Secularism Under Threat in the United States!

 

The Trump administration is arguably one of the most far right governments in modern American history. His team are a gallery of far right activists, corporate lobbyists and evangelical Christian politicians. Although the constitution requires the separation of church and state this hasn’t stopped evangelicals of all flavours from trying to impose their religious moral judgements on society at large and for many radical evangelicals Trump is a blessing to this crusade.

His own Vice-President former Governor of Indiana Mike Pence is a staunch opponent of LGBT+ rights and has supported measures aimed at allowing people to discriminate against LGBTs based on their religious beliefs and also supported the idea of allocating state funding to so called ‘gay cure’ therapies. Pence is also a firm anti-abortion campaigner and politician who as governor made it harder for women to get abortions and attempted to defund planned parenthood. He also supports an abstinence based sex education and has previously asserted that condoms don’t protect against sexually transmitted infections. If that isn’t enough he is also a creationist and once said that he hoped scientists would one day embrace creationism/intelligent design as the only true way the world could have come into existence. Given Trump’s lack of experience and general incompetence it is feared that Mike Pence could be the most powerful and influential Vice-President in history certainly the Trump administration’s decision to ban state funding for NGOs that perform abortions in developing countries is something that Pence championed.

Pence isn’t alone in the cabinet however, several other members of the cabinet have hard conservative Christian positions on many issues. His nominee for Attorney-General, who heads the Justice Department, Jeff Sessions is both anti-LGBT and anti-abortion, his pick for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson is Seventh Day Adventist and thus a young-earth creationist who believes the Earth was made in six literal days whilst former governor of Texas Rick Perry is Trump’s pick for Secretary of Energy and is both anti-LGBT and a believer in intelligent design/creationism.

Betsy DeVos, his newly appointed Education Secretary, could prove disastrous to attempts by secularists to keep religion out of state schools in the US. She has spent her life using her family’s vast wealth to lobby on behalf of private charter schools, often religious ones, and in an speech to Christian activists in 2001 she stated her interest in education reform was to “..help advance God’s Kingdom”. DeVos and her family have donated millions of dollars to groups that teach intelligent design/creationism and it is feared by many she may use her new position to undermine the teaching of real science in schools.

The first attacks on secularism are already underway in the First Amendment Defence Act which is currently working its way through Congress and President Trump has already indicated support for it. The act will prohibit federal government from taking action against persons who act in accordance with the ‘moral conviction’ that marriage is between one man and one woman and that sexual relations should be reserved for such unions. In short it will make it illegal for the government to take action against people who discriminate against others on the basis of their sexual orientation since it is predominantly lesbian and gay people who cannot meet the requirements of being in a traditional heterosexual marriage. This would prevent the government from, for example, taking action against Kim Davis, the Rowen County Kentucky clerk who refused to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples despite this being part of her job.

Evangelical Christians in the US have long used religious freedom as a way of justifying their prejudice and bigotry and it is likely that similar measures to the FADA will appear over the coming years to target other groups conservative Christians want to discriminate against, women who have abortions or teachers who want to teach real science and not creationism for example.

There will of course be a fight back against this anti-secular tide however until the mid-term elections in 2018 this fight back will have to take place through the judiciary rather than Congress since the Republicans still control both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Instead those looking to stop such violations of secularism will turn to the judiciary who have the power to repeal such acts if they find them unconstitutional and thus illegal. Of course this is not guaranteed and the religious or political alignment of judges will always play a factor in their decision making. Needless to say it will be a harsh four years in the United States for secularists seeking to keep religion out of government.

Victory for Secularism in Norway!

The Church of Norway is, or rather was, the state church of the Kingdom of Norway, much like the Church of England is here. However thanks to decades of campaigning by pressure groups such as the Norwegian Humanist Association (Human-Etisk Forbund) and the general decline in Church attendance and belief, the first step towards a true separation of church and state has been at last taken.

The process of separating church and state in Norway started with an historic vote in Norway’s Parliament the Storting in May 2012 which saw parliamentarians vote overwhelmingly in favour of separating the protestant Lutheran Church of Norway from the state. In effect this meant that the Church was now free to appoint its own bishops and deans whilst the provision for half of government ministers to be members of the state church was ended. Next last year further measures were made amending the Norwegian constitution to make the Church of Norway a completely separate legal entity with Lutheran clergy no longer being counted as state employees and neither the state nor the church having any say over the other.

However though the changes have been seen as a good step towards a truly secular state they have been derided by some Humanists for not going far enough. The Constitution will still specify that the Church of Norway is the “national church” and thus receives state “support”. Furthermore all Norwegian monarchs are still required to profess a Lutheran faith in order to qualify. Kristin Mile, secretary-general of the Norwegian Humanist Association said “As long as the constitution says that the Church of Norway is Norway’s national church and that it should be supported by the state, we still have a state church”.

Commentators in Norway don’t think this current constitutional settlement will last long due to the ambiguity of the term “national church” and parliament’s previous commitment to separating church and state.

Much like the Church of England in the UK, the Church of Norway is a rapidly declining institution. Whilst figures suggest 72.9% are members of the Church of Norway, these figures only reflect people who are baptised or confirmed not people who regularly attend Church or believe in god. Other surveys show that barely 2% actually go to church on a regular basis and only 22% say they believe in god. Indeed Norway, like other Scandinavian countries, ranks highly as among the most atheist or irreligious countries in the world.

The Church of England is in a similar situation however unlike Norway we see no moves in parliament to end the archaic merger of church and state here. Indeed our current Prime Minister is an outspoken supporter for the Anglican Church having claimed a “profound” Christian faith. The situation here is far worse than it ever was in Norway as we have clergy imbedded in our legislature. The 26 Lords Spiritual who hold guaranteed places in the House of Lords, our upper chamber, are a damming and archaic relic of medieval politics. The UK is the only western democracy to have clergy guaranteed spots in its legislature and the only other state in Europe that does so is the Vatican City.

The Church of England supports its role in parliament by claiming that it represents a significant proportion of the population however the census shows only 59.5% identify as Christians and the British Social Attitudes survey shows that the Anglican Church only represents 17% of Christians.

Naturally campaigners such as the British Humanist Association and National Secular Society have called for the abolition of the Lords Spiritual as part of wider reform of the House of Lords. We can only hope that in future we have similar if not better success than Norway.

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Guest Post: The Problem with Education

Hey, this month’s Humanist blog post is brought to us by our latest guest blogger Margaret Bramham. Margaret is a retired secondary school teacher with 22 years experience teaching in inner city schools in Leeds. In this month’s post she talks about what she sees as the problem in our education system. -Michael 

On Thursday the 10th of November we enjoyed a talk from Dr Gijsbert Stoet, Professor of Psychology at Leeds Beckett University concerning the small proportion of girls following the sciences compared to the number of boys. This is something the government has identified as needing attention.

However Dr Stoet has identified from his research that this issue cannot be easily accounted for. Although there may be certain social and cultural influences on girls that influence their career choices, there are still examples where girls are following ’traditional’ career paths despite such influences being negated.

In addition he suggested that there is evidence that boys and girls are psychologically different with many girls tending to choose options that lean towards working with people and many boys leaning towards mechanical based options. Indeed he also suggested that there is evidence that we ask pupils to choose options far too early in their lives before they are mature enough to decide.

The question I would ask is: Why are the government addressing this issue,  when there are much more important issues that need attention in our education system?

I would therefore like to raise some issues that existed in 1974 when I started teaching and are still unaddressed today.

