Category Archives: Society

Highland Education Committee Church Appointee blames gays for bullying

The Strathspey Herald reports that:

‘A clergyman has used his position on a Highland Council education committee to criticize the alleged promotion of homosexuality in schools.

Alexander MacLean, a member of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, also suggested that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) young people are bullied because they are “overt” and attract attention.” … Mr MacLean is one of three religious representative on the committee who have full voting rights under UK legislation.’ [Emphasis added]

The Strathspey Herald has grasped the central  point. The issue, as always, is not whether Mr Maclean’s comments are acceptable, but whether it is appropriate for him to have a legally assured privileged position on the Education Committee from which to advance them, over and above any support his views may have in the community and among the elected Councillors.   He holds that position as the result of legislation imposed from Westminster before devolution, even though education is itself a devolved area. So the Scottish Parliament can change this anachronistic and undemocratic law, and we are asking them to do so.

The episode illustrates more clearly than any words of mine the need to remove the Church nominees from their unelected positions of power. Mr MacLean is entitled to his views, but he is not entitled to a privileged platform at the heart of local government from which to promote them.

Not waving but drowning

Adventures in the Anthropocene

Not all the news is bad; but strange times, when we have to welcome leadership from China.

Wandering Gaia is Gaia Vince, author of the award-winning Adventures in the Anthropocene, part of the emerging literature that welcomes the challenge of positively managing the planet.

 

See also Scientists’ March on Washington and Geneticist launches bid for US Senate

Wandering Gaia

If, like me, you wake everyday with a stone of foreboding in your belly, check the news to discover the world is a little worse, and stumble through your day under the heaviest pall of despair, then you’re not having the best 2017 either – I’m sorry.

Is this a new Dark Ages, this deliberate political, cultural, societal regression?

I’m sure there have been a thousand analyses of how we got into this darkly farcical horror show – and I mean the Trump presidency and Brexit disasters specifically, rather than the continuing awfulness happening to people Yemen, Syria, Nigeria, etc etc – but to be honest, one of my few comforts at the moment is my social bubble made up of kind, intelligent people who are also appalled by this new “post-fact”, mean era.

So what hope, can I give? And, yes, there is always hope!

Even though these recent…

View original post 197 more words

A campaign to thank international NHS staff, in memory of my daughter-in-law Nikki two years on

While NHS Scotland is devolved, immigration policy is reserved to Westminster.

In memory of his wife Nikki, who died two years ago come March of complicated leukaemia, despite expert care from a multinational team and international cooperation to find a suitable bone marrow donor, my son Geoff is launching this campaign, to enhance awareness of the massive contribution made by immigrants to health services throughout the UK, and without which the NHS would collapse. He writes:

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Nikki, Geoff, and ther children Phoebe and Oscar, a few months before she was diagnosed with leukemia

On 21st March it will be 2 years since Nikki died and I want to enlist your help in a campaign I’m working on partly in her memory.  In our first year since losing Nikki we raised over £10k for leukaemia and cancer care and research charities, and nearly £2.5k for Cruse Bereavement Care (who were a lifeline for me when things were at their most difficult).  However, I’m not doing any fundraising now because, whilst this generated public interest, most donations have come from family and friends.  I am well aware that I can induce compassion fatigue amongst everyone I know.

I want to do something else that I see as a fitting memorial to Nikki, and that is a campaign called the United Nations of the NHS, to thank and celebrate our international workforce.  The idea is to thank and celebrate our international NHS staff, to pass on messages to show that they are both needed and wanted and to pass on these messages to their employers and, via the Secretary of State for Health, the government.

This arose partly because of increasingly xenophobic rhetoric amongst politicians (across the political spectrum I should add) that we have seen since the Brexit vote last June.  I was particularly incensed by remarks that suggested that we should somehow aim to phase out foreign doctors in the NHS.

First off, 26% of NHS medical staff are non-UK born and 11% of the NHS workforce as a whole is foreign born.  We cannot recruit enough GPs and consultants as it is, so how can we have a  functioning health service drawing from a much smaller pool of suitably qualified staff?  Even if we were to expand medical education substantially it would take 10 years for a new medical student to become a GP (and there are arguments for making a GP training longer) and longer for a consultant.

Second, there is a moral argument.  After the Brexit vote I have had many EU born friends in tears because the message is “You’re not welcome.”  This, despite the fact that people have been living here for years, have been in jobs, started businesses, paid taxes, had relationships and families and participated as fully in UK national life as anyone who was born here.

Third, and this is why it relates to Nikki.  Nikki’s case was extremely medically complex.  Not only was the particular sub-type of her leukaemia complex and high risk, the nature of her relapse was rare, even for the most specialist haemo-oncologists to have seen.  The consultants leading her care are involved in international research and clinical collaboration, the search for a stem cell donor was international.  The NHS team was international too.  There were Indian doctors and nurses from Spain and Ireland.  Given that the team would also have included scientists, cleaners, caterers, porters, managers and administrators and many others (not all of whom we would have seen) I am sure that other nations were involved in Nikki’s care – hence, the United Nations of the NHS.

