Archive for the ‘news’ Category

Give them enough rope …

2014/06/17

A law school connected to Christian institution Trinity Western University in BC is facing an odd hurdle.

Certain law societies in Canada (BC, Ontario, and Nova Scotia) are deciding not to allow graduates of the new law school to practice law in their provinces. (More have approved it already without fuss, including my home province of Alberta.) The justification seems to be the discriminatory admission practices of the university. Students must conform to a code of behaviour that excludes gays and unmarried couples who perform certain private acts.

My first reaction is that this is a ridiculous code of behaviour to impose on students, unworthy of an institution that calls itself a “university”.

My second reaction, especially after reading some of the news stories, is that the barrier seemed arbitrary. The news stories focus on the discriminatory rule (eg, here, here, and here). Nobody seems to argue that the students who come out of the program will be unqualified to practice law.

Students who are okay with TWU’s code of conduct may be more likely to oppose the rights of sexual minorities – or they to refuse clients or cases that are contrary to the bigoted position of their alma mater. If that is the problem, then surely the solution is to make individual lawyers to agree to a code of conduct. That way, you address not only the bad eggs coming out of TWU’s law school, but also the bigots that happen to study at more mainstream law schools.

But no – all the quotes in the media seem to centre around how horrible it is that the school has this sexually-discriminatory code for the students.* If this is the problem, then don’t punish the students for their school’s bigoted stance. Find some way to address it with the school. One effective and regulation-free solution would be for all the members of the relevant professional groups to be aware of TWU’s code. They are in a strong position to exert social pressure on new graduates, encouraging them to embrace a more pro-social attitude to the humans they encounter in their professional lives. Given how these votes are coming out, I think the social momentum is already leaning this way.

In the end, my position is the same as Hemant Mehta’s: the school (a private university) should be free to treat its students in this bigoted way; society should be free to criticize them; and its students should be allowed or not allowed to practice law based on their legal qualifications.

I’ll close by pointing to two comments that seem to speak to the content of the program. The Federation of Law Societies of Canada (responsible for accrediting law programs across the country) says

The Special Advisory Committee on Trinity Western University’s Proposed School of Law … concluded that there is no public interest reason to exclude future graduates of the program from law society bar admission programs as long as the program meets the national requirement.

And the Advanced Education Minister in BC, Amrik Virk, said in December,

The Degree Quality Assessment Board reviewed Trinity Western University’s proposed law degree and found that it met the degree program quality assessment criteria for private and out-of-province public institutions.

What do you think of this whole mess? What would be the optimal solution to the conflicting needs of private autonomy and freedom versus upholding equal rights?

Footnote:

* Yes, I am taking the media reports with a grain of salt. Journalists and their audience like a good A versus B narrative, and the secular-vs-religious narrative appeals to both liberals and conservatives – each gets to feel either smugly victorious or self-importantly oppressed.

Conservative health?

2014/06/01

[In an ongoing renewal of this blog, I have come across a draft article that was neglected well past the expiry date of the current events it describes. However, I feel that the ideas are still worth airing, so with a little editing I'm releasing it into the wild.]

I have moved back to the province of my birth – beautiful, bountiful Alberta. It happens that an election was held shortly after our return, in which the decades-long domination of the Progressive Conservative (PC) party may be overturned was extended for another four years.

I have a tendency to lean more liberal than my Albertan family and friends – and it may not surprise them that I am writing a post critical of the PC party. What might surprise them is that my current criticism is for a failure to be sufficiently conservative.

I was perusing the PC leaflet that arrived in our mailbox before the election. (similar to the platform statement here [PDF]), and discovered a policy whose motivation is most transparently vote-buying rather than holding to a consistent political ideology. At the top of page 8 in the linked file, we read the following:

Alternative medicine plays an increasingly important role in preventative health, and needs to be considered in a holistic approach to wellness – especially in cases where naturopathic, homeopathic, chiropractic and other therapies help patients attain personal health goals. Qualified patients will be able to claim up to $500 per year for these treatments starting in 2013.