Most parents want their children to do well at school. For some, I fear it is a form of edification for themselves however the majority want to ensure that their children have the best possible start in life and be successful. However how do we measure success? It is true that academic achievement can (not always) lead to better careers and greater affluence however this is not the only measure of success. Does our education system really try to provide the opportunity for success for every one? Do they provide the necessary education for all children to fulfil their potential? The answer as far as I am concerned is no they do not.

There are many reasons why children do not achieve academic success at school such as home background, social and cultural deprivation and peer influences. In the main it is difficult although not impossible to tackle these constraints. However although schools have tried very hard to compensate for these problems through their daily interaction with children their influence is limited.

However the system is failing a lot of children every day simply because it is only providing a useful education to those who are talented academically. These children and their parents are satisfied (on the whole) because the system delivers what they want however for those seeking a more vocational or practical education their needs are not met.

I do not wish to devalue the importance of academic achievement, all children need this in some form. However many children struggle with academic subjects and there is a limit to the amount they can cope with.

Our dependence on only recognising academic achievement has increased, especially after the introduction of league tables. Schools are perceived as ‘the best’ because they can demonstrate how many G.C.S.E’s per pupil, grades A to C they can achieve. Lower grades are dismissed even by the press who often will not print them.

Lower grades are dismissed as unimportant in the school politic. It seems that this also applies to the pupils themselves. Yet again we are creating a group of inferiors in the same way we did during the dark days of the grammar school and the 11+. I know the damage this caused to me psychologically being regarded as one of life’s failures. It has haunted me all my life.

Many pupils who achieve lower grades at G.C.S.E. work very hard to gain their results in a system that is not designed to meet their needs. These are very special people since we have asked them to run the race with only one leg.

It would be wonderful if we could all gain success based on what we are good at. Unfortunately this is only available to the academically able.

It is therefore vital that we stop our system from only using one type of measure.  People do not flourish if they are engaged in activities they are not suited to. It leads them to feel inferior and alienates them from what is trying to be achieved. This is why discipline in school is sometimes difficult to maintain and why many children are disengaged.

There has to be a will to make changes to the whole system and more importantly a recognition that one size does not fit all. The 80’s provided a fleeting glimmer with the introduction of Records of Achievement. However most teachers see these as a chore mainly because no time allocation was made to complete them. Not only that the education system does not provide opportunities for non- academic pupils to shine at what they can do. There has been talk in the past of using industry, commerce and trades to have an input into the curriculum. This would widen what was on offer and allow the less academically oriented pupils to gain recognition and success. I am also convinced this would reduce pupil dissatisfaction and classroom disruption.

I fear nothing will change however because most governments too easily pander to the middle classes and as long as they are happy the rest don’t matter. Sadly this is a reflection of our society as a whole.

Guest Post: Reporting Back on Jeremy Corbyn

Hey everyone, today we have a guest blogger, one of our members, Steven Smith, who reports back on his visit to see Jeremy Corbyn speak in Leeds last month.

If you would like to write an article for us or just have an idea you’d like to submit, you can contact me on Facebook or via email at mjbramham.academic@gmail.com

-Michael

Corbyn in Leeds

On Saturday 30 July there were important and historic events in Leeds.  After the West Yorkshire Humanists picnic at lunchtime, Jeremy Corbyn was here in the evening on his leadership campaign tour round the country.  This blog entry is intended to be an unbiased description of an event – simply going to see a particular politician does not mean endorsement of his/her views – a friend of the writer has been to see Jeremy Corbyn, Nigel Farage and many other political events in Leeds “to understand all points of view.”

What an event this was though, first impressions were being overwhelmed by the size and length of the queue.  Far past the front door of the Armouries, it went quite a long way round the dock side, see a short clip of it here.  I decided not to join the queue until it reduced a bit and so didn’t get in, along with what I estimate to be about 500 people.  The large hall was presumably full to capacity and must have had about 2,000 people in it.

Fortunately for us outside while the three initial speakers were addressing the audience inside (Leeds East MP Richard Burgon starting by emphatically making jokes about himself being the warm up act and obviously not who everyone has really come to see), Jeremy Corbyn upon realising there were still a lot of us outside came and stood on the steps and gave us his speech.  You can experience it for yourself here.  Particularly memorable things he mentioned were extreme inequality as shown by the greed of Philip Green, clamping down on tax havens and tax avoidance, setting up a national investment bank, protection for the NHS (I believe he said 49% of NHS spending goes to private companies already) and in particular support for mental health, investment in the public sector and condemning the recent outbreak of racist hate-crime (as mentioned in the previous blog article by Michael).

The situation now is that the overwhelming majority of labour party members, well over half a million, support Jeremy Corbyn whereas they majority of Labour MPs do not.  Party membership has approximately doubled in the last 18 months, the reason being to support Jeremy.  This doubling of membership is arguably caused by the hope that Labour under Corbyn can be a left-wing party again.  In fact a group called Momentum has been created just to support Corbyn.

Whatever your political views it is surely not controversial that Tony Blair took the Labour party well to the right, becoming almost indistinguishable from the Conservative party.  It is probably reasonable to call the Labour party under Tony Blair a Tory party – ‘Tory’ is a an adjective, not a noun, and Toryism is a political philosphy which in general terms means the government by and for the monied, propertied few over the much poor rest of society.  ‘Tory’ is not simply another word for the Conservative party, but a general description of those who support the private sector, the wealthy, right wing values in general.  By any reasonable analysis of the word ‘Tory’ Tony Blair and his party New Labour were a Tory government.

During this time moderate and able MPs were deselected by Labours central committee, the NEC, for example Dennis Canavan was not chosen by New Labour to be an MSP candidate despite a 97% support from his local constituency members.  Here in Leeds the Labour NEC blocked apparently left-wing Liz Davies, the choice of the local Labour group, to be the Labour candidate for Leeds North East MP and imposed their own choice Fabian Hamilton.

It would be incredible for people in the Soviet Union to not know the ideology of their state was communism, or for the people of Spain in the 1950s to know that they lived under the ideology of fascism.  The ideology Britain is currently under is neoliberalism.  Corbyn is a threat to that which explains why he is so demonised by the Establishment, and the media in particular, and so supported by those who want change to the left (as opposed to those who want change to the right – BNP/Ukip etc.).

A Corbyn government would be more right wing than the Thatcher government was.  Yes, you read that right, quite obviously if Corbyn was running the country, and did everything he said he would, the government would be far to the right of Margaret Thatcher’s.  Choose any serious measure you want.  For example Corbyn said he would nationalise the railways.  Well, they were a nationalised industry in Thatcher’s time, along with many other national industries like electricity, gas, coal and water.  The NHS was much better funded that it is now, with so much fewer services contracted out to private companies.  Corbyn would clearly not change the NHS back to how it was instantly, he might merely raise health spending by 5% rather than doubling it and drastically reducing the amount given to private companies.  Also, and this is the big one, the rate of corporation tax is currently stunningly low at 20%.  Maybe Corbyn would increase it to 22%, or even 23% (shock!) and he’d probably be called a Communist trying to smash British capitalism.  Well it was 40% in 1985 half way through Thatcher’s government.

Clearly Jeremy Corbyn is the overwhelming choice of the Labour party members and will be elected as leader.  What happens next is uncertain.  Will the 172 MPs who are opposed to him leave to form their own party?  The British precedent for that is the formation of the SDP which quickly dwindled to nothing.  Will the 172 all be deselected to be replaced with Corbyn-supporting MP candidates?  Is there enough support in the voting public for a Corbyn-led Labour to win a general election?  Would he prevent or push through Brexit?

