Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

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.

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 are likely to 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)?

Consultation almost over

2011/12/05

If you haven’t participated in the Scottish Government’s consultation on same-sex marriage, please go do it now. (Obviously, this is mainly directed at residents of Scotland.)

There is a well-organized campaign to limit (and, I suspect, ultimately roll back) the equality that same-sex couples are just beginning to enjoy in Scotland. My friend Cath has posted a heartfelt commentary over at her blog in which she opposes the rights of same-sex couples. She believes her right to worship as she wishes, and her minister’s right not to solemnize unions that he believes God disapproves of, are likely to be compromised if liberal churches are granted the ability to perform same-sex unions. I can imagine this happening, but it seems unlikely. In any case, a potential, avoidable violation of her freedom of conscience does not trump the existing, actual violation of the freedom of conscience of the liberal churches.

So go answer the consultation. Remind the government that the conservatives are not the only people of conscience, willing to put their voices and their votes to work for their values.

Also, I hope you agree with me and Cath that, whatever rights are granted to humanist and liberal religious wedding officiants, no minister of religion (or humanist celebrant) should be required by law to officiate at same-sex unions.

That’s all. Sorry for the sloppy editing – I have little time these days, but wanted to get this out as soon as possible. The consultation ends on Friday, so respond now!

Heritage

2011/07/28

The UK government recently reasserted its determination to privilege Christianity over other religions, and especially over unbelief, in public schools.*

There are plenty of rants one could indulge in over this – on the merits of a secular public sphere in general, on the dangers (to religious as well as secular values) of mixing religion and government, on the indoctrination of children.

Today, I’d like to simply reflect on the justification given: that the collective worship assemblies reflect the country’s broadly Christian heritage.

Many replies could be made to this statement. First, I will agree that Christianity has played a long and important role in shaping British history and culture. It would be a disservice to children and society to deny or downplay this fact in teaching kids about British history.

But what is, in fact, suggested, if we really take seriously the claim that British religious heritage should be imparted in school assemblies? You see, as I understand it, the religious heritage of the UK is not one of meekly accepting traditions that have been handed down. A large part of that heritage is a laissez-faire attitude: great numbers of people claiming religious affiliation for but doing nothing about it.

Leaving that very important part of the British character aside, the religious history of the isles is an exhilarating tale of reform, revolution, and advance. England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales have all been swept with waves of religious reform, from the Anglican break from Rome, through the Protestant Reformation, down through the Enlightenment and the rise of scientific scepticism.

British religious heritage includes ideals of Catholic universality, of Anglican nationalism, of Protestant individualism, and (very dear to me) of radical dissent from religious belief. The intellectual history of humanism is as indissoluble a part of this heritage as Christian traditions such as the “Lord’s Prayer” – and as necessary to understanding the contemporary character of British society.

To deny this – to privilege Christian beliefs and rituals over the other aspects of British heritage – is to reject the great advances that have been made by some of Britain’s most well-known and respected historical figures – NewtonHume,Darwin, Huxley, and many others. It is also to reject the growing portion of the population that finds fulfilment in life without any reference to a god or religion.

If the government really wants to impart British heritage to schoolchildren, to give them a real experiential connection to the grand themes of British religious identity and heritage, then it should open up the scope of the religious assemblies to explore all of that heritage, rather than only one corner. How were things in Britain different before and after Henry VIII’s break with Rome? How have different religious groups, when in power, persecuted or protected other religious groups? Perhaps children could watch (or, even better, participate in) re-enactments of the encounters between John Knox and Mary Queen of Scots, or between Thomas Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce.

Having grown up mostly oblivious of religion in Canada, I rather like the British idea of openly discussing and learning about religion in the classroom. Too many of the ills of religion are due to (or exacerbated by) ignorance of other beliefs. It is a shame that the UK government undermines their basically positive principle by cravenly catering to sectarian influences, as in the case of collective worship.

I have to agree with this statement by Lord Avebury at the end of this piece that,  “this is going to happen in the end” … “whether they like it or not, it is going to come. Sooner or later we shall get rid of the act of compulsory worship in schools, and the sooner the better.” Britain is becoming more secular, and secularists are gaining a stronger voice. But sooner would be better, for the children’s sake.