How is paying for new treatments with unproven efficacy (often, proven inefficacy) either socially or fiscally conservative?

Alberta, the wealthiest province in Canada thanks to the various economic benefits that derive from rich oil deposits, currently has a struggling health system. Many people are without a family doctor. Oh, we do have a public health system, and it’s a fair sight better than what they have south of the border, but it’s far from perfect.

And here is a nominally conservative party, electing to subsidize witch doctors. (I’m not going to go over the arguments. If you don’t know why I’m so negative about “alternative medicine”, browse the Science-Based Medicine site.) All of the approaches mentioned in the PC literature – naturopathy, homeopathy, and chiropractic – have failed to pass the tests of efficacy that we rightly demand of real medicine.

My guess, gleaned from the greasy language of the document, is that they have perceived a popular trend toward alternative medicine, and want to be seen as open-minded.

Bah.

Let me plant a flag here. I may be a social liberal. I may think that the government has no place dictating private life choices – from who you marry to how you manage your reproductive health. But when you’re putting public money toward public health – as I think we should – then the treatments paid for by that money damned well better have evidence supporting their usefulness.

And if you’re one of those open-minded individuals who likes to ask, “What’s the harm in trying new techniques that haven’t been proven yet?”, let me point you to a site where someone has done more than just ask the question – he’s tried to find the answer. It’s called What’s the Harm? It’s not pretty – there is a body count.

Sadly, as I hadn’t been resident here for the required 6 months, I didn’t get to vote in this election. But I will be voting soon enough. And sharing my opinions. What would I like to see in a party or candidate? I’d like to see the following:

  • uphold basic civil liberties (not generally a problem here – the anti-abortionists and anti-gay-marriage types seem to be on the back foot, even in conservative Alberta) (see my recent post about abortion in federal politics)
  • support democratic voting reform (my choice would be to switch to single transferable vote from our current first-past-the-post) to create a more representative form of representative democracy
  • commit to evidence-based regulation wherever possible (for example, in licensing and funding of medical practitioners and practices)
  • maintain a social welfare net that includes universal healthcare, a welfare system that encourages people back into the workforce when they are unemployed, and minimum wage laws that ensure a viable living salary for anyone who is employed

So, you know, not much.

Kudos to the Trudeaus

2014/05/23

There are times when I despair about Canadian politics, but at the moment I’m holding my head high.

Here is the passage from the article in the Metro that first brought this item to my attention:

“I had an extraordinary example in a father who had deeply, deeply held personal views that were informed by the fact that he went to church every Sunday, read the Bible regularly to us, and raised us very religiously, as Catholics,” Trudeau wrote.

“But at the same time my father had no problem legalizing divorce, decriminalizing homosexuality and moving in ways that recognized the basic rights of the people.

“He too held fast to his beliefs. But he also understood that as leaders, as political figures, and as representatives of a larger community, our utmost responsibility is to stand up for people’s rights.”

Trudeau says he shares his father’s view of leadership in that regard.

“Canadians of all views are welcome within the Liberal Party of Canada. But under my leadership, incoming Liberal MPs will always vote in favour of a woman’s fundamental rights,” he wrote.

What a sensible approach to deciding how to partition one’s personal beliefs and choices from one’s exercise of political power!

Justin Trudeau is the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada and son of former Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau. He recently revealed that future Liberal candidates will be vetted to ensure they are willing to support the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Specifically, they must support marriage equality and women’s bodily rights (for example, the right to have an abortion).

One might expect that this puts him ahead of the pack. There are a certainly people making noise about how this will help the Conservatives in the next election (for example, here and here). But the National Democratic Party (NDP) has had a similar policy for a while now, and even the ruling Conservative Party, while nominally open to members “voting their conscience”, has declined to reopen the abortion debate during its recent term in office.

