Tag Archives: United Kingdom

“What do Muslims really believe?”

Recently, Channel 4, a TV station in the UK, commissioned a survey into what British Muslims think about many different issues and Trevor Phillips shared the results with a large TV audience in a documentary (“What do Muslims really believe?”) one night in mid-April (2016).

People have been right to point out that the survey has many real or potential problems. Only just over 1,000 Muslims (1,081) were interviewed. ICM, the company that conducted the survey, had failed to accurately predict the outcome of the 2015 UK general election, so would its findings about British Muslims be reliable? We do not know whether Shia, Sufi and Ahmadiyya Muslims were represented in the sample (and, if they were, whether in numbers reflecting their presence in the UK), or whether most or all respondents were Sunni. Moreover, we do not know whether comparable results would have been generated if a similar survey had been undertaken among just over 1,000 followers of, say, Judaism, Roman Catholicism, Pentecostalism and/or Mormonism (mind you, had a faith group such as one just listed been surveyed, markedly different results WOULD have been generated. As it is, followers of such faith groups do not pose the same terrorist or security threats to the UK or other nation states as Muslims in considerable numbers currently do, so a survey into what they think about different issues is not of such urgency).

Despite the real or potential problems identified above, the survey findings cannot be ignored because many of them are confirmed by pronouncements and actions deriving from Muslims themselves, both in the UK and, more obviously, elsewhere. But what the survey clearly fails to do is to differentiate between Muslims who incline toward a literalist interpretation of Islamic scripture and often lack an appreciation of the early history of Islam based on reliable evidence (most such Muslims are Sunni), and Muslims who interpret their scripture in other ways (e.g. metaphorically, selectively and/or with due regard for what is deemed morally acceptable today rather than in Saudi Arabia approximately fourteen centuries ago) and often evaluate the early history of Islam in the light of contemporary scholarship, whether such scholarship is Muslim or non-Muslim.

Luton

Luton

Let’s begin with what might be deemed some good news: the great majority of British Muslims feel very strongly or fairly strongly that they “belong” to Britain, and the great majority of British Muslims feel that, when in contact with service providers, in most instances they will be “treated the same as” members of other religious groups. These findings seem to suggest that most British Muslims feel integrated and that most people providing services to British citizens treat everyone equally/fairly.

I will now turn to some of the more controversial/contested findings in the survey. After each of the following statements, the percentage for Muslim respondents precedes the figure for non-Muslims. Where only one figure exists, the figure applies to Muslims alone:

I visit a non-Muslim home once a year (21%).

I never visit a non-Muslim home (21%).

As far as is possible, I want to lead a life separate from the non-Muslim community (17%).

I would prefer to send my child/children to a school with strong Muslim values (45%).

It is acceptable for Muslim men to have more than one wife (31%, 9%).

Women should always obey their husbands (39%, 5%).

Stoning is an acceptable punishment for adultery (5%).

Homosexuality should be legal (18%, 73%).

Homosexuality should be illegal (52%, 10%).

Jewish people have too much power in the UK (35%, 9%).

I sympathise with violence against those who mock the Prophet Muhammad (18%).

No one has the right to show a picture of the Prophet Muhammad (78%).

No one has the right to make fun of the Prophet Muhammad (87%).

I sympathise with the creation of a caliphate (7%).

In parts of the UK, I would like sharia to prevail rather than laws determined by Parliament (23%).

I have sympathy for people engaging in terrorism such as suicide bombing (4%, 1%).

If the statistics above reflect realities within the UK’s Muslim community (Channel 4 assumes that almost 3 million Muslims live in the UK), they throw some doubt on just how successfully Muslims have integrated in British society, and they throw into question how much sympathy they have for freedom of speech, gender equality and equality of opportunity irrespective of sexuality. They also suggest that anti-Semitism is more widespread among Muslims than among non-Muslims and that violence against those who challenge cherished aspects of Muslim identity is sometimes justified. Much is made of the “fact” that about 100,000 to 120,000 British Muslims appear to be in sympathy with people who engage in terrorism such as suicide bombing, but the survey also appears to suggest that 600,000 non-Muslims have similar sympathies! My instinctive reaction to the figures generated by this aspect of the survey is that they do not reflect reality – but many of the other figures do reflect reality, and some of the other figures are a far more accurate/reliable gauge of levels of support for extremism and/or terrorism among the UK’s Muslims.

Luton

Luton

Of interest is some of the information shared in the documentary that did not relate directly to the survey results themselves. For example, it would appear that no fewer than 85 sharia courts/councils already operate in the UK and that, in the way they function, they deny women equal rights with men (this is necessarily the case because sharia courts/councils function in a way that values more highly testimony deriving from men than from women).

Some statistics suggest that young Muslims may have more enlightened attitudes than elderly Muslims. For example, while 28% of Muslims aged 18 to 24 say homosexuality should be legal, only 2% of Muslims over 65 agree.

One worrying statistic is that only a third of Muslims would report to the police someone whom they knew might be involved in supporting terror in Syria or elsewhere. But it would appear that the non-Muslim population has a similar attitude toward people whom they knew might be involved in terror, which suggests all people are reluctant to inform on people they know, no matter the real or potential seriousness of their actions.

The documentary suggests that the more Muslims hanker after a separate existence within British society, the more likely it is that they will incline toward extremism and violence. There also appears to be a correlation between sympathy for extremism and violence and a lack of social belonging, a desire not to integrate, a desire for a fundamentalist Muslim lifestyle and a desire to impose sharia. Sympathy for extremism and violence also seems to correlate with a greater inclination toward illiberal views in relation to issues such as gender equality and gay rights.

Trevor Phillips offered few solutions to the problems the survey seems to reveal, but he said that some government policies were beneficial (e.g. challenging Muslim women’s isolation within mainstream society by ensuring they can speak English). He also said that it was necessary for the UK to “reassert the liberal values that have served us well for so long” and to “challenge the laissez-faire attitude of live and let live”, which has allowed de facto segregation and extremism to thrive within some Muslim communities. He briefly made a case for “active integration” rather than “live and let live”, which would require of those with the power and the influence to do so to intervene where de facto segregation or extremism prosper or are likely to prosper. Phillips suggested stopping “the number of schools segregated on the basis of religion and/or ethnicity from growing further” and of applying to institutions such as schools “comply or explain codes” that have proved successful in the EU to reform corporate behaviour.

An example of how “comply or explain codes” might work in relation to schools would be as follows. It could be required of schools to never admit more than 50% of children from a single religion or ethnic group (although how this would work in some overwhelmingly monocultural areas is not clear). If a school admitted more than 50% of children from a single religion or ethnic group, senior managers would have to explain why the situation had arisen and, if the explanation was unsatisfactory, the school would be compelled to conform with the more inclusive arrangement that the requirement sought to establish. Of course, quotas of this nature could also be applied to matters such as staff recruitment (e.g. to ensure there is a balance between men and women, to ensure that teachers of all faiths and none work together), or to ensure that the governing body reflects diversity in wider society.

It was not something that was dwelt on during the documentary itself, but, when the survey is taken as a whole, there is a strong suggestion that a significant number of British Muslims (25%? 33%?) are not in sympathy with the so-called fundamental “British” values of democracy, individual liberty, the rule of (secular) law and/or “mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs”. Of course, British citizens who subscribe to worldviews, religious or otherwise, other than Islam are also not in sympathy with some/all of the values just listed, but we can say with confidence in numbers far fewer than is the case among British Muslims (this is confirmed in Kenan Malik’s article below).

I realise the survey is far from perfect and much more research is necessary to ascertain just how accurate the statistics are, but to some degree it confirms many of the worries that already exist about the UK’s Muslim community today. This said, I take comfort from the large number of Muslims who oppose stoning for adultery and the establishment of a caliphate. I also suspect that the survey does not do justice to the more progressive attitudes that prevail among most Shia, Sufi and Ahmadiyya Muslims as opposed to the less progressive attitudes that prevail among a majority of Sunni Muslims. It is the failure to account of the sectarian divisions among the UK’s Muslims that most worries me about the otherwise highly worthwhile exercise undertaken by Channel 4. Rather this degree of (relatively reliable) hard evidence than none at all.

Luton

Luton

Here is a (predictable) reaction to the documentary in “The Spectator”, politically a right-wing British magazine:

I think the general British public have known for some time what Phillips’s documentary professed to find surprising: that large numbers of Muslims don’t want to integrate, that their views aren’t remotely enlightened and that more than a few of them sympathise with terrorism. It’s only the establishment elite that has ever pretended otherwise.

“Everyone who has pinned their hopes on the rise of reforming and liberal British Muslim voices are in for a disappointment,” said Phillips. “These voices are nowhere near as numerous as they need to be to make an impact.”

Take those 85 sharia councils currently violating one of the most basic principles of English justice, equality before the law. Yes, we can cosily delude ourselves that they just deal with civil issues – marriage mainly – that can safely be regulated by religion. But can they? A Zurich professor called Elham Manea, herself a Muslim, has attended these councils and found them promoting a version of Islam as extreme as that practised in her native Yemen or by the Taliban, where women were treated as “minors in perpetual need of male guardianship”. How exactly does this accord with the legislation and practice of a country where men and women are supposed to have guaranteed equality?

Our solution up until now has been a kind of national cognitive dissonance – one where we all agree to pretend that Muslims are sweet, smiley and integrated, like lovely Nadiya from “Great British Bake Off”, and that her fellow Lutonians – the 7/7 suicide bombers – have, as the weasel phrase has it, “nothing to do with Islam”.