Whatever your political position clearly British politics will be very interesting in the immediate future.  There is genuine difference at last.

Why not come to the 2017 humanist picnic and discuss things with us?

Steven

Kirkstall Abbey: A History

Last month, the society had its summer picnic at Kirkstall Abbey in western Leeds. Kirkstall Abbey is a major historical site for the city of Leeds and held an important role in the city’s development from the High Middle Ages onwards.

The abbey’s history begins in the mid-12th century with local Anglo-Norman nobleman Henry de Lacy (died 1177), 4th Baron of Pontefract and 5th Lord of Bowland. In 1147 Henry fell seriously ill. Fearing for his life he prayed to the Virgin Mary offering to give land to the church if she saved his life. As fate would have it he recovered and as promised he offered to donate a portion of his vast estates to Fountains Abbey in North Yorkshire for the building of a new daughter abbey. Fountains Abbey, near Ripon, was run by the Cistercian Order, a monastic order of monks and nuns known for their simple life of work, prayer and self-denial and their white robes.

Initially de Lacy gave them land at the village of Barnoldswick (now in Lancashire but then considered part of the West Riding of Yorkshire) with which to found a daughter abbey. Abbot Alexander and twelve monks thus set out from Fountains and set up home in Barnoldswick. However they were not successful there, their crops failed, they were attacked by bandits and worst of all the citizens of Barnoldswick objected to their presence because the Abbot wanted to demolish their parish church because its services disturbed the monks in their prayers.

Unable to stay in Barnoldswick, Abbot Alexander searched for another location and eventually chose a site upon the Aire River valley later known as Kirkstall. At the time Kirkstall was a region of dense forest along the banks of the River Aire inhabited only by a group of hermits. Leeds was but a small market town surrounded by small villages and hamlets, the nearest to Kirkstall being the villages of Headingley, Bramley and Armley. It was chosen because not only was there no permanent settlement at the site to clear but also it had ample supplies of timber (from the surrounding forests) and stone (from nearby Bramley Falls which was a stone quarry).

Thus construction of Kirkstall Abbey began proper in 1152. The construction took around thirty years to finish, with most of the buildings, such as the church and chapterhouse, being finished by 1182. Abbot Alexander proved a good administrator and the monks prospered in their new home and attracted many new members to their brotherhood. They also brought business into Leeds (via their involvement in the wool trade) and helped the local community.

Most of the buildings we see today at the site were constructed around this time. A few additions were made over the centuries after such as the infirmary and the Abbot’s lodgings. The tower of the church is also a later addition. The original was much shorter and modest, as befitting modest men of god, however as the monastery grew increasingly wealthy and powerful later Abbots sought to build a new larger tower to proclaim their prestige and it is this one that you can see today.

Monasteries such as Kirkstall were major components of medieval European society. Their primary purpose was to serve as a religious community dedicated to the constant worship of God and monks of all orders spent much of their daily lives either in prayer or attending church services. This may seem silly or pointless to Humanist eyes today but for medieval peoples the existence of God was unquestionably real, and all were moved by the need to ensure their salvation in death and to keep God’s favour upon the land. Thus the monasteries provided an important function both in praying for people’s souls and for ensuring God continued to bless the land and its people.

Monasteries also provided a pragmatic solution for the problem of second sons. Most nobles wanted to keep their lands together and passed to only one son. However this not being a time with ample contraception they would often have more than one. A solution was to send the second son into the monasteries, thus removing them from the line of inheritance (since monks were forbidden from inheriting titles or estates). Usually said family would also make a monetary donation to the monastery to compensate them. As monasteries grew wealthier and more powerful in the later Middle Ages, noble families would often seek to have some of their progeny in the local monastery so as to give them influence over this powerful local institution.

Another important function of monasteries, including Kirkstall, was their position as centres of learning and education. In a time before schools and universities were common, monasteries provided schooling to all boys whose families could pay, teaching them reading, writing, arithmetic, and scripture at the very least. Some would go on to become monks, particularly if they had been promised to the order by their family but not all. Perhaps most importantly to modern scholarship is that the monasteries were among the few repositories of books and texts in medieval times and many monasteries, including Kirkstall, were involved in copying and storing works both ancient and contemporary, on a wide variety of topics. Not just scriptures either but countless works on medicine, philosophy, science and literature from the ancient world, preserved from the ravages of the dark ages thanks to the monks. Kirkstall Abbey itself had a significant library, though sadly none of the books from that library are known to have survived to modern times.

So treasured were books by the monks that they would often put the needs of the books ahead of those of the monks themselves. For example most monasteries, including Kirkstall, had a Warming House, usually the only place in the monastery where there was a fireplace. Kept lit only during the winter months each monk had an allowance of time inside the Warming House every day however if the books became wet or moist then they would be expelled from the Warming House to make way for the books.

Charity was also a central part of monastic life and monks would offer their medicinal knowledge to the local community where possible, assisting the old and poor of the community in their infirmary or dispensing medicinal herbs from their gardens to the needy. All Cistercian monasteries were required to have a guest house so that visiting travellers or nobles could have a place to rest. In Kirkstall this can be seen as the ruins in the field in front of the abbey. It was always set apart from the main body of the abbey so as not to disturb the activities of the monks but was always open to the weary traveller.

There were two types of monk at Kirkstall Abbey. The Choir Monks who were literate, highly educated for their time and largely drawn from the gentry and nobility. They were the monks we are most familiar with, spending most of their lives either reading, copying manuscripts or in prayer. Then there were the Lay Brothers. They were illiterate and uneducated, largely drawn from peasant stock and for most of the monastery’s history were the more numerous of the two. Both had to follow the same rules of poverty, chastity and devotion to God but the Lay Brothers were largely concerned with manual labour, working the vast agricultural lands owned by the Abbey as well as other menial tasks and only attended church once a day. Although this may seem like a rotten deal for the Lay Brothers its worth pointing out the attractiveness of their life compared to that of other peasants as they were guaranteed a place to live and a meal a day for life, something few outside the nobility could hope for.

Over the centuries Kirkstall Abbey grew larger and wealthier. Although there was a brief period of financial difficulty in the late 1200s, they were bailed out by the descendent of their original benefactor Henry de Lacy and by the 1300s they were one of the wealthiest landowners in all of West Yorkshire, owning farmlands all around the area including at Chapel Allerton, Headingley, Roundhay, Seacroft and even as far away as the Yorkshire Dales. The monks at Kirkstall were particularly involved in the wool trade, one of the main industries of medieval Europe, and one of the reasons Leeds would become a starting point for the Industrial Revolution and textiles industry in particular was the connection of the city to the wool trade established by Kirkstall Abbey (Leeds being the nearest market for its goods).

Most of these lands were acquired as gifts from nobles who sought to guarantee their place in Heaven with a gift to the church. Not all the farms were worked by the monks either, more distant lands were rented to local people to farm on the abbey’s behalf.

Over time however the monasteries all over Europe began to decline as society changed. As more economic opportunities opened up the attractiveness of becoming a monk began to diminish and monasteries began shrink with some having barley a handful of brothers where once were hundreds. Kirkstall Abbey was no different and by the reign of King Henry VIII, there were only a handful of monks remaining including the last Abbot John Ripley. In 1534 Parliament, at the behest of the King, passed the Act of Supremacy. This severed ties with the papacy and proclaimed Henry VIII supreme head of the Church of England, thus beginning the English Reformation.