I don’t think Trudeau’s position, on its own, would win the Liberals my vote. On the other hand, the euphemistic platform “Members can vote their conscience” will certainly lose the Conservatives my vote. It is an abdication from taking a stand. It amounts to saying “Members can try to take away people’s rights if they feel strongly about it.” Not okay, Conservatives. Not okay at all.

(I was pleased to note, in researching this post, that Trudeau’s Twitter feed includes items about transphobia and about scientific freedom. Those are issues that may draw me toward voting Liberal in the next election.)

(Also, the acoustics geek in me was delighted to notice that the hashtag for the Liberal Party of Canada is #LPC. Haha!)

Guiding in the wrong direction?

2013/11/16

I generally admire the Girl Guides.

Everything I hear about them seems to indicate an organization that is interested in improving itself, and maintaining high standards of engagement with its members and the world at large. For example, unlike certain other youth organizations, they welcome atheists.

And I like their cookies. I kind of miss the old kind, which I haven’t seen in a few years, but even with the new ones I’m always happy to buy a box or three when they come knocking.

Well, recently, I heard about a petition underway that would take this fine organization a step in the wrong direction (and make me a little less interested in their cookies). You can find it (and sign it, if you disagree with me), over at Change.org. Essentially, some people want the Guides to go GMO-free in their cookies.

Now, I have mixed feelings about genetic modification. On the one hand (despite the rhetoric of the anti-GMO crowd), the science is being conducted responsibly. There is no evidence that scientifically-responsible genetic modification (as practiced in the lab) produces plants that are any more dangerous to consume than other genetic modification (as practiced by nature, plant breeders, and thousands of generations of farmers).

Never forget: we’ve been genetically modifying our diet for millennia. The only difference is that recently we’ve learned enough to do it more carefully. The hysterical accusation of “unnatural” contains no actual justification for treating genetically-modified organisms differently. From what I can see, the difference is that now modifications can be done carefully in a lab, whereas with other methods they’re done haphazardly in the field, through random mutations and selective breeding.

On the other hand, I am distrustful of the economic model within which much of modern genetic modification is used. I think it is a maniacally bad idea for a person or company to be able to patent a genetic code. This concern was somewhat allayed by Steve Novella’s recent investigation and analysis on the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe (episode 429), where he cut through some of the hysteria over Monsanto’s behaviour. But still, giving corporations that sort of social/legal support seems like a recipe for trouble.

If the anti-GMO people were instead to lobby for modifying the legal status of genetic innovations, I might support them. And, as a side-effect, this might severely curtail the amount of GM research being done. But of course, flagship species like Golden Rice would be unaffected – that’s an entirely public-funded project with a humanitarian goal: reducing death and blindness due to vitamin A deficiency. (And yet, a Golden Rice test plot in the Philippines been vandalized by ideologues who, ironically, often cry “untested” as one of their rhetorical cudgels.)

Anyway, lots of rambling there. The point is, although other Change.org petitions get my support, this will not. I almost feel like starting a counter-petition. “Keep Girl-Guide cookies tasty; leave out the bad science and confused ideology.” But I suspect that it’s not as compelling or catchy a headline. Instead, I’ll express my support by buying their cookies, GM ingredients and all. Others can express their disapproval by not buying the cookies.

Honestly folks, this is one of the great powers we have in a free-market economy: use your dollars as petitions, supporting products you approve of and boycotting those you do not.

Don’t miss the Venal eclipse

2012/06/02

Next week, Venus is going to pass between us and the sun. The moon did it very recently, and far more dramatically. The moon does it all the time – there are solar eclipses every year somewhere on Earth. Even when the moon doesn’t completely block the sun – such as the annular eclipse last month – it’s called an eclipse.

But Venus … well, it’s just too far away to appreciably block the sun. In fact, without special equipment for viewing it, you won’t even know it’s happening. (Unless someone tells you.) So it’s not an eclipse, really. (Though I really like the name “Venal eclipse”. Don’t you?) No, it has the much more pedestrian name, “Transit of Venus”.