Where you come in

This is a web-based campaign (it is still embryonic).  You take a sneak peek at [under construction] and let me have any comments.  We will also be including a page for international NHS staff to share their stories about how they came to be working in the NHS.  But we need patient and carer stories now.

If you have a story of NHS care, where part of that care was provided by or depended on someone foreign born, I really want to hear so we can start with your story.

We will launch initially in Brighton (my adopted home) in March.  There are three reasons for this timing:

  1. The NHS will have a difficult winter and stories about such pressures will be fresh in people’s minds.
  2. This will be around the time that Article 50 will be triggered.
  3. As I said above, this is also the second anniversary of Nikki’s death and I want to do it to commemorate her too. As you probably know, Nikki was mixed heritage and both her parents were immigrants.  She was also very internationalist in her outlook and I know she would approve of this campaign.

If you could help, particularly if you could provide a story before we launch I would be extremely grateful.

Thank you so much.

Geoff

 

Presentation to Parliament: Removing Church nominees from Council Education Committees (Petition PE01623)

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Update: the transcript of the meeting is now available at http://www.parliament.scot/parliamentarybusiness/report.aspx?r=10656 then “New petitions” then “Local Authority Education Committees”

The petition progresses. Yesterday, Spencer  Fildes and I (actually, mainly Spencer) gave evidence to Holyrood’s Public Petitions Committee. The petition itself is now closed for signature, but submissions from  organisations, or from individuals, especially I would suggest parents and teachers, remain welcome at petitions@parliament.Scot. (Suggestions: specify PE01623, and keep it short.)

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Johann Lamont, Convener, leads the Committee’s questioning

As I reported yesterday, the Committee heard us with close attention, questioned us for almost half an hour, and resolved to seek further testimony from interested bodies. We could not have wished for more at this stage. There will now be an interval while responses and other submissions are collected, for consideration by the Committee, probably early in the New Year. The Committee will then have to decide whether to close (i.e. kill) the petition, or to forward it to the  Education Skills Committee for further consideration. It would be unwise to attempt to predict which of those options it will choose, but they clearly agree that we have raised an important and timely issue.

I posted the BBC’s Parliamant Live coverage here yesterday, and the full Parliamentary video of the proceedings is avvailable here. But time to let Spencer have his say:

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Spencer makes his opening presentation

Thankyou, Convener, and my thanks to the Committee for inviting us.

At present, every Council Education Committee in Scotland is required by law to include three full voting members nominated by the Churches. Voters and their elected representatives have no choice in the matter. This legal requirement dates back to 1929, and in its present form to 1973. It is so broadly worded, that it could well apply to any future education system.

We believe this current system is out of place and does not reflect a constantly evolving, rapidly modernising Scottish democracy. We would not dream of allowing the Churches to impose members on this Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee. But that’s what we’re doing to Scottish councils.The Scottish Secular Society believes it is time for change. Currently, the future of Scottish education is under active discussion. Now would be the perfect time to review the status quo.

One major consideration is the fact that parents who hold no belief now represent the majority among primary school parents. This has now created a democratic deficit across Local Education Authorities.

To address this changing demographic, we respectfully suggest that the simplest change would be to relax the requirement. We would like to see the law allowing, not compelling, the elected members to appoint up to 3 such representatives, and to decide whether or not to give them voting powers, much as they do right now for parent and teacher representatives.

To gauge the views of Scotland’s MSP’s on this matter, we wrote to every one of them to find we have considerable cross-party support. Two MSPs actually thought that the system already was the way we would like it to be, and approved of that. Other MSP comments, in brief:

“there may well be merit in looking afresh at this again”, and “there should be a greater amount of autonomy in choosing the best people whether they be religious leaders or not”, “I am broadly supportive of the concept of members of Education Committees being elected”, “it is up to each local authority to decide who should be on the education committee.”, “the current arrangement must change” and “the status quo is an anachronism”.

Our supporters include

  • Professor Dame Anne Glover, who was scientific adviser to the Scottish Government and then to the EU
  • Clergy Letter Project, which represents 15,000 ordained clergy worldwide
  • The Secretary of Glasgow Unitarian Church.
  • Glasgow Theosophical Society,

As our petition statement shows, the present situation is undemocratic, unjust, encroaches on human rights, and is highly problematic in enforcement. In addition, it is unnecessary, infringes local autonomy, and is the opposite of participatory democracy.

It is unnecessary, since denominational schools have their own separate mechanisms of governance. Many Churches are already involved in individual schools, including non-denominational schools. Believers, like everyone else, can and should vote, take part in public debate, and stand for office, however, unlike what we are challenging today – religion in this case should be afforded no privilege over those who may hold no belief.

It infringes on local autonomy because laws handed down by central government (in this case, the 1973 and 1994 Westminster governments) are imposed on local Councils regardless of their wishes.

It is certainly not participatory democracy. The broader community is not involved, and the appointees are answerable only to their own Churches.

Finally, many councils have difficulty filling some positions, and there are some, in our view, with questionable appointments. If the system was meeting a legitimate need, such recruitment problems would unlikely arise.

The Church of Scotland itself admits that the system requires an element of reform, and the simplest, is the one that we suggest.

Scotland’s regions are highly diverse. We believe Local Councils themselves are the best judges of local needs, have a local mandate from their voters, and should be free to use it.

