Monthly Archives: August 2012

A Disproportionate Influence

A few months back I wrote to Alok Sharma my Member of Parliament suggesting that it was about time the UK declared itself a secular democracy and disassociated state from church. I realised that for a Conservative MP with even the most ambivalent views on religion, this was like asking Usain Bolt to cut off one of his feet in the interests of fair play.

Prompting me to write was the news during May 2012 that Norway had taken the first steps toward disestablishment, abolishing the Lutheran Church of Norway, renaming it ‘The People’s Church’ and thenceforth having no official state religion. The state will continue to collect a church tax and the ‘church office’ in the Norwegian government will remain: taxes collected will be distributed proportionally to religious and humanist groups and the state will no longer require its employees to be members of the church, nor will it appoint clergy and there will be no ‘national religion’.

Although not the complete divorce Norwegian secularists were asking for, it is a step in the right direction that is based on more than sentiment. Data from 2009 and 2010 suggest that only 2% attend church regularly in Norway and a 2002 study done by Gustafsson and Pettersson revealed that 72 percent of Norwegians “do not believe in a personal God”. This data did not sit comfortably with the fact that 79 percent of Norwegians are members of the church by default, tradition dictating that citizens became members on baptism, not exactly an age where a person has much choice. Even in such an enlightened country as Norway, it is surprising that such an overwhelming level of apathy and foot-voting had to take place before the government recognised how inappropriate it was for the state to back any particular confession. A stark reminder of how embedded and mulish religious belief can be, even in the face of such public indifference.

The Norwegian data is not dissimilar to the latest information we have here in the UK where less than 5 percent of the population now attend the ‘official’ Church of England. This dwindling band of adherents comprise slightly more than half (9%) of the population who do attend some kind of church, mosque or temple on a regular basis. A 2005 poll revealed that more than 60 percent of us either have no belief in any kind of supernatural being or no belief in the god served up to us by the major monotheisms. This does beg the question that if we are to maintain an official religion, shouldn’t it be the one that has the most attendance to its places of worship? Trends suggest that the ‘official religion’ should soon switch to Islam with Imams appointed by government and residing in the House of Lords. How more risible is that idea than the one which maintains the existing status quo?

Over the past few weeks, events have continued to pile up yet more evidence of religious indifference and disproportionate influence in the UK. In rough chronological order we have the statement by Cardinal Keith O’Brien, leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland that he is breaking off communication with the Scottish government over the issue of gay marriage. Oh dear! Throwing his toys out of the pram demonstrates little dignity for the spiritual leader of 15.9 percent of the Scottish population, less than a third of who attend the church regularly. These data include a boost given by some 50,000 Polish Catholics who have become resident since 2002. In this respect, Scottish Catholicism is akin to English Premier League football in its reliance on foreign players. Even this influx, driven by the free market economy only represents a small fraction of the Scottish population and one wonders what fraction of those really care whether or not the church should bless two people who want to make a commitment to each other.

No doubt the Scottish Parliament has debated gay marriage at length and in its proper context, taking into account the feelings of the various religious denominations even though in sum they represent a minority of the population. Given that the majority have either no belief or see the religious viewpoint as a non-issue, one hopes that their feelings on the matter would hold more sway. No clergy of any religious organisation would be required by law to perform a marriage ceremony for a gay couple, this will remain as it should be, a matter of conscience for the person being asked to consecrate a relationship between two other human beings. So where, Cardinal O’Brien is the problem? The elected house in Edinburgh serves the population as a whole, so why try to impose your will on them even if your regular attendees agree with your doctrine on gay marriage? They are after all a small minority. His childish disengagement from the debate is perhaps a good thing, heaven forbid that a religious leader should influence a politician from a constituency containing a high proportion of voters with a Catholic persuasion.

Most sadly, this month saw the death of Tony Nicklinson, the heroic and articulate sufferer of locked-in syndrome following a stroke in 2005. The previous week saw the High Court rule against Mr. Nicklinson’s case to allow doctors to end his life without falling foul of the law themselves. Despite making an argument that appealed to the heart as well as the head, the highest court in the land declared; “It is not for the court to decide whether the law about assisted dying should be changed and, if so, what safeguards should be put in place. ..Under our system of government these are matters for Parliament to decide.” The response led to Mr. Nicklinson losing the will to carry on and he literally starved himself to death, bringing on pneumonia with complications. The High Court ruling was predictable but no doubt the issue of ‘assisted dying’ will go around and around the political system with the religious element having a disproportionate influence in a ‘no change’ outcome.  This despite the fact that the 26th report of the British Social Attitudes Survey published in 2010, showed that 71% of religious people and 92% non-religious (82% in total) believe that a doctor should be allowed to end the life of a patient with an incurable disease if that were the wish of the patient.