But don’t let the name fool you. This is a rare and scientifically valuable event. Transits of Venus have been used as far back as the 17th century to estimate the size of the solar system. Also, we only get two transits in over a century. They come in pairs about 8 years apart. We had one in 2004; before that, the last one was in 1882. After this one, we won’t have another transit until 2117.

So check out what events your local observatory or science centre is hosting (here in Edmonton, the Telus World of Science has a free viewing event). Or set up your own viewing equipment. (Don’t try watching with your naked eyes or sunglasses. You won’t see the transit, and you’ll hurt your eyes.)

I’m planning on using the pinhole box method. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Happy watching.

PS: Here’s a nice website full of information about the transit. I think they even have phone apps. And don’t worry – if you miss seeing it yourself, I’m sure there will be plenty of videos and photos online to enjoy it second hand.

Life without freedom is wasted

2012/05/07

I am delighted to be living in Canada again. I love being close to family once again. I love being back in the land and climate of my youth.

I have always been proud of Canada’s democracy. For all its warts, it is a more comfortable balance of freedom and social support than either the UK or the USA.

But I think it’s worth pointing out one of the latest warts to appear. A high school student in Nova Scotia is on suspension for the message on a t-shirt that he likes to wear. The message is this:

Life is wasted without Jesus

The justification for the suspension? “Some people find it offensive.” Really?

As I’ve said before in defense of atheist slogans, offending someone cannot, must not, be taken as justification for censorship. Offensive speech is important. If the message is true, then suppressing it is suppression of the truth. If it is untrue, then suppressing it hides sentiments that may be corrosive to the truth. If they are hidden, they cannot be effectively countered.

It seems to me to be particularly heinous to try suppressing this message in an educational setting. High school students are on the verge of becoming full participating members of society. What does this censorship teach them? That it’s okay to suppress unpopular opinions if you have the power. That peace of mind is more important than open discussion of difficult issues. That Christian beliefs are being suppressed.

For what it’s worth, atheists seem divided on whether this particular t-shirt message is acceptable. Also, I notice that there are some subtleties that weren’t apparent on first sight – see here, for example.

The best argument on the pro-suppression side is that kids are more easily affected by emotional sentiments like this. I understand. And, just to be clear, I find the t-shirt’s message offensive. But in ambiguous situations like this, I prefer to err on the side of freedom.

Let the kid know he’s being an ass, but don’t suppress his right to be an ass.

What is religious freedom?

2012/03/15

Religious groups and Republican presidential hopefuls Rick Santorum, Mitt RomneyNewt Gingrich, and even Ron Paul, are claiming that the recent health care reforms in the US amount to an attack on religious freedom.

It seems that employers who offer health benefits cannot choose to omit “objectionable” services on the basis of religious dogma. Specifically, they cannot exclude coverage for contraceptives. Opponents of the reforms assert that, by being forced to contribute to health plans that cover these services, their religious freedom is being tossed aside.

First of all, let me say that I understand their objection. While I don’t share it, I understand that if you believe contraceptives are evil, it must be galling to be in a position where you may be financially supporting their use.

On the other hand, does this policy really net out as an attack on religious freedom?

Let me share a couple of reasons I think it is not.*

First, let’s look at parallel cases. What about a church that takes literally the old testament injunction about punishment for disobedient children? Is it religiously intolerant for the civil authorities to prohibit stoning them? No.

What about people who come from a culture where an man’s honour is more important than his wife’s or daughter’s life? Is it religiously intolerant to treat him as a murderer for satisfying his (often religiously-motivated) sense of honour? No.

Why are these not cases of religious intolerance? Because the rights of the victims not to be beaten or killed trump the rights of their attackers to satisfy whatever code of ethics they are following.

And, whether you agree with it or not, modern developed societies have decided that individuals have rights to reproductive freedom – to decide whether to separate acts of sex from acts of reproduction, through the use of contraception, and to not allow an embryo to develop into a full human being, through abortion. So far, it seems to me that the current issue is parallel with these other, less controversial issues.