Footnotes:

* The media at large doesn’t seem to have picked up on this, so I can only link to the BHA’s summary. See also this report by the Accord Coalition, a group of religious and non-religious organizations working to improve education and religious rights in the UK.

The flock is not the flocker

2010/09/21

Humanitie is out again, so here’s my latest column.  Here is the Not-Quite-So-Friendly Humanist’s take on the issue we decided to tackle this time around.  We decided to blog on the Pope’s visit to the UK.

The pope will be is visiting as a head of state and as a moral authority.  Both of these roles are highly dubious in our modern democratic context.  Ignoring a mountain of other things, the fact alone that this man seems to have been involved in an institutional cover-up for dozens of child rapists should prevent any decent head of state from inviting him to visit.

It’s important to remember, however, that the Catholic Church is composed not only of pedophile priests and those who cover up for them, but also of non-pedophile priests and non-corrupt administrators.  Even more, it is composed of hundreds of millions of people trying to live as well as they can in a confusing world.

And before anyone retorts that passive acceptance of repressive and harmful dogmas is hardly respectable, let me introduce a couple of Catholic organisations that specifically combat the church’s problems – both doctrinal and institutional:  “Catholics for Choice” and “Catholics for a Changing Church“.

Here is what Catholics for Choice say about themselves:  “We are part of the great majority who believes that Catholic teachings on conscience mean that every individual must follow his or her own conscience – and respect others’ right to do the same.”  That sounds a lot like the humanist principle of free-thinking.  The group “helps people and organizations confidently challenge the power of the Catholic hierarchy which uses every means at its disposal to punish and publicly shame Catholics who don’t unquestioningly follow its edicts. The hierarchy also seeks to impose its narrow view of morality – and dangerous positions on public health issues – on Catholics and non-Catholics around the world.”  This is a firm condemnation of the same institutional abuse of power that humanists find so repugnant in the Catholic hierarchy.

In a similar vein, Catholics for a Changing Church declare that “Justice in the Church should be manifest and subject to public scrutiny and aim at least to equal the spirit of justice in the civil community. It should be based on the love, understanding and trust that ought to exist between Christians. Canon Law should be radically reformed in accord with these principles.”  Humanists may disagree about the beliefs that undergird these values, but we cannot disagree with the values themselves:  public accountability of those in power, and being motivated by love and understanding.  Note that they are holding up the “civil community” – what many religionists (for example, this guy!) decry as the secularised public arena – as a standard for the church to live *up* to.

We could ask why these obviously open-minded and ethical people don’t just leave the church.  Isn’t that a much easier way to win free of its oppressive dogmas and policies?  But when a community is being oppressed, it can be better to remain and work to improve it than to simply leave.  Remember that these people have family in the church, personal history, and of course, retain many of the beliefs of Catholicism.  Is it really rational to expect them to leave?  And is it really a bad thing to know that there is a movement within the church campaigning for change?

So where does that leave us as humanists?  I’m not about to suggest we shut up and hope that the church reforms from within.  But, when we point out the evils of the dogmas and the hierarchy, I think it is worth sparing a word or two of encouragement and praise for those brave Catholics who remain in the church and challenge its outdated and harmful aspects, just as we praise the thinkers of the Enlightenment who forged modern humanist principles amid a sea of fearful dogma.

Here are some other thoughts on the pope and his visit:


Archaeologists versus believers

2010/02/04

A friend of mine pointed out this (Dutch) story to me (an English translation is given here).  In the Netherlands – which many consider a bastion of reason and liberalism – there is a town council objecting to a scientific report because it contradicts their religious beliefs.

Staphorst is a community of very religious people (mostly Calvinists, according to Wikipedia).  Like all Dutch towns, they are required to produce a survey of archaeological sites in their jurisdiction (for a comprehensive nation-wide map of such sites).

Naturally, the survey was conducted by actual archaeologists.  It contained references to settlements 12000 years old.  That’s what the scientific evidence suggests, and I think that’s pretty cool.  Imagine learning that there are twelve thousand years of human heritage in your hometown!

But the council members (and most of the people in the town) are young-earth creationists.  That’s their right, of course.  But they want the report amended to acknowledge their beliefs – that the countryside, the planet, and the whole universe are less than ten thousand years old.

