Archive for January 17, 2015

Mathematics, Astronomy and the National Secular Society

Posted in Biographical, History, Politics with tags , , , , on January 17, 2015 by telescoper

I imagine that a  great many people have been thinking hard recently about democracy, free speech and religious belief in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris. There’s also been a great deal of stuff in the print media covering these issues. I just want to mention one thing that I have decided to do, namely to join the National Secular Society an organization that campaigns against religious privilege.

Let me reproduce a statement from their webpage here:

The National Secular Society works towards a society in which all citizens, regardless of religious belief, or lack of religious belief, can live together fairly and cohesively. We campaign for a secular democracy with a separation of religion and state, where everyone’s Human Rights are respected equally.

We work in the UK and Europe to challenge the disproportionate influence of religion on governments and in public life. We provide a secular voice in the media, defending freedom and equality as a counterbalance to the powerful religious lobby and some of the more destructive religious impulses that can threaten human rights worldwide.

The National Secular Society is a non-party-political organisation with members from across the social and political spectrum. Our Honorary Associates include MPs and peers, as well as leading figures from politics, journalism, law and the arts.

The NSS is a democratic and independent non-profit organisation which receives no funding from government or other public bodies. Our campaigning is wholly supported by our members and supporters, people like you who share our belief in the urgent need to keep religion and politics separate.

One of the National Secular Society’s very active current campaings is against the egregious Local Government (Religious etc Observances) Bill, which includes a provision that would require local councillors to attend sessions that involve prayers. This bill is wholly unacceptable to me, as it is perfectly possible for councillors of a religious persuasion to pray whenever they like, either before during or after a meeting, without requiring non-believers to be present.

I respect the right of others to whatever religious belief they choose and would not interrupt or disrupt an act of religious observance, but imposing such actions on others is simply unacceptable. I don’t think religious services should be imposed in schools and colleges, and I don’t see why this is any different.

Anyway, the general point is that I firmly believe that the only way we will ever develop a society that allows people of all cultures and beliefs to live in peace with each other and in atmosphere of mutual respect is to remove any reference to religion from our political and legal establishment. It’s a ridiculous anachronism that Bishops of the Church of England sit in the House of Lords, for example.

You’ll all no doubt be glad to know that I’m not going to “preach” about this at length here, although I may from time to time post on matters related to the National Secular Society (NSS), though hopefully in such a way as it doesn’t get confused with that other NSS the National Student Survey. I will however include a little story as a kind of postscript.

When I tweeted about the National Secular Society recently a friend of mine pointed out a curious connection between it, astronomy, and my former employer, Cardiff University. The first ever Professor of Mathematics and Astronomy at the University College of South Wales and Monmouthsire (which eventually became Cardiff University) was a distinguished chap by the name of Henry William Lloyd Tanner, who was appointed to his position in 1883. In November 1883 there was a vigorous campaign by religious types to have him removed because of his connections with the National Secular Society (which was founded way back in 1866); you can read about it here. The campagign did not succeed, and H.W. Lloyd Tanner remained in post until 1909.

We have at least made some progress since 1883, in that nowadays a Professor would not be threatened with the sack on the basis of his religious beliefs or lack of them, but there’s a long way to go before our nation is a truly secular society.