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At a debate on the motion, “This House has no faith in organized religion”, IHEU Vice President Jack Jeffery supported freedom of religion or belief and highlighted negative effects of the activities of organized religions.


Durham University Students’ Union debate 25 January 2008

Speech by Jack Jeffery proposing the Motion “This House has no faith in organised religion”

Thank you Mr President

Perhaps I should begin by saying something about the International Humanist and Ethical Union because I’m speaking tonight as a Vice-president of that body. IHEU is an umbrella organisation for over 100 national humanist, secular, rationalist and atheist groups throughout the world. A declaration agreed in Amsterdam in 2002 set out the main principles of humanism as follows: –
• Rational application of free inquiry and use of the scientific method to solve problems of human welfare
• Support for democracy and human rights
• Combination of social responsibility with personal liberty
• Recognition of the value of the Arts for personal development and fulfilment

Tonight’s Motion contains 2 key words, ‘faith and ‘organised’ and I’d like to begin by considering them.

My dictionary gives several meanings for ‘faith’. They include ‘trust’, ‘belief in authority’, ‘belief in religious doctrines’ and ‘belief in divine truth without proof’. Not so long ago in our society, there was great respect for all those in positions of authority. People such as lawyers were seen by most people as having knowledge and integrity that entitled them to be trusted. At that time, it might have been thought acceptable for a Medical Practitioner to say, ‘Trust me, I’m a doctor’ but that would not be well-received in 21st century western democracies. Nowadays, only organised religions seek unquestioning acceptance of their teachings. Elsewhere, our society is rarely ready to accept statements by those in positions of authority unless tested and proved.

Within the context of the Motion, I suggest that ‘organised’ means religions that go beyond simple belief in a Supreme Being into enforcement of belief in creeds and dogma. Many, perhaps most, Muslims and Christians would come within such a definition. And most organised religions discriminate against unbelievers and those who are defined by dogma as second class or worse. Generally, these include women and commonly they include homosexuals.

Organised religion is important to many people. It can offer a degree of comfort and give a sense of identity. But in return, the believer has to follow the rules and cannot change the rules. This can lead to religion becoming an instrument of political power. When people truly believe that the rules to which they subscribe represent the absolute truth, they can become convinced that any behaviour may be justified if it advances their cause. So the members of the Inquisition would have believed that they were torturing to save the souls of those they tortured and the Muslims who attack Muslim women who reject the traditional arranged marriages will believe that they are acting in defence of their religious values.

This takes me to the difference between perceptions of human rights within the United Nations. In the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, an alliance has emerged that contains some strange bedfellows. India and Pakistan are part of this group, as are overtly atheist states like China and Cuba alongside theocracies like Iran and Saudi Arabia. What is it that unites them? Roy Brown, Immediate Past President of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, wrote last autumn that sadly, “by supporting one another, each can ensure that their own abuse of human rights, however blatant, will never be censured or condemned by the Council”.

So we have a situation in which the UN Human Rights Council seems ready to support the case for laws combating defamation of religions while ignoring the legal murder of apostates in some Islamic States. I find it hard to see how a Supreme Being can need laws banning defamation of religion, whatever that may mean. So I’m pleased that there seems to be a growing recognition in this country of the need to consider removing the ancient blasphemy laws from the statute book. To me the key point is that individuals have human rights but religions do not.

I want to give three examples of bad consequences of the activities of organised religion. The first is the response of the Roman Catholic Church to the problem of AIDS. When I was in Zimbabwe in 1992, the spread of AIDS in Africa was already serious and it has got worse since then. In this situation, I find it incredible that some Catholic Bishops are still spreading disinformation about condoms. Similar attitudes hamper international discussions on population growth and sustainability.

The second example concerns the censorship that Muslims attempt to impose on any criticism of their religion. Just yesterday, there was a report in the press of a man in Afghanistan being sentenced to death for downloading from the internet and reading an article. And a couple of years ago, a play had to be cancelled by Birmingham Rep because of physical violence by people who thought the insults to their religion that they perceived justified such violence.

My third example is taken from India, where 160 million dalits, or untouchables suffer constant discrimination for no other reason than their position in the Hindu caste system. A few outstanding individuals have managed to escape from the system. But generally, if dalits are seen to get above themselves, they suffer persecution. Although the Indian government can point to laws that should prevent such persecution, more often than not the local police turn a blind eye because it arises from the religion to which they subscribe.

The International Humanist and Ethical Union believes strongly in the freedom of all individuals to practise the religion of their choice. But it also believes that we all should have the freedom not to believe and to change our mind without the threat of prosecution for apostasy that in some societies can still mean death.

I’ll end on a lighter note with a quote from Mark Twain, “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so”.

Thank you for listening to me and I very much hope that you will support the Motion. Thank you Mr President.

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