Britain Defends the Enlightenment

Despite the ongoing schism of the Anglican church, which I wrote about in my last post, I’m happy to see that there’s still plenty of good sense and reason in the U.K. One outstanding example is this story from last month, where the British Medical Association voted to stop funding homeopathy in public hospitals. (UK readers, do you know if is this a binding vote or just advisory?) There’s been some trenchant commentary on the decision, like this column from Ed West:

The most outspoken supporter of the motion, Dr Tom Dolphin, had earlier compared homeopathy to witchcraft, but then apologised to witches on the grounds that this was unfair. Homeopathy, he said, was “pernicious nonsense that feeds into a rising wave of irrationality which threatens to overwhelm the hard-won gains of the Enlightenment and the scientific method”.

And from Martin Robbins, responding to a supporter of homeopathy:

Apparently ‘thousands’ of people – including Peter Hain’s son – get better after taking homeopathy. This is absolutely true, but the problem is that most people get better anyway, whether you give them antibiotics, homeopathy, or a slap to the face. Humans tend to be quite good at healing themselves. Once you control for this sort of variable, the outcomes are much clearer…. the more rigorously we test homeopathy, the more it fails.

By way of response, defenders of homeopathy are reduced to reading from a by-now-familiar script:

Apparently… I’m displaying what Dr Le Fanu describes as “Dawkinsite arrogance”, but there’s nothing arrogant about researchers collectively testing ideas and accepting the results. What’s arrogant is to ignore evidence when it doesn’t produce the result you expect. Particularly when that evidence has been accumulating for two centuries – a period of time in which homeopaths apparently haven’t even managed to agree on how much you have to shake the vial.

Yes, that’s right – in two hundred years, homeopaths haven’t gotten around to figuring out how many times a homeopathic remedy has to be “succussed” (i.e., shaken) in the course of dilution to activate its supposed curative powers. Do you really want to take medicine from people who can’t be bothered to perform even the most basic tests on their own ideas? And what does it say about the homeopaths’ level of devotion to scientific rigor that they’ve never even tried to determine this?

And this isn’t the only good news out of England. It seems that Colin Hall, the recently elected mayor of Leicester, is a nonbeliever, and he’s taken some commendable steps toward ending Christian privilege in his town:

Writing in this month’s edition of the Leicester Secularist, the journal of the city’s Secular Society, Cllr Hall, who will serve as Lord Mayor for the 2010-11 municipal year, said: “Contrary to the myths that certain organisations like to promote, the practice of observing prayers at the start of council meetings is a relatively recent one.

“I am delighted to confirm that I will be exercising my discretion as Lord Mayor to abolish the outdated, unnecessary and intrusive practice.

“I personally consider that religion, in whatever shape or form, has no role to play at all in the conduct of council business… This particularly applies in Leicester, where the majority of council members, myself included, do not regularly attend any particular faith service.”

Although Hall’s decision appears to have gone over smoothly with the majority, there was some predictable squawking from pushy Christians who are unhappy that their special rights are being taken away:

A Fellowship Pastor, Ian Jones, said: “I find it deeply sad that anyone would want to suppress the rights of others to pray.

“If someone has a problem with this practice, could they not simply join the meeting once it is over?”

Although the U.K. as a whole is friendly to reason, it seems its pastors suffer from the same disease that’s endemic in America – the belief that they have the right to force their religion on others and that their free speech is being suppressed if they’re denied this. I have a better idea, Pastor Jones: why don’t you do your own praying before the meeting if you want to, and spare everyone else the wasted time of listening to your superstitious mumbling?

This isn’t Mayor Hall’s first action standing up for the rights of nonbelievers. He’s hired the president of the local secular society to serve as the town’s chaplain. When he took office, he also refused to take part in a service at Leicester Cathedral to ceremonially welcome him into his new role. As he wrote on Twitter, “Bear in mind though, I am Lord Mayor for all people of Leicester and not just those from the Church of England.”

Hall’s decision to stand up for secularism and conduct the people’s business without giving special privileges to religion is a wonderful breath of fresh air, and something I wish we’d see more of in America. And for truth’s sake, the U.K.’s current deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, is an atheist! You British people are just out to make us look bad, aren’t you?

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Valhar2000

    You British people are just out to make us look bad, aren’t you?

    Well, that’s not particularly hard, what with all the work that your own previous presidents, congresspersons and elected officials at all levels of government have put into making this happen for the last few decades.

    There are many truly great things in America, but they are buried under a lot of manure right now. It’s just that most Americans don’t notice this because they are used to the stench.

  • Katie M

    @Valhar-Some of us have noticed. Believe me.

  • Andrew G.

    It’s worth noting that Leicester is one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse cities in the UK (outside of London itself), and even going by census figures (which tend to reflect cultural identity rather than actual religious belief or observance) Christians are not a majority there. So the squealings of offended Christians are especially inappropriate.

  • Eurekus

    ‘And for truth’s sake, the U.K.’s current deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, is an atheist! You British people are just out to make us look bad, aren’t you?’

    Well they don’t make Australians look bad. Our new Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, is an atheist who refuses to pander to religious fools to secure their vote. She’s actually not our first atheist PM, but we were well overdue for another.

  • Ruana

    You British people are just out to make us look bad, aren’t you?

    Dammit, they’re onto us! Igor, activate Plan C immediately!

    (Why Plan C? Well, Plan A was not losing the War of Independence in the first place…)

  • Ritchie

    …the British Medical Association voted to stop funding homeopathy in public hospitals. (UK readers, do you know if is this a binding vote or just advisory?)