As the month of August 2012 progressed we learned of the demise of the Welsh Chapel, where an average of one a week of these blockish, stoic buildings has been forced to close over the past few years for lack of attendance and of course funds. Non-conformist religious worship had been a major part of Welsh culture during the 19th and for most of the 20th centuries, with some 75 percent of people attending denominations such as Baptist, Unitarian, Presbytarian and Methodist as recoded in 1904#. The BBC TV report on the plight of Welsh Chapels mentioned church attendances lower than the UK as a whole. This is interesting considering that Wales has perhaps the most ‘competitive’ market for religion in the UK, fragmented between many Christian denominations of roughly equal strength (or should that be weakness?) along with Muslim and Jewish populations.

So, what reply did I receive to my ‘tongue-in-cheeky’ letter? Well it was certainly detailed and personal Mr. Sharma assured me, not the party line. In this and subsequent correspondence my impression is that Mr. Sharma is an earnest, hard-working representative of his constituency and my sense is that I would like him if I met him. His reply on this issue however comprised the usual sugary statements on multiculturalism and tolerance and of course pointing out that our political system is inextricably linked with Christianity, which he says; “…continues to play an important part in the culture, heritage and fabric of our nation, especially given the fact that we have an Established Church (yes capital letters!), governed by The Queen.” Well, if all else fails, we all love The Queen, don’t we!? Perhaps the Church of England being ‘The Tory Party at Prayer’ is not the outmoded caricature we thought. Perchance it really is a parody of engagement during those ‘hatched, matched and dispatched’ moments in life.

In fear of those who govern us drifting even further from reality, we can only hope that at some point in the future they will get beyond such shallow responses and debate the issue of church and state fully. Could it be that disestablishing the church and continuing with The House of Hanover to supply the Head of State is not as eccentric and batty as having been landed with it in the first place? This would surely not be a constitutional impossibility. Who knows, it may even strengthen and legitimise both institutions. Mr. Sharma goes on to express his belief that; “…all faith communities do a great deal to inspire community cohesion in their local communities” and that the various religious traditions, “ to do good for their wider communities”. Resorting to the intangible is a fair cop-out I suppose considering the man is a decent hard-working public servant. He failed to address the hard data I provided him with on religious belief, observance and the continuing decline of both. However you look at it there does seem to be an enormous blind spot on the part of government to the disproportionate influence of religion in setting policy.

In the spirit of healthy debate I replied that if the British electorate were asked, they would most likely want to keep a constitutional monarchy but get religion out of politics, protect freedom of religious practice, treat all religions equally and let them be self-funding. This is the way of a modern, secular democracy. This is what we are. At some point in the future, government will surely catch up with this fact and at least debate the issue.

A Skeptic’s Guide to Science and Health Reporting

I’m a little late to this but I think it’s worth sharing. The Science Media Centre was asked by the Leveson Inquiry to come up with some Guidelines for Science and Media Reporting, and here is their submission:

The following guidelines, drawn up in consultation with scientists, science reporters, editors and sub editors, are intended for use by newsrooms to ensure that the reporting of science and health stories is balanced and accurate, They are not intended as a prescriptive checklist and of course shorter articles or NIBs will not be able to cover every point, Above and beyond specific guidelines, familiarity with the technicafities and common pitfalls in science and health reporting is invaluable and every newsroom should aim to employ specialist science and health correspondents, Wherever possible the advice and skills of these specialists should be sought and respected on major, relevant stories; the guidelines below will be especially useful for editors and general reporters who are less familiar with how science works,

  • State the source of the story – e.g. interview, conference, journal article, a survey from a charity or trade body, etc. – ideally with enough information for readers to look it up or a web link.
  • Specify the size and nature of the study – e.g. who/what were the subjects, how long did it last, what was tested or was it an observation? If space, mention the major limitations.
  • When reporting a link between two things, indicate whether or not there is evidence that one causes the other.
  • Give a sense of the stage of the research – e.g. cells in a laboratory or trials in humans – and a realistic time-frame for any new treatment or technology.
  • On health risks, include the absolute risk whenever it is available in the press release or the research paper – i.e. if ’cupcakes double cancer risk’ state the outright risk of that cancer, with and without cupcakes.
  • Especially on a story with public health implications, try to frame a new finding in the context of other evidence – e.g. does it reinforce or conflict with previous studies? If it attracts serious scientific concerns, they should not be ignored.
  • If space, quote both the researchers themselves and external sources with appropriate expertise. Be wary of scientists and press releases over-claiming for studies.
  • Distinguish between findings and interpretation or extrapolation; don’t suggest health advice if none has been offered.
  • Remember patients” don’t call something a ’cure’ that is not a cure.
  • Headlines should not mislead the reader about a story’s contents and quotation marks should not be used to dress up overstatement.

It strikes me that these guidelines are as useful to us consumers of the news as to its writers. If a health story in your newspaper doesn’t tick all of these boxes, it might be best to view the claims with some scepticism.

(Hat-tip to the estimable David Spiegelhalter)