The subsequent ‘Dissolution of the Monasteries’ occurred for a number of reasons; one was that as the most devout Catholics and deeply connected to the Roman Catholic Church organization they would undoubtedly remain loyal to the church in Rome. A second reason was more mercenary, although many were but shells of their former selves, the monasteries still owned vast estates across the land and had vast wealth and riches stored within. All this wealth and land would be Henry’s once he abolished the institutions that owned them.

Thus on 22nd November 1539 the King’s agents arrived at Kirkstall Abbey. They knew it was coming and unlike the violence that blighted some of the take overs in the south, the monks of Kirkstall surrendered peacefully with the last Abbot John Ripley handing over the keys to the Abbey to the King’s agents and signing a deed of surrender formally transferring all the monasteries possessions to the crown. The monks subsequently went their separate ways and, because they had surrendered peacefully, received modest pensions from the state. Abbot John was gifted the old gatehouse of the abbey to turn into his private home, now the Abbey House Museum. In order to ensure the abbey could not be used as a place of worship, the king had the old Leeds Road (now Kirkstall Road) rerouted through the centre of the church, removing its front doors and demolishing the back wall. If you visit the abbey you will notice there are scraping marks up and down the columns of the church caused by wagons travelling through the ruined abbey into Leeds in subsequent centuries.

The land the abbey sits upon was given to one of the king’s allies, the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer in 1542. However it returned to the crown when Cranmer was executed by the Catholic Queen Mary I in 1556 as part of her short lived attempt to restore Catholicism in England. Local nobleman Sir Robert Saville purchased the land from the crown in 1584 and it remained in his family’s hands for almost a century before it passed into the hands of the powerful Brudenell family, the Earls of Cardigan in 1671. During this time much of the stone was removed from the abbey for use in construction projects in Leeds. Indeed stone from the abbey has been found in Leeds Bridge in the city centre.

In the 18th century the abbey’s picturesque grounds attracted artists such as JMW Turner and Thomas Girtin and it became a popular local historical site and parkland. In 1889, the Brudenell family having fallen on hard times, the abbey was sold at auction. It was feared that it would be purchased by wealthy developers who would demolish it to make way for new factories or homes. Fortunately it was purchased by local businessman and investor Colonel John North, known for his investments in gunpowder and rubber. He subsequently donated Kirkstall Abbey and its grounds to Leeds City Council in 1890 on condition that the council maintained entry to the site free of charge, something they have done to this day. Much restoration work was subsequently done to the abbey by Victorian and modern restorers and thanks to their efforts Kirkstall Abbey is one of the best preserved Cistercian abbeys in the country.

If you get a chance I would strongly recommend a visit to the site. It is quite beautiful and though we may struggle to appreciate the religious purpose of the monastery I think we Humanists can at least appreciate the love, devotion and industry put into the running and building of the monastery by the monks who lived and worked there for so many centuries.

Nationalism: A Warning From History

 

The recent vote in favour of the UK leaving the EU is in many ways a victory for nationalism. Since the referendum the police have recorded nationally over 3,000 incidents of racist and xenophobic hate crimes against immigrants and their families, an increase of 57%. History is littered with conflicts and wars between nations, each filled with patriots and nationalists all convinced of their own nation’s superiority, purity and destiny. Perhaps the most horrific eras to demonstrate this are the eras of the two world wars that marred the first half of the 20th century.

The First World War

The First World War is often known for the colossal waste of Human life it represents. The total number of dead, both military and civilian, in World War I, is estimated at 17 million. Few families on either side were spared tragedy; they called them the ‘lost generation’. My family’s tragedy was the loss of my great-grandfather William Bramham who died at the Battle of the Somme barely older than I am now leaving behind three young sons, all under ten years old. What makes the tragedy of the First World War all the worse is that it was a war started largely thanks to the conflicting imperialist and nationalist ambitions among the elites of different nations, particularly Britain, France and Germany.

These elites, spurred by their own greed and desire for glory and power, rallied their countryman around them through the myths of nationalism. Young men from across the British Empire were manipulated into signing away their lives for king and country, told that it was a ‘war for civilization’, a war to defend their glorious homeland from a terrible enemy who was, ideologically, little different from their own rulers. The German people too were fed similar lies, egged on by the myth of a ‘place in the sun’, of a glorious future for the German Empire that would eclipse the hegemony of its hated rival.

The Allies or Triple Entente won the war however it was a pyrrhic victory, Britain had exhausted its military strength and the continent was in chaos. The Russian and German Revolutions and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires washed away the old certainties of political power in Eastern and Central Europe. Many of us will have learned in school that the Treaty of Versailles (1919) was immensely one-sided. In keeping with the nationalistic rhetoric of the British who had demonized the Germans as inhuman monsters with a lust for power, Versailles placed all the blame for the conflict on the Germans and inflicted humiliating conditions upon them that the British would never have accepted for themselves.

Nationalist Resurgence

Unfortunately nationalism was not yet finished and emerged in new and more terrifying forms over the course of the 1920s and 1930s. This new form can be seen first in the Fascist movement in Italy which brought the dictator Benito Mussolini to power in 1922 and it is marked by a fanatical loyalty to the state as the perfect embodiment of the nation, an obsession with military power and glory, and total control over the lives of citizens by the state. In fascist regimes state, nation and the people become one, there is no separation between the private and the public, everything in society from its newspapers to its children are marshalled in service to the nation as embodied in the state and its leader.

Although beginning in Italy, this new form of nationalism would spread and by the outbreak of World War II in 1939 had engulfed much of the continent including Portugal, Spain, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, not to mention the countries outside Europe that had fallen under its spell such as China and Japan. It is in Germany that we find the most infamous example of this new nationalism as well as the catalyst for the carnage of World War II.

The Road to the Second World War

Many have argued that it was the Treaty of Versailles that started the inexorable path to the far greater evil of World War II. However this is only half true, it is true that for the Germans (nationalist or otherwise) the Treaty of Versailles was a colossal outrage and so long as it stood it would always serve as a lightning rod for nationalist and patriotic anger and indignation. However Germany did recover and for much of the 1920s Germany experienced a cultural and economic renaissance. Berlin was at the heart of the Roaring Twenties and there were few cities anywhere in the world at that time that had such a liberal and surprisingly modern outlook.

Indeed if you had asked someone in the 1920s where a regime like that of the Nazis could have come from it would have seemed absurd to look to progressive sophisticated Germany. The story of 1920s Germany’s degeneration into the abomination of Nazism provides a stark warning to those of us who think that it could never happen in modern Britain because we’re too liberal and advanced now. Sure urban areas like London are but like Berlin in the 1920s, as the map of Brexit has shown us, the wider country is far more right wing and inward looking than we realise.

The beginning of the descent into Nazism was the stock market crash of October 1929 which triggered the Great Depression. The economic catastrophe created by the Great Depression hit Germany particularly hard. Germany’s post-war economic recovery had been driven by loans from US banks and when they withdrew these loans following the stock market crash the unemployment and hyperinflation it generated could not be halted through traditional economic management. In four unstable and transformative years Germany went through four different chancellors whilst extremes of right and left fought each other for control of the country. As traditional political elites lurched towards the right to stave off the spectre of Communism, a new political party emerged from relative obscurity to dominate the German parliament.

This party was of course the Nazis, or National Socialist German Workers Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei or NSDAP) whose success can be attributed to a multitude of different factors that combined into a perfect storm.

