Category Archives: Religion
I have a Thunderer piece (opinionated editorial) in The Times. The Times itself was nicknamed “The Thunderer” back when it was the UK’s leading newspaper of record. Some might criticise me for submitting to it now that it’s Murdoch, but I think the need to communicate trumps considerations of ideological purity. (I would, however, draw the line at The Sun.)*
Background: As regular readers will know, the Scottish Secular Society petition to remove unelected Church appointees from Local Authority Educating Committees has been closed, but on the most favourable possible terms. The Scottish Government has undertaken to review the equalities implications of its current reorganisation of education, and, in addition, to consider the points that we raised. The Public Editions Committee has thanked us for raising these important issues, invited us to re-submit our case if, after reorganisation, that still seems necessary, and has forwarded the matter to the Education and Skills Committee, which will be considering this issue as part of its overall discussion of the reorganisation.
Thunderer piece: This is my orginal version. The version as published, slightly cut back for reasons of space, is here. Here I give the most significant sentence that was cut back, with omissions restored and highlighted, followed by the full original text.
There is need for discussion of the entire role of religion and religious organisations in education, within an increasingly non-religious Scotland, covering such matters as the Religious Observance requirement, the nature of Religious Education (too often based on teaching one particular doctrine as true), and the inclusion, in Catholic schools, of factual information about human sexuality and birth control in Religious and Moral Education, under the control of the Council of Bishops, whose own experience of these matters is highly untypical.
Full original text: Under legislation dating back to 1929 and beyond, Read the rest of this entry
For full background on the Scottish Secular Society’s petition for the removal of unelected Church representatives from Local Authority Education Committees, see here, and for the most recent posting on the topic see here. Now read on:
It’s complicated. Our petition, though closed, is very much alive, and has achieved its objectives, unless, of course, it hasn’t.
The Public Petitions Committee (full report below) tells us that the petition has done its work. Maybe; we suspend judgement until we see the shape of Scotland’s post-review educational system. And if we don’t like what we see, the Committee has invited us to reopen the issue. At that point we will actually be in a stronger position than if the petition had been left open, since in a new submission we will be able to tailor our arguments to the situation as it will then be. (And one change in the situation, in the few days since the Committee met, is a further reported decline in religious affiliation in Scotland, especially among the young.)
Meantime, we are thanked for raising important issues, the Scottish Government has undertaken to review our concerns, and the matter has also been forwarded to the Education and Skills Committee, who will assuredly bear it in mind when the time comes to discuss the promised educational reorganisation. By a remarkable coincidence, the Convener of the Petitions Committee is the same person as the Deputy Convener of Education and Skills. Moreover, the membership of Education and Skills includes Tavish Scott (MSP for Shetland), a declared supporter of the reform that we seek, so we can be confident that the issues will receive full attention. So, more to the point, can the Scottish Government as it drafts its plans for education change.
To quote the petition’s website https://www.parliament.scot/GettingInvolved/Petitions/ChurchAppointees “29 June 2017: The Committee agreed Read the rest of this entry
Catastrophism versus gradualism; this controversy was laid to rest by TH Huxley in his 1869 Address to the Geological Society, but UK Young Earth Creationists persist in parading the corpse as if it presented a living challenge to current thinking. Perhaps it appeals to their absolutist binary mindset.
McIntosh himself is a member of the group mendaciously mislabelled Truth in Science, which distributed the equally mendacious neo-creationist tract Exploring Evolution to UK schools some years ago, and is an author of the error-saturated Origins, Examining the Evidence, published by that group. BCSE has published a detailed review of Exploring Evolution here.
This piece by my friend, the geologist historian Anglican priest Michael Roberts, will tell you more about McIntosh’s writing than you wish to know, but will convey a wealth of fascinating geological and historical information in the process.
THE GEOLOGY OF GENESIS FOR TODAY
One of the best selling British creationist books is Genesis for Today by Andy McIntosh, which is now in its 5th edition. https://www.dayone.co.uk/products/genesis-for-today
Most of the book is a popular exposition of Genesis 1 to 11 – and some of it I agree with, but not his insistence that it is literal history.
In Genesis for Today McIntosh gives three scientific appendices, which are much the same in the 1st and 5th editions. I could either go through and nit-pick his geological errors or consider them under main headings. I have chosen the latter.