It’s not easy, though, and getting harder – as we saw on this week’s “The Island with Bear Grylls” (Channel 4, Mondays). I don’t doubt the producers were overjoyed when they managed to recruit their first Muslim castaway, Bradford body-builder Rizwan Shabir. But any hopes of a male Nadiya vanished this week when he quit, pleading an inability to cope with “living with women who are half-naked”.

I’ll leave the last word on this yawning cultural chasm to Noshaba Hussain, middle-aged former headmistress of Springfield Primary, one of the Trojan Horse schools in Birmingham. A nine-year-old pupil had asked why she wasn’t wearing a headscarf, declaring, “Only slags don’t cover their heads.” “This attitude is not acceptable in state schools in Britain,” observed Ms. Hussain.

Molenbeek, Brussels, Belgium

Molenbeek, Brussels, Belgium

A far more insightful reaction derives from Kenan Malik’s website called “Pandaemonium” (I have made a few cosmetic changes to the text for reasons of clarity):

This is not the first poll to have shown the social conservatism of British Muslims. Linda Woodhead, professor of sociology of religion at Lancaster University, for instance, conducted a series of surveys with YouGov on religion, politics and social and personal morality, the results of which were published in 2013… The poll showed that religious believers were more liberal on issues such as abortion, homosexuality, same-sex marriage and assisted dying than is usually recognised in public debates. The key exception, however, were Muslims, whom the poll found to be more socially conservative than most other religious groups.

But that was not the whole story of the poll. It also found that Muslims were more polarised on many social issues than other groups. For example, on abortion 20% of Muslims wanted to ban abortion altogether, a much higher figure than the general population, and higher than any other religious group.  At the same time, 12% of Muslims wanted to increase the time limit, twice the figure in the general population and higher than in any other religious group.  The ICM poll also shows some evidence of such polarisation, on a range of issues.

Given this polarisation, there is a possible methodological issue with the ICM poll. It polled Muslims only in areas where they made up more than 20% of the local population. According to the statistician Martin Boon, this covered 51.4% of the British Muslim population. Those who live in areas of high concentrations of Muslims could well be more socially and religiously conservative than Muslims who live in predominantly non-Muslim areas, and possibly less integrated. That said, the findings of this poll are not that different from previous ones.

The ICM poll is, as one might imagine, complex in what it reveals, and far more so than the headlines suggest.

On certain social issues – particularly homosexuality – there is considerable illberalism. Just 18% of Muslims think that homosexuality should be legal (compared to 73% of the general population), while 52% disagree. 28% would be happy to have gay teachers, while 48% would not (the figures for the general public are 75% and 14% respectively).

A large proportion of Muslims believe many anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. 35% thought “Jewish people have too much power in Britain”, 39% that they have too much power over the media and 44% that they have too much power in the business world (the figures for those that disagreed are 20%, 17% and 14% respectively). But when asked about what they thought of Jews personally, the picture changes dramatically. Respondents had to rate their feelings toward Jews on a scale from 0 to 100. The mean scores for Muslims and for the general population were similar (57.1 and 63.7). The mean score for Muslims’ feelings toward Jews (57.1) is little different to the mean score for the feelings of the general population toward Muslims (55.2). If we look at the proportion of the two samples that rated Jews between 0 and 50 (that is, rated them more negatively than positively), it is lower for Muslims than for the general population (39% to 52%). By that score, there appears to be more antipathy toward Jews within the general population than among Muslims.

Molenbeek, Brussels, Belgium

Molenbeek, Brussels, Belgium

Muslims do not appear to see Britain as a nation in thrall to Islamophobia. 73% thought that religious harassment of Muslims was not a problem. 82% had not faced harassment in the past two years and, of the 17% who had faced harassment, more than three-quarters reported it as verbal abuse. More Muslims (40%) think anti-Muslim prejudice has grown in the last five years than think it has decreased (14%). But the comparable figures for the general public are 61% and 7% respectively. Muslims, in other words, actually seem less concerned about the growth of anti-Muslim prejudice than the public at large.

7% of Muslims supported the idea of a caliphate and 3% supported the Islamic State (2% of the general population supported a caliphate and 1% backed the Islamic State). Far fewer Muslims could “understand why a British Muslim like Mohammed Emwazi would be attracted to radicalism” than members of the general public (13% compared to 27%).

“The Daily Express”, under the headline “Astonishing two in three British Muslims would not give terror tip-offs”, “The Times” and many other newspapers in Britain and abroad noted that only one in three Muslims would report to the police someone close who might be getting involved in terrorism. But what the reports failed to note was that a lower proportion of the public at large (30%) would contact the police given the same circumstances.  This is, in other words, not a Muslim problem, but a general reluctance among people to shop friends to the police, however heinous their potential crime.

What is difficult to argue from the figures is, as Trevor Phillips claims, that the social conservatism of Muslims is linked to a lack of integration. When asked, “How strongly do you feel you belong to Britain?”, 86% of Muslims said they belonged to Britain compared to 83% of the general population. A higher proportion of the general population (17%) than Muslims (11%) felt little attachment to Britain.

Respondents were asked how much integration they desired. 49% of Muslims said they would like “to fully integrate with non-Muslims in all aspects of life”, 29% wanted “to integrate on most things, but there should be separation in some areas, such as Islamic schooling and laws”, 12% chose “to integrate on some things, but I would prefer to lead a separate Islamic life as far as possible”, and 1% wanted a “fully separate Islamic area in Britain, subject to sharia law and government”. The figures reveal a desire for a degree of separation among half the Muslim population, but not a “nation within a nation”, as Phillips claims.

What the poll seems to show, as previous ones have, is a deep well of social conservatism, a more polarised community than one might imagine and a considerable attachment to Britain and to British identity. It shows issues that need confronting, but not necessarily as the headlines present them.

British Muslims seem more socially conservative than Muslims in some other Western countries. An Ifop poll of French Muslims and a Pew poll of US Muslims, for instance, both show more liberal views.

The Ifop poll found that 68% of observant Muslim women in France never wear the hijab. Fewer than a third of practising Muslims would forbid their daughters from marrying a non-Muslim. 81% accept that women should have equal rights in divorce, 44% have no problem with the issue of co-habitation, 38% support the right to abortion and 31% approve of sex before marriage. The one issue on which French Muslims are deeply conservative is homosexuality: 77% of practising Muslims disapprove.

According to the Pew poll, US Muslims are much more liberal about homosexuality than co-religionists in Europe – 39% think homosexuality acceptable.

Brussels, Belgium

Brussels, Belgium

Over the past 25 years, people of most faiths in Britain have become more liberal on issues such as homosexuality and women’s rights. British Muslims, on the other hand, seem to have become more conservative on such social issues. I don’t have any proper data on this, but I speak largely from personal experience.

As I have observed many times, the views of today’s British Muslims are different from those of previous generations. The first generation of Muslims to this country were religious, but wore their faith lightly. Many men drank alcohol. Few women wore a hijab, let alone a burqa or a niqab. Most visited the mosque only occasionally, when the “Friday feeling” took them. Islam was not, in their eyes, an all-encompassing philosophy. Their faith expressed for them a relationship with God, not a sacrosanct public identity.

The second generation of Britons with a Muslim background – my generation – was primarily secular. Religious organisations were barely visible. The organisations that bound together Asian communities were primarily secular, often political: the Asian Youth Movements, for instance, or the Indian Workers Association.

It is only with the generation that has come of age since the late 1980s that the question of cultural differences has come to be seen as important. A generation that, ironically, is far more integrated and westernised than the first generation is also the generation that is most insistent on maintaining its difference.

The differences between attitudes among British, French and US Muslims may be the consequence of a number of factors. One such factor may be the difference in countries of origin and social status of migrants. British Muslims came largely from south Asia. French Muslims came primarily from North Africa and, unlike British Muslims, were largely secular. Even today, the majority of French Muslims do not describe themselves as practising Muslims. American Muslims tend to be more middle class than those in Britain or France.

A second difference is in social policy, in particular the development of multicultural policies in Britain that have helped create a more fragmented society. The  differences in Muslim attitudes in the different countries are likely to have been created by  a combination of these two, and possibly other, factors.

Much of the debate around the poll, and Phillips’ own commentary, has confused three issues: social conservatism, lack of integration and jihadism.

We should be rightly concerned with the degree of illiberal social attitudes within Muslim communities, especially as it was very different just a generation ago. We should not simply shrug our shoulders and say, “That’s what happens in a plural society.” We should combat illiberal attitudes, from whichever group, and support those struggling for a progressive future, including within Muslim communities. Too often liberals betray such progressives in the name of tolerance or pluralism. But holding illiberal views is not necessarily the same as failing to integrate – and this poll does not reveal a link between the two. 

We should also be concerned with the more fragmented nature of British society today, with people inhabiting their own identity silos, and with the lack of social contact between different groups (some evidence for this is provided in the poll). We should be concerned, too, with the growth of sectarianism within Muslim communities. There is a good argument to be made that silo-building has helped create the well of social conservatism within Muslim communities, and has encouraged sectarianism. The problem is not so much a lack of integration as the view, promulgated by many politicians and policy-makers, that it is through identity groups that such integration should take place. We need to challenge the social and multicultural policies that have, over the past three decades, helped entrench identity politics and encourage silo-building.

Also, there is the problem of jihadism, and of a section of Muslims being drawn toward Islamist views. As I have noted before, most studies show that Muslims are rarely drawn to jihadist groups because they already hold extremist religious views; rather, it is their involvement in jihadism that leads them to accept religious extremism as a justification for their acts.  As the former CIA operation officer, now an academic and counter-terrorism consultant to the US and other governments, Marc Sageman, has put it, “At the time they joined, jihadi terrorists were not very religious. They only became religious once they joined the jihad.” This is why we need to rethink our ideas about radicalisation and how to combat it.