One strategy the Nazis and many other nationalist politicians have used to their advantage is populism. Populism is a strategy in politics where a politician appeals to the ‘ordinary’ people of the country and encourages them to attribute their suffering to the actions of some kind of elite or external group that oppresses them. In the case the Nazis they attributed the German people’s suffering to foreign powers, communists and Jewish financial interests however other populists have scapegoated a wide variety of groups though foreigners are particularly popular scapegoats especially for nationalists. We can see populist politicians in modern times, from the ramblings of Donald Trump and his desire to get Americans to take back their country from immigrants and Washington liberals to Nigel Farage and his bogeymen of the immigrant hordes taking British jobs and the EU bureaucrats telling Britain what to do.

Playing on these fears the Nazis did well electorally and by November 1932 (the last election before Hitler became Chancellor) they had 33.1% of the vote making them the largest single party in the Reichstag, though because other parties refused to form coalitions with them it meant that the government was, for the time being, held by other parties.

They were helped in doing so well electorally by the fact that opposition to their activities was so ineffective. The main opposition to the Nazis came from the Communist Party of Germany (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands or KPD) and the Social Democratic Party of Germany (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands or SPD). The SPD were the elder of the two and had played an important role in 1920s German politics as part of coalition governments however it was the KPD that was the larger party at the time as it had surged ahead in polls during the period of the Great Depression.

Unfortunately the KPD refused to work with the SPD, regarding them as part of the bourgeoisie and thus their ideological enemies. As such no left wing coalition could be formed in the Reichstag to block the Nazis. Throughout the history of left wing political movements we can see them marred by sectarianism and a refusal to compromise for the greater good. In Germany it was to prove fatal as it left them wide open to a right wing takeover. We can see a similar division in the left wing opposition in modern Britain with the inability of the Labour Party to rally behind a single leader and the refusal of both the moderate left and the further left to work together. Whilst the outcome of this dispute remains unclear it is clear that a divided opposition cannot oppose anything.

The culmination of the Nazis campaign finally came on the 30th January 1933 when German President Paul von Hindenburg, himself of the traditional German right, was convinced by other elites to grant the position of Chancellor to the Nazis leader Adolf Hitler who would preside over a right wing coalition government with a minority Nazi cabinet. Barely a month later on 27th February 1933 a fire, usually attributed to Nazi agents, broke out in the Reichstag building destroying it. Using it as proof of the Jewish-Marxist conspiracy against Germany, Hitler passed a decree to protect the German state by suppressing Anti-Nazi publications and allowing the imprisonment of anyone deemed a threat to the Nazi government. Over the coming months more decrees were passed that further eroded German democracy and transformed it into a one-party totalitarian state. By the beginning of 1934, barely a year since Hitler became Chancellor, most of the organs of the republican German government that had existed since 1919 had been dismantled or absorbed into the new Third Reich and in August 1934, following President Hindenburg’s death, he abolished the presidency and merged it with the Chancellorship to create a new office, that of Fuhrer.

The Second World War and Conclusions

In the 12 years that followed the Nazis and other nationalists around the world, such as the Fascists in Italy or the Francoists in Spain, would tear the world apart and leave Europe in ruins. Whilst I have focused on the Nazis here due to their infamy make no mistake there were nationalists and fascists in almost every nation, the Allies included. Whilst they failed to take over their respective nations, let’s us not forget the German-American Bund in the USA or the Black Shirts or National Front in the UK. Even the mainstream governments of the US and UK were not without nationalist goals. None of the Allies got involved in fighting the Nazis or the Japanese until they became clear threats to their national superiority and there were plenty of people even as late as 1937 offering praise to Hitler or Mussolini as great champions of their nations. Winston Churchill himself in an article in the Evening Standard in 1937 said he admired Hitler’s achievement for his nation even if he disagreed with his way of doing it.

The Second World War that broke out in 1939 was infinitely more destructive than the first and reached almost every corner of the globe. It is estimated that as many as 75 million people died over the course of the war 1939-1945. Between 11 and 17 million of these were lost in the Holocaust. Having spent years dehumanizing and excluding groups deemed enemies to the German nation, the Nazis executed their final solution with the war as a cover and initiated the largest act of industrial mass murder in Human history. Among the groups deemed sub-human by the Nazis were Jews, non-whites, the disabled and mentally ill, homosexual and bisexual men, Slavic peoples (Poles, Czechs, Serbs, Russians etc), Romani peoples (colloquially known as ‘gypsies’), Freemasons, people on the political left wing, other political opponents and any who would not swear allegiance to Hitler (all deemed traitors).

In the aftermath of all this death and destruction, the political leaders of Europe came together and decided that the kind of carnage unleashed by nationalism in the two world wars could not be allowed to happen again. They vowed to create a new Europe, one built not on petty nationalisms but on cooperation, common Humanity and the best political ideals of European civilization; liberty, equality, democracy and the rule of law. From this came the organizations that would ultimately evolve into the European Union we know today. The European Union is a child of the two world wars, a child raised on tales of the horrors unleashed by unchecked nationalism and has worked for over 50 years to keep peace in Europe.

Brexit echoes many of the mistakes of the early 20th century. The growing hostility towards ethnic minorities and foreign immigrants mirrors how many felt about the Jews in the 1920s and 30s. The rhetoric of the Brexit Campaign to ‘take back our country’ is all too disturbingly familiar to a student of history and it echoes with the voice of Adolf Hitler. The desire to make our country ‘great’  again expressed by many Leave voters is much the same as that felt by the Germans in the Post-Depression period. Whilst not on the same level as the Great Depression, Britain’s economic woes over the past half-decade have generated new levels of poverty and left millions vulnerable and looking for someone to blame and someone to lead them, again much like Germany 1929-1933. What worries me now is not a World War III, we are a long way from that, but instead a gradual almost imperceptible shift towards nationalism that will leave our country on a very slippery path towards a dark future as we look to eliminate the groups we blame for our problems. Whatever you voted for, Remain or Leave, do not forget the lessons of the 20th century, we are one Europe, we are one Human race.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: A Mind at War with Itself

As some of you may know I suffer from mental illness which unfortunately has made it difficult for me to work or study throughout my life. One of the illnesses I suffer from is obsessive-compulsive disorder or OCD and I want to talk about it because it occurs to me that whilst many of us are familiar with depression or social anxiety, OCD is a disorder that I often find people know the least about and it is actually quite a common disease, in fact chances are many people you know have it in some form.

Firstly some definitions: Obsessive-compulsive disorder comes in two parts, obsessions and compulsions.  Obsessions, also known as intrusive thoughts, in this context are unpleasant thoughts, images or impulses that will persistently recur and resist any attempts to ignore them or confront them. Compulsions are ritual behaviours taken by an individual often either as an attempt to drive away the unpleasant obsession, to cleanse themselves of it or to prevent the thought form becoming reality.

Obsessions and Intrusive Thoughts:

The nature of an intrusive thought or obsession varies in its content, nature or clarity. What unites them is that they always generate considerable anxiety, panic and/or feelings of self-loathing, self-disgust or mental contamination. The severity of this response varies from mild feelings of anxiety or unease to total panic inducing revulsion.

At the root of OCD type thoughts is a fallacy in the mind’s conception of the connection between thought and reality. All people have bad thoughts or images and most people will recognize that they are unimportant and will dismiss them as they occur, experiencing maybe some mild discomfort that passes quickly. However for people like myself with OCD, our minds overreact to these kinds of thoughts, treating them as though thinking them makes them real or imminent.

