Mathematics, Astronomy and the National Secular Society

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.

25 Responses to “Mathematics, Astronomy and the National Secular Society”

  1. Been meaning to join … done it now … thanks for the reminder ! …

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    Peter, you will not find me (an evangelical Christian) objecting to the removal of religious privileges from public life. Have you verified, though, that the NSS is pro-free speech? Secular people are deeply divided between the politically correct who are in favour of “hate speech” laws, some of which already exist, that would outlaw peaceable criticism of Islam or homosexuality (to take two not wholly random examples); and those in favour of free speech and who are willing to have their beliefs and practices peaceably criticised in order to be able to peaceably criticise the beliefs and practices of others. That is the key issue that has been raised by the Hebdo murders. In which camp is the NSS?

    And yes, I would decriminalise racist speech. It obviously shows up its speaker as an obnoxious fool.

    • telescoper Says:

      Anton,

      I think the following explains their position clearly enough

      http://www.secularism.org.uk/freedom-of-expression.html

      Peter

    • “Secular people are deeply divided between the politically correct who are in favour of “hate speech” laws, some of which already exist, that would outlaw peaceable criticism of Islam or homosexuality (to take two not wholly random examples); and those in favour of free speech and who are willing to have their beliefs and practices peaceably criticised in order to be able to peaceably criticise the beliefs and practices of others.”

      That might be true, but the division is unequal, with the first group being much smaller than the second.

      While I can certainly see the point in criticizing Islam, as it is responsible for many evils in society today (notwithstanding the “no true Muslim” objection), what could possibly be the point in criticizing homosexuality? Sure, one should be allowed to criticize it, but it seems rather similar to criticizing the coast of Newfoundland (to take a random example).

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Whether or not the first group is smaller than the second, the first has more political power.

        Brigitte Bardot has been repeatedly hauled before French courts for speaking out – without any call for violence – about the growing influence of Islam in France.

        Charlie Hebdo had been taken to court for much the same in the past.

        Elizabeth Sabaditsch Wolff was convicted of the same in Austria in 2011.

        Geert Wilders fought a lengthy and expensive court case in the Netherlands under hate speech regulations.

        A man in the NE of England was jailed for publicly burning a Quran a year or two ago. it was his own property; he committed violence against nobody, stole nothing.

        Street preachers are regularly hauled before English courts for reading out from the Bible lists of acts categorised as sinful that include homosexual behaviour. I know two personally. There is no incitement to violence whatsoever.

        This highly incomplete list should persuade you that, unhappily, there is not freedom of speech in Europe, and that the attitude that one should be willing to accept peaceable criticism of one’s own views and deeds in order to be able to peaceably criticise the views and deeds of others has been lost.

      • Isolated cases where freedom of speech was not supported by the state don’t prove that the first group has more political power; in the vast majority of cases, freedom of speech prevails in Europe. Yes, things are not perfect, but compared to places where there is really no freedom of speech, the situation in Europe is much better. Even this blog discussion wouldn’t be allowed in some places.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Phillip, the point is that laws exist in those countries that preclude free speech. Otherwise those cases couldn’t have happened at all. Such laws have a chilling effect on peaceable public speech, and the fact that Europe has freer speech than many places is no consolation to its citizens, who have less free speech than formerly. Those are merely the higher-profile cases. Unless supporters of free speech lose complacency and push back against political correctness then it will get worse.

      • Yes, I agree, and I am sure that one thing on which we really agree is that free speech should be as free as possible. The only exceptions should be immediate health-and-safety considerations (the proverbial yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre or, at a more personal level, say, accusing someone of a violent crime which, in fact, did not occur, and expecting to be immune from any consequences by crying “free speech means I can say anything”).

        “laws exist in those countries that preclude free speech”

        Yes, the examples you mention shouldn’t have occurred, but this does not mean that there is no free speech in the countries concerned, but rather that it is too restricted.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Actually there is sufficient deterrence against crying Fire in a crowded theatre from the likelihood of being held responsible for subsequent injuries.

        The libel laws to which you implicitly refer are a difficult area.

        “the examples you mention shouldn’t have occurred, but this does not mean that there is no free speech in the countries concerned, but rather that it is too restricted.”

        Agreed. The point I am trying to make to you is that the problem is getting worse. Reportedly Sweden has just passed a law criminalising peaceable criticism of its immigration policies:

        http://speisa.com/modules/articles/index.php/item.122/sweden-passes-law-to-criminalize-any-criticism-of-immigration.html

        Liberal democracy my ass!