Illiberalism, lack of integration and jihadism are all urgent issues that need tackling. But we will not tackle any of them by drawing facile links between them.

Elazig, Turkey

Elazig, Turkey

Enough already. The Channel 4 survey into Muslim attitudes, although it has its problems, will prove worthwhile if commentary as perceptive as this by Kenan Malik is an outcome. But, as I have said on many occasions before, if problems of illiberalism, segregation and jihadism within the Muslim community are to be tackled constructively, there is only so much that the non-Muslim community can do. Solutions to the problems just listed lie ultimately with Muslims themselves, although non-Muslims with good intentions must lend their support to Muslims who seek to resolve such problems for the benefit of everyone.

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“Living with Difference: community, diversity and the common good”, the Report of the Woolf Commission on Religion and Belief, December 2015.

The last few months have seen the publication of three major reports about religion and belief in the UK (two of the reports relate specifically to religion and belief in schools) and a high court judgement that makes it clear that secular worldviews such as Humanism must be treated on an equal footing with religions in the school curriculum in England and Wales (the high court judgement will eventually have a beneficial impact on RE/RS/philosophy and ethics’ syllabuses at GCSE, but its impact on locally agreed RE syllabuses will be almost immediate). Although all the reports and the high court judgement are important (they are largely in agreement about many of the most important matters addressed), I wish to concentrate here on only one of the four ground-shifting developments. Below, I provide the whole of the executive summary in the Woolf Commission’s “Living with Difference: community, diversity and the common good”:

Hindu Mandir, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Hindu Mandir, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

The changing landscape

Over the past half century, Britain’s landscape in terms of religion and belief has been transformed beyond recognition. There are three striking trends:

  • The first is the increase in the number of people with non-religious beliefs and identities. Almost a half of the population today describes itself as non-religious, as compared with an eighth in England and a third in Scotland in 2001.
  • The second is the general decline in Christian affiliation, belief and practice. Thirty years ago, two-thirds of the population would have identified as Christians. Today, that figure is four in ten, and at the same time there has been a shift away from mainstream denominations and a growth in evangelical and Pentecostal churches.
  • The third is the increased diversity amongst people who have a religious faith. Fifty years ago, Judaism – at one in 150 – was the largest non-Christian tradition in the UK. Now it is the fourth largest behind Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism. Although still comprising less than one in ten of the population, faith traditions other than Christianity have younger age profiles and are therefore growing faster.

Furthermore, intrafaith and interfaith disputes are inextricably linked to today’s geopolitical crises across the Middle East, and in many parts of Africa and Asia. Many of these disputes are reflected back into UK society, creating or exacerbating tensions between different communities.

So, twenty-first century ethno-religious issues and identities here in the UK and globally are reshaping society in ways inconceivable just a few decades ago, and how we respond to such changes will have a profound impact on public life.

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Learning to live with difference

The resulting uncertainties about national identity, cohesion and community can lead to over-simplistic conclusions about the negative impact of such changes on society. These, in turn, may feed the very anxieties about immigration and the fear of “the other” that need to be addressed. Certainly the development of public policy related to religion and belief has too often been piecemeal and kneejerk.

The report is intended to be an alternative to such approaches: systematic, consistent and rational, looking at the areas of education, the media, law, dialogue and social action. It seeks to provide a basis for deliberation and policy-making based on research and evidence, the needs of society and the daily experiences of increasingly diverse communities.

Learning to understand and live with differences is the recurring theme throughout the report. It argues that religion and belief are a combination both of conscious choice and of the circumstances of birth, community and public perception. Whether or not we might want to, we cannot ignore or escape the differences that religious traditions make to our sense of personal identity, narrative, relationships and isolation. Religious and belief identities, the report points out, can serve as forces both for good and for ill.

And so the challenge for policy-makers is to create an environment in which differences enrich society rather than cause anxiety, and in which they contribute to its common good.

Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom

Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom

Vision

The commission’s vision is of a society at ease with itself in which all individuals, groups and communities feel at home, and in whose flourishing all wish to take part. In such a society all:

  • feel a positive part of an ongoing national story – what it means to be British is not fixed and final, for people in the past understood the concept differently from the way it is seen today and all must be able to participate in shaping its meaning for the future
  • are treated with equal respect and concern by the law, the state and public authorities
  • know that their culture, religion and beliefs are embraced as part of a continuing process of mutual enrichment, and that their contributions to the texture of the nation’s common life are valued
  • are free to express and practise their beliefs, religious or otherwise, providing they do not constrict the rights and freedoms of others
  • are confident in helping to shape public policy
  • feel challenged to respond to the many manifest ills in wider society.
London

London

Recommendations

The implications of such a vision for public policy are of many kinds, and are highlighted throughout this report. Prominent amongst them are those which are briefly summarised below. Each is discussed and explained in much fuller detail in the main body of the report.

A national conversation should be launched across the UK by leaders of faith communities and ethical traditions to create a shared understanding of the fundamental values underlying public life. It would take place at all levels and in all regions. The outcome might be a statement of the principles and values which foster the common good, and which should underpin and guide public life.

Much greater religion and belief literacy is needed in every section of society and at all levels. The potential for misunderstanding, stereotyping and oversimplification based on ignorance is huge. The commission therefore calls on educational and professional bodies to draw up religion and belief literacy programmes and projects, including an annual awards scheme to recognise and celebrate best practice in the media.

The pluralist character of modern society should be reflected in national and civic events so that they are more reflective of the UK’s increasing diversity, and in national forums such as the House of Lords, so that they include a wider range of worldviews and religious traditions, and of Christian denominations other than the Church of England.

All pupils in state-funded schools should have a statutory entitlement to a curriculum about religion, philosophy and ethics that is relevant to today’s society, and the broad framework of such a curriculum should be nationally agreed. The legal requirement for schools to hold acts of collective worship should be repealed, and replaced by a requirement to hold inclusive times for reflection.

Bodies responsible for admissions and employment policies in schools with a religious character (“faith schools”) should take measures to reduce selection of pupils and staff on grounds of religion.

The BBC Charter renewal should mandate the Corporation to reflect the range of religion and belief of modern society, for example, by extending contributions to Radio 4’s daily religious flagship “Thought for the Day” to include speakers from non-religious perspectives such as humanists.

London

London

A panel of experts on religion and belief should be established to advise the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) when there are complaints about the media coverage in this field.

Relevant public bodies and voluntary organisations should promote opportunities for interreligious and interworldview encounter and dialogue. Such dialogue should involve Dharmic as well as Abrahamic traditions, young people as well as older, women as well as men, and local groups as well as national and regional ones. Clergy and other opinion leaders should have a sound understanding of the traditions of religion and belief in modern society.

Where a religious organisation is best placed to deliver a social good, it should not be disadvantaged when applying for funding to do so, so long as its services are not aimed at seeking converts.

The Ministry of Justice should issue guidance on compliance with UK standards of gender equality and judicial independence by religious and cultural tribunals such as ecclesiastical courts, Beit Din and Sharia councils.

The Ministry of Justice should instruct the Law Commission to review the anomalies in how the legal definitions of race, ethnicity and religion interact in practice and make recommendations to ensure all religious traditions are treated equally.

In framing counter-terrorism legislation, the Government should seek to promote, not limit, freedom of enquiry, speech and expression, and should engage with a wide range of affected groups, including those with which it disagrees, and also with academic research. It should lead public opinion by challenging negative stereotyping and by speaking out in support of groups that may otherwise feel vulnerable and excluded.

London

London

The above is so important and insightful that some comments are essential. First, note the realities (“The changing landscape”) on which the report itself are founded and, in particular, that commitment to Christianity has declined a lot in recent years while the percentage of people devoid of any religion has risen rapidly. Second, note that ignorance about religion and belief is widespread in UK society (even among those who are, or project themselves as, religious authority figures). Third, note how there is an urgent need to engage with people of all religions and beliefs to agree the “fundamental values underlying public life”. Fourth, note that all pupils and students should have a nationally agreed statutory entitlement to a syllabus about religion, philosophy and ethics, and that the current daily act of collective worship should be replaced with a more inclusive time for reflection. Fifth, note the emphasis placed on gender equality, freedom of expression, freedom of enquiry, creating level playing fields for all religions and beliefs, and ensuring that religious courts and councils do not discriminate against individuals within their communities. Last, and in some ways perhaps the most important point of all, everyone in society should be “free to express and practise their beliefs, religious or otherwise, providing they do not constrict the rights and freedoms of others”.

Torah scrolls, Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Torah scrolls, Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Religious people still behaving badly (and far, far worse), four.

One.

A halal abattoir at the centre of horrific animal cruelty allegations has gone into administration, six months after covert footage of practices in the slaughterhouse were revealed. The move came as the UK’s Food Standards Agency announced it was close to concluding an enquiry into how animals were treated, an enquiry which will be handed to the Crown Prosecution Service to consider launching criminal charges.

An international furore erupted and protests were held outside the abattoir in Thirsk after film obtained by Animal Aid was released showing a worker hacking and sawing at animals’ throats, in direct contravention of Islamic practice. It took workers up to five attempts to sever blood vessels. Other film included sheep being kicked in the face; lifted by their ears, fleeces or legs; thrown into solid structures; and a worker standing on the neck of a conscious sheep and jumping up and down. Also, staff are shown laughing while a sheep was bleeding to death with green spectacles painted around its eyes.

The film drew widespread condemnation because the law requires abattoirs to stun animals before slaughter to prevent unnecessary suffering, although there are exemptions for meat producers supplying the Jewish and the Muslim markets. Under the halal code of practice, animals are supposed to be killed quickly with a single sweep of a surgically sharp knife.

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

Two.