Most would think that a professor in a scientific discipline at a leading university (with a first-rate geology department) would be able to make a reasonable showing on geology.Many amateurs and non-geologists I’ve met in geological societies have a clear grasp.
From the whole of his book, other writings and…
View original post 2,117 more words
Church nominees on Education Committees; Petitions Committee writes to Scottish Government (for 3rd time)
The Scottish Secular Society is petitioning the Scottish Parliament for the removal of the theocratic anomaly, according to which every Local Authority Education Committee in Scotland must include three representatives of religious bodies. These church nominees are not answerable to the electorate, nor to the elected Councillors, and do not even have to declare an interest.
The Public Petitions Committee has now discuss the matter at three separate meetings. At its November 24 meeting last year, it took evidence from Spencer Fildes, who is advancing the Petition on behalf of the Society, with minor contributions from me, and agreed to write to interested parties, including of course the Scottish Government. So far, so predictable. On February 2 of this year, it reviewed the responses, declared itself unsatisfied with the governmental response regarding the equalities duty as it applies here, and wrote to them again. This was a highly significant development. The Committee agrees, as the Equalities and Human Rights Commission itself has agreed since the matter was first raised in 2013, that there are equalities issues here that invite discussion in terms of Scotland’s 1998 Human Rights Act and 2010 Equality Act. What is relevant is the duty of any public body, including the Government itself, to eliminate discrimination and advance equality of opportunity, and of course the privileged position of religious communities on the Education Committees is discrimination and inequality of opportunity, since it creates positions of political power for which only those holding certain religious beliefs are eligible.
In reply to the Committee’s letter, sent February 3, the Scottish Government stated that it will
seek to undertake an Equality Impact Assessment on any policy proposals emerging from the Education Governance Review. It is our intention that once this process has been undertaken we will then consider any of the Scottish Secular Society’s proposals that are not addressed through any changes made by the Education Governance Review.
We were happy, at least for the moment, with this reply. The Committee was not. At its most recent meeting (April 27), the Committee agreed to write to the Government yet again, asking for clarification of the timescale of its planned response to the Education Governance Review, whether it was committed to carrying out an equality impact assessment, and whether the final sentence of its letter referred to the Petition, or to the Society’s submission to the Review.
Most significantly, the Convener (the redoubtable Johann Lamont) further commented
I was quite interested in the idea that the public sector equality duty does not apply to legislation that we have already passed—I was quite intrigued by that. That seemed to me to be saying, “Well, that was before we thought about the equality question, so we don’t have to include it.” I suppose that the question for the Scottish Government concerns the point at which it looks at things that have been done in the past to see whether they match up, and whether the governance review affords the Government the opportunity to consider that issue.
it seems clear that she, for one, will not be happy if the Government evades our arguments on the legalistic grounds that the legislation imposing the Religious Representatives requirement predates the equalities legislation.
The Committee formally agreed to keep the petition open pending the Government’s reply, with one member saying that they could then ”decide how to take the petition further”, and the Convener thanked us for our ongoing interest.
Three years ago, in response to a very similar petition, the Equality and Human Rights Commission expressed its concerns at the present situation, to no avail. The then Petitions Committee forwarded that petition to the Education and Skills Committee, who allowed it to run into the sand because of procedural complexities. So what has changed? In my judgement, several things. Firstly, the Public Petitions Committee is adopting a much more assertive role, rather than merely acting as a gatekeeper. Its convener, Johann Lamont, is an experienced and formidable politician, and former leader of the Scottish Labour Party, a position from which she resigned in 2014, giving as reason interference by the Westminster Labour leadership. She has said of herself
I have been a committee convener, proud of building consensus where possible, to test legislation and to challenge the government of the day.
Secondly, we have the steady drift away from the Churches. This has two effects. It adds weight to the argument that the present arrangement is unjust, because those excluded from the privileged position of Religious Representative are now an actual majority among younger Scots. And as a corollary, it reduces the electoral cost of opposing the Churches. It is the duty of elected Members to consider such things, not only out of self-interest, but because of their duty to represent their constituents.
It will be some time before the fate of our Petition becomes clearer, but, whatever happens next, the issue will not go away. The Public Petitions Committee has shown that it will not be fobbed off with mere generalisations. We have, with the help of our MSP friends, succeeded in framing the discussion in terms of equality, rather than in terms of religion, and I am increasingly convinced that the reforms we seek are now only a matter of time.