      • “Actually there is sufficient deterrence against crying Fire in a crowded theatre from the likelihood of being held responsible for subsequent injuries.”

        That’s actually the point. Someone could say, and many have said, that cartoonists should be held responsible for the injuries and deaths they caused. This shouldn’t be the case, and is not the case in at least most European countries, because of freedom of speech. The whole point of freedom of speech is that one is not held accountable for the actions of others which result from it. Rather, those people should be held accountable, if they overstep the law.

        However, if there is not, in fact, a fire, then one can ask what the point is, especially if it leads to injury.

        Some will draw a distinction, saying that speech which calls for violence should be forbidden. However, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and if someone becomes violent because of, say, a cartoon, then it would be absurd to retroactively say that this exercise of free speech incited violence.

        “The libel laws to which you implicitly refer are a difficult area.”

        Say, for example, that during a political campaign candidate A says that candidate B was involved in and directly responsible for the rape and murder of candidate A’s first cousin. Obviously, one can’t preempt candidate A from making such a claim, but, assuming that the claim is not true, it is absurd to say that it should be covered by “free speech”.

        “Agreed. The point I am trying to make to you is that the problem is getting worse. Reportedly Sweden has just passed a law criminalising peaceable criticism of its immigration policies:

        Liberal democracy my ass!”

        It is a common myth that Sweden is a “liberal democracy”. (It is certainly more democratic than most, or all, other countries, at least in the sense of fair and sensible elections, lack of influence of money in the political system etc.) To some extent, this is due to confusion over the term “liberal”, which in some cases has developed into two almost contrary meanings. What was the case for much of the twentieth century was that the economic policy was liberal in the Keynesian sense. As for non-economic aspects of life, it is “liberal” in some cases (closer to equal opportunity, tolerant of secular people, homosexuals etc) but quite the opposite in others (the anti-prostitution law probably being the most famous example).

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Phillip I agree with much of that, but I don’t seem to be able to convince you that there is a major battle to maintain free speech going on now in many European countries.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Under EU Law, if I criticise Swedish immigration policy in a bar in France then can I be extradited to Sweden and put on trial?

        This is a binary question; no guesses please.

      • ” I don’t seem to be able to convince you that there is a major battle to maintain free speech going on now in many European countries”

        I don’t disagree, but I think it is wrong to say that there is no (longer) any free speech in Europe. The vast majority of things which would lead to imprisonment, death, etc in many places do not have any legal consequences at all. Yes, one case is one too many, but one shouldn’t lose a sense of perspective.

        My impression is that the Charlie Hebdo events have strengthened the support for free speech. In many countries, there are anti-Islam(ist)ic demonstrations etc, started before the Charlie Hebdo events, some of which have been suppressed due to threats of terrorist attacks. In almost all cases, even people who don’t agree with the protesters (who range from the sensible to the ridiculous—very much a motley crue with just a few superficial similarities) have spoken out in favour of their right to protest. Of course, Islamistic terror plays into their hands, but most people are sensible enough to see that there is something between a) absolutely no immigration and b) Europe being ruled by Sharia law.

      • “Under EU Law, if I criticise Swedish immigration policy in a bar in France then can I be extradited to Sweden and put on trial?”

        I am not a lawyer, but I’m pretty sure that you can’t.

        Normally, laws apply to all people within a certain country, whether or not they are citizens of said country. In some cases, what is forbidden in one country is required in another. I don’t think you could be extradited to Sweden for criticizing Swedish immigration policy in France any more than I could be extradited to somewhere outside of Germany because I was driving at 190 km/h on the Autobahn in Germany.

        There are some exceptions, of course, notably when being required to pay tax depends on one’s citizenship, regardless of where one earns the money or where one lives (this is the case for some, but not all, countries; usually, tax paid elsewhere is credited).

        I’m pretty sure that you would not be in danger of being extradited from France to Germany. There has been some discussion in Sweden whether the anti-prostitution law in Sweden (which criminalizes buying but not selling) should be applied to Swedish citizens who pay for sexual services outside of Sweden. I’m pretty sure that such a law would not hold up, if only because it would set too many impractical precedents.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Phillip,

        The length of your reply is why I asked for a Yes or a No!

        Here’s why I believe it might be Yes:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_Arrest_Warrant

        But i’d like to know.

      • There is a list of exceptions regarding double criminality, but your example is not among them.

        I also wonder (and it is not clear from the article) if Sweden could request the extradition of a UK citizen from France, as opposed to a Swedish citizen.

        Whether or not this treaty is meaningful in all cases is another question, but it is not obvious whether it applies to your example (and my guess is that it doesn’t).