The Sikh Federation UK, said by some to be the leading Sikh lobbying organisation in Britain, has so far failed to condemn the actions of a group of Sikhs who disrupted a wedding between a Sikh and a non-Sikh in a gurdwara in Southall, west London.

A group of about twenty Sikhs arrived at the gurdwara on Friday 9th August while final preparations were taking place for the wedding of a Sikh woman and a white, non-Sikh man. The couple were forced to cancel their wedding after the gang stormed into the gurdwara.

Sohan Singh Sumra, vice-president of the Sri Guru Singh Sabha Gurdwara, told a leading UK newspaper that the men “were all thugs” who objected to the ceremony simply because it was a “mixed marriage”. Mr. Sumra said the group wanted to “intimidate” the bride and groom and that the police had to be called.

The journalist Sunny Hundal later confronted the Sikh Federation UK on Twitter about the incident and asked it to condemn the actions of the gang, but representatives of the federation refused, stating only that what happened at the gurdwara “should be avoided”. A representative of the federation said that those who “understand” and “respect” the Anand Karaj (the Sikh marriage ceremony) will “realise it is more important” than the couples’ “‘big day'”.

Mr. Hundal warned that “gang-mentality puritanism” would lead to a “Sikh version of the Taliban”. He also posted comments made against him by “fundamentalist Sikhs” who objected to his criticism of the Sikh Federation UK. He went on to allege that instances of “hypocritical and fanatical thugs” arriving to disrupt “interfaith weddings” are becoming more common.

When asked by Sunny Hundal if they “support or condemn these thugs going around disrupting interfaith marriages at Gurdwaras?”, a representative of the Sikh Federation UK replied obliquely that they “stand by and defend” the tenets of the “Sikh faith”.

A letter published in “The Times” newspaper on 21 July warned of a “recently placed” ban on gurdwaras “solemnising marriages between Sikh and non-Sikh”. Moreover, advice from 2007 stipulates that the Anand Karaj should only be between two Sikhs.

Guidelines published by the Sikh Council UK in October 2014 state that “Any person wishing to exercise the choice to marry in a Gurdwara Sahib through the Anand Karaj ceremony must sign a declaration” that “he or she is a Sikh, believes in the tenets of the Sikh faith and owes no allegiance to another faith”. Such people must also pledge to “endeavour to bring up any children from his or her marriage as Sikhs”.

National Secular Society president Terry Sanderson said, “This kind of fundamentalism is very dangerous. It may amount only to bullying at the moment, but as fanaticism increases it can escalate to frightening levels of violence. The government should stamp down on this now before it gets out of control. They must learn from the experience with Islamism that ignoring the problem on grounds of political correctness will only allow it to fester and get worse.”

P.S. This is not a new problem. The BBC website has an article dated 11th March 2013 about the disruption of “interfaith” marriages at gurdwaras. The article concludes by mentioning that a documentary called “The Sikh Wedding Crashers” could be heard on the BBC Asian Network on Monday 11th March 2013 at 5.00pm, or listened to thereafter on BBC iPlayer.

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Three.

Despite the growing popularity of secularism and Protestantism in recent decades, the Roman Catholic Church is still a major social influence in Latin America, so much so that the Vatican’s hostility to abortion is enshrined in the legislation of most Latin American nation states. Chile is said to have the legislation that is most hostile to abortion in that it is presently illegal without exception. The Chilean abortion law is therefore considered one of the most restrictive in the world.

However, this dire situation for women may at last be about to change, and it may be about to change because of what follows, a case of sexual abuse that came to light in 2013:

The case of a pregnant girl aged eleven who was raped in Chile by her mother’s partner set off a national debate about abortion in one of the most socially conservative countries in Latin America. Chileans were outraged after state TV reported that the child is fourteen  weeks pregnant and was raped repeatedly over two years. Police in the remote southern city of Puerto Montt arrested her mother’s partner, who reportedly confessed to abusing the girl. The case was brought to their attention by the pregnant child’s maternal grandmother.

Doctors say the girl’s life and that of the foetus are at high risk. But in Chile ending the pregnancy is not an option.

Chile allowed abortions for medical reasons until they were outlawed in 1973 by General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. The current government of conservative President Sebastian Pinera has opposed any loosening of the prohibition.

Many Chileans vented their outrage on social media. Some started an online campaign to demand legalisation of abortion in cases of rape or health risks for the mother. “When I heard about this little girl my first reaction was to support abortion because I think it’s the best option in this case,” said Eduardo Hernandez, a web designer aged thirty. “It’s the first online petition I’ve signed in my life, but I think this case really deserves it,” Mr. Hernandez said. “We should have a change of law. I hope this case serves as a precedent to have a serious discussion about abortion.” The Chilean Senate rejected three bills in 2012 that would have eased the absolute ban on abortions.

“Chile is a country that has modernised when it comes to its economy, but when it comes to its social and political culture, it has become stagnant and this is seen with the abortion issue,” said Marta Lagos, head of the Santiago-based pollster Mori. “It’s a country that is opposed to change, that panics with any change, which is seen as a threat,” Lagos said. “The weight of Catholicism is still a major issue and we also have an indigenous culture that always lived alienated from the rest of world.”

The Roman Catholic Church retains a strong influence over society, although it has lost credibility since 2010 when four men alleged that they were abused by one of Chile’s most revered priests when they were between fourteen and seventeen years-old.

Former president Michelle Bachelet, the frontrunner in the November 2013 presidential election, favours legalising abortion in cases of rape or risks to the health of the mother or the child. She has spent the past two years heading the UN agency for women.

Her opponent, former Economy Minister Pablo Longueira, was close to Pinochet. He opposes the legalisation of abortion and the morning-after pill.

The following is part of a recent article in “The Guardian” newspaper:

The debate about abortion comes as Chile, one of Latin America’s most socially conservative countries, grapples with shifting views on once-taboo issues. The mostly Roman Catholic country began to allow divorce in 2004. This year, Congress recognised civil unions for gay couples and, recently, a pilot programme in Santiago harvested the country’s first legal medical marijuana.

The changing attitudes mark a generational shift as young people born after the 1973-1990 military dictatorship come of age. The trend has accelerated since a wave of student protests demanding educational reform began in 2011 in the wake of Catholic priest sex abuse scandals that have provoked questioning of Church doctrine.

A recent discussion on abortion at Santiago’s Diego Portales University drew a packed audience with many students forced to sit on the floor.

“As a country we are behind,” said Fernanda Saavedra, a student who attended. “We need to evolve and think more about women.”

Chile legalised abortion for medical reasons in 1931, eighteen years before it allowed women to vote. But during the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, abortion was banned under all circumstances. Today, women found guilty of having abortions face prison terms of up to five years.

Still, an estimated 120,000 illegal abortions are performed every year, according to the Miles Group. Most women use the drug misoprostol, buying it on the black market, to end first-trimester pregnancies. Others undergo conventional abortions in secret. Those who can afford to travel seek abortions in neighbouring Argentina or beyond.

And this suggests that change for the better is not far off:

Chileans online are engaging in heated debate over abortion, twenty-six years after the procedure was completely banned in the country. In August 2015, the Chamber of Deputies’ health commission is set to vote on a new bill that will decriminalise abortion under three circumstances: in a case of rape, when a mother’s life is at risk, or when a foetus will not survive the pregnancy. The proposed law is backed by Chilean President Michelle Bachelet.

Montilla, Spain

Montilla, Spain

Four.

Evidence grows suggesting that the Islamic State has used chemical weapons (mustard gas, in all likelihood) against the Kurds in Iraq and Syria. Chemical weapons have already been used by the Alawite-dominated regime of Bashar Al-Assad that clings to power in parts of Syria. Inevitably, the use of chemical weapons against the Kurds reminds those of us with long memories about how Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated regime used such weapons against the Kurds in Halabja in 1988 killing about 5,000 men, women and children.

Battalgazi, near Malatya, Turkey

A Kurdish family, Battalgazi, near Malatya, Turkey

Five.

In August 2015, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Scotland, Philip Tartaglia, said to the victims of historic child sexual abuse, “The bishops of Scotland are shamed and pained for what you have suffered. We say sorry. We ask for forgiveness. We apologise to those who have found Church reaction slow, unsympathetic or uncaring and we reach out to them as we take up the recommendations of the McLellan Commission.”

Published in August 2015, the report by the McLellan Commission makes for harrowing reading, this despite the fact that It is merely the latest such report to confirm how widespread child sexual abuse has been within the Roman Catholic Church and how inadequate the response of the Church has been when such abuse is confirmed.

Dr. Andrew McLellan was commissioned in November 2013 to undertake a review of all aspects of safeguarding policy, procedures and practice within the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland. 2013 had been a difficult year for Scottish Roman Catholics. Early in 2013, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, had sent shock waves through Scottish congregations when he resigned following inappropriate sexual conduct toward his own priests. A few months later, allegations of historic child sexual abuse were made involving Fort Augustus Abbey School, an exclusive Roman Catholic boarding school in the Scottish Highlands.

Catherine Deveney is one of the many people who provided evidence to the McLellan Commission. In late August 2015 she wrote in the following manner in a national UK newspaper:

What did I tell McLellan? As much as possible, while protecting my sources. The decades of abuse; of cover-up; of moral and financial corruption. The enormous gulf between what the Church said publicly and what it did privately. Its ruthless dismissal of victims and of criticism. The fact that it failed to have coherent, consistent policies because each bishop was deemed autonomous in his own diocese. McLellan had produced reports on the Scottish prison service in the past and was neither delicate nor faint-hearted. “I am shocked,” he told me. “And I am not easily shocked.”

