Take note, Mr. Plait: This is “being a dick”

There has been some concern among certain folks in the skeptical community that “expressing an opinion strongly and with conviction” constitutes “being a dick,” because it might bruise the tender feelings of believers. This concern is misplaced. From England’s green and pleasant land we have a literally staggering act of actual dickishness. Said to be nearly 2000 years old and planted by Joseph of Arimathea (and whether that’s true or not really isn’t relevant to the situation), the Holy Thorn Tree of Glastonbury has been a popular destination for believers on pilgrimages. The other night, some vandals hacked off all its branches, leaving nothing but a naked stump.

That, I submit, is dickishness of the first water.

Ahead of the curve in England, I see

So two-thirds of teenagers in the UK don’t like religion and don’t believe in God. That’s a good thing.

What would be nice is if these kids would follow up this natural doubt with actual studies, both into science and religion, to see why the verifiable methods of science can be reliably trusted and the unsupported fables of sheep farmers thousands of years ago can be just as reliably relegated to the category of “Quaint Historical Curiosities.”

There is always the likelihood that some of this is just teen rebellion, going through a phase, what have you. But when you consider how religion has lost favor among the British public in general, it could very well indicate a healthy trend towards greater secularism on a society-wide scale. And it’s a valuable rejoinder to the accommodationists and religion-defenders who lazily shrug and insist that we just can’t get rid of religion, or expect it to go away, because, you know, deep down, everyone needs it.

News good and bad from the British Isles

Via Dawkins’ site, I caught this article from the London Times, and its headline is a thing of such beauty it practically made me weep for joy: Churchgoing on its knees as Christianity falls out of favour. The article’s lead practically has you grabbing the phone to hire a marching band and sending out eVites for a block party. If only this were America.

Church attendance in Britain is declining so fast that the number of regular churchgoers will be fewer than those attending mosques within a generation, research published today suggests.

The fall – from the four million people who attend church at least once a month today – means that the Church of England, Catholicism and other denominations will become financially unviable. A lack of funds from the collection plate to support the Christian infrastructure, including church upkeep and ministers’ pay and pensions, will force church closures as ageing congregations die.

But then, read on a bit, and the other shoe drops.

In contrast, the number of actively religious Muslims will have increased from about one million today to 1.96 million in 2035.

According to Religious Trends, a comprehensive statistical analysis of religious practice in Britain, published by Christian Research, even Hindus will come close to outnumbering churchgoers within a generation.

Okay, it’s great to see one pernicious religion biting the dust somewhere, but the idea is not that we just want to see its former prominence supplanted by yet another pernicious religion…one even more pernicious, since, while Christianity’s fanatics (say, Paul Hill) only occasionally resort to outright murder, Islam’s are all too gung-ho about it. When Muslims will parade with signs that say “Behead Those Who Insult Islam!” you know you’re dealing with something far too FUBAR to be dealt with through civilized dialogue. Reason may win the fight fairly easily against Christianity, but if Islam, with its barbaric sharia laws and general bent towards theocratic fascism, simply slipped in and took its place, we’d be even worse off than where we started.

Atheists and rationalists still have a long way to go, and a lot of work to do, before the civilized world gets the message that the best way to get through life and get along with your fellow man is actually to use that little lump of grey matter between your ears.

Blasphemy is, as they say, a victimless crime

Over in the UK, the population may be predominately non-religious, or at least indifferent to religion, in stark opposition to the way Americans can’t seem to get enough of the stuff. But it’s only been this week that the House of Lords* voted to strike down the nation’s laws against blasphemy. Nice of them to recognize it isn’t 1437 any more. Unless you’ve got a fascistic, Talibanoid theocracy going on, having blasphemy laws in a modern enlightened culture is like attaching a carburetor to your pyjamas: pointless and utterly silly.

Of course, some people are upset at learning the Middle Ages ended long ago.

Prominent Christian activist Baroness O’Cathain launched a blistering attack on the amendment, with particular fury aimed at Evan Harris. Lady O’Cathain maintained that abolition of blasphemy would unleash a torrent of abuse towards Christians.

Huh. I thought blasphemy was defined as making insulting or disrespectful remarks critical of gods, not their followers. As far as hate crimes against the religious are concerned, the UK has its Racial and Religious Hatred Act, a piece of legislation that makes it an offense to incite deliberate violence and hatred towards a person or group of people based on their race or creed. (I know it’s a law that feels problematic from a free speech standpoint, but the wording of it does try to make it clear that it’s only an offense when there’s clear intent to incite harm. I imagine it’s only a matter of time before it’s actually put to the test in the courts. After all, where’s the line between saying something like “Somebody ought to do something about those damn [insert minority here],” and “Kill the [minority]!”?)