They want a report based on demonstrable, objective, scientific evidence to acknowledge beliefs that are based on religious faith.

This is repugnant to me, but rather than start flinging emotion-laden abuse around, I invite them (and any who sympathize with their actions) to consider this:

How would they feel if someone asked them to post a notice at their church pointing out that the physical evidence for a 4-billion-year-old Earth is far more comprehensive than the physical evidence for any of the amazing claims in the Bible?

I’m guessing they’d say “no”.  And that’s their right – a church is a place for building and maintaining a community  of common belief, and they should not be obliged to confront opposing beliefs within its confines (however well-grounded those opposing beliefs might be).

If they want to reject science and seek truth some other way, that’s their right.  But they have no right to insist that their unscientific beliefs be given voice in a scientific venue.

Miscellaneous

2009/11/29

Several things have come through my blog reader that I want to comment on, but none require a post of their own. So here you are:

Celebrating Darwin. Still? Again? It doesn’t really matter. Here’s a well-produced video giving the history of life in brief, narrated by David Attenborough. Delightful to watch.

(Thanks to Mike, the Not Quite So Friendly Humanist, for sharing this video.)

Solar System on one page. Also along the lines of enjoying the natural world. Or, in this case, worlds: a webpage where you can see all the planets (plus Pluto). They are to scale for size, but also for mean distance from the Sun. Try it out.

If you’re having difficulty finding the planets in all the black, here’s a little trick: after the “/” at the end of the URL, add “#mars”, or “#neptune”, and it’ll zoom to that planet. But that does kind of defeat the purpose: you’re supposed to become aware of the vast, vast spaces between the planets.

(Thanks to Phil, the Bad Astronomer, for the link.)

Abolish the Canadian monarch? Here’s Canadian humanist and activist Justin Trottier with his take on the fact that the nominal Canadian head of state is not Canadian, and is also the head of one particular religious sect. I tend to agree with him – there is no good reason to retain the monarchy, though perhaps not yet sufficient reason against it to go to the trouble of writing them out of our laws.

Beautiful impermanence. I close this grab-bag with a delightful “sermon” from Daylight Atheism, in which we are encouraged to reflect upon impermanence as autumn surrounds us*. He contrasts the humanist acceptance of our impermanence with the inborn yearning we all have – reflected so frequently in religious beliefs – to deny our own deaths. While I’m not generally interested in contrasting humanism with religious beliefs, I think the contrast here is poignant. Particularly as the humanist position, in following the evidence of the world around us, draws us away from our primitive desires for immortality. It encourages us, in a real sense, to grow up.

Okay, this one could have used its own post. For now, I refer you to this pair of posts (in that order) by Dale McGowan, about discussing mortality with his kids. And this more recent one, about the problem of awesome people being mortal too.

[Edit to add link to the Daylight Atheism post, which I unaccountably forgot to do at first.]

—–

* Excluding Canada and other northern regions, where winter has already firmly displaced fall, and the whole southern hemisphere, being on the other side of the seasonal see-saw.

Positively unjust?

2009/09/18

The latest issue of Humanitie magazine just arrived in the mail. In this issue, Mike and I discuss our (somewhat different) thoughts on positive discrimination. Make sure to read his thoughts here.

I was all ready to deliver a column arguing against “positive discrimination”.

I was going to argue that the solution to discrimination is not counter-discrimination. Two wrongs don’t make a right. I would point out that even the people supposedly helped by it are, really, just being patronised: “You can’t get this job on merit, so we’ll give you a hand up because of your sex/race/etc.”

I’d have pointed out that the statistics you run across in the media about pay gaps and hiring biases are probably rife with holes. For example, the workers at my daughter’s nursery are almost all women. Does this imply discrimination against male nursery workers? More likely, it’s simply a consequence of free choice: more women than men choose to be nursery workers (for whatever reason). Trying to “equalize” this with quotas would devalue the choices those women and men are freely making.

I was even ready to loftily concede that there are situations of extreme, institutional discrimination where positive discrimination as a temporary counterbalance – as part of a wider program promoting education and social change – might be justifiable as a lesser evil.

And of course, I would have generously acknowledged my potential conflict of interest on this issue: I am a white man. I hate the idea of being passed over for a job in favour of a less-qualified candidate because of my sex or race (what “positive discrimination” means to many people).