 In the same article Deveney refers to:

Father Patrick Lawson, an Ayrshire priest who had been speaking out against abuse for almost twenty years after exposing a fellow priest, Father Paul Moore, for sexually assaulting him and abusing two altar boys. Father Lawson, who was forcibly removed from his parish and is now involved in an industrial tribunal against the Church, also appeared before the commission and the final report recommends a policy protecting whistleblowers.

The two popes before Pope Francis. Gdansk, Poland

The two popes before Pope Francis. Gdansk, Poland

 Six.

Palmyra in Syria is one of the Middle East’s most remarkable ruined ancient cities, partly for the magnificent ruins that survive, and partly for the magnificent artefacts kept in the nearby museum. However, the Islamic State now (mid-2015) controls the region around Palmyra. In August 2015, Islamic State militants beheaded a renowned antiquities scholar and hung his mutilated body on a column in one of Palmyra’s main squares because the scholar refused to reveal where valuable artefacts had been moved for safekeeping.

The brutal murder of Khaled Al-Asaad – he was aged eighty-two – is the latest atrocity perpetrated by the Islamic State, which has captured a third of Syria and neighbouring Iraq and declared a caliphate on the territory it controls. The atrocity has also highlighted the Islamic State’s habit of looting and selling antiquities to fund its activities or destroying them.

Al-Asaad, who had worked at Palmyra for fifty years, had been held for more than a month before being murdered. Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, said he had learned from a Syrian source that the archaeologist had been interrogated by Islamic State militants about the location of treasures from Palmyra and had been executed when he refused to cooperate.

The Islamic State captured Palmyra from government forces in May, but is not known to have damaged its monumental Roman-era ruins despite a reputation for destroying artefacts it views as idolatrous. This said, it is very likely that damage will now be done to the ruins.

Palmyra is one of Syria’s six UNESCO world heritage sites, but five of them have been severely damaged by the war because of airstrikes, mortar attacks and extensive looting. The old city of Aleppo (once, along with the old city in Cairo, the most beautiful and intriguing old city anywhere in the Middle East) is largely in ruins. Only the old city of Damascus has been spared, but fierce fighting rages not far beyond its walls and mortar shells occasionally fall within them. Government airstrikes have turned many of Damascus’s suburbs, once a short minibus ride from the old city’s Roman-era eastern gate, into rubble.

P.S. Just prior to publishing this post, news broke that Islamic State militants have destroyed part or all of the magnificent Baal Shamin Temple at Palmyra, which dates from 17 CE. The reason for destroying the temple? One or more of the following would seem to provide an explanation. Baal Shamin Temple is pre- or non-Islamic. It is a product of Pagan piety. It is where people once engaged in practices that mainstream Muslims define as idolatrous. It provides humankind with a view of the divine that conflicts with the view of the divine thought by mainstream Muslims to be true. Its destruction enrages public opinion globally. But if any or all of these are reasons for the temple’s destruction they are pathetic and contemptible reasons. Recent events at Palmyra confirm that the Islamic State must be resisted wherever it seeks to gain a foothold.

And they slaughtered the innocent (the story with no end)

And they slaughtered the innocent (the story with no end)

Seven. 

Ayoub El-Khazzani, a Moroccan national, had his August 2015 plan to murder passengers on an Amsterdam to Paris high speed train thwarted by the intervention of two American servicemen, their American civilian friend and a UK businessman. El-Khazzani, known to the authorities for links with jihadi groups, is believed to have travelled through Europe to Turkey between May and July 2015, from where he may have crossed the border to spend time with Islamic State militants. He may also have links with Sid Ahmed Ghlam, an Algerian student who was arrested in April 2015. Sid Ahmed Ghlam is charged with planning to attack churches and other targets in Paris.

But…

The nuclear deal framework with Iran dating from April 2015 has resulted in the re-establishment of normal diplomatic relations between the Islamic Republic on the one hand and nation states such as the US and the UK on the other. Jaw-jaw is always preferable to war-war. How sad, therefore, that those who are most vocal in their opposition to the deal are Israel, Saudi Arabia and a majority of Republicans in the US. As unholy alliances go, the one that (sort of) exists between Israel, Saudi Arabia and the US Republicans takes some beating. I wonder to what degree religion has influenced Israel, Saudi Arabia and the US Republicans to oppose and/or regret the deal with Iran?

Part of the Republican heartland, Texas, the USA

Part of the Republican heartland, Texas, the USA

Is religion a force for good in the world?

On 26th November 2010, Christopher Hitchens, the well-known atheist, and Tony Blair, the one-time British prime minister and Roman Catholic, took part in the Munk Debate addressing the question, “Is religion a force for good in the world?” The debate resulted in a Black Swan book entitled “Hitchens vs. Blair” published in 2011.

Sadly, Tony Blair’s contribution to the debate amounted to little more a lot of hot air and wishful thinking, so much so that, below, I do not quote from his contributions (those of you keen to find out what he said will have to access the Black Swan book itself). Instead, I quote from Hitchens who had far more compelling things to share with the audience.

What is twisted and immoral in the faith mentality… is… its consideration of the human being as raw material and its fantasy of purity. Once you assume a creator and a plan, it makes humans objects in a cruel experiment whereby we are created sick and commanded to be well. I’ll repeat that: created sick and then ordered to be well. And a celestial dictatorship is installed over us to supervise this, a kind of divine North Korea. Greedy and exigent. Greedy for uncritical praise from dawn to dusk and swift to punish the original sins with which it so tenderly gifted us in the very first place. However, let no one say there is no cure. Salvation is offered. Redemption, indeed, is offered at the low price of the surrender of your critical faculties…

Religion… makes extraordinary claims. Though I would maintain that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, rather daringly religion provides not even ordinary evidence for its extraordinary supernatural claims. Therefore we might begin by asking… is it good for the world to appeal to our credulity and not to our skepticism? Is it good for the world to worship a deity that takes sides in wars and human affairs, and to appeal to our terror of death? To preach guilt and shame about the sexual act and the sexual relationship – is it good for the world?… (Should religion) terrify children with the image of hell and eternal punishment, not just for themselves, but for their parents and those they love? Perhaps worst of all, to consider women an inferior creation – is that good for the world?…

Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Religion forces nice people to do unkind things and also makes intelligent people say stupid things. Handed a small baby for the first time, is it your first reaction to think, “Beautiful, almost perfect. Now please hand me the sharp stone for its genitalia that I may do the work of the Lord.” As the great American physicist Steven Weinberg has very aptly put it, in the ordinary moral universe the good will do the best they can, the worst will do the worst they can, but if you want to make good people do wicked things, you’ll need religion… 

The Middle East is the birthplace of monotheism, so you might think it was filled with refulgence and love and peace. Everyone is roughly agreed… that there should be enough room for two states (Israel and Palestine), for two people (Jews and Arabs) in the same land… Why can’t we get it? We can’t get it because the parties of God have a veto on it and everybody knows that this is true. Because of the divine promises made about this territory there will never be peace, there will never be compromise. There will instead be misery, shame and tyranny, and people will kill each other’s children for ancient books and caves and relics, and who is going to say that this is good for the world?… 

No one was arguing that religion should or will die out of the world. All I’m arguing is that it would be better of there was a great deal more by the way of an outbreak of secularism… 

Name me one religion that stands for the empowerment of women or ever has. Wherever you look in the world and you try to remove the shackles of ignorance and disease and stupidity for women, it is invariably the clerisy that stands in the way…

I would hope (Roman) Catholic charities are doing a lot of work in Africa. If I was a member of a church that had preached that AIDS was not as bad as condoms, I’d be putting some conscience money into Africa… 

The injunction not to do to another what would be repulsive if done to yourself (an injunction so often thought to lie at the heart of the monotheistic religions of the Middle East) is found in the analects of Confucius… But that truth is found in the heart of every person in this room. Everybody knows that much. We don’t require divine permission to know right from wrong…

A woman idealised. A barrier to gender equality?

A woman idealised. A barrier to gender equality?

Could religion sometimes be a good thing after all?… What would religion have to do to get that far?… It would have to give up all supernatural claims… the threat of the reward of heaven or the terror of punishment in hell… miracles… the idea of an eternal, unalterable authority figure who was judge, jury and executioner, against whom there could be no appeal and who wasn’t finished with you even when you died. 

There’s something about religion that is, very often in its original monotheistic, Judaistic form, actually an expression of exclusivism. “This is our God. This is a God who has made a covenant with our tribe.” You’ll find it all over the place… It’s always struck me as slightly absurd for there to be a special church for the English people. It strikes me as positively sinister that Pope Benedict should want to restore the (Roman) Catholic Church to the claim it used to make, which is that it is the one true church and that all other forms of Christianity are, as he still puts it, defective and inadequate. How this idea helps to build your future world of co-operation and understanding is not known to me.

Religion… is a surrender of reason in favour of faith. It’s a fantastic force multiplier, a tremendous intensifier of all things that are in fact divisive rather than inclusive, and that’s why its history is so stained with blood – and not just with crimes against humanity, but with crimes against womanhood, crimes against reason and science, or attacks upon medicine and enlightenment.

Four hundred years and more people (in Northern Ireland)… have been killing each other’s children based on what kind of Christian they were and sending each other’s children, in rhetoric, to hell… Northern Ireland… the most remarkable place in Northern Europe for unemployment, for ignorance, for poverty and for, I would say, stupidity too…

Rwanda is the most Christian country in Africa… Genocide was actually preached from the pulpits of the (Roman) Catholic Church. Many of the people we are still looking for, who were involved in that genocide, are hiding in the Vatican along with a number of other people who should be given up to international justice right away.

