Archive | May 2011

London, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Budapest: Drinks, Songs and an Emotional Roller Coaster

I have been pretty quiet on the blogging front for a while now… this is because I was at a reasonably useful conference on Young People and Religion at King’s College, London. This did mean, however, that I was able to catch with a number of good friends in London, and in Newcastle on the way back up to Edinburgh.

Upon returning to Edinburgh things pretty much immediately launched into the celebrations for the 50th Anniversary of the Edinburgh University Savoy Opera Group, a wonderful group with whom I spent many a happy year and performed in, directed or produced sixteen productions of musicals, operas and operettas between 2004 and 2010.

On the Saturday night, we had a fantastic Ball at the George Hotel, Edinburgh… with over 140 people dining, and many dozens more joining us later for a good sing and a Ceilidh. Below is a clip of us singing Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Hail Poetry!”, a regular party piece from The Pirates of Penzance. Some of us may have had slightly too much to drink… but what we lack in tunefulness we make up for in enthusiasm. And I don’t think the hotel will ever have heard such a glorious noise!

The following day we gathered a group of 60+ singers at the Reid Concert Hall, with one of the best hand-picked orchestras in Edinburgh and performed a semi-staged version of The Mikado, under the able direction of my good friend Vincent Wallace. Here, Vince and I rehearse the song “Our great Mikado, virtuous man…” the afternoon before I reprised the role of Pish Tush, which I performed in 2008.

It was quite an emotional weekend, both with seeing many faces from years gone by, and with realising that that part of my life is now gone… but it was very happy, and great to get a group of lifelong friends together and have the dynamic be identical to ‘back in the day’. Thanks so much to everyone who was involved in the organisation of this epic weekend!

Things are looking similarly busy over the coming weeks, with two weddings, paid employment, and the small matter of writing my thesis… but I shall endeavour to keep posting on the more serious stuff. There are interesting plans brewing for this blog in the post thesis world… watch this space.

And also…. do look out for me at the European Association for the Study of Religion’s Conference in Budapest this coming September, where I am thrilled to be presenting a paper! The nerves have already started!

“Understanding Secularism” to be Focus of New Trinity College Website

“Understanding Secularism” to be Focus of New Trinity College Website

Site will facilitate the Dissemination of Course Materials and Research  

 HARTFORD, CT, May 13, 2011 – The Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture (ISSSC) at Trinity College today launched a new Website, Understanding Secularism ( Its aim is to provide a better understanding of the roles and forms of secularism around the world by disseminating material to educators, researchers, students, and interested members of the public.

 The new website is designed to be a teaching and learning resource. It will offer diverse media and materials, including academic course syllabi, articles, bibliographies, research reports, and essays by ISSSC-affiliated scholars and others. Audio-visual and photographic material will help enliven and elucidate the study of secularism.

 Course outlines and syllabi are varied, ranging from “Liberty of Conscience and the Creation of Secular Society” to “The Dao of Secularism: Political Transformation and Secular Values in 20th Century Asia.”  The articles and reports are equally diverse, and cover such topics as “High School Students’ Opinions about Science Education,” “Evolution in Nature and Society,” and “Anxiety in the Age of Reason.”

 Algeria, Australia, Canada, Denmark, Egypt, France, Great Britain, Greece, India, Iran, Israel, Italy, Lebanon, Spain, Turkey and the United States are among the countries that have material devoted to them.

 “Understanding Secularism is all about providing objective information,” said ISSSC Director Barry A. Kosmin. “Our aim is understanding, critical analysis, and education – not advocacy.”

 Continuing, Kosmin said, “The topic of secularism spans many areas of study and so requires an interdisciplinary approach. Because of this, the site will take a cross-cultural approach that offers a wide range of scholarly and ideological perspectives. The idea is to make the website a vital forum for the exchange of knowledge and ideas among educators, researchers, journalists, policy makers, and concerned citizens.”

 Around the world, secularism is in the news. Whether it is the decline of organized religion in Europe, cultural battles over reproduction and the family in Latin America, or political change in the Middle East, secularism plays a central role in the discussion. It is a perennial issue in India, where the term is used to refer to ideological tolerance and religion-state separation.

 In the United States, the percentage of secular American adults (as indicated by those who reported no religious identification) almost doubled from 8 percent in 1990 to 15 percent in 2008, or from 14 to 34 million people.