In conclusion, we would respectfully ask you to seek opinions from organisations representing non-believers as well as believers, and from organisations concerned with schooling and with human rights, such as Time for Inclusive Education and the Equality and Human Rights Commission, with a view to forwarding our petition to the Education and Skills Committee.

9 questions atheists find insulting? Bollocks

No one is going to learn anything from anybody if one side lays down rules about what the other side is allowed to say, before the discussion even starts

I’m an atheist, and I’m feeling insulted

Greta_Christina_at_SkepticonInsulted by Greta Christina’s article, “9 Answers to Common Questions for Atheists – So You Don’t Insult Us By Asking”, http://everydayfeminism.com/2016/08/questions-atheists-find-insulting/. Insulted by the condescending and preachy answers offered on my behalf. Insulted that the author presumes to speak on my behalf at all, as if she were the privileged custodian of some kind of atheist credo. But above all, insulted by the suggestion that I am so intellectually fragile as to find the questions insulting.

For an atheist – correction, for me as an atheist, since I have no mandate to speak for others – it is a matter of deep principle that all questions and (unless there is reason to do otherwise) all questioners should be treated with respect. This is one of the ways in which, as I see it, atheism is morally superior to many kinds of religion, in which even asking certain questions is regarded as sinful, or even blasphemous.

Why am I discussing this?

I don’t often talk about the fact that I’m an atheist. That’s because it’s usually irrelevant, especially as I collaborate with diverse groups of believers and unbelievers, in my attempts to share my scientific interests, protect education from theocratic interference, and advance my humanitarian agenda. I also exercise reasonable tact in discussing emotionally laden issues. The existence or otherwise of gods is an emotionally laden issue, especially for believers, but there is no shortage of emotionally laden issues in other areas, from economic theory to football. And the idea that atheism needs special protection is, for me, anathema.

What are the questions, and what are my answers?

Ok, then, here are the questions to which Christina objects (I think it’s fair use in a review like this to just copy them), which she doesn’t want to hear again because she believes she has answered them once and for all, and, for what they’re worth, my own answers, which I promise you are a lot shorter than hers:

  1. How can you be moral without believing in God?
  2. How do you have any meaning in your life?
  3. Doesn’t it take just as much faith to be an atheist as it does to be a believer?
  4. Isn’t atheism just a religion?
  5. What’s the point of atheist groups? How can you have a community for something you don’t believe in?
  6. Why do you hate God? (Or ‘Aren’t you just angry at God?’)
  7. But have you read the Bible, or some other Holy Book, heard about some supposed miracle, etc?
  8. What if you’re wrong?
  9. Why are you atheists so angry?

1.We don’t derive our morality from God. None of us do. We derive it from social norms, and our shared humanity, and then use gods to rationalise it. How, after all, do we know that what God wants is good, unless we know what good means already? (This argument goes back at least as far as Plato, and is related to Hume’s observation that we can’t derive morals from facts alone, whatever Sam Harris may say.) One reason for the current decline of religion in the West is the clear superiority of morality based on humanity to that based on traditional religion, in attitudes towards women, gays, minorities, and dissenters.

2.No, I’m not going to give you a recipe for finding meaning. You have to find your own.

3.Russell’s Teapot. I cannot absolutely disprove the existence of a china teapot circling the Sun, but it requires a lot more faith to believe in its existence than in its nonexistence.

4.I can’t improve on Penn Jillette: Atheism is a religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby.

5.I agree. The atheist and mainly atheist groups I belong to are united by such things as examining morality, improving education, and learning about current controversies. Atheism is not enough.

6.I have seen, and heard of, horrible things, and if I did believe in God, I would indeed hate him.

7.Of course I have. But as evidence, I don’t find it terribly convincing.

8.Pascal’s Wager. But what if there is a God who values integrity, who will reject those who accepted him out of hope for reward, and accept those who rejected him out of conviction?

9.I am very angry, and so should you be. I am angry about current inequalities of wealth and power; about the damage done by denial of global warming, evolution, and the usefulness of vaccines; and about the privileged access of Churches to schoolchildren in the United Kingdom, where I live. But I trust I would be equally angry about these things if I were, myself, a believer. I certainly ought to be, unless my religion had corrupted my morality.

And on occasions, like this one, I am angry at those who presume to speak for me.

Saving the worst till last

But maybe you could do a little Googling before you start asking us questions that we’ve not only fielded a hundred times before, but that have bigotry and dehumanization and religious privilege embedded in the very asking.

No, I do not expect people to do an online search before I condescend to talk to them about my beliefs, or the lack of them. Perhaps, after all, they want a conversation, are interested in seeing how an actual person responds, want to get to know me better, or simply want to spend time over a pint. And I detest the collective “we”; it should be obvious from the above examples that the way I field these questions is very different from the way someone else might. We are, after all, discussing questions about how we as individuals view the world, rather than questions about how the world is. So it is the height of arrogance for any of us to speak for the atheist community, as if we were compelled to march in step. Nor do I see any bigotry in someone being genuinely puzzled as to how I can differ from them over any of these questions, and I do not think they are dehumanising me by wanting to know more. The very opposite, in fact.