The United States has a unique constitution that forbids the government to take sides in any religious matter or to sponsor the church or adopt any form of faith itself… Thomas Jefferson wrote… “Rest assured that there will ever be a wall of separation between the church and the state in this country.” The maintenance of that wall, which people like me have to defend every day against those who want garbage taught in schools and pseudo-science in the name of Christ… is the guarantee of democracy…

Christus statue, North Visitor Centre, Salt Lake City, Utah

Christus statue, North Visitor Centre, Salt Lake City, Utah

 (We can all get along fine) as long as you don’t want your religion taught to my children in school, given a government subsidy or imposed on me by violence… They say it (religion) is the way to happiness. Why doesn’t it make the religious happy?… Because they won’t be happy until you believe it (their religion) too. And why is that? Because that’s what their holy books tell them… Do these texts say that until every knee bows in the name of Jesus there will be no happiness? Of course it’s what these texts say. It isn’t only a private belief.  It is, and always has been, a threat to the idea of a peaceful community and very often, as now, a palpable one…  

The Methodist Church of the United States adamantly opposed the liberation of Iraq, and the Vatican adamantly opposed the liberation of Iraq, as it had the liberation of Kuwait in 1991. It wasn’t the first time that a sort of sickly Christian passivity has been preached in the face of fascist dictatorship… Given the number of Muslims put to the sword by Saddam Hussein’s regime, it’s quite extraordinary to see the extent to which Muslim fundamentalists flocked to his defence… It’s those who would have kept a cannibal and a Caligula and a professional sadist in power who have the explaining to do (about the second Iraq war)…

(The Israeli and Palestinian problem is so complicated because of) the idea that God intervenes in real estate and territorial disputes… This is what I mean when I say that religion is a real danger to the survival of civilisation, and that it makes this banal regional and national dispute, which, if reduced to its proportions, is a nothingness. (Religion) makes that (problem) not just lethally insoluble, but is drawing in other contending parties who openly wish for an apocalyptic conclusion to it, as also bodied forth in the same scriptural texts – in other words, that it will be the death of us all, the end of humanity, the end of the whole suffering veil of tears, which is what they secretly want. This is a failure of the parties of God, and it’s not something that happens because people misinterpret the texts. It happens because they believe them, that’s the problem…

If we give up religion we discover what we know already, whether we are religious or not, which is that we are somewhat imperfectly evolved primates on a very small planet in a very unimportant suburb of the solar system that is itself a negligible part of a very rapidly expanding and blowing apart cosmic phenomenon. These conclusions… are a great deal more awe-inspiring than what’s contained in any burning bush or horse that flies overnight to Jerusalem or any of that. It’s a great deal more awe-inspiring, as is any look through the Hubble telescope…

Awe and wonder do not depend on superstition or the supernatural

Awe and wonder do not depend on superstition or the supernatural

The question is how to keep the numinous, the transcendent, I’ll go so far as the ecstatic, in art and in our own emotions and in our finer feelings, and to distinguish it precisely from superstition and the supernatural, which are designed to make us fearful and afraid and servile, and which sometimes succeed only to well… 

(Why is it that many renowned people embraced and then rejected communism – André Gide, Arthur Koestler, Stephen Spender, etc. – despite its admirable aspirations?) Because it’s not worth the sacrifice of freedom that it implies. It implies that great things can only be done if you’ll place yourself under an infallible leadership, and once a decision has been made you are bound by it. You might conceivably notice where I’m going here… It (communism, and the same can be said about religion) wasn’t worth the sacrifice of mental, intellectual and moral freedom…

I don’t think someone is religious unless they have faith in what St. Paul calls the evidence of things not seen – in other words, the supernatural  or supervising deity, presence, force, who requires and expects certain kinds of propitiation.

A religious person… (has) special permission… to talk nonsense.

Mother Teresa… her teachings and entire lifetime of work were exerted to make sure that women could not get hold of the means of family planning, so that the effect she had on prolonging and entrenching and deepening poverty and disease hugely outweighed any good she might have done if she’d spent the money she raised on charity – which, as it turns out, she did not do anyway… And then you simply have to ask anyone if they know of a religion – and not just a monotheistic one – that does not, according to the texts, consider women to be an inferior creation.

What one has to avoid is certainty. The Socratic principle is that you’re only educated to the extent that you understand how little you know.

What I think would be nice is if people realised, for example, that a lot of devotional music is written by non-believers. I suppose Verdi is the best example.

There’s no doubt that Judaism is much nearer to being philosophy than religion, or rather much nearer to that claim than Christianity or Islam are, and that it is attractive for that reason.

I think part of having being a marxist meant I could not help noticing how many thinkers and writers of the left were Jews. And I also used to find any hint of anti-Semitism absolutely repulsive… My attitude toward Zionism had always been… that I very much doubt it to be the liberation of the Jewish people.

Auschwitz, Poland

Auschwitz, Poland

The reason for (anti-Semitism’s) virulence is religious… If the events (leading up to Jesus’ execution) as described took place at all – and I think that something like that did, that some charismatic rabbi was executed for blasphemy – then the Romans did it, but it was the Jews who thought, “Here’s another false claimant (to being the messiah).” They were the only ones who knew him, really, and they spat on him and turned away and for that they’re not going to be forgiven. That’s why it took the (Roman Catholic) Church until 1964 to stop saying that all Jews were personally responsible (for his execution)… It’s the same with the Muslims. The first people who meet Muhammad are the Jews, and at first some of them are excited, thinking maybe this is the messiah. But he is not, they decide. Private time with the prophet is something that every Muslim in the world would give their all for… and this privilege was granted to a group who turned their backs.

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

2,700 people listened to the debate. The pre-debate vote was 25% in favour of the resolution and 55% against, with 20% undecided. The final vote was 32% in favour of the resolution and 68% against, with no one undecided.

Sadly, Christopher Hitchens is now dead. His memory and work live on in many books and countless articles. Perhaps his most accessible (and controversial and entertaining) work is “God is not Great”, which dates from 2007.

I do not agree with everything Hitchens says in “Hitchens vs. Blair” – if he were alive today and knew I agreed with everything he said, Hitchens would have nothing but contempt for me – but most of what he says “is right on the money”, as our friends across the pond would say.     

Religious people behaving badly (and far, far worse), three.

One.

At last, attention of a popular as well as a scholarly kind is being given to the innocuous-sounding World Congress Of Families (WCF), an Illinois-based alliance of conservative religious groups (to date, most such groups exist within the embrace of the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam). Why is the WCF a manifestation of religious people behaving badly? Because it is leading a global legislative and public relations campaign against LGBTQ and reproductive rights. It is being listened to far too readily in Africa and Russia, two parts of the globe where LGBTQ and reproductive rights are already most under threat. For anyone who wants confirmation that the activities of the WCF must be challenged, type “World Congress of Families” into your search engine and, if short of time, examine articles only by Political Research Associates, Right Wing Watch and the Human Rights Campaign. You will get the full picture very quickly.

Two.

It is almost certain (even the Israeli government believes that what follows is true) that the fatal arson attack on 31st July 2015 that left eighteen-month-old Ali Saad Dawabsheh dead in his family’s West Bank home was carried out by Jewish settler extremists (whether Hassidic or Haredi settler extremists we cannot, at this point, tell, but, if I were pushed to hazard a guess, I would say responsibility lay with Haredi settlers).

Religious people frequently prefer to burn, burn rather than build, build

Religious people frequently prefer to burn, burn rather than build, build

Three.

A devout Jewish protester armed with a knife ran amok during Jerusalem’s Gay Pride March stabbing six people – one woman seriously – in the worst incident of homophobic violence in the city for a decade.

According to eyewitnesses, the attacker, named by a police spokesperson as Yishai Schlissel, had hidden in a supermarket and waited for the march to arrive. Witnesses described seeing Schlissel, “an ultra-Orthodox Jewish male” who had been released from prison three weeks earlier after serving a sentence for stabbing several people at a gay pride parade in 2005, run screaming through the crowd in a central Jerusalem street stabbing people at random before being overpowered by police.

A few days after the stabbings, Shira Banki, aged sixteen, died of the wounds inflicted by Yishai Schlissel.

Four.

Leaders in the Methodist Church in the UK have apologised for failing to protect children and adults following nearly two thousand reports of physical and sexual abuse dating back to the 1950s.

When people feel that members of a religious group behave in a reprehensible manner (e.g. priests in the Roman Catholic Church sexually abuse children and young people), expressions of outrage can be violent. Malaga, Spain

When people feel that members of a religious group behave in a reprehensible manner (e.g. priests in the Roman Catholic Church sexually abuse children and young people), expressions of outrage can be violent. Malaga, Spain

Five. 

A former minister who held one of the most senior roles in the North-East Anglican Church is facing trial for a string of serious sex offences dating back to the 1970s. The Venerable Granville Gibson, aged seventy-nine, former Archdeacon of Auckland, County Durham, has appeared at Newton Aycliffe Magistrates Court charged with eight offences in total relating to two alleged victims, both of whom were teenagers at the time.

Six.

The Islamic State continues to deny Muslim women under its control the same rights as Muslim men and exploits non-Muslim women as sex slaves. Moreover, Yazidis who have escaped from territory ruled by Islamic State militants confirm that Yazidi males have been murdered in substantial numbers. Despite the brutality of the regime, considerable numbers of men and smaller numbers of women travel from Europe, North Africa and parts of Asia to lend their support to the Islamic State. Worries about the Islamic State and religious groups almost as extreme are so acute in the UK that David Cameron, the prime minister, announces a five-year plan designed to combat extremism and radicalisation.

Seven. 

Mohammed Fakhri Al-Khabass of Middlesbrough is believed to have persuaded at least sixteen medical students to travel from Sudan to Syria to join the Islamic State.