 Yet, despite the importance of secularism in contemporary discourse and society, there has been no single place to go for information about it. Understanding Secularism will be that place.

 The ISSSC, which has a global research agenda and strong international ties, was established in 2005 to advance understanding of the roles played by secular values and institutions in contemporary societies. Nonpartisan and multidisciplinary, the ISSSC conducts research, helps develop course curricula, and serves as an educational forum through lectures, seminars, and conferences.

Via the Nonrelgion and Secularity Research Network.

Explaining Islam to the Public

I have just read the following superb post from Edward E. Curtis IV, entitled Explaining Islam to the Public. Whilst I suggest that you have a look yourself, I have pulled out what I consider to be the most relevant bits… mostly on Shari’a Law and Violence.

He begins with a cautionary tale on how Scholars of Islam were suddenly called upon to become public spokespeople in the decade since 9/11:

“Perhaps no group of scholars has had as much at stake in the public understanding of religion of late as Islamic studies specialists. The attacks of 9/11 indirectly created opportunities for career advancement for Islam specialists. […] The expectation that Islamic studies scholars were prepared to “cover” the Islamic tradition and speak to its beliefs and practices on a normative, global basis was stressful for many of us. The idea that we could speak with authority about the practices of 1.4 billion people who speak dozens of languages and have inhabited the planet for the last 1400 years is absurd, of course. Like other academics, Islamic studies scholars are trained in certain fields of knowledge; in the best of programs, they are trained to be exceedingly careful about claiming too much. The pressures to become the academic voice of Islam both on campus and in the media frequently led scholars to abandon caution.”

He continues with a response to the Ground Zero Mosque fiasco, ‘shedding light on Muslim contributions to the histroy of the United States’ and concluding that:

“It may be a strange, even perverse fact of history, but Islam in New York began on or near Ground Zero.”

He then enters into an extended discussion of a piece he wrote for the Washington Post on addressing their proposed ‘myth’, that “Mosques seek to spread shari’a law in the United States”.

Following the scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl, I responded to the myth about shari‘a by writing that shari‘a is an ideal, that it is not codified, and that the human attempt to realize this ideal is called “fiqh,” or jurisprudence. I said that most contemporary mosques don’t actually teach the shari‘a because it is too dry, too pedantic, too arcane. I stressed that mosques devote their weekend classes instead to discussions of the Qur’an and the Sunna and how they apply to everyday life. […]

My answer hadn’t exactly been wrong, but my response to the question was not sufficient. In addition, it did not respond explicitly to the public’s biggest fears, for instance, about the cutting off of hands and stoning. When a Middle East studies newsletter asked for permission to reprint the piece, I kept some of my original answer but added the following: “most mosques in the United States teach only those parts of the shari‘a having to do with religious rituals and obligations. They do not teach the part of the shari‘a having to do with criminal law.” And further: “Few Muslim Americans advocate a shari‘a-based theocracy. Instead, most Muslim Americans insist that democracy is the most Islamic system of governance in the world today.”

Getting rightly annoyed about the one way process of this question and answer approach, he continues:

Responding to the public’s misconceptions about Islam is part of what we do.  But if we cannot question the assumptions on which questions are posed, we cease to be critics. We must retain the ability to ask questions as well as to answer them. The problem with my Washington Postpiece was that I did not explicitly name the prejudice that was animating the question about the shari‘a in the first place. As recent legislation passed in Oklahoma demonstrates, there is a special animus on the part of millions of Americans toward shari‘a, which is viewed, like Islam more generally, as particularly dangerous.

As I reflect on my moment of high-profile public scholarship, and on teaching religion more generally, I want to conclude with two further responses to the “myth” that “mosques seek to spread shari‘a law.” First, perhaps my response to the myth should have been: Yeah, but so what? Most American religious organizations seek to educate others about their ethics and rituals, and that is exactly what most of the shari‘a taught in American mosques is all about. Second, most Muslim Americans are not “spreading” shari‘a; they are trying to figure out how to apply it to their own lives.