Even though intellectually I know my thoughts are just inside my head and that thinking them won’t make them happen, emotionally and psychologically my mind won’t accept this and overreacts producing a powerful fear response. My overreaction reinforces the thought/image and turns it into an obsession whereby my mind is inundated with these thoughts over and over, each time producing more fear, anxiety or disgust that only serves to strengthen it further. It is hard to describe to someone else, the best I can say is that it feels like my mind is no longer my own, that it is attacking me. The more I try to enforce my conscious will and block the thoughts, the more powerful they become. To demonstrate, try not to think of a pink elephant now. Most of you will think of one and the more you try not to the more you will. This is probably as close as you can get to OCD if you don’t have it.

Typically obsessions/intrusive thoughts fall into three or four different themes. Firstly there are violent or aggressive thoughts. These range from simple thoughts of shouting abuse or insults at someone else to impulses or thoughts of violently harming or even killing loved ones, strangers, children or even animals. They may also include having images of extreme or fantastic violent acts or acts of self-violence like jumping from a bridge or stabbing oneself. These kinds of thoughts will usually be uncharacteristic to the person and cause distress because the person would never normally act this way but, as part of the condition, they fear that by thinking about these things they will happen. For example you might be married with kids and yet are inundated by impulses to hurt them despite the fact the very idea is abhorrent to you, naturally you might start thinking that you are a bad person or have somehow been contaminated by the thoughts even if you would never act upon them.

Another, very common, type of intrusive thought would be sexual thoughts. Sexual obsessions are intrusive thoughts or images of things such as kissing, intercourse, oral sex or rape involving strangers, acquaintances, family members, children, friends, animals or even religious figures and can be of a heterosexual or homosexual nature regardless of and sometimes in opposition to the person’s actual sexual orientation. As before these are thoughts, impulses or images are not things that the person would ever act upon but the OCD person places unwarranted importance upon them causing anxiety and distress. This may lead to feelings of self-loathing, disgust, shame and self-doubt that can profoundly destroy a person’s quality of life. For example, a person with OCD might experience persistent unwanted images of child sexual abuse. They are not a paedophile and the images and thoughts disgust them, however because OCD people often equate thought with reality they may start to fear that by having the images they might ‘lose control’ and act upon them, or that by having the images they are somehow made dirty, unclean or immoral by them.

Perhaps the archetypal theme or type of intrusive thought that is often stereotypically used in the media as what OCD looks like are intrusive thoughts concerning disease, hygiene or health. These can be thoughts concerning one’s own health, fears of catching diseases or thoughts of the imminent death of a loved one or yourself. It is these thoughts that can produce the stereotypical handwashing behaviour that is often seen in media depictions of OCD, something I will come back to later. As before these are often thoughts that ‘normal’ people might have but dismiss but for OCD person become very real and can cause feelings of distress, anxiety or contamination.

The above are just generic categories, in truth an intrusive thought or obsession can be anything, I’ve had them about horror movies before now. Many religious people for example have intrusive thoughts concerning their religion or the supernatural, fears of being possessed, of acting out acts they deem blasphemous or that God or the Devil may harm them or loved ones. Ultimately anything that produces the overreaction can become an obsession.

Obsessions sometimes lead to OCD’s other half, compulsions; however this is not always the case. In fact recent studies have shown that despite the popular association of OCD people with compulsive ritual behaviours such as handwashing between 50-60% of OCD sufferers either do not have compulsions at all or exhibit them infrequently or internally. Such individuals suffer from what is now known as Primarily Obsessional Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder or Pure O OCD. When compulsions take place they usually take place internally in the form of rumination or mental avoidance.

This form of OCD is perhaps more insidious than the more well-known form because people can suffer from it without others being aware of it, it is entirely internal. Thus many sufferers of Pure O can go much of their lives without diagnosis, fearing that they are alone in what they experience. Indeed there may be millions of people worldwide who may suffer from this disease and not realise it. This is the type of OCD that I suffer from and like most people with Pure O I was not diagnosed until I was an adult though mercifully I was diagnosed, for an undiagnosed Pure O sufferer it becomes an altogether even more terrifying and isolating condition, indeed before I was diagnosed I was terrified I was going mad.

Interestingly Pure O suffers report far more varied intrusive thoughts than other OCD sufferers and whilst traditional OCD sufferers often only ever have one particular obsession, people like me can pick up new obsessions all the time. Furthermore the intrusive thoughts or images are typically far more personal and terrifying than those of traditional sufferers and often involve self-destructive scenarios, things that the sufferer fears would ruin their lives or the lives of others if they became real. For example a Pure O sufferer might fear that they’ve undergone a radical change in sexuality and become a paedophile, or they might fear they might become a murderer and cause harm to a loved one, or that they might simply go insane.  They subsequently spend large amounts of time either trying to avoid things they fear will bring the intrusive thoughts on or will spend lots of energy on ruminating on the thoughts as a futile attempt to internally resolve them.

What are Compulsions?
Compulsions are the expression of OCD that is perhaps most familiar to the public. They can take a multitude of forms and can be just as destructive to one’s quality of life as the obsessions. Typically people who suffer compulsions will feel driven to carry out certain actions or behaviours. This can either be out of a desire to somehow prevent the dreaded thought from becoming reality or can be a way of relieving the anxiety and fear the obsessions create. Some people with OCD are fully aware how irrational their compulsions are but feel compelled to do them anyway whilst others may genuinely be convinced that the compulsion works. Either way the compulsions typically only serve to reinforce the obsessions creating them.

Common compulsions include the familiar handwashing, compulsive checking things (for example checking locks on doors, a compulsion my father often had), repeating actions, ordering things in a certain way, requesting reassurance from a loved one, hoarding behaviours or acts of self-damage such as nail biting, hair pulling or skin picking to the point of dermatillomania (compulsively picking at the skin until it bleeds or scars). As I have said it can also be internal in the form of avoidance or rumination.

Sufferers often rely on their compulsions as a way of managing their condition, a way to escape from the thoughts in their head. However any relief offered is only temporary and the thoughts always return eventually, often stronger than before.

What distinguishes compulsions from habits is the context in which they occur. Habitually checking locks if your job is a security guard is understandable, but doing so constantly regardless of situation and often numerous times can be disruptive. As a general rule a habit improves the efficacy of your life whilst a compulsion only disrupts it. Indeed some OCD sufferers can spend several hours a day performing their compulsions or may be doing it all the time throughout the day.

Causes and Mechanisms:

The precise cause of OCD is sadly not known, indeed we know shockingly little about what triggers it though both genetic and environmental factors are believed to be involved. Typically it will manifest from early childhood onwards though it may not be recognized until much later. Looking back at my childhood now I can see how I have always had OCD but it was not recognized at the time.

Studies have suggested there is a likely genetic link at least with giving a predisposition to developing the disease. People with OCD will often have a near ancestor with the condition as well and certainly in my case there is evidence to suggest my father may have suffered from it as well (though alas he was never diagnosed).

As for the mechanism within the brain for how it works this too is not completely understood and like neuro-science itself is an emerging area of study. Scans of the brains of people with OCD do show marked differences in brain activity to people without the condition. In particular the striatum, the area of the brain associated with the reward system and functions like action planning, motivation, behaviour reinforcement and decision-making, shows distinctive differences in circuitry compared to ‘normal’ brains.  Furthermore people with OCD have unusual dopamine and serotonin activity in numerous regions of the brain. They also show signs of having excess grey matter in a part of the brain called the basal ganglia.