Act of Remembrance for the seventeen people murdered in Paris in January 2015, St. Nicholas CE Cathedral, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK

Act of Remembrance for the seventeen people murdered in Paris in January 2015, St. Nicholas CE Cathedral, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK

Eight.

Matthew Syed, a Muslim, writes in a passionate but informed manner about the need for Muslims to address the misogyny that exists in some expressions of Islam, misogyny that makes scandals such as the sexual abuse of children and young women in Rotherham more likely to occur.

But…

Sajda Mughal, the only known Muslim survivor of the 2005 7/7 terrorist attacks in London, is given an OBE for services to community cohesion and interfaith dialogue.

Venk Koyu, near Malatya, Turkey

Venk Koyu, near Malatya, Turkey

Sex and Christianity.

Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch recently narrated a TV series about attitudes toward sex in Christianity. I found the series excellent, although, in truth, it did not tell us very much that is not already known by millions of reasonably intelligent and/or widely read people. However, what is astounding is that the knowledge and understanding contained within the TV series has not already had a profoundly beneficial impact on Christian thinking about sex. Might it have a beneficial impact in the near future? I am not sure because closed minds are resistant to accommodating what is true, particularly if the truth conflicts with what people assume are truths contained in scripture.

I am so impressed with what Diarmaid MacCulloch had to say in the first episode of the series that, below, I paraphrase the main points in his argument. If, by paraphrasing, I misrepresent what was originally said, the fault is all mine. Blame me and not the professor.

Comments in brackets are my reflections on what was originally said.

Guisborough

Ruined monastery, Guisborough, United Kingdom

Churches in the West have never been able to agree what to say about sex, and such disagreement has turned sex into an obsession. Issues such as contraception, homosexuality, women in the priesthood and clerical child abuse have long caused immense controversy, just as today immense controversy rages within Christianity about same-sex marriage and whether women should be ordained as bishops.

The early Christians (in reality, some of the leading and allegedly most learned Christians) turned sex from biological necessity into a vice, from a pleasure into a sin.

According the the gospels, Jesus said very little about sex. He spoke in favour of monogamy and against divorce, and, when asked by a crowd of people if they should stone a woman thought to be guilty of adultery (Jesus is alleged to have said that only those who are themselves sin-free can cast a stone. The crowd broke up when it was obvious no one was sin-free), he made it clear to the woman that she should not sin again (we can therefore assume that Jesus thought adultery a sin). Perhaps of far greater importance than his pronouncements on sex is that Jesus appears to have thought that forgiveness and mercy are far more important than just about everything else (as the story just mentioned would seem to confirm).

Early Christian attitudes toward sex were shaped by Judaism, the religion from which Christianity emerged, and Greek and Roman civilisation. Judaism and Greek and Roman civilisation were male-dominated and, although Jesus challenged some of the patriarchal attitudes enshrined in contemporary Judaism and Greek and Roman civilisation, it was not long after his execution that Christianity became as patriarchal as the worldviews from which it emerged.

Near Tercan, Turkey

Ruined Armenian church, near Tercan, Turkey

Jesus, himself a Jewish male, knew full well that contemporary Judaism was preoccupied with the survival of the Jewish people because of how the Jewish people were so often subjected to persecution and massacre (persecution and massacre were suffered partly because Judaism required its followers to subscribe to a monotheistic conception of the divine, when, as far as we can tell, all other Middle Eastern religions were dualistic or polytheistic). Reproduction of the Jewish people had become a sacred duty, so much so that procreation was the main object of marriage. However, sex was something that could be enjoyed, but within marriage alone. Divorce was possible, but, as a general rule, for specific reasons only. However, the reasons for divorce favoured men and disadvantaged women.

It would be a mistake to paint too glowing a picture of sexual attitudes within Judaism because the patriarchal assumptions of the time meant that husbands possessed their wives. Also, the story of Adam and Eve in the Torah suggested that women were nothing but trouble. Outcome? Women had to be controlled and confined as much as possible to the home where they had to “serve” their husbands. Moreover, the Jewish people engaged in polygamy, which, although increasingly uncommon with the passage of time, was not outlawed until the 11th century. Celibacy and adultery were unacceptable and homosexuality an abomination (more so among men than women). Put rather crudely, sex within marriage was wonderful, but sex in all other circumstances was unacceptable.

The Greek and the Roman worldviews affirmed sexual pleasure whether such pleasure was heterosexual or homosexual. Concubines existed, as did male and female prostitutes. Older Greek men of high social standing befriended younger males to teach the younger males how they could prosper in wider society, and such relationships invariably involved sexual encounters that were deemed normal and acceptable.

However, a very different line of Greek thought began with Plato who believed that a great gulf existed between the body and the soul. He said that reality and everything that was important to humankind related to the soul, while unreality and everything that was unimportant related to the body. The world of the flesh, which embraced the sexual impetus, was false, worthless and wicked. Plato advocated “denial of the flesh” and, in the fullness of time, this became a basic instinct in Christianity. Plato’s concern for the “pleasures of the flesh” played a key role in encouraging Christian celibacy and monasticism.

Aristotle built on Plato’s thinking by developing a distinction between what he thought were “natural and unnatural practices”. Such practices applied to the sexual domain as to all others. Aristotle believed that male semen contained a complete unborn child in embryo and a male needed a woman only to incubate the semen as it developed into the unborn child. Aristotle argued that to “spill” male semen for other than reproductive purposes (e.g. in masturbation, in sexual encounters with other males) was to engage in the “unnatural act” of murder.

Inside the Armenian church, Kayseri, Turkey

Inside the Armenian church, Kayseri, Turkey

With all these sometimes contradictory ideas about sex and sexuality around when Jesus was alive, it becomes clear that Jesus was relatively radical in his thinking. For example, it can be argued that his commitments to monogamy and life-long marriage were designed to enhance women’s rights at a time when they had very few rights. Moreover, Jesus posed other challenges to patriarchal attitudes in so far as he seemed to encourage women, some of whom existed on the social and sexual margins of society, to play an active role in the religious sect emerging prior to his execution. It is also worth noting that, according to the Bible, women were the first people to be aware of Jesus’ resurrection, and they are described as deacons not long after his execution.

What we can say with confidence is that, if the New Testament is to be believed, Jesus said nothing about homosexuality and very little about celibacy, even though both these matters assumed disproportionate importance in Christianity after his execution. Conclusion? jesus is not representative of what was to become a sexually repressive religion.

Paul, who at one time was called Saul and engaged in the brutal persecution of Jesus’ followers, can be blamed for steering Christianity toward a more sexually repressive outlook, but only because Christians who followed him took his writings out of context and ignored some of the positive statements attributed to him.

Paul has a lot to say about sex in relation to the city of Corinth, which, at the time, would appear to have been a place where people lived in a most uninhibited manner. It was the alleged “sinfulness” of many of the Corinthians, and the fact that Paul thought the end of the world was not long away, that led him to suggest that marriage had no point to it and celibacy would ensure no one engaged in fornication. But Paul is also on record saying that marriage between a man and a woman is good and that, within marriage, a man and a woman are equals. He also praises a number of women deacons and calls a woman in Rome an apostle. However, Paul says that women should not speak in houses of worship, which would seem to negate their chance to officiate during ritual practices, and this statement has been used to this day by many Christians as the reason to deny women a leadership role in churches.

Taken collectively, Paul’s pronouncements on matters sexual are, at best, contradictory. Christians in some denominations have ignored the pronouncements that point toward gender equality to deny women the same opportunities as men. Paul denounces male and female homosexuality, but there are only two New Testament verses of about forty words that refer to same-sex relations. Forty New Testament words out of 200,000 are used by many Christians as an excuse for homophobia.

The early Christians (in reality, some of the leading and allegedly most learned Christians) ignored Paul’s more positive views on sex and emphasised celibacy and hostility to homosexuality instead.

Malaga, Spain

Malaga, Spain

The celibate lifestyle of monks and then nuns first appeared in the 2nd century (among hermits living in isolation in very barren parts of Egypt and Syria), but there is nothing in the New Testament about monasteries, monks or nuns. A significant part of what was to become mainstream Christianity therefore has no support in the Bible. The inspiration for monastic lifestyles derived from Syrian merchants who travelled to the east where they encountered Hindu holy men who gave up all their material possessions and Buddhists who lived simply in monastic communities. Individuals known as hermits first took to a life in which they denied themselves comfort and pleasure, sometimes in desert regions. In Egypt, Anthony played a key role in making such self-denial popular, so much so that by the beginning of the 3rd century celibacy and chastity had more prestige among Christians than marriage and sex.

It was toward the end of the 2nd century that literate Christians began to rewrite early Christian history to emphasise the value of virginity and, in the process, it was not long before Christians sought to remove any taint of sex from the story of Mary, Jesus’ mother.

In that only two of the gospels mention it, the virgin birth of Jesus cannot be regarded as a fundamental article of faith for Christians. This is even more the case in that the two gospels mentioning the virgin birth seem rather confused about whether it took place. For example, much time is spent exploring Joseph’s family tree. Why do this unless it is to confirm that he is Jesus’ father? Also, the author/authors of Matthew’s Gospel refer to Jesus’ brothers and sisters, which sits oddly with the idea of a virgin birth.

Gospels such as that of James that did not find their way into the Bible place more emphasis on Mary’s virginity than the four gospels that are canonical, and they also say that God intervened in the conception of Mary herself! Of course, the idea that Mary was conceived without sin has become a very important Roman Catholic idea, but it is not an idea that derives from the New Testament.

What is perhaps the second most important story in the New Testament for Christians, that of Jesus’ birth (the most important story is the story of Jesus’ resurrection), does not therefore involve sex at all! And what of the “problem” posed by Jesus’ brothers and sisters? Jesus’ siblings are explained away as Joseph’s children from a marriage preceding his marriage to Mary.