And finally, on the widespread conception that Islam is a very violent religion, and the clash of interests between the USA and ‘Islam’:

There is a clash of interests between the U.S. and those whose lives it seeks to shape, often in its own image. But this story does not begin in Mecca; it begins in Washington. Middle Easterners, including Osama bin Laden, were not fantasizing when they saw the U.S. establish military bases in the Gulf region nor when it restored the Kuwaiti amirate to power in 1991, when it intervened on behalf of both the Iraqis and Iranians in the Iraq-Iran war, when it shelled Lebanon in the 1980s, and the list goes on. This is not primarily a story about religious fanaticism but a story about secular, imperial power.

[…] we should spend more time exposing the political contexts in which popular understandings of Islam and religion more broadly are generated, disseminated, and used. And if we must produce a sound-bite about Islam’s role in making violence for the media, then let it be this: “Islam is not the cause of violence, but it does offer one means of resistance to U.S. political, military, and economic domination in Muslim lands.”

A thoroughly engaging post, which contained almost nothing I could disagree with. Here’s hoping as many people as possible read it. I’d also suggest reading some sections from my Very, Very Short Introduction to Islam. Enjoy.

Wordsworth: The Tables Turned

Yesterday was not a good day for me. My research has not been going very well… mostly because I have a vast amount of material and don’t quite know how to deal with it (I think I am getting somewhere now though). I had a long meeting with my supervisor who advised me to take some time off, get some perspective and come back to it. Thus, spending a night in the flat with nothing do… I cracked open a bottle of beer and picked up my William Wordsworth – Selected Poems which I very occasionally dip into.

If I believed in fate, I would say that it was fate that had me turn quickly to this one. It most surely spoke to my current situation… one of the few times that this has happened. Sometimes it is too easy to get bogged down in books (and rightly so, sometimes) and not appreciate the world around us. I give you… The Tables Turned:

Up! up! my Friend, and quit your books;

Or surely you’ll grow double:

Up! up! my friend, and clear your looks,

Why all this toil and trouble?

The sun above the mountain’s head,

A freshening lustre mellow

Through all the long green fields has spread,

His first sweet evening yellow.

Books! ’tis a dull and endless strife:

Come, hear the woodland linnet,

How sweet his music! on my life,

There’s more of wisdom in it.

And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!

He, too, is no mean preacher:

Come forth into the light of things,

Let Nature be your teacher.

She has a world of ready wealth,

Our minds and hearts to bless–

Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,

Truth breathed by cheerfulness.

One impulse from a vernal wood

May teach you more of man,

Of moral evil and of good,

Than all the sages can.

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;

Our meddling intellect

Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:–

We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art;

Close up those barren leaves;

Come forth, and bring with you a heart

That watches and receives.

On a Lighter Note…

On a lighter note…

Here’s some great music that I have just discovered that makes a perfect start to the day:

English Universities to become a Privilege for the Rich

Having seen a report on this on BBC Breakfast this morning, I had to look up the article and share it with you. According to the BBC:

Universities in England may be permitted to make extra places available for wealthy British students, under government proposals.

They would be charged as much as those from outside the European Union (EU).

Ministers say the proposal would free up publicly subsidised university places for poorer students.

Under the current system, the government sets a quota for the number of places English universities are allowed to offer each year.

From September 2012, universities in England will be allowed to raise tuition fees to up to £9,000 per year.

It marks an increase in the cap from the current level of £3,290.

Universities wanting to charge more than £6,000 will have to undertake measures such as offering bursaries, summer schools and outreach programmes, to encourage students from poorer backgrounds to apply.

The policy was developed as the government’s response to a review of higher education funding by former BP chief Lord Browne.

Students from outside the EU pay higher fees and are not eligible for any grants or loans.

Under the latest proposals, wealthy students could pay higher fees for an extra place at the university of their choice as long as they meet entry requirements.

The move would enable the most popular universities to expand.

Universities Minister David Willetts said he wanted the government’s forthcoming white paper on university funding to liberalise the system.

BBC Education correspondent Gillian Hargreaves said the proposals “would be controversial”.

“Critics would argue the wealthiest families would be able to buy a place on a degree course,” she said.

This is absolutely disgusting. Universities are supposed to be centres for academic excellence. Whilst I definitely agree with the ‘critics’ cited at the end of this article (that these proposals will lead to the wealthy being able to buy their university degree), I also have another, much more pressing criticism.

Universities aren’t just magically going to be able to take on more students. If student places are being taken up by those who can afford to pay extortionate rates, then the number of places for ‘normal’ and ‘poorer’ people will decrease. Which people do you think universities will prefer to take on? Those who can afford to pay massive amounts’? Or those who they will have to provide bursaries and scholarships for?