As for ” religious privilege embedded in the very asking,” yes indeed, but the questioner is probably completely unaware of this fact, and the best way to make them aware is to answer the questions, in good faith, on their merits.

No one is going to learn anything from anybody if one side lays down rules about what the other side is allowed to say, before the discussion even starts. And if we grant those we disagree with the common courtesy of putting forward their own views in their own words, and the further courtesy of actually listening to them, then we, too, might learn something.

Image: Greta Christina at Skepticon 2014, Mark Schierbecker via Wikimedia, Creative Commons Licence 4.0

Transgender bathrooms, creationism, climate change denial, and the Ten Commandments

Toilet signs

Toilet signs, Ebay

Why does North Carolina want to force transgender persons to use the wrong public toilet? Why the steady stream of foredoomed bills demanding evenhanded treatment of evolution and creationism? And why endless attempts to mount official displays of the Ten Commandments, when such displays have repeatedly been ruled to breach the wall between Church and State?

Toilet etiquette is where prudery meets absurdity. Your chance of being embarrassed, let alone molested, by a transgender person in a US public toilet is probably zero, and certainly less than your chance of being shot dead at home by a toddler playing with a gun; after all, the only public display of genitalia is at the men’s urinal, and you can always use a booth if you prefer.

(It is said that an undergrad once asked Sir John Pentland Mahaffy, Provost of Trinity College Dublin, where he might find a lavatory. “At the end of the corridor,” Mahaffy grandly gestured, “you will find a door marked GENTLEMEN; but don’t let that stop you.” In the UK, of which Dublin was still part at the time, class trumps gender. Incidentally, Trinity had been admitting female undergraduates since 1903, 74 years before Harvard; I assume that sanitary arrangements were instituted to cope with this.)

It is established law in the US that the teaching of creationism serves a religious, rather than scientific or educational, purpose. It follows (Edwards v. Aguillard) that such teaching is unconstitutional in US public schools, since it violates the First Amendment separation of Church and State. There is no prospect of this ruling being overturned, unless we ever get a US Supreme Court packed by a creationist President.

It has also been repeatedly established that display of the Ten Commandments on State government property violates the US Constitution, for much the same reasons.

So why do we have States bringing in transgender bathroom laws, scientifically baseless (as discussed here by my friend Faye Flam), whose only effect would be to inconvenience and offend one particular small minority? Why did this monumental non-issue even spill over into the moronic drivelfest of the Republican Party’s nomination debate? Or attract so much attention that Pres. Obama’s statement of the obvious on the subject has been hailed as “historic”?

Why do we have a whole evolving family of “sound science teaching” bills, which would single out evolution, together with climate change, as subjects concerning which students should be taught “both sides”, or the “strengths and weaknesses” of what is in fact well established science?

And why should the current Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court keep on asserting his right to display the Ten Commandments in his courthouse? Does he really think it necessary to inform litigants that God brought them out of Egypt, wants them to be nice to their parents, and disapproves of graven images?

Stupidity? No, strategy. And a strategy that is highly evolved, if not indeed intelligently designed.

Consider how much these issues have in common. For a start, there is nostalgia for an imagined era of moral clarity and biblical belief. This feeds in to what is, I suspect, the most powerful of all political motivators, namely the sense of identity. We think as we do and vote as we do because of the kind of person we think we are, or at any rate would like to be. And these three issues translate as assertions of a very American kind of Christian identity. As a corollary, they define an enemy; the smug Liberal sneering at those who disagree with him (would that this image lacked validity). They are timeless, unlike the real issues of foreign policy and budgets; they will still be with us ten budget cycles and three foreign entanglements down the road.

And they work as attention grabbers, and as group identifiers. The major US retail chain Target thought it worthwhile to issue a statement inviting people to use the toilets fitting their self-description rather than their birth certificates; in retaliation, a group calling itself the American Family Association has launched a boycott petition that has gathered, so far, over 850,000 signatures. I do not know what evils the AFA plan to blame on Target, but they are among those who blame Darwin for Hitler, so they’ll think of something. AFA regards calls to action on climate change as impious, since the planet is in God’s hands. It also defends public display of the Ten Commandments, on the grounds that “the Ten Commandments are the basis of all of our laws.” These views form an identity cluster, and the inclusion of climate change denial is no accident.

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Crabs washed up on a beach in Oregon after suffocating in low-oxygen waters. Credit: Elizabeth Gates, courtesy of PISCO, via NSF (click to magnify)

And finally, by the same token, they are perfect distractions from reality. American readers, at least, could hardly have failed to notice the transgender toilet controversy. But how many of us are even aware of evidence published earlier this month that warming is already reducing the availability of oxygen in the oceans, and that this effect will probably be widespread by the 2030s?

We could be talking about the erosion of democracy, looming water shortages in the US and Asia, the unstable world banking system, climate change, and the facts of economic inequality. Or we could be talking about who is allowed to use which bathroom. If you were a North Carolina legislator, which would you prefer?

Mahaffey anecdote from Sorenson h/t Abbas Raza. An earlier version of this piece appeared in 3 Quarks Daily.