The shift from the merits of marriage to the merits of celibacy were accentuated by Clement of Alexandria, for whom sex could be engaged in only for reasons of procreation, and Origen, who castrated himself so as to make it impossible to satisfy any urges he might have to engage in penetrative sexual acts. And the shift in favour of celibacy helps to explain why the early Christian churches did not elaborate a wedding ceremony. Marriage remained a civil ceremony for many centuries and the churches did not seek to interfere in the matter. It is only Christians of a much later time who felt it necessary to establish a grip on the institution of marriage. Given Christianity’s relatively late interest in marriage, one begins to wonder whether some Christians today have an interest in the institution merely to deny gays and lesbians the opportunity to partake in same-sex marriage!

Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom

Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom

Emperor Constantine’s change of heart toward Christians in 312 opened the way for Christianity to become a world religion with immense power and wealth (and in the process a religion that once suffered persecution found itself in a position to persecute others). And, as its power and wealth increased, it could promote its views on sex wherever its influence spread.

At a time when the wealth and the power of the Christian churches was rapidly increasing, Jerome tried to remain true to what he thought Christianity was all about, simplicity in faith and avoiding the temptations of the flesh. He said that sex was bad because it endangered your salvation. For this reason, virginity was best. Jerome played a key role in ensuring that, despite opposition from other Christians, celibacy and chastity were deemed superior to marriage and sex, and he had an important ally in Augustine. The idea began to emerge that all sex is intrinsically evil and sinful, even in marriage for reasons of procreation. Hence the idea that all children are born into sin and that their sinfulness must be overcome. At the same time males elaborated the idea that women were sexually unruly temptresses as well s being inferior to men (is it not always the case that those who are already vulnerable and denied opportunities enjoyed by others are scapegoated and vilified? Humankind is God’s supreme creation? Pull the other one and quickly).

The collapse of the Roman Empire did not lead to the collapse of Christianity, even though, when the empire collapsed, Christianity was intimately associated with Roman power and prestige. Christianity endured, offering certainty in an uncertain world. Christian values gradually became the dominant values in the Western world.

In the 6th century, monks in Ireland began to turn their attention to the sexual behaviour of the laity around them. They developed many penitentials based on what they perceived to be unacceptable sexual practices. Those who indulged in such sexual practices were required to undertake penances that differed depending on the seriousness or extremity of the unacceptable act. In the fullness of time, such penitentials led to the confessional, which significantly increased Christianity’s ability to shape and control society.

The writings of some of the Irish monks are full of rules relating to sex and sexuality. The rules are so thorough that, in any given year, people could engage in sexual acts for about only a hundred days (and such acts had to be between heterosexuals who were married). Precise penalties for unacceptable sexual acts soon became the norm and such penalties were issued in the confessional.

The penitentials first elaborated in Ireland became for five hundred years the means to impose a rigid Christian sexual morality on large swathes of the Western world. As never before, an institution was invading people’s lives, and in relation to the highly personal matter of sex, which the churches thought to be sinful. Those who transgressed in relation to sexual matters should be made to feel considerable shame and guilt, and the penalties relating to such acts were often very extreme.

For those who value inclusion and seek to challenge religious, etc. stereotypes…

…the following is welcome news from South Africa (the BBC first ran the story in September 2014):

A Muslim academic has opened a gay-friendly mosque in South Africa, despite receiving death threats and fierce criticism from groups in the local Muslim community. Women will also be allowed to lead prayers at Taj Hargey’s Open Mosque in Cape Town.

“We are opening the mosque for open-minded people, not closed-minded people,” Mr. Hargey told the BBC.

He says the mosque will help counter growing Islamic radicalism. Mr. Hargey, based at the Muslim Educational Centre of Oxford in the UK, told the BBC’s Newsday programme that it was time for a “religious revolution”. “In South Africa twenty years ago, there was a peaceful revolution changing from apartheid to democracy and we need to have a similar development in the area of religion,” he said.

Mosque, Kahramanmaras, Turkey

Mosque, Kahramanmaras, Turkey

Mr. Hargey, who was born in Cape Town, said the mosque would welcome people from all genders, religions and sexual orientations. “As well as leading prayers, women will be allowed to pray in the same room as men,” he said. He contrasted this to the current Islamic practice which sees “women at the back of the street, back of the hall, out of sight, out of mind.”

However, members of Cape Town’s large Muslim community have taken to social media to criticise the new mosque, with some calling him a “heretic” or “non-believer”. One group tried to block the opening of the mosque. South Africa’s umbrella body for Islamic groups, the Muslim Judicial Council (MJC), says it is investigating the new mosque and has noted concerns raised in the community.

In his sermon, Mr. Hargey condemned the increasing hatred in the world between Muslims and Christians and blamed it on “warped theology”, reports AFP news agency. When asked about his qualifications as a religious leader, he said, “I have a PhD in Islamic Studies from Oxford University, unlike my opponents who went to some donkey college in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia.” He told the BBC that he wanted to revive “the original mosque of the Prophet Muhammad where there were no barriers. This idea of female invisibility is an innovation that came after Muhammad. Unfortunately it has become entrenched,” he said.

It’s a pity about the ill-considered reference to “some donkey college in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia”, but we know what Mr. Hargey is getting at. I would suggest that similar “educational” facilities exist in parts of the Bible Belt in the USA, for example. “Going cheap: certificates to confirm you are a pastor in some weird and wacky Christian ‘church’ following a one-month distance learning course. Assessment by multiple choice questions is available on request.” Charlatans exist in the world of religion and belief? Perish the thought!!!!

I have done some research about Taj Hargey on the internet and he is a somewhat controversial figure with a colourful track record to date. However, given that some of the most vehement criticism leveled against him derives from extremist groups which seek to impose on others their oppressive brand of religious belief and practice, I would suggest that Taj Hargey is well-meaning in his efforts to open such a mosque. It’s more inclusive than exclusive, so has to be welcomed. As it is, Taj Hargey enjoys quite a lot of support for his plans from Muslims, both male and female, so this in itself is interesting.

For those who can make use of the information, the following websites seek to meet the needs and aspirations of the millions of gay or lesbian Muslims:

www.imaan.org.uk/

www.lgbtmuslimretreat.com/

www.safraproject.org/co.htm

http://www.thekissgroup.co.uk/

www.qwoc.org

Some of the websites above lead to yet more websites sympathetic to the plight and predicament of gay or lesbian Muslims. No doubt all religious groups can direct me (and others) to websites generated within THEIR faith tradition that also seek to meet the needs and aspirations of gay or lesbian believers. For example, I’ve recently been examining websites for gay and lesbian Latter-day Saint people.

St. Mary's RC Cathedral, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom

St. Mary’s RC Cathedral, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom

What follows is also worth examining. It is not often that excellent news derives from the Roman Catholic Church about matters to do with gay rights, but this appeared recently in “The Guardian” newspaper:

An Irish Catholic priest received a standing ovation from his congregation when he revealed he was gay and then declared his support for same-sex marriage from the pulpit. Father Martin Dolan, who has been a priest at the Church of St. Nicholas of Myra in Francis Street, Dublin for fifteen years, made the unexpected comments during mass.

The priest, who was unavailable for comment and is reported to be on holiday, urged his congregation to back same-sex marriage in the forthcoming Irish referendum. Parishioners are understood to have applauded when Dolan announced “I’m gay myself” last Saturday.

Speaking to “The Irish Sun”, community youth worker Liz O’Connor said, “We are all very proud of Father Martin. Because he has admitted that he is gay, it doesn’t change the person that he was before.”

Gay equality groups in Ireland, including Marriage Equality Ireland and the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network, have praised the priest’s decision to come out in front of worshippers.

A referendum on legalising gay marriage in Ireland will be held on a date to be fixed in May. An opinion poll in “The Irish Times” last month found that 71% of the Republic’s electorate would vote yes to allow gay marriages in the country. The hierarchy of the Catholic Church has fought against gay marriage in the Republic, however, warning it would be a “grave injustice”.

How odd to characterise gay marriage as a “grave injustice”. Surely it’s a “grave injustice” that marriage cannot be undertaken by everyone who wishes to marry.

Jesus in Malaga, Spain

Jesus in Malaga, Spain

Last, and for good measure, here’s something which challenges our perceptions of older people. Thanks to Sohan Singh for forwarding this information to me (Sohan: I hope my small amendments to the text have not misrepresented what has been discovered):

Ageing does not have to bring poor health and frailty, according to scientists who have discovered that the most active people in their seventies are as fit as people in their fifties. Researchers working at King’s Cross station, London, approached cyclists aged between 55 and 79 and tested physical functions associated with ageing such as aerobic fitness, resting heart rate, skeletal mass, breathing ability and muscle density. The researchers were hoping to learn whether physiological markers could determine age, but found it was hard to tell who of the participants were older based only on the data collected.

“If you didn’t know the age of the older people, the data relating to many of the functions would point to a person much younger in age,” said Professor Stephen Harridge, director of the Centre of Human and Aerospace Physiological Science at King’s College.

By exercising you do what your body wants it to do and are allowing it to age as nature intended. It is not ageing itself which brings about poor bodily function and frailty, but the fact that people stop exercising and are no longer active.

The 84 men and women who participated in the study, published in “The Journal of Physiology”, had to be able to cycle 100 kms in less than 6.5 hours if aged 55, and 60 kms in less than 5.5 hours if aged 79.

Hmmm: no wonder Sohan says they were “superfit cyclists”!

It looks as if a long and healthy life IS predicated on more exercise! I’m a couch potato no longer, I promise!