But then, at Deena’s suggestion, I started looking into what programs actually exist here, and my righteous indignation vanished.

Because, you see, so-called “positive discrimination” is illegal in Britain. Existing human rights legislation, and the proposed new Equality Bill, specifically prohibit the hiring or promoting of one job candidate over another on the basis of sex or race – or any other protected category, such as sexual orientation, religion, and age.

What is promoted is “positive action”. An employer can encourage under-represented categories of people to apply for a job or promotion; an agency can target disadvantaged groups in promoting training courses. This means things like advertising in media that target these segments of the population, or using language in job adverts that encourages them to apply. (“Women and minorities welcome!”, for example.)

While people might argue about the effectiveness of such measures, it seems clear that positive action hardly constitutes inappropriate discrimination against “dispreferred groups” (such as white male columnists). In fact, it seems to be just the level at which opponents of “positive discrimination” (like me) suggest we should be channelling our efforts.

I think we probably do still have low-level discrimination (both conscious and unconscious) in our society, and it needs combating. Even accounting for self-selection and shortcomings of popular statistics, some unfairness does exist. I have plenty of loved ones in “disadvantaged” groups – women, older people, people with mental health problems, etc. So, in addition to my above-mentioned interest, I have a strong personal interest in trying to make our employment landscape fair.

So I say, keep positive discrimination illegal, and keep positive action around.

Turing apology

2009/09/11

A few days ago, I pointed out a petition calling for a posthumous apology to Alan Turing for his disgraceful treatment by the British government when it became known that he was gay.

Well, Gordon Brown has delivered. He has issued what seems to me to be a very frank apology, acknowledging not only Turing’s significant contributions to computing and to the outcome of the Second World War, but also the injustice of his treatment at the hands of the country he had served so well.

As of this moment, there are 31070 signatures on the online petition. (I assume the petition is closed, now that its aim is achieved, but cannot find a clear statement to that effect.)

Here is the full text of the Prime Minister’s statement:

2009 has been a year of deep reflection – a chance for Britain, as a nation, to commemorate the profound debts we owe to those who came before. A unique combination of anniversaries and events have stirred in us that sense of pride and gratitude which characterise the British experience. Earlier this year I stood with Presidents Sarkozy and Obama to honour the service and the sacrifice of the heroes who stormed the beaches of Normandy 65 years ago. And just last week, we marked the 70 years which have passed since the British government declared its willingness to take up arms against Fascism and declared the outbreak of World War Two. So I am both pleased and proud that, thanks to a coalition of computer scientists, historians and LGBT activists, we have this year a chance to mark and celebrate another contribution to Britain’s fight against the darkness of dictatorship; that of code-breaker Alan Turing.

Turing was a quite brilliant mathematician, most famous for his work on breaking the German Enigma codes. It is no exaggeration to say that, without his outstanding contribution, the history of World War Two could well have been very different. He truly was one of those individuals we can point to whose unique contribution helped to turn the tide of war. The debt of gratitude he is owed makes it all the more horrifying, therefore, that he was treated so inhumanely. In 1952, he was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ – in effect, tried for being gay. His sentence – and he was faced with the miserable choice of this or prison – was chemical castration by a series of injections of female hormones. He took his own life just two years later.

Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him. Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly. Over the years millions more lived in fear of conviction.

I am proud that those days are gone and that in the last 12 years this government has done so much to make life fairer and more equal for our LGBT community. This recognition of Alan’s status as one of Britain’s most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue.

But even more than that, Alan deserves recognition for his contribution to humankind. For those of us born after 1945, into a Europe which is united, democratic and at peace, it is hard to imagine that our continent was once the theatre of mankind’s darkest hour. It is difficult to believe that in living memory, people could become so consumed by hate – by anti-Semitism, by homophobia, by xenophobia and other murderous prejudices – that the gas chambers and crematoria became a piece of the European landscape as surely as the galleries and universities and concert halls which had marked out the European civilisation for hundreds of years. It is thanks to men and women who were totally committed to fighting fascism, people like Alan Turing, that the horrors of the Holocaust and of total war are part of Europe’s history and not Europe’s present.

So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work I am very proud to say: we’re sorry, you deserved so much better.

Gordon Brown

Well done, Mr Brown.


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