Also, remember that individuals, not organizations, have rights. They are human rights, not corporate rights. So, when two “rights” appear to be in conflict – on the one hand the individual’s right to reproductive choice; on the other hand the employing organization’s right to express religious prohibitions – it is always going to be the individual’s right that triumphs.

Note that, in most cases, these will not conflict. Employees of Catholic hospitals will tend to be observant Catholics, for example. But there are plenty of Catholics who disagree with the Catholic Church’s stance on contraception. (Just as there are Jews who eat non-Kosher. I think this observation refutes William Lori’s very clever “ham sandwich defense“.)

Nothing in the law requires anyone to use contraception (contrary to the shrieks of some self-perceived victims of this law). So the question in my mind is this: should a person be free to choose contraception, as they would other (covered) medical services? Or should the employer be given veto right? If the relevant human rights laws assert a right to reproductive health services (such as contraception and sterilization), then that’s that. Rights are rights. If you disagree, try to get the rights legislation rescinded.

It is more complicated than this, of course. If health care in the US were a universal, socialized operation – as it is in most of the developed world – then these conservative religious employers would have no reason to worry. It would not be their money, but general tax money, paying for the services. (Yes, there would of course be taxpayers who would object to supporting these procedures – but that’s a different kettle of worms.)

The point is that, yes, as things stand, it looks like employers – even those affiliated with particular religious beliefs – are required to offer comprehensive health insurance. They don’t get to opt out, any more than religious educational institutions would get to opt out of child abuse laws just because they “sincerely believe” that lashes are the only appropriate, god-sanctioned way to enforce discipline.

Religious freedom doesn’t mean that you can use sincere religious belief as a loophole to ignore laws you don’t like. It means that laws cannot be created solely to discriminate against particular religious groups. It means that laws must be applied equally to all people, regardless of religious sentiment.

Is the current solution imperfect? Sure. Even more enlightened, socialized health care systems are imperfect.

Is the “Obamacare” solution eroding religious liberty? Of course not.

I’ll close with a quote from a very well-written editorial on the issue. I encourage you to read the whole thing, but this is the core:

The courts have consistently held that freedom of religion is not absolute. Religious actions have been regulated throughout American history to preserve or promote the public good. Providing health care, including contraceptives, is a public good. Religious practices have been banned when they are contrary to the public good. Freedom of belief is absolute; freedom to act on the basis of belief is regulated and must not injure others.

Footnote:

* Of course, it may be that these attacks over-state what the law demands of employers. See here for another perspective.

Maybe I’m missing something here.

2012/03/01

“Mommy! John said I like tomatoes!”

“Do you like tomatoes, Tim?”

“No. But he said I did!”

“Well, nobody believes him. Just ignore him – he’s only wasting his own breath.”

“But he keeps saying it!”

“I know, sweetie. And if you ignore him, he will keep wasting his own breath.”

Kids are so strange – I’m sure many parents have had to deal with similarly bizarre claims of injury to one child by another. Fortunately, they tend to grow out of such things as they grow up, and learn a little perspective. Usually …

Several Jewish organizations and individuals are upset that some Mormon individuals continue to perform (remote) baptisms of dead people – including Jews who died in the Holocaust. They seem to see it as an intolerable attack on the religious identity of the dead. (CBC, BBC)

Maybe I’m missing something here. The Jews don’t believe the Mormons have any actual access to the spirits of dead Jews; the Mormons are not doing anything to the physical remains of people; and the historical record remains unchanged. What exactly is the nature of the injury?

The Jews do not believe the Mormons have special access to God’s will or the souls of dead people. (If they did, I would think they’d call themselves “Mormons” rather than “Jews”.) So they don’t think the Mormons are actually stealing their loved ones’ souls for their non-Jewish god. Besides, even if they believed, the Mormon posthumous baptism is an invitation, not an initiation. According to Mormon belief, the soul of the deceased can accept or reject the baptism as they choose. So even if you believe there is something to Mormon posthumous baptism, the deceased is, at worst, voluntarily converting.

