Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Religion in South-East Europe

At the January meeting of Stockport Humanists Pavle Mocilac gave a talk on Religion and Humanism in the Balkans (or preferably, "South-East Europe") with the help of some very impressive maps. 

Religion is a major factor in determining politics in South East Europe. Ethnic boundaries did not match the boundaries of the Republics and ethnic characteristics are very complicated so Religion became the basis of the various countries. Thus if a person leaves his/her religion and become an atheist the effect is to deny their national identity. This is treasonous in tribal society. 

When Yugoslavia was ruled by Tito, there was massive secularisation of state and society. There was freedom to practice religion but it was discouraged.  Church properties were nationalised and education was provided by the state. There was a feminist agenda with female voting rights, legalised abortion, 
contraception, healthcare and the right to work. Burqa, Niqabs and Hijabs were discouraged. No churches or mosques were destroyed but interference by the churches in politics was banned and this was strictly enforced. As a consequence there was an increase in non-believers and religion was wiped from politics. 

After the death of Tito and the fall of communism there was liberalisation, democratisation and a return to religion. Many people professed to religious belief to prove they were not communists. There was an economic crisis in 1980-91 and a massive rise in nationalism 1986-90. 

Following the Balkan wars of the 1990s, new states emerged. Constitutionally all the countries are secular but in reality religion plays a big part in them all. 

In 1997-8 Croatia made agreements with the Roman Catholic Church known as The Vatican Contracts, resulting in confessional religious education being introduced in the state public education system. State funding of £30million per year is paid to the church and Clergy and RE teachers are paid by the state.The church can also raise its own funds without paying tax. Politicians are afraid to challenge this because the Vatican contracts have the status of international treaties. 

In Serbia the Government introduced confessional RE into public schools by decree. State funding goes to seven traditional churches but the majority goes to the Serbian Orthodox church. Nationalised properties have been returned, and postal stamps finance the Orthodox Temple. Serbs cannot be atheist or unbaptised so Serbia is being turned into an ‘Orthodox Iran’. The clergy support clerco-fascist and extreme right wing organisations, gay pride is not allowed and women’s rights are under threat. 

Bosnia and Herzegovina has turned into a triple Theocracy with Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim factions. The Wahhabi/Salafi movement is a major threat. At least 150 have gone to fight for ISIS and the radical media openly supports ISIS. 
In spite of all this atheists exist in the former Yugoslavia and belong to such organisations as Atheist and Agnostics of Croatia, Centre for Civil Courage and Movement for Secular Croatia.  

Monday, 9 February 2015

David Hume

The January Meeting of Greater Manchester Humanists was a presentation about David Hume the Humanist Philosopher by Robin Grinter.

David Hume, a Scotsman, was born in 1711 and died in 1776, which coincidentally is the year the US wrote the Declaration of Independence.  He was one of a number of distinguished Scots involved in the Scottish Enlightenment. He was also among other original thinkers of that period in Western Europe whose aim was to shine the light of reason into the darkness of superstition. Other such renowned thinkers were Voltaire from France, Kant from Germany as well as Thomas Paine and Jeremy Bentham from England.  (Voltaire is said to have referred to the Scottish Enlightenment as a hotbed of genius.)

Hume was one of a number of influential thinkers of the enlightenment who were part of an intellectual discussion group that debated philosophical and secular ideas. Others of the group and their respective subjects, of which they were recognised as the founders, were:

Adam Smith – Economics
Adam Ferguson - Sociology
James Hutton – Geology
Joseph Black - Chemistry [this was challenged by members of the audience]
James Barnet - Linguistics 

The view of this group was that their thinking should be practical with a view to improve the world. Only one of the group however was a non believer – Hume.
Although today Hume is recognised as a great philosopher, in his day he was better known as historian. Hume went to university at the age of just 12 but was later unable to pursue an academic career as a professor because of his non-belief; this despite him being something of a monarchist and politically conservative. 
Among his publications were:

An Enquiry into Human Understanding - 1740 
An Enquiry into the Principles of Morals – 1751
Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion - 1779

The latter of these is notable because it examines the concept of intelligent design; it says that design and order in nature is not evidence for the existence of God. Hume was very much a scientific thinker who needed evidence for the belief in anything. He campaigned against speculative thinking, saying that miracles are subjective and violate the laws of nature. 

He believed that common sense could explain the ways of the world: understand why things happen through observation; recognise patterns based on constant connections; predict likely outcomes. But being a realist he accepted that you can never be 100% sure about your conclusions from observation. 

He also questioned the religious view of morality saying effectively that all religions are dogmatic and they can’t all be right. He believed you could be good without God, deriving your morals by looking to reason, to compassion and the benefit both for oneself and society; and to the ability to see right from wrong based on personal observation and experiences.

Another philosophical conundrum he dealt with was that which we might now call free will but which he referred to as freedom of action and the incumbent responsibility of it. He believed we relied on patterns and connections in life to allow us to understand how to act. And while this could result in us always taking the same action given the same patterns and connections (perhaps with negative consequences for ourselves and/or others) we have the ability to recognise the pattern and the freedom to act differently to improve the outcome.