Professor David MacKay and the Renewables Delusion

I too would like to simply replace fossil fuels with renewables, but nature doesn’t care about what you or I would like, and renewables don’t have enough power per unit area. If you think you can phase out fossil fuels in densely populated countries without phasing in nuclear, please show me your arithmetic. David Mackay’s full book and 10 page synopsis are available (in English and several other languages) here (free download)

[See however https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/511939/Renewables.pdf (h/t Michael Reiss); renewables according to this source already generate 24% of the UK’s electricity requirements; not of course the same as total energy requirements, but not negligible either]

h/t Michael Roberts

Skepteco

“I’m not pro-nuclear- just pro-arithmetic”.

The cause for a rational evidence-based approach to energy policy has suffered a huge loss with the death of Professor David Mackay  three weeks ago, on April 14th.

Mackay, Chief Scientific Advisor at the UK government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, was the author of Sustainable Energy Without Hot Air, a key text that has been my number one stop to point folks to as a starting point for understanding energy supply and demand. In particular, I have frequently cited this table which explains very well the limitations of wind and solar energy due to their relatively low energy density:

Power per unit land or water area

Based on these figures, population and current energy demand, MacKay calculates that Britain cannot live on its own renewables- they simply need too much land.

By contrast to the 2-20W/m2 that can be achieved through wind or solar pv power, fossil fuels or…

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Religious privilege in Scottish schools increasing, says Glasgow University report

Denominational schools in Scotland are run according to a century-old Concordat between the British government and the Catholic Church. During that century, the influence of the other Churches within non-denominational schools has grown, even as their worshippers deserted them. The result is a mosaic of mutually contradictory objectives and provisions. Our children deserve better.

Religion-in-Scots-Law-header (1)Glasgow University has just published its long-awaited report, sponsored by Humanist Society Scotland, into the role of religion in Scots law. The full report runs to 355 pages, and the summary to 11. It is limited to discussion of the law, but my commentary here also includes in some places what is known about actual practice. I will concentrate on the three areas covered are greatest length; the legal status of the Church of Scotland, religion and marriage, and, above all, education. The report covers several other areas where the law gives special recognition to religion. There are, for example, some tax advantages for ministers in accommodation provided by their Church, but these are minor matters in comparison.

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Church of Scotland offices, Edinburgh

Firstly, what about the Church of Scotland? Is it, for instance, an established church? And what beliefs does it subscribe to? There is no consensus on this. The 1921 Declaratory Act, which was supposed to resolve this issue, contains an attachment in which the Church describes itself as “a national Church representative of the Christian faith of the Scottish people”, but since almost all its privileges are shared with other denominations, it is not clear what, if anything, this means. Church of Scotland ministers are automatically entitled to solemnise marriages, but since celebrants may just as easily come from other denominations, and even from groups such as the Humanists, this distinction is purely ceremonial. The Sovereign is represented at the Church’s General Assembly, and while she worships as an Anglican at Windsor, she attends Church of Scotland services when at Balmoral. However, she does not choose the Moderator, whereas she does, notionally and on the advice of the Prime Minister, choose the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The Church of Scotland subscribes to the Westminster Confession (apart from its anti-Catholic clauses, which it removed in 1986). Thus it is nominally committed to the belief that I, and most of my readers, will be physically tormented in hell for eternity and serve us right. It has, however, declared itself free to interpret (i.e. ignore) its own doctrine. A saving grace, if I may so put it.

The area where the legal connections between church and state has the greatest practical importance is education, and this is the one area where is the entrenched power of religion has actually grown over time. The Scottish publicly funded school system arose in two steps, the 1872 nationalisation of schools that had hitherto been the responsibility of Presbyteries, and the 1918 nationalisation of the Catholic school system. The first of these led to the establishment of notionally non-denominational schools, in whose running the churches did not have a formal role, while the latter led to the establishment of denominational schools, within which the power of the denominational hierarchy was formidable. I was surprised at how well entrenched religious privilege has since become, in non-denominational as well as in denominational schools, how recent much of this privilege is, and how much it conflicts with the principles of a democratic state.

The 1929 Local Government (Scotland) Act, Para. 12:4, required Local Authority Education Committees to include two representatives of religion, chosen by discussion among local churches. The current requirement, for three such representatives – one Church of Scotland, one Catholic, and one other – was only formalised in 1973 (here, Sec. 124,  repeated here in 1994, Sec. 31. Notice the increase in the number of representatives, and the clearer formal role of the two favoured specific denominations. Notice also that all this is pre-devolution.

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St Andrew’s Cathedral, seat of the Catholic Archbishop of Glasgow

The Church of Scotland and the Catholic Church each have one nominee on the General Teaching Council, the professional body responsible for maintaining standards of training and conduct among schoolteachers (here, Schedule 2).

For denominational schools, Parent Councils are required by 2006 legislation (here) to include at least one nominee of (note the choice of words) “the church or denominational body in whose interest the school is conducted” [emphasis added]. This “in whose interest” language first appears in the 1918 legislation, but continues to be used in legislation and official guidance documents regarding denominational schools. As I have remarked elsewhere, this is very strange language indeed, suggesting that the church has an “interest” in the school, over and above its duties to pupils and the wider community.