To support the Scottish Secular Society click on “Donate” button. The Scottish Secular society exists to promote freedom of, and freedom from, religious belief, and holds meetings on subjects of interest approximately once a month.
Appendix: relevant documents
Full documentation is on the Scottish Government website, here. The most recent documents are shown below:
Thank you for your letter of 3 February in respect of Petition PE1623 from the Scottish Secular Society calling for changes to the current practices under Section 124 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 which requires that local authority education committees must include members nominated by various churches.
Following your meeting on 2 February you requested the Scottish Government’s timescale for publishing the Education Governance Review findings and whether an assessment of the position of unelected church appointees had been undertaken in respect of the Public Sector Equality Duty.
As you are aware, the Education Governance Review was launched by the Deputy First Minister on 13 September 2016 and ended on 6 January 2017. The purpose of the Education Governance Review was to ask consultees about the role that every part of our education system plays to deliver education in Scotland and how this could be improved. The consultation asked 17 questions, covering 5 key areas:
- Empowering teachers, practitioners, parents, schools and communities
- Strengthening ‘the middle’ – how teachers, practitioners, schools and other local and regional partners work together to deliver education – including through encouraging school clusters and the establishment of new educational regions
- A clear national framework and building capacity in education
- Fair funding – learner-centred funding
The Scottish Government received over 1100 responses to the consultation, including a response from the Scottish Secular Society, in addition to this over 700 people attended the public engagement sessions. The consultation responses, where permission was given, were published on the Scottish Government’s consultation hub on 3 February. The Scottish Government is now taking time to consider these responses, and wider evidence, and will publish their findings in due course.
In relation to the issues of an EQIA, in 1996, section 124 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 was substituted into that Act by the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994. As this predates the Equalities Act 2010 there was no requirement to carry out an assessment of this provision in terms of the public sector equality duty at the time it was instructed.
The Public Sector Equality Duty in the Equality Act 2010 has three main elements. It requires public authorities to have ‘due regard’ to the need to:
(a) Eliminate discrimination, harassment, victimisation and any other conduct that is prohibited by or under the Act
(b) Advance equality of opportunity between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it
(c) Foster good relations between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it
Please be assured that we will seek to undertake an Equality Impact Assessment on any policy proposals emerging from the Education Governance Review. It is our intention that once this process has been undertaken we will then consider any of the Scottish Secular Society’s proposals that are not addressed through any changes made by the Education Governance Review.
Official report of April 27 meeting: Local Authority Education Committees (Church Appointees) (PE1623)
The Convener: (Johann Lamont, Labour, Glasgow)
The next petition is PE1623, on unelected church appointees on local authority education committees. It was lodged by Spencer Fildes on behalf of the Scottish Secular Society. Submissions by the Scottish Government and the petitioner have been circulated to members, along with a note by the clerk.
The Scottish Government identifies the number of responses that it received on its education governance review and says that it will publish its findings in due course. In response to our question on any assessment it had undertaken in respect of the public sector equality duty, the Scottish Government advises that such an assessment was not a requirement at the time that the legislation was instructed, but that is something that it will seek to undertake on any policy proposals that arise from its governance review. The Government adds that it intends to consider any of the petitioners’ proposals that are not addressed through the governance review.
The petitioners broadly welcome the Scottish Government’s response but contend that it will not be possible to establish whether any proposals that emerge from the governance review address the issues that have been raised until they have been assessed.
Do members have any comments or suggestions for action to take?
Maurice Corry: (C, West Scotland)
First, I think that we should seek from the Scottish Government an update on its anticipated timescale for the publication of its findings from its education governance review, which will apply to the local authorities as well. Subsequently, we should have clarification on whether the Government will carry out any equality impact assessment on policy proposals from that review. Thirdly, we should have clarification on whether the Government’s reference to the Scottish Secular Society’s proposals relate to what is called for in the petition or to the society’s response to the consultation. It is also important that we refer the matter to COSLA for its views.
Okay. We got some information from COSLA in response to our initial search for evidence.
Do members agree that we write to the Scottish Government as suggested? I was quite interested in the idea that the public sector equality duty does not apply to legislation that we have already passed—I was quite intrigued by that. That seemed to me to be saying, “Well, that was before we thought about the equality question, so we don’t have to include it.” I suppose that the question for the Scottish Government concerns the point at which it looks at things that have been done in the past to see whether they match up, and whether the governance review affords the Government the opportunity to consider that issue.