The baptisms are performed in absentia – a volunteer from the church stands in for the person being baptized. So no violation of physical remains is taking place.

The only evidence that anything happened is in the LDS records; so there is no chance that the historical records of people’s identity, or of the numbers of Jews that died in the Holocaust, will be distorted by these actions.

So all we’re left with is that the Mormons are performing rites in the privacy of their own homes and temples that express their belief that Joseph Smith’s revelation was a genuine message from God, and that all other religious messages are inferior.

So how is that any worse than, you know, being Mormon? How is it (for example) any more religiously insensitive than the orthodox Jewish prayer thanking their god for not making them a gentile? (Or, to be nice and ecumenical, is it any different from the traditional Catholic prayer for their god to convert the Jews?)

I just don’t get it.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not surprised at the outrage. After all, I’m accustomed to hearing people complain that atheists are “militant” because they lay out, clearly and without apology, their reasons for not believing in any gods, and because they wish to live in a society where they are not treated as second-class because of their personal beliefs. The Jews are understandably sensitive about their religious identity.

It’s rather insensitive of the Mormons conducting these baptisms to publicize them in such a way that Jews can learn about them. (Yes, if they did them in private without telling anyone, I would see no problem beyond the fact that they’re expending energy on false beliefs.) And it should be remembered that Jews aren’t being singled out. Various others, from Adolf Hitler (and family) to Obama’s mom, have also been named in this ritual. This doesn’t make the practice less offensive, but it does suggest at least that anti-Semitism is not a motive.

So, to sum up my understanding: Nobody – real or imaginary, living or dead – is being coerced into anything by these “baptisms”. Nobody except the Mormons themselves believes that the dead are in any way affected by the baptisms. No physical remains are disturbed. No historical record is being altered.

Why is it that so many Jews think this is worth shouting about?

Please let me know what I’m missing.

Don’t trust Canadian scientists

2012/02/23

It seems that Canadian government scientists (that is, those who work directly for the Canadian government, rather than just those who receive funding from it) are being insulated from media contact behind a wall of bureaucrats. Interview requests from media cannot go directly to the scientists, but must be vetted by officials. Those officials may ask for written questions beforehand; they can select which (if any) questions will be answered; and they can redirect requests to other scientists or simply deny the requests entirely. (See the CBC or BBC articles for more details.)

On the face of it, this is an outrage. The greatest value of science – one might say its very essence – is the constant effort to shrug off the various forms of conscious and unconscious bias that distort our understanding of the real world. For a scientific message to be filtered through politically-minded bureaucrats is like filtering clean drinking water through used toilet paper.

It’s important not to blow this out of proportion. It’s not that scientists at large are being muzzled in Canada – only the ones directly employed by the federal government.

So, as consumers of science, the reasonable response is simply to disregard any science reported by the federal government and its scientists. Even if the scientists themselves are perfectly ethical and unbiased, and even if the only actions of the filter are to selectively suppress research (ie, not rewriting or falsifying results), this biases the overall picture painted by the results. (A similar travesty is practiced by pharmaceutical companies – and opposed by scientists and other public interest groups.)

As a taxpayer, I am not inclined to pay for something that is of no value to me. So I suggest the federal government either remove these draconian restrictions or halt all of its science programs. Obviously, removing the restrictions would be better – it would reduce bureaucracy costs and remove (or at least lessen) the taint of political bias on the research being reported, while allowing valuable scientific research to continue.

I would like to mention one point that has been raised in favour of this bureaucratic filter: that scientists are not always good communicators of science.

It is a legitimate concern. Very few people are good communicators of science.