Regarding religious instruction and observance, two opposed trends have been at work. Throughout the twentieth century, the role of religious observance, in non-denominational as well as denominational schools, has been strengthened. However, the idea of religious instruction (teaching, as true, the beliefs of one particular religion) has largely been replaced by that of religious education (learning about religion in our philosophical and cultural context). Recently, in response to public concerns, guidelines on the nature of religious observance have shifted in favour of reflection on shared values, rather than formal worship. All this, however, remains very much at the discretion of the headteacher in non-denominational schools. In denominational schools, religious observance and religious education remain firmly under the control of the religious body in whose interest the school is conducted.

Many non-denominational schools have chaplains, or even chaplaincy teams, but there is no obligation to do so. The Church of Scotland receives no special legal preference, and I almost wish that it did, since extreme evangelical groups make it their business to get involved in school chaplaincies, as in the notorious Kirktonholme fiasco, when all pupils were given “textbooks”, describing evolution as a wicked lie, by a chaplain from an extremist sect who had been advising about the school’s curriculum for eight years.

Collecting information about chaplaincy teams is difficult, except when the school chooses to display it in its Handbook. Freedom of Information requests to schools, like all such requests, are forwarded to the Council, but the Council may not have all the relevant information, and some Councils even regard this information as personal and confidential. In denominational schools, chaplains are effectively church nominees.

The 1872 Act allowed schools to continue “instruction in religion”, but did not require it. It also recognised the rights of parents “without forfeiting any of the other advantages of the schools, to elect that their children should not receive such instruction”, and more recent legislation applies this right to both Religious Observance and Religious Education. Current guidance goes further, in requiring the school to provide an educational activity of value to pupils during the time that they are withdrawn from religious activities, although it would be prudent for the parent to make this easy for the school, for example by supplying reading materials.

Note that the right to withdraw rests with the parents, although in practice many schools allow senior pupils, at least, to withdraw themselves.

The obligation to have religious observance in non-denominational schools only dates from the 1946 Act. Under this Act, a local authority can only remove this requirement when authorised to do so by a ballot of all constituents, not merely those directly involved with the school system. No authority has ever seriously considered such a ballot, despite a petition to that effect a few years ago from the Edinburgh Secular Society.

Details of religious observance and religious instruction are a matter of policy, not legislation. In 1991, the Scottish Government issued a circular saying that there should be religious observance in primary schools at least once a week, and in secondary schools at least once a month, and that this should have “a broadly Christian character”.

A major 2004 consultation, the Report of the Religious Observance Review Group (Edinburgh: The Scottish Executive, 2004), made major changes in official policy. Religious observance is now said to consist of ”community acts which aim to promote the spiritual development of all members of the school community and express and celebrate the shared values of the school community”. This could be an act of worship, if the school community corresponds to the faith community. The Report also make clear the distinction between Religious Observance and Religious Education. The form of RO is very much up to the individual school and “Head teachers are encouraged to engage in full discussion with chaplains and other faith group leaders in the planning and implementation of religious observance” (here, para. 13)

The Scottish Government is committed to ensuring that parents are made aware of their right to opt out. How much this commitment is worth, is another matter. At one time guidance clearly stated that the school Handbook should tell parents of their right to opt out, but many of them do not, and there is considerable anecdotal evidence of schools discouraging opting out, by requiring a formal letter or an interview with the head teacher, or even by telling parents that their children’s education will suffer.

The content of Religious and Moral Education (or, for Catholic schools, religious education)  is again a matter of policy, not legislation. Current policy (The 2011 “religious instruction” circular, Curriculum for Excellence – Provision of religious and moral education in non-denominational schools and religious education in Roman Catholic schools) lays out ambitious goals, including “well planned experiences and outcomes across Christianity, world religions and developing beliefs and values”. The details are left to the curriculum setting and examining bodies, and to the textbook writers. This could have unfortunate consequences; one topic properly discussed in RME is religiously motivated creationism, but this may be the only encounter that pupils (and RME teachers) have with evolution, and it would be going against the admirable spirit of RME to tell pupils which one they should prefer.

That European Convention on Human Rights specifies a universal right to education, and that “the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching is in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.” However, the United Kingdom signed the treaty with the reservation that this clause only applies in so far as “it is compatible with the provision of efficient instruction and training, and the avoidance of unreasonable public expenditure”. This is as well, since otherwise it might be open to a parent to demand that their children not be taught about evolution. Even so, the ECHR would no doubt be quoted in support of the continued existence of denominational schools, should this ever be called into question.

Denominational schools are deeply rooted in history. In 1872, with legal restrictions on Catholics still a fresh memory, their schools stood aloof from the state system, but merged with it under financial pressure in 1918. The education (Scotland) Act, 1918, which accomplished this, contained guarantees still in force regarding ethos, the vetting of teachers, and religious observance and instruction in state-funded denominational schools. Denominational schools are usually but not necessarily Catholic; in addition to the 366 Catholic denominational schools, according to Government sources there are at present one Jewish primary, and three Episcopalian schools.   Admissions policies to denominational schools are a matter for the local authority, which can allow them to take account of religious adherence. This situation has recently arisen in Falkirk, where the Catholic school is oversubscribed. There is a specific exemption (here, Schedule 11 para 5) in the UK 2010 Equalities Act, to make this possible.

