Church welfare provision?

January 30, 2008

Via Terry Sanderson writing on-line at the Guardian, we learn that the government has apparently, for the last two years, been in consultation with the Church to provide faith-based welfare:

For two years or more, Government Ministers have been in conversation with church leaders about the possibility of the church providing extensive welfare services, rather in the way that the church plays a major part in education.[My emphasis]

Read that highlighted section again: rather in the way that the church plays a major part in education.

So how do the churches play a major part of eduction? It’s quite simple really: the churches take huge swathes of cash from the government to run 1 in 3 state-funded schools. The churches then refuse entrance to the people paying for the state-funded school unless they both attend church, and want their children indoctrinated into the church’s religion. Is this really what the government has in mind for the welfare system? Not CofE? Well, no disability benefit for you. Not Catholic? No dental service. If not, what the hell does the bishop mean?

Both Government and church are well aware that in the Scandinavian countries and Germany the church provides extensive welfare services. These countries have a church tax, which is paid by most citizens. The money received through taxation is returned to the church in support of its ministers, its buildings and in making possible the extensive welfare work done in its name. admit that I have sometimes wished that we had a church tax in the United Kingdom.

So clearly part of my guess is correct: in a nation which is increasingly secular, a nation that increasingly does not go to church, the bishop wants to introduce a church tax. But note that this is actually unconnected to his preceding comments on providing welfare: the church tax would not be to pay for this church welfare program, it’s to pay for buildings and ministers. Welfare would only be an after-thought.

The Church of England has very strong roots in local communities, making it well placed in many contexts to deliver quality services in a way that truly understands the local situation, which government departments may not. We very much want to be part of the discussion about the new opportunities that are opening up.

Oh, I bet he does! Especially since he also says:

The church is treated as a partner, and its work is trusted, rather than controlled.

Presumably, then, part of this “discussion” will involve telling the government how trustworthy it is, and that it’s welfare provisions don’t need state control. You know, trustworthy like catholic adoption agencies refusing to deal with gays…

And there’s more:

The church is signing 25-year contracts for the new academies.

This, apparently, is an example of “delivering social needs”. 25 schools handed over to the church, which church rules for entrance. “Delivering social needs” apparently is only important if your christian. Or, more precisely, a member of the CofE.  Of course the church is delighted, but that does not make it, “delivering social needs”, that makes it, “delivering the church’s needs”.

If the church is to be a partner, it must be trusted by government and not controlled. As I perceive it, recent governments have found that very difficult. Church projects of course would be audited, but not controlled.

Has no-one told the bishop that old phrase, “trust is earned”. The church hasn’t earned trust, so why would if “of course” not be controlled by the state? The state controls welfare. You don’t hand over vast sums of cash to a single organisation to manage welfare programs and not control it. Even if we ignore the churches appalling record on admissions to church schools, you just don’t do that.

The church very much wishes to be part of the discussion, but it also has serious concerns and misgivings, which need to be discussed frankly and addressed. It needs to be treated as a long-term partner which is trusted even when it wants to challenge the current effectiveness of delivery.

I have a better idea. Disestablish the church, and keep the damn thing out of politics. It has no business running schools as it is, it certainly has no business running the welfare system, and it most certainly has no business collecting taxes.

This is pretty scary stuff just on its own. But this is not the bishop of Carlisle just mouthing off, this is the bishop acting in his capacity on the bench in the house of Lords, putting forward the church’s position as part of British governance.

One a day!

January 30, 2008

According to the BBC:

Iran has executed at least 28 convicts so far this year, according to media reports.  

That’s nearly one a day!  That’s more than the total number of executions carried out in the US state of Texas in 2007 (although, granted, not by much). 

The really BIG questions

January 29, 2008

I do not think that I will ever be able to take Pope “Benedict” seriously. Yes, he’s opened his mouth again and, yes, stupid has come out.

Scientific investigation should be accompanied by “research into anthropology, philosophy and theology” to give insight into “man’s own mystery, because no science can say who man is, where he comes from or where he is going”, the Pope said.

Theology? Give me a break. Theology pretends to do what philosophy and anthropology actually do. Theology starts with an assumption and attempts to fit the world into that assumption; it really is a non-subject. However, what about science? What can science say about “who man is”, “where he comes from” and “where he is going”. Fortunately science, unlike theology, does have a few words to say about all of these three questions. You just may not like the answers.

Who man is. Man is the male gender of the species Homo Sapiens. Homo Sapiens is a Great Ape (family Hominidae), sharing a common evolutionary ancestor with Gorillas and Orangutans. For the benefit of the Pope, Homo Sapiens also has another gender, “Female”, also known as “woman”. To be fair to the pope though, he’s probably not aware of this, being an 80-year old virgin head of a misogynistic theocracy.