One gets the impression that Baroness O’Cathain is merely troubled by the idea of anyone’s criticizing belief at all. As Tracie pointed out a couple of posts ago, it can be awfully hard for atheists to engage Christians in conversation about belief, simply because the minute you make one statement that’s even the tiniest bit snarky (like comparing their god belief to unicorn belief), many of them are so thin-skinned they’ll storm off in a huff right there. Not surprisingly, Dawkins and The God Delusion came up quite a bit in the House debates. The simple fact that atheist books exist, and are actually finding an audience, is enough for some Christians to think they’re suffering “a torrent of abuse.”

Well, let’s talk abuse. What about the people in the past who were actually the targets of the blasphemy laws in question? Ol’ Wikipedia tells me that the last guy to be prosecuted under the laws was John William Gott in 1921, who was sentenced to nine months’ hard labor simply for publishing pamphlets making fun of Christianity and Jesus. So Christians got their knickers in a twist because Gott snarked on their imaginary friend, and he got nine months breaking rocks. Call me crazy, but I consider that pretty damn torrential abuse. “Hey,” you might say, “that was 87 years ago.” Yeah, but I’m sure it still sucked for him.

Anyway, it was clearly time to get rid of the laws, because they were irrelevant and never used anyway. And as for Christian fears of persecution, again, I never cease to be amazed at these. Check your Yellow Pages and see how many pages it takes to list the churches in your city. Go to any bookstore in the US, and see how many shelves are swallowed up by the Religion category. Only Borders that I know of delineates a section to “Atheism and Agnosticism” within that category, and that section usually only amounts to about two or three shelves, as opposed to the fifty or so shelves devoted to Bibles, apologetics, and the usual twaddle from fundies like LaHaye and Strobel and Colson and their camp. But to many Christians, those two shelves for atheism are two too many, and amount to a horrifying all-out assault on their precious faith.

Cry me a river.


* I had to note my favorite comment about this on Richard Dawkins’ site:

Dear Britain, what the hell is a “house of lords”?? Signed, the 21st century.

England swinging towards reason

Their money is worth far more than ours, and now it seems their intellects are as well. Well, that last bit isn’t fair at all, of course. Great Britain has always had one of the richest intellectual and cultural legacies on earth. But to read that fully two-thirds of the population of the UK claim no religious affiliation is jaw-droppingly joyous to behold. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean they’re all embracing Dawkinsian atheism en masse. But it does mean that a greater percentage of them are thinking freely about these matters and refusing to commit to received belief systems and religions simply as an act of following the herd. It’s such a contrast to the headlong rush into the morass of anti-intellectual, anti-science religious irrationalism that the poor old US of A is suffering, that all one can do is wonder at how two free Western societies could take such disparate paths.

I think, in my layman’s way, that part of the cause of religion’s demise over there can be placed on their having a state-sponsored church. Nothing can turn a modern enlightened population off to the intellectual and moral dead end of religious belief than living in a country that still has blasphemy laws and is only just now considering repealing them, several centuries too late. And the way in which Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams enjoys shooting off his mouth without first loading his brain on such subjects as Muslim sharia law can only serve to make the clergy and the beliefs they represent look not only unappealing but wholly reprehensible.

All I can say is I’m proud and envious of the British public as they continue to disprove the canard that we’ll never really be rid of religion, because people are weak sheep who need its comforting lies. Pro-religion views can only support themselves by selling humanity short. Secularism celebrates humanity and freedom to the greatest possible heights. I often dream I’ll live to see the day that America joins Britain and much of Europe in leeching the vile poison of religion from its system at last. What a day it will be when we can look back on the era in which megachurches brought in tens of thousands of sincere but unhappy people to separate them from their money, and politicians were judged worthy of office mainly to the degree they pandered to the most preposterous delusions, and shake our heads and laugh at our collective childishness. Alas, in too many people here, the disease really has rotted too deeply to be cut out. Will America advance, or remain mired in its superstitious rut while the rest of the West passes us by and leaves us nothing more than an intellectual backwater, to be pitied and ridiculed in equal measure? Hope springs eternal, but I remain cynical.