  3. Congratulations on joining. As Anton says, their position on free speech seems reasonable.

    From an article linked to from their main page: The judge said that FGM was “an abuse of human rights” that had “no basis in any religion.” At least he sees it as an abuse. The point should be, though, that the decision to ban it should hold even if it did have a basis in some religion. (By the way, of course it has a basis in religion. Whether or not it is mentioned in the Koran is beside the point. If that were the point, then it wouldn’t matter to Catholicism what the Pope says since “everything is in the Bible”. The fact is that leading Muslim clerics have spoken out in favour of it. Yes, it might stem from an older tradition, but so do many things which are mentioned in the Koran.) The judge also noted that the least severe form of FGM is not worse than male circumcision, though the latter is allowed for non-medical reasons, which is patently absurd. Sure, if an adult wants to cut off part of his genitals, be my guest. Body modification is a big thing in some circles. Piercing, tattoos, tongue-splitting, whatever floats your boat. It’s your body and do what you want. But adults shouldn’t be allowed to make such irrevocable decisions on behalf of their children, for any reason, religious or not.

    • The judge went on to say that male circumcision was OK because responsible parents often did it for religious reasons. What he really meant was that Jews and (in other parts of the world) Christians do it, so it should be accepted, but female circumcision (even the form which is less harmful than male circumcision should be banned because it is predominately practiced by Muslims.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Phillip, FGM is common in Islam because there is a hadith (a tradition about Muhammad) in which he is said to have instructed a circumciser of women: “Do not cut severely, as that is better for a woman and more desirable for her husband” (Sunan of Abu Dawoud, bk. 41, statement 5251). Muslims categorise hadiths according to how reliable they are considered to be, and this one is not accepted by all Muslims which explains the extremely variable FGM statistics across Muslim countries. Nevertheless, although the practice pre-dated Islam, and continues today among some traditional pagan peoples, this hadith has made Islam a major driver of the practice.

      • I agree. I hope we also agree that in issues such as this, whether or not some religion supports some such practice, the court should rule against it; religion should be completely irrelevant to decisions made by the state.

        It would be nice if folks could step back and listen to what their religion is telling them. I remember a cartoon where Moses is standing on Mount Sinai, stone tablets in hand, and looks up into the sky with a puzzled look, saying “Let me get this straight. You want us to cut the ends of our dicks off?!”

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        The covenant of circumcision started with Abraham long before Moses. And of course it was standard practice in arid sandy areas long before that.

        Re your first paragraph, Western countries today are secular democracies and I am Christian. So I lobby for those laws that I wish to see by using secular arguments. I find it possible to give public secular arguments that complement any private religious motivations I have, so this is not a problem for me. Thomas Aquinas demonstrated this complementarity 750 years ago.

      • “The covenant of circumcision started with Abraham long before Moses.”

        I did say that it was a cartoon. 😐

        “I find it possible to give public secular arguments that complement any private religious motivations I have, so this is not a problem for me. “

        Again, something we agree on. As someone who is not religious, I object—and I hope that at least some religious people agree with me—that it shouldn’t be the case that a practice which would be forbidden if practiced by a non-religious person or a person of a less conventional religion is allowed when done “for religious reasons” and/or if enough do it for religious reasons then it is allowed for all. Circumcision is perhaps the most visible example.

  4. In my experience such groups are too easily hijacked by more aggressive types. The policy on free speech seems fine (if applied to everyone) but I am more dubious by the policy on education. Excluding religious groups from schools, even as volunteers, seems discrimination based on faith. If evangelicals are excluded from schools (and not just running them, but any activity!), shouldn’t secularists be as well? Who defines these limits to personal freedom, and which opinions are acceptable and which are not? Who is allowed to teach? I don’t know the NSS but experience with one other organization makes me cautious. Tolerance can easily become limited to people you agree with.

    You advocate excluding bishops from the house of Lords. That seems to miss the heart of the issue. This house is non elected but consists largely of political and business appointees. Is it really an improvement to throw out those bishops? Do you trust the rest more? Having rules on who should be there seems not a bad thing to me. Opening this up to other major groups, religious and other, seems a good direction. Removing bishops for the crime of their faith is superficial. (How about lord Sachs?) I have no national voting rights in the UK (just the right to pay tax) so probably should stay out of this!

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      I read only the free speech policies of the NSS. I know enough about some of its other activities for me not to wish to consider joining. I believe that Christians should be in politics as individuals wherever possible, but the church as a body should not be. When the latter happens we get the horrors of the mediaeval church, for instance.

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