Where he comes from. (for the benefit of this continued discussion, we’ll take the popes sexism as read) “He”, to paraphrase the late Carl Sagan, is star-stuff. Every atom of our bodies comes from the result of fusion in the cores of long-dead stars. After the formation of the solar system, the Earth cooled, and 4.6 billion years passed. Then, 80 years ago (give or take) the Popes parents did something that the pope dare not contemplate, and out popped the Pope. It is, of course, not surprising that the pope is apparently not aware as to how much science has to say about where we come from, as all the messy stuff in the middle is naughty. And the pope hasn’t done any of it (theoretically).

Where is he going For myself: to the kitchen, to make coffee, because my hands are cold and my boiler’s broken. But, ultimately, I presume that’s not what he meant: he means the biggie: what happens after we die. Well, not much really. If, like me, you want to donate organs in the event of a not-too horrific death, science can take bits out of you and stick them into other people who would otherwise risk becoming premature organ donars. Then about 10 billion years will pass, and the sun will stop processing hydrogen; the outer layer of the sun will eventually bloat out, becoming a red-giant, and warm the Earth to a nice toast.

 Of course, it could be that the pope is a secret  Steven Hawkins admirer, in which case he was asking, “Which planet are we going to”.  On that subject, I’ll go with Alastair Reynolds and suggest Epsilon Eridani.

See. Three nice simple questions with answers bought to you by science (well, okay one referencing Science Fiction, but Reynolds has a PhD, so that’s close enough for me).

 That was easy!

On Offense

January 28, 2008

This is an interesting read, “In defense of the right to offend”: interesting, but I think ultimately it misses the point.

The issue of religious offense was run through the press quite frequently last year, what with the Danish cartoon fiasco, questions over the deportation of some of the more unfavorable elements of Islam, the attempt by Christian Voice to bring a private prosecution for blasphemy against the BBC and – more recently – with the school teacher tried for blasphemy for naming a bear ‘Mohammed’. In each case, the issue has not been so much about the limits of freedom of expression, but the extreme reaction by the religious to otherwise innocuous actions. In each case, the defining characteristic has not been any intent to deliberately offend, but the willingness of the religious to be offended.

Richard Dawkins has frequently come under attack by the religious both in the UK and the USA over his (excellent) book, “The God Delusion”. He has been accused of being crude, shrill and offensive. But, as Dawkins has frequently pointed out, The God Delusion is less shrill and less crude than the average political pundit on morning television, or the average restaurant review or hostile stage review. However the religious – having only addressed the arguments they think Dawkins has put forward, whilst utterly failing to address those he actually has – can always rely on that old canard “offensive”.

There is something about the offense taken by the religious that appears – to me at least – to be somewhat disingenuous. Offense is a useful tool: no-one wants to be considered so guttural as to deliberately offend someone; it’s just not seemly. But this puts an enormous amount of power in the hands of the offended. If Muslims are “offended” by (largely fabricated, incidentally) the “Danish cartoon” then no-one in the UK will reprint them for fear of causing “offense” (or is it actually, “for fear of violent reprisal by the offended”). This has a chilling effect: no-one in the UK could read an honest assessment as to whether the extremist Muslim case was reasonable or not as no-one was allowed to see the cartoons! The only benchmark we had to go on was “Muslims consider pictures of the prophet to be sacrilegious”.

By doing this, the extremist element within the Islamic community gained a massive coup over the press in the UK and elsewhere in the world. By using both a posture of “offense”, and by using threats of violence, the islamists succeeded in both getting the Prime Minister to agree that there are limits to free expression and to get column inches dedicated to “how much offense is too much?”. Scant mention was made as to the legitimacy of the criticisms of Islam that were in the cartoons. Criticism of that aspect of Islam was suddenly off the menu.

The Christian Voice used a similar tactic recently with the production of the show, “Jerry Springer the Opera” (a superb masterpiece of satirical modern opera incidentally; I saw it three times!). When the show announced that it was to start a tour, moving out of the West-End of London, the Christian Voice wrote letters to innumerable candidate venues threatening to picket their theaters and to bring private blasphemy lawsuits against anyone who dared put on the show. With the blasphemy laws being so bizarre in the UK few theaters knew whether they defend a credible case, but could not run the risk. After a brief stint in Brighton, the show closed. Even though the private prosecution against the BBC and the show’s producers eventually failed, the Christian Voice had made their point: don’t offend the Christians. The religious dictated what could or could not be shown on theaters, because the religious and only the religious know what they will find offensive.

The most ridiculous case recently, of course, was the case of the British teacher in Sudan who “insulted Islam” by naming a teddy bear, “Muhammed”. The absurdities surrounding that case are multitude, but the core message by the extreme religious element was, “we define acceptable behavior”.

