensible precautions that anyone would take, so I won't be eating at just any old greasy spoon café.

This is great news and in particular I will look forward to eating lettuce and tomato and other salad veg on my sandwiches. I got the impression from the way my consultant answered that I could have come off the clean diet a while ago but it hasn't done me any harm being on it for longer than was strictly necessary I'm sure. ( Apart from maybe feeling a bit guilty when I have snuck the occasional lettuce leaf or spoonful of yoghurt.)

As it is approaching holiday season the consultant reminded me I need to stay out of the sun to avoid aggravating my GVHD and also that I wasn't allowed to go swimming. I know that will be the final proof of my immune system's return to normality when I am allowed to go swimming in public baths.

Writing & Reunion

As you can see from the widget at the top of the blog I am doing well with my fund raising and that total doesn't include the money from the dozen or sales of my book yet as the printing company pays in single monthly installements. However if you haven't yet ordered your copy or made a donation then please consider doing so.

On the writing front I've written a short story for entry into a competition being run by a podcast that I listen to. It's what is known as a Flash Fiction competition which is the name given to stories with very low word limits. In this case it is 500 words. All the stories will be published on the podcasts' forum pages with the authors' names removed and then the members of the forum ( any listener of the podcast basically ) get to vote on their favourite stories in a series of play offs for the want of a better word.

The three winners get paid for their contribution and have it recorded professionally as one of the podcast episodes.

The nature of the voting process means it's against the rules to garner support for your entry; it must stand on its own merits, so for that reason I won't say anymore about the competition or my entry into it other than to say I'm quite pleased with my effort and I will be interested to see if it makes it past the initial voting rounds.

The judging will be over by the end of July and then I'll be able to tell you how I did and let you see the story if you are interested.

You are allowed to enter two stories and the closing date for entries is not until the end of June so if inspiration strikes then I may enter another story.

T + 630 Enquiry Conference Part Two

Posted by raetsel at Tuesday, June 08, 2010

As previously advertised here are my reviews and reflections on the talks delivered at the Enquiry 2010 Conference.

Andrew Copson

Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanism Association, the umbrella organisation for humanist groups in the UK, gave the first talk at the conference.

Always a tricky spot in any conference Andrew gave an excellent talk about the objections to Humanism which went through some of the principle objections people often raise to the idea of being a Humanist and then in turn provide counter-arguments to those objections.

His style and delivery was light and entertaining whilst being extremely erudite and he was able to easily draw on a vast knowledge of some of the key writers on the subject of humanism.

To paraphrase his definition of what humanists believe:-

  • There is natural and scientific understanding of the world without recourse to the supernatural or belief in a deity.
  • Humans have only one life and there is no afterlife.
  • Morals come naturally out of being human.
  • Believe that what is right is that which promotes human welfare
  • Humans can and should create meaning and purpose in their own lives.
You can think of it as a sort of "Atheism+" creating a proactive, positive approach to life and living.

Each of the objections were described in a couple of sentences but also summed up in a more direct and amusing quote which was usually something that had been said directly to Andrew at some point.

These included:

I can't understand why you aren't a rapist.

The argument is that without God it is not possible to have a valid moral code for life. One of the key arguments to counter this is that it is not really a truly moral or good act if you are only doing it because you hope to get reward in the afterlife or avoid punishment and divine retribution. It is a bit like naughty school children only behaving when Sir is in the room.

The actual quote was said to Andrew by a priest and perhaps says more about what the priest thought his moral code was stopping him from naturally wanting to do.

Science can't explain love.

The idea that science can't explain everything and in particular cannot explain the emotions like love and joy is is a charge laid at the door of humanists who are often described as too rational and too dry.

Whether or not science can provide an explanation for the workings of emotions or not is something of a moot point, even though it seems plausible that the further investigation of the structures of the brain and the nature of consciousness will provide a basis for such understanding.

The point is moot because the emotions are not diminished by any physiological explanation of them any more than the enjoyment of listening to a song and being moved by it is undermined by being able to read music or play an instrument.

Richard Dawkins is your Pope

The idea that humanism is just another form of religion with the same goals and structures is expressed by this sentiment.

Andrew's argument against this showed that the ideas behind humanism existed in various forms long before the term was coined in the way it is used now back in the 18th Century. As such it is a term that is applied retrospectively to a number of different movements that have existed in different cultures going back thousands of years.

This idea of humanism basically being a religion was something that would have a lot of resonance throughout the conference especially in relation to humanist communities and humanist chaplains.

Is this all there is?

The idea that because humanists don't believe in an afterlife or a supernatural creator somehow diminishes either humanity or the wonder of human existence is extremely short-sighted and in some ways rather sad.

Richard Dawkins has tackled this with an expansive response along the lines of "yes this is ALL there is" and going on the list all the amazing achievements of humankind and all the joy and wonder that there is in the natural world.

Andrew also quoted in a full a beautiful poem by Matthew Arnold that showed how impoverishing it was to only be looking towards the afterlife.

I have been able to track down the poem "From the Hymn of Empedocles" and quote the relevant part here:-

Is it so small a thing
To have enjoy'd the sun,
To have lived light in the spring,
To have loved, to have thought, to have done;
To have advanced true friends, and beat down baffling foes;

That we must feign a bliss
Of doubtful future date,
And while we dream on this
Lose all our present state,
And relegate to worlds yet distant our repose?

T + 629 Enquire Conference Part One

Posted by raetsel at Monday, June 07, 2010

There will be a medical update to the blog later this week as this Wednesday I am attending the transplant clinic for what will be the first time since I started tapering off my dose of ciclosporin.

Enquiry 2010 Conference

This weekend just gone I attended the Enquiry 2010 Conference put on by the Chris Worfolk Foundation on the topic of "Atheism in the 21st Century" and held at the Crown Plaza hotel in Birmingham.

One of the main reasons I went to this event was because of the calibre of the speakers they had there, as you can see from the link on the conference website. Professor A C Grayling and Professor Chris French were people I had heard speak on radio on various topics and I donated funds to help the, sadly unsuccessful, campaign to ensure Dr Evan Harris held his seat in the recent election.

As it turns out it was an excellent conference and really opened my eyes to a number of issues raised not only by the people I was expecting to perform well, as it were.

I've spoken before on this blog of being an atheist ( though as a result of this conference I would also describe myself as a humanist, but more of that anon).

You might think this is something of an academic pursuit and as one friend teased me perhaps I was only going there to get reassurance from being with other atheists that I was doing the right thing and wouldn't regret my choice when I awoke in the afterlife feeling rather warm.

However what the conference brought home to me is that being an atheist and humanist in the UK in the 21st Century is far from an academic exercise but one that has real practical implications. More specifically the corollary of that is that the influence and impact of religious belief in the UK has real practical and detrimental effects on the lives of many people who don't themselves have religious beliefs.

So whilst it was a fun conference with some very informative, entertaining speakers and some academic elements it also had some serious points to make or questions to pose.

As you can see this blog post is headed Part One as I intend to write a more detailed review of the talks I heard and my thoughts on them over the coming days across more than one blog post.

As ever with this blog, part of why I write it is just to have a record of things for me to look back on and I appreciate not everyone will be interested in the proceedings of this conference but in a couple of key areas I would ask you to give some consideration to the issues I'm writing about. ( I'll probably flag those up in a summary post at the end of the reviews.)

If you want a sneak preview of what I'll be writing about then here are some links to follow:-