Scientists tend to be the most unbiased about the naked facts of their studies, but can get over-excited about the implications, and can get invested in a particular interpretation. Journalists are increasingly ignorant of scientific methods, and so they tend to exaggerate the implications of studies even more than the scientists, in order to get the more interesting headline. They also lack the perspective that comes from knowing what other studies have been done on a topic, and from understanding the nature of the scientific process. Politicians and bureaucrats are as bad as journalists at understanding the science, and have strong motivations to “spin” (ie, distort) the science to serve their political ends.

It is unlikely that politicians can be reformed in this sense – not so long as popular opinion drives their fortunes. (That is, not so long as we live in a democracy.) Journalists, likewise, will tend to go for the sexy headline over accurate science, so we cannot expect them to self-educate.

On the other hand, there are already movements within the scientific community to encourage better communication outside academia. My vote is to put further emphasis on this solution. Teach more scientists to communicate their research well.

Until that happens, I still think inept-but-well-meaning scientists’ communication of research is the lesser evil.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-16881087

Banned! Minority tyrrany! (Perspective?)

2012/02/13

There’s been a ruling in an English High Court that, instead of praying at the start of council meetings (when everyone must be there), the Bideford town council should instead pray just before the start of council meetings (when attendance is optional). The case was introduced by a local councillor, and supported by the National Secular Society (NSS). Michael Langrish, the Bishop of Exeter, tells us in that story that this is an attack on the religious freedom of Christians. “I think it’s a great pity that a tiny minority are seeking to ban the majority, many of whom find prayers very, very helpful, from continuing with a process in which no-one actually has to participate.”

It seems to me that there is a whole lot of wrong wrapped up in the Bishop’s words. I’ll take some time to review the two main bits of wrong: the demographics involved, and the injury done.

For the demographics, I’m drawing on a 2011 poll commissioned by the British Humanist Association (BHA), and a 2007 poll conducted by Why Church, a Christian group. I do not know how biased either of these polls might be, so I will also throw in numbers from the recurring British Social Attitudes Survey. The numbers differ, but the overall story is basically the same.

The BHA study found that 53% of people in England and Wales claim to be Christian (7% claim other religions), but only 29% claimed to be religious. For how many of those is the message of their church important? The Why Church study finds that regular attendance is declining steadily – at the time of the report, it was at 15%. That’s how many in the UK attend at least once a month. In particular, compare this section from the executive summary of their report to the bishop’s statement above (my emphasis):

Two thirds of UK adults (66%) or 32.2 million people have no connection with church at present (nor with another religion). These people are evenly divided between those who have been in the past but have since left (16 million) and those who have never been in their lives (16.2 million). This secular majority presents a major challenge to churches. Most of them – 29.3 million – are unreceptive and closed to attending church; churchgoing is simply not on their agenda.

The BHA study supports this, reporting that 63% of respondents had not been to church in more than a year.

It looks like the good bishop’s claim to speak for the majority is, at best, barely true and soon to be outdated. More likely, he’s thinking about a Britain that is several decades in the past.

The BHA poll reports that while 53% claim to be Christian, 65% of people in England and Wales claim to be non-religious. Clearly, some see themselves as “non-religious Christians” – a category which reminds me of “secular Jews”. A Scottish poll gave similar results: 58% claiming some religious affiliation, and 56% saying they were not religious. Even the Why Church survey shows agnostics and atheists at 33% of the population. Langrish’s claim that it is a “tiny minority” imposing these onerous restrictions is therefore ridiculous. It is no stretch to say that, if they don’t already, non-believers will probably soon outnumber believers in the UK.

The British Social Attitudes Survey shows a drop in Church of England affiliation from 22.50% in 2008 to 19.98% in 2009. Christians overall went from 49.70% to 43.83%, and total religious affiliations from 56.38% to 48.86%. The “no religion” category grew over the same period from 43.19% to 50.67%. Call me crazy, but it looks to me like the bishop’s C of E flock is less than half the size of those whose interests the NSS seeks to protect – Langrish’s “tiny minority”. Probably, he meant all religious people when referring to the “majority” – but even so the numbers are close, and moving in favour of the non-religious.