In each case of religious offense the religious seek to narrow the boundaries of what is and is not “reasonable criticism” to the extent that the concept of “reasonable” criticism has itself appeared to become reasonable. But the idea of “reasonable” criticism is inherently not reasonable. To assume that any idea that offends a religious sensibility should not be stated is to give the whole area of “legitimate expression” over to the religious, or anyone with palpably unreasonable ideas. If a cartoon depicting Mohammed is offensive, then what’s to stop the claim that any “graven image” is offensive? If a bear called Mohammed is offensive, then why not any bear name? Who gets to define what is and is not reasonable criticism? If it’s the religious, then no criticism is safe from accusation of “offensive” or “unreasonable”.

How do you square that circle?

January 23, 2008

According to the Guardian yesterday, the government is going to tell Universities that they should:

consider rejecting demands for separate prayer and washing facilities to prevent their campuses segregating along religious lines

This is because segregation along religious lines risks creating:

a climate where illegal extremist views can flourish

But isn’t this the same government that recently affirmed that it wants to keep compulsory collective christian worship in UK state-funded schools? Isn’t this the same government that repeatedly affirms it’s commitment to faith schools, despite obvious opposition from the public and teachers (that last article, incidentally, goes back as far as 2002. Their view hasn’t changed).

If the government recognizes that segregation along religious lines in Universities is such a bad idea, why are they so intent on spending tax-payers money to segregate pupils at earlier stages? Secularists have long argued that separating kids into schools based around the religious beliefs of their parents leads to lower community cohesion, and that the government should not be sponsoring such segregation, and the government has effectively admitted that the secularists are right.

 The government is saying it’s not okay to segregate people when they’re in University, but it is okay before that. They’re saying it’s not okay to segregate and indoctrinate people when they’re starting to be capable of fully assessing the world, but it is okay before that. In fact, it’s not only okay: according to the government it is right and proper to segregate and indoctrinate children into their parent’s religious beliefs in order to promote community cohesion. Unless they’re in University; then it suddenly becomes a danger to national security and a breeding ground for terrorists.

How’s about this for an idea: if kids were not, from a young age, told “you’re muslim”, “you’re catholic”, “you’re CofE”, “you’re Hindu” maybe this wouldn’t be such a problem in the first place! If the state didn’t pay for secondary “faith” schools in the first place, then maybe fewer people would want to self-segregate along religious lines later in life. And, hey, without these institutions being funded by the tax-payer, without the ability of these institutions to select their kids to skew their results, maybe parents wouldn’t want to segregate their kids.

Crazy, I know.

Usual tip ‘o the hat to the National Secular Society

Experiments in Astrophotography

January 17, 2008

With the poor weather recently, I haven’t had many evenings recently where I’ve been able to take my telescope out. However, after days of rain, last night proved to be nice and clear – for a couple of hours anyway – which allowed me to experiment with a bit of astrophotography.

My equipment for this is fairly rudimentary, and my experience in taking images of anything other than the moon is practically non-existent; but I did still manage to get a capture of the Andromeda galaxy, of which I am well pleased:

Andromeda Galaxy

Not the greatest image of M31 ever taken, but it’s mine, and it does roughly correspond to what you will see through an 8″ reflector in an urban environment. Anything longer than the 1 minute exposure to get that image, and I get star-trails from a poorly-aligned ‘scope. Spoilt for choice for targets, but lacking in experience in capturing them, I also turned my attention to the moon, which was at first-quater:

Mare Serenitatis

I love taking photographs of the moon. Being so bright, it’s a relatively simple object to capture detail on, requiring exposures of around a second, and through even the most modest of ‘scopes, it’s stunningly beautiful.

Images taken through a Celestron C8 (8″ reflector, 1,000mm focal length) mounted on a C5 GoTo mount, using a Nikon D80, prime-focus with a 2xbarlow lens. Exposure for Andromeda was 64 seconds, for the moon 1.6 seconds

Vatican Censored Shock!

January 16, 2008

The Vatican has cancelled a trip to an Italian university saying:

the protest at La Sapienza had a “censorious tone”

The protest, naturally enough, were regarding the Pope’s view that the trial of Galileo in 1633 was “rational and just”. The result of the trial, of course, was that the church placed Galileo under house-arrest, and banned the printing of his work to ensure that no-one could read it.

On the other hand, the university is simply saying “we don’t want you here”. No one has banned the Pope from voicing his views — and, for that matter, the university itself didn’t ban the Pope, he elected to cancel his visit. But it’s the university that’s the censor because the Pope doesn’t want bad PR? These really are deluded f*ckwits.