The Scottish Government’s 2011 circular on religious instruction states that “In Roman Catholic schools the experiences and outcomes should be delivered in line with the guidance provided by the Scottish Catholic 168 Education Service.” Parents still have a right to withdraw pupils, but “in choosing a denominational school for their child’s education, they choose to opt in to the school’s ethos and practice which is imbued with religious faith and it is therefore more difficult to extricate a pupil from all experiences which are influenced by the school’s faith character.” My own view, unfashionable in some circles that I move in, is that if you don’t want your child to have a Catholic education, you shouldn’t send them to a Catholic school. The situation here in Scotland is different from that which has recently been engineered in England, where nondenominational alternatives may simply be unavailable.

The 1918 Act specified that teachers in denominational schools must be “approved as regards their religious belief and character by representatives of the church or denominational body in whose interest the school has been conducted”. The 1980 Act inherited this requirement, although the reasons for objecting to an applicant must be stated in writing. According to the Scottish Catholic Education Service, a person’s faith and character could be vouched for by their priest, if they are Catholics, or by some other suitable person if they are not. I find this interesting, since it implies that being a Catholic is not a necessary condition of employment as a teacher in a Catholic school, yet (anecdotal evidence) this criterion seems to apply in practice. It also continues the right of the denomination to appoint a supervisor of religious instruction. This seemingly innocuous provision has serious effects, since in Catholic schools teaching about human sexual behaviour is included as part of the “Made for Love” module of Religious Instruction. Thus education on this topic is under the direction of the Council of Bishops, a committee of middle-aged middle management males pledged to lifelong celibacy.

I rest my case.

Reference: Callum G Brown, Thomas Green and Jane Mair, Religion in Scots Law: The Report of an Audit at the University of Glasgow: Sponsored by Humanist Society Scotland (Edinburgh, HSS, 2016), https://www.humanism.scot/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Religion-in-Scots-Law-Final-Report-22-Feb-16.pdf

Summary: http://humanism.scot/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Religion%20and%20Scots%20Law%20Summary%20-%20FINAL230216.pdf

Selected media reports:

STV: http://news.stv.tv/scotland/1344588-religious-influence-on-schools-strengthened-significantly/

BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-35674059

Christianity Today: http://www.christiantoday.com/article/religious.influence.increasing.in.scottish.schools/80854.htm

Herald: http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/14308275.Landmark_report__Influence_of_religion_on_Scottish_schools_increasing/?ref=ebln

National Secular Society newsletter: http://www.secularism.org.uk/news/2016/03/religion-based-scottish-education-system-needs-to-adapt-to-social-change-say-academics

Friends of the Earth’s anti-fracking campaign; mendacious, lucrative, and legally protected

Re-blogged from Michael Roberts’s How fiendish is Friends of the Earth?

Fracking fluids contain sand. Sand contains silica. Silica can cause silicosis and even cancer. Therefore fracking is bad. Send us money.

But it’s notFriends of the Earth, who are saying this, because Friends of the Earth is answerable to the Charities Commission. It’s Friends of the Earth Limited, a profit-making subsidiary outside the Commission’s terms of reference. Much as the Global Warming Policy Foundation, whose purpose is to deny global warming, issues its materials through a separate legal entity, the Global Warming Policy Forum.

We need rational discussion aboutfracking  and its place in overall energy policy. And what are Friends of the Earth contributing towards this discussion? Crusading zeal in place of rational reflection, demonisation where we most need discourse.

Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin

For a time I was an active member of Friends of the Earth and supported all they did.  I then moved house and job and my membership lapsed. That is something I regretted as I felt I should be do more for the environment and that Friends of the Earth was one of the best organisations doing that.

That remained the case until March 2014 when I went to a meeting organised by RAFF (Residents against Fracking; Fylde) at Inskip (10 miles from Preston). I was unimpressed with the low level of accuracy in the presentation. i challenged some of this and to my surprise the local FoE activist supported the speaker in the inaccuracies. In two minutes my respect for FoE evaporated. RAFF also handed out a leaflet Shale Gas; the Facts  which they withdrew after a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority.

https://michaelroberts4004.wordpress.com/2014/08/19/complaint-to-asa-against-raff-residents-action-on-fracking-fylde-for-gross-errors/

Over the next 15 months…

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Petition calling on NUS to desist from suppressing free speech

You can sign the petition here

Call on NUS to reform free-speech suppressing ‘safe space’ policies

“Freedom of expression for all, including non-believers, is a basic human right and one that universities of all places must unequivocally defend.

We feel that the current policy prescriptions the NUS espouses and which many SUs have adopted as a result, have consistently been shown to be at least ineffective and in many cases, actively suppressive of freedom of expression …”

I heard about this petition through my friend Chris French, himself a Professor at the University where these events took place, and signed it with the comment “No space, least of all a University space, should be free from disturbing ideas.” This morning, Prof. French confirmed to me that the account in the text of the petition, below, is generally correct, and gave permission to quote him to that effect. I am therefore inviting those of you who share our concerns about the erosion and suppression of free speech on University campuses to sign the petition here, and to publicise it to your own networks.