Conclusions:

Unfortunately there is no known cure for OCD. People who suffer from it will potentially have it for the entirety of their lives. There are ways to reduce symptoms however, such as receiving psychological therapies to learn ways of coping and living with the anxiety and distress obsessions cause, or taking medication designed to treat anxiety. As ever knowledge is power and simply learning about your condition can be a massive relief.

No mental illness is easy to live with and all have potential to destroy lives. OCD is an insidious disease with hundreds of millions of sufferers worldwide. Untreated and undiagnosed it can leave you trapped, a prisoner in your own mind, isolated from others by the overwhelming sense of shame and stigma that the condition can create. This is why diagnosis is so important, once you identify your enemy you can start to work on fighting it and you can also be assured that you aren’t going mad.

It is also important that as a society we talk about OCD more, that we are more aware of it because it is every bit as destructive as more well-known neurotic conditions like depression or anxiety disorder. Furthermore it affects as much as 2.3% of the populace worldwide, that’s more than schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and panic disorders. Hopefully the more aware society is the more it can support people with OCD and understand the daily struggle we go through. Furthermore we can dispel the myths that still pervade public conceptions of OCD, such as the myth that it only involves handwashing and cleanliness obsessions.

If you recognize any of the symptoms I’ve discussed in this article in yourself please don’t be afraid to seek psychiatric help, I know from experience that they will always try to help you and will not judge you no matter how ashamed you may feel of your thoughts. Equally if you think someone you know may be experiencing these symptoms talk to them, try to understand what they’re going through and if they aren’t diagnosed please encourage them to seek help.
For more info or for support here are some helpful links:

Religious Humanism

Finally finished this, sorry it’s so late guys been unwell a lot lately. I’m going to be looking at religious humanism, something that I’ve heard a number of people ask about at West Yorkshire Humanist meetings but hasn’t been covered before by the society itself.

The term religious humanism broadly speaking refers to humanists who attempt to incorporate some aspect of religion in their lives or worldviews. This can be either through the creation of special humanist rituals, ceremonies or services to replace those of traditional religion or through the adoption of ritual and/or philosophical elements from other religions or religious philosophies.

Now many of you will no doubt think that the concept of religious humanism sounds paradoxical or contradictory when one of modern humanism’s key characteristics has been its basis in reason and science and the rejection of religious ethics and philosophy. However those who have religious humanist beliefs and ideas have been part of the humanist movement since the start in the 19th century and many religious humanist ideas have drifted into the mainstream of the movement. For example the idea of humanist chaplains and humanist celebrants is quite clearly an attempt to implement some kind of religious element in humanism.

What is Religious Humanism?

Religious humanists share the same fundamental worldviews and principles as all other humanists: recognizing the importance of science and human reason, the placing of human needs, desires and experiences at the centre of ethics and the rejection of the supernatural or supernatural agency as an explanation for phenomena in the world.

Where they often differ from other humanists is in both their definition of what constitutes a religion and in the attitude they have regarding religions. Religious humanists often define religion by its social and psychological functions. These functions often include providing an ethical education, shared community and family celebrations, marking important life events, helping individuals in their search for personal meaning or purpose and helping them deal with tragedy or loss. It is meeting this needs that religion is all about and when doctrine or ideology prevents them from fulfilling these needs then that religion has failed. Thus they place human needs above religious doctrine.

As such religious humanists  have attempted to meet this needs both individually and as a group through forging a ‘religion’ (by their own definition) that can meet them and puts human needs first. Thus religious humanist groups practice their humanism using rituals, ceremonies, congregations and fellowships much as traditional religions do but without the deference to specific doctrines.

An example of a movement at least in part driven by religious humanist ideas would be the Unitarian Universalist movement who hold church like congregations where they welcome all people, of any faith or none, to join them in a search for meaning in life with no prescribed answers or doctrines. Although it initially emerged from liberal Christianity, the Unitarian Universalists are heavily influenced by humanism and often included as an example of a form of religious humanism.

Synthesis

Others on the religious side of humanism have attempted to synthesize aspects of other religions into Humanism itself as a way of fulfilling the needs that traditional religion has failed to do in the modern world. These fusions of humanism with elements of other religions usually select religions that are deemed more compatible with humanism. Examples of religions or religious philosophies that have been synthesized with humanism include liberal Christianity, liberal Judaism, Quakerism, Buddhism, Taoism, Pantheism and Neopaganism.

Humanistic Buddhism for example combines Buddhist ritual practice and meditation with humanist principles of free thought, rational thinking and atheism. Growing primarily out of Chinese or Mahayana Buddhism it strips more orthodox Buddhism of its more supernatural elements and focuses on the Buddhist mission of relieving human suffering and liberating all sentient beings. It also analyses Buddhist scripture and the life of the Buddha through rational and humanistic scholarship.

Humanistic Paganism/Neopaganism embraces the rituals, the vast rich mythology of paganism and its reverence for nature but cuts out the supernatural elements. For Humanistic Pagans, the gods are not literal entities who can be appealed to but abstract personifications used to illustrate natural or ethical truths and ideas.

What can we learn from religious humanism?

I think religious humanism is interesting because it takes a very pragmatic approach to religion and religious ideas. If an idea is helpful in fulfilling human religious, spiritual or existential needs then it is kept, if it is no longer helpful or indeed harmful then it is discarded. At all times human beings and their needs are placed at the centre, just as they are in more secular forms of humanism. I find this a refreshing attitude to religion, neither negative nor blindly positive. It shows that we can still as humanists, enjoy and incorporate religious elements in our lives, be they rituals or festivals to mark the seasons, ceremonies to mark important life events or just meeting and supporting other people as a community. That we can build what is, functionally at least, a religion, without dogma.

Links: 
Here are some links to organizations and movements related to religious humanism that I found interesting:

The Orlando Shootings: My view

I was going to write an article on religious humanism for the next Humanist Blog post however I could not sit back and not speak my mind on recent events. As most of you will have heard on the news, on the early hours of Sunday morning (local time) in Orlando, Florida, 49 people were brutally murdered in cold blood at an LGBT nightclub, Pulse, by a gunman, apparently inspired by the barbaric ISIS group though the extent of their involvement remains unclear. The brutal massacre is the worst terrorist attack in the USA since 9/11.

Naturally this attack feels particularly close to home for me as an openly gay man as it feels as though such an attack could have easily happened to me, indeed many of the victims were young men around my age group. What makes the attack all the more shocking and disturbing is that it happened at a gay bar.

I’m not sure if a straight person can fully appreciate the significance of this. Even in relatively progressive countries like the UK, the fear of facing disgust, censure or even violence for public displays of affection, dressing in the clothes we feel comfortable in or acting ‘gay’, is a real and everyday experience for many LGBT people, myself included. Gay bars and clubs are places that are ours, where we can retreat to and feel safe to be ourselves, be around other people like us and do the things that straight people may take for granted. The fact that this attack happened inside a gay bar, where LGBT people thought they were safe, is deeply distressing as the one place many of us feel we can be ourselves has been violated and proven not as safe as we thought.

Another thing that this atrocity has highlighted to the LGBT community is that whilst we may have discrimination protections and equal marriage in many places now, the struggle for equality with straight people is not over. Until we can all feel safe to be who we are and can live our lives free of the threat of violence and hatred then the fight continues.