I know the government will say that they will set quotas etc and ensure that this doesn’t happen… but since everything they have said so far has turned out to be so misleading – ‘we won’t raise tuition fees’… ‘okay we will, but only for a small minority of universities and courses’… ‘we’ll raise fees across the board. Hey, it’s a difficult economic time’ – this does not seem like such an unlikely scenario after all…

Rant over.

Confessions of an atheist Freemason

One of the most humbling things about maintaining this blog is when someone stumbles across it out of the blue and lets me know that they value my contributions. What is even more heartening is when this blog is deemed a suitable conduit for others to express their opinions. Usually this is done through comments on my own posts, but in this instance, and for understandable reasons, the reader wished to remain anonymous when expressing their views on atheism (a subject with which I am very familiar) and its relationship to Freemasonry (something about which I sadly know far too little).

It is an inspiring piece; one which speaks volumes about human beings and their ability to maintain numerous identity positions simultaneously… regardless of what the ‘authorities’ who ‘police’ the uses of those labels might say. It is with gratitude that I can present this opinion piece to you. Enjoy…

I’m an atheist Freemason (they’d expel me if they knew)

Is it possible to reconcile being a confirmed atheist with participating in a religious organisation?

People usually think Masons are either a bunch of old farts with their trousers rolled up, or evil genuises bent on world domination. Dan Brown, in his otherwise execrable Lost Symbol, described us fairly and with a sneaking admiration (though in this country we don’t do anything like locking ourselves in cupboards with skulls). It’s a way of meeting people (well, men) on a basis of immediate friendship. It teaches a moral code: integrity, fidelity, benevolence etc. It raises a *lot* of money for charity. It offers a chance to perform ceremonies. Why does it need to be religious?

Every candidate for initiation is asked “Do you believe in a Supreme Being?”. When I was asked this, I replied “Yes”, and meant it – nothing further is ever asked or expected. At the time I was a wishy-washy not-quite-a-Christian, like many other members I’ve met. People from any faith are welcome, and oaths of secrecy and fidelity are taken on a bible, or other holy book if appropriate (requests for Darwin or Dawkins wouldn’t be well received!). Each meeting involves prayers to the generic “Great Architect of the Universe” to look favourably upon the organisation and its members, and to keep us steadfast in our oaths. I question whether any passing God would trouble Himself to shine His rays upon a bunch of men waffling on in coloured aprons, but this low-key interventionism is woven in. The secrets themselves serve no purpose other than identification, aren’t hard to find on google, and really aren’t interesting in their own right.

Moral teachings are a central part of the ceremonies, in which the “candidate” (new member) is taught various lessons about how to be a better man. There are some wonderful moments in these ceremonies, which are genuine once-in-a-lifetime experiences, and I can honestly say that they’ve had a very real and positive effect on my conduct in everyday life. One key point they hold that I utterly reject is that God is the moral compass and fount of all goodness.

I derive a lot of enjoyment from performing the ceremonies. They involve learning large tracts of dignified, old-fashioned dialogue and monologue, and performing them in such a way as to give the candidate a memorable and impressive experience. Any frustrated actor would revel in this. Amateur pageantry is also an important part, and for anyone who enjoys watching the pomp and circumstance of a royal wedding, military parade, or a high church service, this is good fun to take part in. Some of the buildings are nothing short of magnificent and it’s a privilege to use them. Alas, those small parts of the ceremony which reflect the religious underpinning engender in me feelings of hypocrisy; I’ve filled various offices which involve leading short prayers. It feels dirty – perhaps more so than mumbling the Lord’s Prayer at a wedding, though there is no logical reason for this to be the case. Is it any different from being in a church and not agreeing with the letter of everything being said? Maybe it’s the difference between being an atheist church-goer and an atheist priest.

Why do I do this? It’s fun. It fills a gap which I think church fills in the lives of the religious – community, morality, ceremony etc. I agree strongly with the intent of its teachings, even though I reject the jump from “being nice to people is good” to “God is good and He wants you to be nice to people”. Given the don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy after the initial interview (religion and politics are taboo subjects on account of being too divisive), all that’s required is a certain amount of finger-crossing and keeping my mouth shut. It’s a price to pay, but the benefits (strictly non-pecuniary!) of membership far outweigh this price.