Rona Mackay: (SNP, Strathkelvin and Bearsden)
I agree. We need clarification on the points that Maurice Corry raised. After we get a response, we can decide how to take the petition further.
Okay. Are we agreed on the action to take?
Members indicated agreement.
Again, we thank the petitioners for their on-going interest in the question.
Here are my questions. I will post the answers in due course.
All parties: I would like Glasgow City ***’s views on the following questions:
The teaching of evolution and creationism in schools
The presence on education committees of Church nominees not answerable to the electorate
Inclusive sex education including realistic education regarding contraception
Your attitude toward suggestions that Free Schools be set up in Scotland, as they have been in England
All parties except Conservative:
Whether you would under any conditions go into coalition with the Tories
Labour only: Your leaflet in my ward refers to “SNP Bus Pass cuts”. What is your evidence that any such cuts are contemplated?
SNP only: My ward’s Labour leaflet refers to “SNP Bus Pass cuts”. Are any such cuts contemplated?
Comment (all parties): I will be sharing your answers (or your failure to provide an answer) with my social network and blog readership.
Addresses, alphabetically by party: Conservative firstname.lastname@example.org, [Scottish] Greens https://greens.scot/glasgow “Contact us”, [Scottish] Labour Scotland@labour.org.uk, LibDem email@example.com, SNP https://snpforglasgow.scot/contact/
Notes on questions: My position on most of these questions is well-known. There is talk of setting up Free Schools on the English model. This in my opinion would be disastrous, since it would be used to promote denominational schools where demographics would not otherwise justify them, and, worse, to shield those schools from adequate Local Authority control. Given the importance of this issue, among others, I would regard the presence of Conservatives on a coalition as potentially a matter for grave concern. See here: http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/15224503.Tories_target_half_of_Glasgow_and_council_king_maker_role/?ref=ebmpn
Things continue to go better than we could have hoped.
The story so far: For historical reasons, dating back to 1872 and beyond, all Local Authority Education Committees in Scotland must by law include three full voting members nominated by the Churches. Our petition, PE01623, asks for their removal, on grounds of democracy and equality, especially in view of the fact that most parents now describe themselves as having no religion. Spencer Fildes and I gave evidence before the Public Petitions Committee last November, and the Committee, having sought additional written submissions, met again in February. At that meeting, the Convener, the redoubtable Johann Lamont, laid considerable emphasis on the equalities issue, and quoted the comment from the Jewish community that “none of these issues have been addressed.” The Committee agreed to write again to the Scottish Government, asking about the timescale of the current review of educational governance, and its response to the matters raised.
Now read on: Last month, the Scottish Government responded, and we in our turn have replied to that response. We see a steady softening in the Government’s position, from asserting in 2014, when faced with a similar petition, that the presence of the Church appointees “provides support to the authority in discharging its duties”, to a 2016 letter saying that it “was viewed” in the 1973 legislation as providing such assistance, to its present position, which after a review of the legal background goes on to state: Read the rest of this entry
Archaeologists are puzzled by the significance of a cuneiform tablet dating to around 1400 BCE, recently discovered during excavations in Sumeria. A tentative translation, still controversial, is as follows:
“From Moses, General Secretary of the Brickmakers Union, Land of Goshen, greetings.
From my measurements of the sedimentology of the Nile Delta, I estimate that the river has been depositing sediment there for many tens of thousands of years. Concerning the origin of mankind, I am now convinced that we, the jabbering creatures of West Africa, and the knuckle-walking giants who live beyond Numidia are different species of the same family.
However, You-Know-Who has told me to come up with a simplified version of the story, which my members will be more capable of understanding.
I wonder if there is anything suitable among your own traditional mythologies. In particular, since the Internet has not yet been invented, can you send me by camel post a preprint of Enuma Elish. And if possible, an advance copy of your pending publication, The Flood of Gilgamesh. Read the rest of this entry
I am published in Muslim Heritage.
Islamic Foreshadowing of Evolution (full article here).
Gloriously illustrated by the Muslim Heritage editorial team; so much for the common impression that Islam forbids representational art.
I briefly describe present-day evolution science, and why the evidence for this is considered overwhelming, having earned endorsements from national academies worldwide, including the academies of several predominantly Muslim countries.
