All posts by David Parker

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, “..seek 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.

Hell Fires – Ramblings on Fossil fuels, ‘Old Nick’ and bacon sandwiches.

While listening to Don McLean’s iconic hit ‘American Pie’, a lyric jumped from the 1970’s into my 21st century ear, namely ‘Fire is the devil’s only friend’. At the time I was driving home toward Reading and could see the wind turbine beside the M4, churning around in the air, generating electrical power from this zero-cost fuel whilst burning nothing in the process. My thoughts lingered on McLean’s words as I remembered a short story I read at around the time he was writing his hit song.

‘Hell Fire’ by Isaac Asimov was published in May 1956, and appeared in a collection of Science Fiction short stories titled ‘Earth Is Room Enough’. The story tells of the testing of a new technique of high speed photography, fast enough to capture an atomic explosion no less. The story was written before the nuclear test ban treaty when nations were testing their bombs by detonating them above ground in remote places. So, the bomb is detonated and the new hi-tech cameras record the event while the scientists rush back to a viewing room to look at the results. Immediately following the blinding flash of detonation, the film progressed to show a face forming in the picture. As the explosion rushes outward the face reveals itself to be Satan himself! The devil laughing, no doubt delighted that mankind has made for him such a ‘friendly’ fire.

So, we have a song and a short story where the main character is universally recognisable. ‘Old Nick’ to euphemise him is an essential supporting actor in the monotheistic religions and makes appearances in various guises in traditions that pre-date even those. But who or what exactly are we talking about? The dualist concept of good and evil, represented by their respective protagonists God and the Devil is ingrained in the human experience at so many levels. For religious people, these distinctions animate their lives and for Christians, the idea of sin and redemption is the central tenet of their faith.

Richard Dawkins introduced us to the concept of ‘memes’, ideas that get taken up by the human mind and carried from person to person down the generations. Memes propagate through art, music and language and like genes, adapt and mutate, the most adaptive surviving while the less fit are banished to the sidelines or die out. While the idea of the devil is as vigorous as ever in the minds of human beings, others hold sway only on the margins of society. An example of a marginalised meme is the idea of witchcraft. The ‘witch craze’ swept through Europe in the 16th century in an age when most people believed in witches and expected the authorities, religious and secular to punish these perceived doers of evil deeds. By the late 17th century the idea had lost its grip on the elites as science and reason began to expose such superstitious practices. The courts took less and less interest in trying to prosecute allegations of witchcraft, culminating in Parliament passing the Witchcraft Act in 1735. This act recognised witchcraft as an ‘impossible crime’ and was designed to prosecute claimants to such powers as con artists.

While dear old witchcraft has been banished to the fringes, the idea of the devil is as strong and universal as ever, continuing to appear under a plethora of names such as Satan, Lucifer, Iblis, Hades, and Yen-Lo-Wang. The last in that list being the Chinese ruler of Hell. These were just a sample of about one hundred names served up by Wikipedia for our subterranean nemesis if you Google him. As a non believer in things supernatural, I put the devil in the same category as witchcraft, demons, ghosts, fairies at the bottom of my garden and of course God, the big daddy of all memes.

Human ingenuity has thrown up so many ideas, products, processes and belief systems that are both good and bad depending on where you are in time and place. Democracy seems on balance to be a good thing but is not universally accepted as such, along with freedom of speech, votes for women, the bicycle, Monty Python’s ‘The Life of Brian’ and bacon sandwiches (unless you happen to be Muslim or Jewish of course). Things that are now considered by most people to be bad ideas include the owning of slaves, child labour, smoking tobacco and a double whopper burger with cheese and extra fries. Interesting that all of these things are still going on somewhere in the world and of course the last two are perfectly legal and available almost everywhere. Some ‘bad ideas’ though do offer benefits, both economic and hedonistic, although these can be short term and opinions tend to change with evidence and experience. And as for fire, the first technology game changer, is it a good or bad thing? If it really is the ‘devil’s only friend’, haven’t we set ourselves up for a fall by figuring out how to make it in the first place?

With another glance to the wind turbine it occurred to me that our well being and comfort depends almost entirely on burning things in one way or another. We started off burning wood, then coal, oil in its various forms and gas. Even nuclear power consumes the uranium fuel as the atoms are ripped apart in the process of fission, just another type of burning. Even if your ‘devil’ is a metaphorical one, wouldn’t he be having a little laugh every time we burn one of the aforementioned fuels, depleting a finite natural resource and as we now know, degrading the atmosphere to the detriment of all life? Every year, humanity burns the equivalent of a few million years of carbonised life, laid down back in the time of the dinosaurs. In effect we burn dead dinosaurs, or at least the trees and plants that grew when those giant beasts roamed the earth.

There appears to be a rising tide of climate change deniers, politicians, journalists and business leaders who rubbish the investments made in wind farms, solar power and other forms of producing energy that does not involve ‘burning stuff’. This must be making our imaginary Satan laugh all the way to his bank of souls as he foresees yet further death and destruction from rising sea levels, denuded resources and ruined crops. The point of my disparate ramblings is that in an irrational world, full of fact-denying shapers of public opinion, we need all the allies we can muster, even irrational ones like ‘Old Nick’. Mr. Asimov’s brilliant allegory showed the madness of testing nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, clearly a ‘bad idea’. We can only work towards a world where the burning of fossil fuels is seen in a similar light. Whether you believe in Satan or his opposite number ‘upstairs’ or not, nature’s experiment with a more developed pre-frontal cortex will come to a sticky end if we fail to figure out how to enjoy the benefits of its creativity without pandering to the Devil’s only friend.

David Parker