The petition is in the form of an open letter to the National Union of Students, and runs as follows:

Following the events at Goldsmiths University on Monday 30th of November, where members and friends of Goldsmiths Islamic Society (ISoc) tried and failed to intimidate, in order to silence, Iranian-born ex-Muslim and human rights activist Maryam Namazie from speaking on “Blasphemy, Apostasy and Free Expression in the age of ISIS” at our invitation, Goldsmiths University Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society (GUASHsoc) calls on the National Union of Students to respond.

For those who have not seen media reports, the ISoc president sent the GUASHsoc a thinly veiled threat demanding the talk was cancelled the night before, on the grounds that it supposedly violated the SU’s ‘safe space’ policy. When the event went ahead, some of the ISoc members and associates aggressively disrupted the event, continuously shouting and trying to intimidate Maryam and other attendees, turning off her projector and one disruptor allegedly made a death threat towards a friend of Maryam’s.

This debacle shows, ‘safe spaces’ are being used to silence dissent and stifle free expression. Whilst ‘safe spaces’ are legitimate options for those who have been victimised and discriminated against, universities by their very definition cannot be ‘safe spaces’. Few would disagree that, if anywhere, universities should be bastions of freedom of thought and ideas, but for this to hold any meaning whatsoever, they must be bastions for the freedom of all ideas – regardless of how popular they may be or whether they are deemed ‘controversial’ or even offensive, by some. Offence, may act as an impetus for argument, but it is not, in and of itself, an argument, nor grounds for suppression. It is essential to be able to hear ideas that make us uncomfortable; this is the essence of tolerance. There should be no ‘safe spaces’ for ideas to go unchallenged.

The claims often made against Maryam and other speakers alike, seem to insist that, because there is a climate of hatred towards Muslims from the far-right, we should not allow what some consider offensive criticism of Islam as a religious ideology, like any other. In the incident at Goldsmiths, the Feminist and LGBTQI+ societies shared anti-free speech sentiments by making statements of solidarity with the Isoc leadership’s position and as such, seemed to tacitly condone their actions. This is a response rooted in a convoluted and solipsistic notion of regressive identity politics that wrongly conflates criticisms of Islam as an ideology or Islamism as a political movement, with inciting hatred towards Muslims. It fails to see the dissent within minority communities and also implicitly assumes that a diverse body of people who follow the Islamic faith are all offended or intolerant of Maryam’s opinions. As was evident in the meeting itself, some of the women members of Isoc did not condone the intimidating behaviour of the male members; some Muslims in the audience apologised to Maryam for their behaviour making it clear that not all Muslims agree with this assumption. Also, rather than having any real concern for safe spaces, the ISoc leadership used this policy in order to make the event unsafe for all those who disagreed with them.

Such mischaracterisations have led to the abuse of ‘safe space’ policies in the past and a culture of suppression at the university towards views that are not in line with the SU or, as in this case, other politically oriented societies. This is a gross subversion. What is more important however, is that this incident is not isolated, nor is the response.

What must be more clearly stressed is that, whilst non-violent protest and challenging ideas should be actively encouraged at universities, what cannot be tolerated is making an attempt to stop speakers from speaking entirely, unless they are directly inciting violence. Whether this be through vague ‘blasphemy laws’ with little to no basis in established law, which exist in numerous SU external speaker policies or whether it be through ‘safe space’ policies, which often have similar rules open to abuse and are sometimes used for intimidation, as in this case. There are a plethora of cases similar to ours at other universities and with other speakers, where freedom of expression has been suppressed in all manner of forms.

SU’s responses have typically suggested that the issue lies in the misuse of these policies by individuals. Clearly, because this is a recurrent theme at universities, this is a structural problem which enables this to keep occurring. It is the policies themselves that need to be amended so as to ensure this does not continue to happen. Whilst our SU has not officially responded yet in regards to consequences from the events of Monday 30 November, we fear that a similar dismissive response will occur with no policy changes.

In the same way that we cannot champion free expression for some, but not others, we cannot champion the rights of those who believe and not champion the rights of those who choose not to believe. Freedom of expression for all, including non-believers, is a basic human right and one that universities of all places must unequivocally defend.

We feel that the current policy prescriptions the NUS espouses and which many SUs have adopted as a result, have consistently been shown to be at least ineffective and in many cases, actively suppressive of freedom of expression and we strongly urge the NUS, and Goldsmiths SU, to reform their policies.

As with similar events where External speaker policies and ‘safe space’ policies have been used to try to silence freedom of expression, public outcry has had a strong influence on the response of SUs, therefore, we are making this statement public but will also be pursuing formal channels of complaint to the NUS and we encourage them to respond in regards to further action.

We thank all those who have sent messages of support for our society including Muslims, ex-Muslims, believers and non-believers, students, lecturers, members of the public, secular organisations, religious organisations, people of different political persuasions, sexual orientations, genders, races and nationalities. We urge them to join us in pressuring the NUS to protect the right to free expression and reform the ‘safe space’ policies that are stifling free expression.

Thank you all for your support.

Asher A-F (GUASHsoc president)

Image from petition website

 

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