The fear now in the global LGBT community is of copycat attackers, homophobes who, inspired by the carnage in Orlando, may try their hand at doing the same again elsewhere. Fortunately in the UK at least it isn’t as easy to get a hold of the kind of weapons the gunman used and most bars have a good team of security to protect patrons however an assault rifle isn’t the only way to kill people and unsurprisingly people are still feeling nervous.

However, one thing the LGBT community has proven time and time again is the strength of our resolve and solidarity as a community. On Monday night, barely 24 hours after the attack, I attended a vigil for the victims on Lower Briggate, organized by local LGBT community groups and supported by Leeds City Council. There the resounding message was one of solidarity with our LGBT brothers and sisters around the world. We shall remain united in our love for each other and never give in to fear.  Those who would seek our destruction, whose hearts are filled only with hate, shall discover as other homophobes have throughout modern history, that the LGBT community will never be silenced or bullied into submission. We shall continue to campaign for our rights, for an end to stigma and discrimination and continue to support and love one another as we have done from the beginning of our struggle.

Anyway, in the next week or so I will endeavour to finish my original article on religious humanism and hope to publish as soon as possible.

 

 

 

What is the Islamic Golden Age?

The response to my first blog post was really good; thank you all for your feedback. Recently West Yorkshire Humanists had a brilliant talk on Political Islam by Dr Afshin Shahi of the University of Bradford. This got me thinking about Islamic history and in particular about the Islamic Golden Age. You see, many fundamentalist Islamists harken back to this time as the zenith of Islamic civilization and wish to recapture some of the success and prestige of this time. What they perhaps don’t realise, as I will elaborate on, is that they may have found themselves somewhat out of place in the time of the Islamic Golden Age.

The term ‘Islamic Golden Age’ was first coined in the 19th century by western historians to describe a flowering of art, science and culture in the Islamic Middle East during the medieval period comparable to the renaissance in Europe. It is traditionally dated from the late 8th century and the rule of the Abbasid Caliph Harun Al-Rashid (reigned 786-809) through to the middle of the 13th century and the Mongol Sacking of Baghdad in 1258. These dates are not universally accepted however and some historians give much earlier start dates and later end dates.

The two most important states involved in achievements of the Golden Age were the Sunni Abbasid Caliphate, largely based in Iraq and Syria and the Shia Fatimid Caliphate based in Egypt. A Caliph or Khalifah in Arabic, is a secular and religious Islamic ruler who claims to be a successor to the prophet Muhammad as a leader of the Islamic people. The title has been claimed by many throughout history, usually hereditary monarchies though in early Islam it was an elected position. The Abbasids claim descent from Al-Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib, the paternal uncle of Muhammad and a key figure in Muhammad’s life and existed from 750 to 1517 though they became vassals of other powers from 945 onwards. The Fatimids meanwhile were a Shia dynasty who claimed descent from Muhammad himself via his daughter Fatimah and his son-in-law Caliph Ali who is a central figure in Shia Islam, and ruled Egypt and parts of North Africa from 909 to 1171.

Both these dynasties founded important educational and research centres that would act as focal points for the Islamic Golden Age, the House of Wisdom or Bayt al-Hikma in Baghdad (established by Abbasid Caliph Harun Al-Rashid) and the House of Knowledge in Cairo (established by Fatimid Caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah in 1004). Both served as enormous state sponsored libraries and universities whose scholarship made them among the greatest centres of learning in the medieval world, beyond anything found in Western Europe at this time. Unlike the Islam of today’s extremists, medieval Islam was very pro-education and academic study. Inspired by a number of Hadiths from the prophet that praise education many medieval Muslim states sponsored educational institutions and libraries and provided state patronage for philosophers and other scholars both Muslim and Non-Muslim.

Indeed, the Golden Age did not just include Muslim scholars. For instance Moses Maimonides, one of the greatest medieval Jewish philosophers received support from the court of Egyptian Sultan Saladin, whilst Nestorian Christian Arab scholars formed a major part of the early scholarship at the House of Wisdom in Baghdad. Though religious relations were not always harmonious, for the most part Jews and Christian minorities in the Middle East flourished under Islamic rule. Indeed freedom of religion and freedom of expression in Fatimid Egypt were unprecedented anywhere in the Mediterranean and European world and so long as they didn’t infringe on the rights of others and did not threaten the state people could believe or express themselves whatever way they wished under most Fatimid Caliphs.

The Achievements of the Golden Age
In the beginning Islamic scholars worked to translate Ancient Greek and Roman works on philosophy, mathematics and science into Arabic. Later they expanded to include translations of ancient Persian and even classical Indian texts. This created an unprecedented melting pot of ideas that was fertile ground for new scholarship.

Some of the greatest achievements of Islamic scholarship were in mathematics. Islamic mathematicians made many advances most notably in algebra, algorithms, trigonometry and calculus. Indeed the words algebra and algorithm are Arabic words, algebra meaning ‘reunion of broken parts’ whilst algorithm is derived from the Latinization of the name of Islamic Persian mathematician Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi. Perhaps one of the developments in Islamic mathematics that has had the biggest impact on modern mathematics is their numeral system which they developed out of the Hindu numeral system and which we use today. What is significant about the Arabic-Hindu numeral system is its concept of a number zero. In Greco-Roman mathematics zero was usually thought of as the absence of something rather than a number in its own right and lacked an agreed numeral for it. It was Hindu mathematicians who first identified zero as its own number, a concept that was translated and further developed by Arabic scholars who then passed this on to the Europeans.

Medieval Islamic science was among the most advanced in the Old World. Like the Ancient Greeks, Islamic ‘scientists’ took a holistic approach to scientific study and most conducted studies in numerous different fields rather than specializing in any one. Among the fields they contributed to were physics, medicine, astronomy, optics, chemistry and many others. They were not just derivative of Greco-Roman science either, for instance Islamic chemists and alchemists such as the Persian polymath Rhazes (Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyya al-Razi in Arabic), broke with the Greco-Roman tradition of the four elements and instead categorized substances by their observed chemical properties.

Some 400 years before the Renaissance in Europe (600 years before Sir Isaac Newton), a number of Islamic scholars were already developing what would become known as the scientific method. Legendary Islamic scientist and philosopher Alhazen (Abu Ali al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham in Arabic), described variously as the world’s first scientist or simply The Physicist, developed what we can identify today as the scientific method, devising uniform experiments to test his hypotheses and calling on scientists to be sceptical and critical of all ideas including their own. Alhazen was not alone either, Rhazes (see above) also studied medicine and devised a system of experimentation with treatments that made use of what is clearly a control group, to determine a treatment’s effectiveness.

In Conclusion

I could write a book or several on the achievements of Islamic science and mathematics, to say nothing of its arts and philosophy and I’ve touched only lightly on it here. Far from the Anti-Intellectual and violent ideology we see in modern Islamist groups, the Islam of this age was an upholder and encourager of scientific inquiry, philosophy and critical thinking that has had an undeniable impact on our own western civilization. Certainly we can see that far from recapturing this era’s success and prestige, Islamists are doing quite the opposite. Sadly the Islamic Golden Age came to an end from the 1200s onwards for a multitude of reasons long argued over though the Mongol’s destruction of the House of Wisdom in 1258 is often seen as a critical point, as are the Christian Crusades. Hopefully one day the people of the Middle East can retake their history from savage fantasists like ISIS and take pride in their contribution to Humanity’s culture and knowledge.

Further Reading

Wikipedia has a good article on this topic if you want an overview.

Alternatively there are a number of books written on the subject here are a few recent ones I’m aware of:

  • Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance (2011) by George Saliba
  • The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization (2010) by Jonathan Lyons