I show how Muslim thinkers (especially Al Biruni and Ibn Sina) went beyond Aristotle’s mere assertion that the Earth is old (for Aristotle, infinitely old), by observing and discussing fossils and sediments in an unmistakably scientific manner. I also discuss widespread claims that Islamic scholars had anticipated modern evolutionary thought, and come to the sad conclusion that these are not warranted. What is being described, by sources as diverse as the poet Rumi, the Ikhwan al-SafaI (Brethren of Purity, 8 – 10 C CE), and the pioneer social scientist Ibn Khaldun in 1377 CE, is the Great Chain of Being, derived from Aristotelian thought, and represents stages of development, but does not imply common descent, or change over time. I also look at the claims made on behalf of al Tusi, but fear that these will not stand examination.
The one clear example that I do find of anticipation of the central ideas of mutability of species and common descent comes from al Jahiz’s delightful Kitab al-Hayawan (Book of Living Things, 9 C CE), where among much other interesting material (though the story of birds cleaning crocodiles’ teeth is, alas, suspect) he correctly suggests common ancestry for wolves, dogs, and foxes.
I would be delighted to hear of other examples, provided these are accompanied by links to reliable translations (I regret that I cannot read Arabic or Persian) of the original material. I am of course aware of a great deal of twentieth and twentyfirst century literature that makes such claims, but on examination I have so far found these to be simply back-projection. We must also remember that earlier thinkers must be judge in the context of their own times, that they were unaware of the significance that observations would require at a later stage, and that to judge them according to how well they happen to agree with us, with our vastly expanded knowledge base, is unhistorical and, indeed, patronising.
On the relationship between evolution and Islam, I have this to say:
It is not my place to discuss this. I will merely point out that debate between those who accept and those who reject evolution can be found within all the Abrahamic religions, with discussion hingeing on the ways in which the ancient sacred text should be interpreted by a modern reader (Marwa Elshakry, of Columbia University History Department gives a scholarly account1). There are those who protect traditional interpretations by rejecting evolution, but such rejection carries a high cost since it creates a conflict between faith and worldly knowledge. And there are those who attempt to evade this conflict by denying the plain scientific facts; here the cost is even higher. There was a recent vigorous discussion of these topics organized by the Deen Institute,2 and the scientific academies of Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Morocco, Pakistan, Palestine, Turkey and Uzbekistan have joined others worldwide in affirming evolution.3
On the Muslim Heritage Facebook page, my article has received over 2000 “likes”. I am grateful to the editorial staff of Muslim Heritage for inviting me to contribute this article, and to Ehab Abouheif, Jim Al-Khalili, Glenn Branch, J. E. Montgomery, Cem Nizamoglu, Rebecca Stott, and Douglas Theobald for helpful discussions.
I will be posting a fuller summary of my rather lengthy article in due course.
1] Marwa Elshakry, Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1860-1950, University of Chicago Press, 2013.
2] OmarShahid.co.uk: “Muslim leaders urge Islamic community to rethink evolution theory” by Omar Shahid
3] interacademies.net: IAP on the Teaching of Evolution
“imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact, it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’ This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be all right, because this World was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.”
I yield to no one in my admiration for Douglas Adams, and admire here in particular his reminder that our place in the Universe may really be rather precarious. However, on this occasion he had been anticipated. Read the rest of this entry
The now Vice-President of the United States stands accused of having said that evolution is “just a theory”; see here and here. No he did not say that. What he did say (full text below, with notes) was far, far worse. Much more detailed and much more dangerous.
L: Pence being sworn in as a member of the House Education and Workforce Committee (CNN)
After reminding us that he was trained in law and history, he mangles the historical facts and legal significance of a key court case (the Scopes trial).
By quotemining a secondary source,* which he treats as if primary, he twists the then-recent discovery of Sahelanthropus into an argument against the underlying science. It is changeable, he argues, therefore it is uncertain.
He justifies this manoeuvre by harping on the ambiguous word “theory”, and making a falsely rigid distinction between theory and fact.
R: Sahelanthropus tchadensis, photo from Smithsonian Human Origins website
And worst of all, he asks his colleagues to “demand [emphasis added] that educators around America teach evolution not as fact, but as theory”. The proponent, when it suits him, of small Government wants Washington to tell teachers how to teach.
Pence has been accused of stupidity because of the factual and logical errors contained in his speech. On the contrary, Read the rest of this entry