    Sadly this does indeed seem merely advisory. British doctors have been trumpeting for years against homeopathy being funded on the NHS, seeing as it recieves an estimated £4million a year – money which would otherwise be going towards, say, hospitals, equipment and ambulance services.

    But then homeopaths do have some friends in high places, including our King-in-waiting Prince Philip, who tends to embrace cultural diversity and alternative ideas without checking to see if they’re actually bonkers a little too readily. All together now: Long Live the Queen!

    By the bye, this made me laugh: back in January a group in London (which included/was led by genuis Dave Gorman, for those who know of him) staged a protest against homoepathy called the Overdose Event which did exactly what it sounds like: the group took bucketloads of homeopathic remedies at once to attempt a mass overdose! Love it!

    http://www.1023.org.uk/the-1023-overdose-event.php

  • Reginald Selkirk

    A shout out to Charles Bradlaugh

    Charles Bradlaugh (26 September 1833 – 30 January 1891) was a political activist and one of the most famous English atheists of the 19th century. He founded the National Secular Society in 1866.[1]

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.com Steve Bowen

    King-in-waiting Prince Philip Charles

    But to be fair his dad is almost as loony.

    Charles protested this back in February when a similar recommendation was made by an MP’s committee. At the time Professor Edzard Ernst, of Peninsula Medical School in Plymouth, attacked the prince’s foundation, saying:

    “UK healthcare should not be determined by the Prince of Wales, often strange and confused concepts of medicine or science.”

    which is about as much credibility as he deserves.
    Given the current governments tight fiscal policy I don;t think it will be long before this funding is withdrawn although as far as I know the spend is not that much, about 4 million GBP I think.

  • Ritchie

    D’OH!! Well caught, Steve.

  • L.Long

    “then apologized to witches on the grounds that this was unfair. ”
    I should hope so! Yes in many ways Wicca is as daffy as any religion but the wise women did try to find aid and comfort (& death) in their many herbal brews.
    Where homeopaths are just plain straight out frauds.

  • http://steve.mikexstudios.com themann1086

    I’m not gonna lie, I laughed out loud at the “apologized to witches” bit. That’s a classic.

  • Steve Bowen

    I’m pretty sure I’ve said this before here, but having once been married to a “wiccan” and spent a lot of time in the company of witches, they are oddly quite a rational bunch. For the most part they do not actually believe in the substance of the supernatural component. It is more a creed or way of thinking; A Louise Hay stylee type of positive approach to life. Plenty of woo to ridicule sure, but not a bad attitude to have,

  • Tom

    “If someone has a problem with this practice, could they not simply join the meeting once it is over?”

    This disgusts me. There’s nothing stopping anyone praying, by himself, on the way to the meeting, or turning up ten minutes early and doing it in the hallway before it starts. He could have just suggested that. Even if I were in his position and not an atheist who doesn’t give a crap about religion, I would have suggested that. That way, people who want the actual meeting to start on time, and have no particular desire to talk sincerely to thin air for ten minutes before getting down to actual work, can get on with it on schedule.

    Instead, this jerk asks that everyone else presumably sit in the corridor while the devout use the meeting room as their own private, mini-church during working hours. Essentially, he wants those who choose to insert religious ritual into their working day to be able to do so, which is fine, but he wants those who don’t to actually shoulder any of the inconvenience and wasted time caused by it, which bloody well isn’t.

  • Zietlos

    There’s a saying here in Canada about that Tom: “Pensionable hours.”

    Whenever people are forced, on someone else’s dime (or paycheck), to do something stupid or waste tons of time and/or effort when there are more effective pursuits, the traditional response is merely to repeat the mantra “pensionable time”. They’re getting paid, after all. I’ve worked in customer service, they pay you to take verbal abuse and be bored out of your skull. Likely all the other people who are forced to stand around during prayers or whathaveyou, do the same thing I did: calculate how much I make per minute, and just count pennies as the time goes by.

    In a way, a prayer time is horribly insensitive too, if you think about it. Why are christian prayers more important than islamic ones? I know for a fact there are many witches out there, maybe a wiccan prayer as well would be good. I also know one person who actually adheres their best to the Norse mythos, so they definitely need a quick poem reading, at least. The Hindu population is quite high around here as well, toss in some more gods. And finish it off with a jewish prayer and then a tribute to the Flying Spaghetti Monster, RAmen. We can have easily five hours of “opening prayers”, only one being relevent to any given religion, it would be equal then, and quickly all of the religions, except possibly FSM because they’re mostly trolls, would agree to pray on their own time, and not, as it is said, pensionable time.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    There’s nothing stopping anyone praying, by himself, on the way to the meeting, or turning up ten minutes early and doing it in the hallway before it starts.

    But that’s discrimination.

  • Penguin_Factory

    The most outspoken supporter of the motion, Dr Tom Dolphin, had earlier compared homeopathy to witchcraft, but then apologised to witches on the grounds that this was unfair.

    I believe this is what’s referred to on the internet as an “epic win”.

  • Andrew G.

    Census figures on religion for Leicester: 45% Christian, 24% no religion or not specified, 15% Hindu, 11% Muslim, 4% Sikh, 1% others (notably Buddhists, Jains, Jews).

    (Note that less than 1 in 5 (possibly less than 1 in 10) of people who answer “Christian” on the census actually attend any church or have anything more than a vague cultural affinity for it. Nationally, that figure runs at 71%, while CofE church attendance (even once-per-year) runs at under 5%. For other religions this gap between census figures and actual practice is much smaller.)


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