I’ll let you sift through the statistics yourselves for further insight – there is obviously a lot of scope for picking different numbers, depending what aspect of the issue is important to you. The British Social Attitudes Survey releases their data to registered users; the Why Church people have a number of informative graphics on their website, as well as an in-depth report (PDF). The BHA provides downloadable statistical summaries of their poll on their website.

What wiggle room do we have in interpreting the demographics for this issue?

On the bishop’s side, we could include only regular attenders of the Church of England? That would be somewhere well south of 15%. It’s tempting, but of course other Christians and religious people more generally may also claim an interest in making prayers part of the official council business. That would put the number up as high as 61% – but only, mark you, if the prayers are inclusive of all religious perspectives. And what about people who only attend services rarely or not at all? Is it reasonable to think that they would be upset by a law that allows councillors to opt out of pre-meeting prayers? Counting regular (monthly or more) attenders from all religions, we get something closer to the 15%.

On the secular side, should we only look at members of the NSS, the BHA, and other organizations promoting non-belief? If so, we’ll have a very low number – perhaps appearing to justify Langrish’s “tiny minority”. The BHA has 28000 paying members and supporters; the HSS (Humanist Society of Scotland) has around 6500 members; and the NSS is estimated to have fewer than 10000 paying members. Some individuals will be members of more than one of these groups, and there are many smaller groups that I have left off of this list, but this indicates that something like 40000 people – a fraction of a percent of the UK population, are card-carrying, dues-paying secularists. Should we also include the “de-churched” – the 33% of UK adults who used to attend church, but no longer do? They seem to have made a pretty solid vote for reducing the influence of church in their daily lives. Should we include everyone who claims to be non-religious? Again, it’s tempting, but not all of this group (depending on the survey, somewhere from 33% to 65%) will agree with the secularization of Britain (just as not all religious people agree with the establishment of church power and rituals in government institutions).

Regarding the specific issue at hand – religious prayers before council meetings – a couple of questions about politics on the British Social Attitudes Survey are also relevant. A growing number of people think that churches have too much power in the country (10.58% in 1991, 29.76% in 2008), and people increasingly object to religious leaders influencing government (56.64% in 1991, 67.26% in 2008).

Goodness, what a mess of numbers! Over all, the bishop’s appeal to democratic sensibilities seems to backfire. If the will of the people is important, then the British people seem to be saying that the church should back off. (Of course, an obvious rejoinder from Langrish’s camp would be to bemoan the fact that people are turning their backs on religion – but that becomes more paternalistic and less democratic. Besides, I wouldn’t want to put words in the good reverend’s mouth.)

But let’s back up a little. What did the court rule, exactly? It ruled that prayers are okay in a pre-meeting context, but not as part of the minuted, mandatory-attendance part of council meetings.

So when we hear people complain that their voices are being silenced, their rights trampled on, bear that in mind. They are being pushed perhaps a few minutes earlier, so that people who object to the practice of prayer in council meetings have more freedom to absent themselves while the religious folks carry on thanking and invoking and praising as they always have. That is the great secular imposition which Langrish and others are wailing about.

This is the point where I would typically want to extract some broader lesson. Perhaps about people’s tendency to inflate perceived injuries against them. Or I would congratulate myself on my humility by noticing that we also tend to minimize perceived injuries against others when we identify – by creed or otherwise – with those accused of the attack. (It’s true that I think the Bishop is being alarmist. On the other hand, he is right in his statement in the Guardian that ” the agenda of the National Secular Society is inch by inch to drive religion out of the public sphere.”)

But I think I’ll leave it there, and see what you think. Is there an obvious demographic perspective that makes this all clear? Should we be worried about how many of us there are and how many of them, or is secularization about something more than just one side beating another side with brute numbers? What is the significance of the (apparently overlooked) fact that it was the High Court, attempting to interpret the laws of the land, that handed down this ruling (and not the NSS or one disgruntled atheist councillor)?


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