There’s no secular equivalent, alas – society is still to emerge fully from the assumption that all good people are religious, and all religious people are good, and Freemasonry is lagging far behind. In my opinion, the religion could be removed from Freemasonry to no loss, but I’m probably in the minority.

You may call me a hyprocrite, and you may very well be right. So be it. I’ve made a significant positive contribution to a number of lodges over a number of years, and they to me. I have every hope this will continue.

A Niblett of Knowledge Of or About Religion

No amount of knowledge about beauty will add up to the knowledge of beauty given by a single experience of a mountain landscape or a Mozart sonata. No amount of knowledge about religion or religions, primitive or Christian is any substitute for knowledge of religion – i.e. religious experience.’ From W. R. Niblett; Education and the Modern Mind, Faber, 1954, p. 44.

I read this and found myself immediately agreeing. And then the questions came flooding in. The first, and main, one being – for what?

I am very grateful for my own personal ‘religious biography’ – having implicit religion, ‘finding God’/being ‘saved’, and ultimately abandoning ‘the Faith’ on realising that had I been born somewhere else, or to different parents, I would have believed something else. I feel that this biography helps me understand and relate to religious people much more than those who have never known what it ‘feels’ like.

But at the same time, I also know that I can never have access to the understanding of religion that someone who has never ‘experienced’ religion can have. In fact, my judgement of ‘truth’ could be fundamentally clouded by my past, preconceptions etc.

Perhaps Professor Niblett (great name btw) simply thought that a bit of religion was good for the ‘youth’… morality and all that… <chortle>

But, on a personal level, I think it would be amazing if there was some way that we could artificially simulate a ‘religious experience’ for kids in school… not so that they would convert, but that they could ‘understand’ those who are religious a bit better… There must be some drug we could prescibe? :)

What does ‘Postsecular’ actually mean?

A lengthy post on the terminology behind ‘postsecular’…

What we talk about when we talk about the postsecular

Recently, a somewhat opaque term found its way onto the front page of The Immanent Frame in the title of <a title=”Post-secular development <Daromir Rudnyckyj’s pieceon “post-secular development.” This term, “postsecular,” also came up a few months ago in Nathan Schneider’s <a title=”Endgame capitalism: an interview with Simon During <interview with Simon Duringas well as <a title=”postsecular <a string of other entriesin this blog over the past few years. A group of contributors to The Immanent Frame, including its founding editor Jonathan VanAntwerpen and editor-at-large David Kyuman Kim, are even involved in editing a volume called The Post-Secular in Question. Apparently the term is quickly becoming a keyword for scholars of religion and public life. So, what is it all about?

The concept is not just all over The Immanent Frame. It has also appeared in the titles of about forty books, most in English and German, the majority of which were published within the past five years. Additionally, the concept features prominently in seventeen dissertations indexed by ProQuest, which largely reflects dissertations completed at North American universities. More than half of these dissertations were deposited after 2007. And that is to say nothing of the dozens of articles in scholarly journals that are an important part of the discussion of the postsecular, or the approximately half-dozen academic conferences held on both sides of the Atlantic in the last three years. These numbers indicate that both established and emerging scholars are staking their work on the concept of the postsecular. Finally, illustrating a broader trend in intellectual debate, significant interventions in the discussion have also appeared online, especially at EurozineResetDOC, and on this very blog…. <Continue>

Interesting Attempt at Explaining Religion

Even though the project ‘Explaining Religion’, discussed in the following article from the Economist, ‘did not actually achieve its rather ambitious eponymous goal’ it has, indeed, ‘found some promising avenues of investigation, and led to that great desideratum of science, more research’. It’s worth a read anyway…

Some of my favourite snippits were:

“Agnostics and atheists think like Buddhists.”

And this…

“In one particularly grisly rite of passage, for example, young men belonging to Australia’s Aranda tribe are first circumcised and then pinned face down as several of their elders bite the initiate’s scalp and chin as hard as they can, before slitting his urethra with a stone blade. That is the sort of thing you are not going to forget in a hurry. You are also going to feel a strong affinity with those others who have gone through it, and perhaps a certain disdain for those who have not—a solidarity-building exercise, then, if ever there was one.”

You can read the full thing here. Enjoy.