Charlie Hebdo: pencil lines and bullet holes, freedom and religion

Seven days into the new year, 2015, two men dressed in black forced their way into the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris and murdered eleven people. During their escape they shot and killed a police officer before going on the run, hiding out in a print works outside Paris, and were then killed as they emerged from the building with their guns blazing.

The aftermath has seen an ocean of words on terrorism, Islam, free speech, media bias and racism. It’s a useful debate to have, not least for the reason that some uncomfortable truths, on all sides of the argument, have come to light. But there is also a lot of confusion and anger that is clouding any kind of rational analysis.

The thing that has made me most uncomfortable are the articles and comments that question whether Charlie Hebdo was hiding racist and Islamophobic content behind a veil (if you’ll excuse the metaphor) of free speech. I find this attitude highly distasteful – it is tantamount to suggesting the journalists and cartoonists who lost their lives brought the situation upon themselves. It is the equivalent of suggesting that a rape victim is to blame because of the way she dressed, or because she drank too much.

Now, there may indeed be a wider debate to say that women (or men, for that matter) should take some care in social situations, but that does not excuse rape, or even light uninvited fondling of another person’s body. What it does is shine a light on the fact that it’s a sad indictment of society, and male attitudes, that a woman might have to consider these things at all. They shouldn’t have to. It is the perpetrator who is 100% in the wrong.

These people were murdered in cold blood. The only ones to blame are those who wielded the weapons and fired the bullets. Not the cartoonists, not the editor, not France’s free speech laws, not the makers of the AK47 assault rifle, and not Muslims.

Let’s pretend that Charlie Hebdo was a magazine that’s sole intention was to ridicule Islam, that its staff was populated by racists and suspected pedophiles, and, just to top it off, none of them ever bathed and they stank out the Paris Metro every morning on their way to work. Nobody liked them. Does this justify their murder?

I hope your answer is no. If a person feels they are a victim of hate speech or ridicule then there is a system that can be utilised to examine the claim and seek justice. You can take the offender to court. Let’s say the victim wins – should the death penalty be implemented for holding such a racist or hate-filled view? Again, I hope your answer is no. A monetary fine or maybe even a custodial sentence, sure, but as soon as you start taking lives, you become a savage.

It might be argued that the court, or even the law itself, could be biased or corrupt, or that the wronged party could not afford to take the accused perpetrator through the justice system. Even so, there is a better way than shooting someone in the face with a machine gun. Petitions, publicity campaigns, protest rallies, engaging the media – all are likely to elicit a more positive reaction and wider awareness of your cause than wilful slaughter. People might actually listen to you.

Every time someone shares an article that says Charlie Hebdo was a racist magazine, or cries hypocrisy because some anti-Semitic comedian or cartoon got taken to court and banned (not shot, you’ll note), or that two hundred people died in Nigeria and it’s being ignored by ‘the media’ (they usually then link to a BBC or Guardian article about it) and no one’s holding up signs and marching for them (like they did for Iraq in 2003 or Palestine in 2014), they are making an excuse for the murder of twelve innocent people.

The staff of Charlie Hebdo did not bring this tragedy upon themselves and they did not deserve to die.

That’s addressed the question of blame, so now onto the wider debate. Let’s play the game and look at what influences each side might have contributed to this tragic situation. There are two opposing ideas, as I see it: was Charlie Hebdo a racist/hate publication; and did the religion of Islam inspire the murders?

I don’t see strong evidence that Charlie Hebdo was pushing a racist agenda. Its fuzzy edges may have strayed over that line on occasion (cartooning often lampoons physical features, and this can indeed be insensitive, especially if your community is the target), but its raison d’être was satire – ridicule to promote analysis and discourse with the aim, one would hope, of achieving raised awareness leading to an improved situation.

Most people who see satire and misinterpret it as racism are not quite getting it (and many are not even actually seeing it, they just hear about it and then call for an immediate ban). It’s like the character of Alf Garnett in the 1960s and 70s sitcom ‘Till Death Us Do Part – he was created to highlight the absurdity of the racist Little Englander, but for a number of similarly narrow-minded viewers, who missed the point, he was a role model. ‘Till Death Us Do Part was accused by others, who also missed the point, of being racist.

Humour is a very powerful way to criticise bad ideas. Yes, you could write serious tracts analysing the possibility that the Quran, rather than being a book of peace, is a book that inspires some to violence. But satire, through the use of humour, can often make the point so much better. It’s showing rather than telling, one of the golden rules of good storytelling.

Charlie Hebdo was a liberal magazine from the start (in fact before the start, when it was Hara-Kiri) – it supported environmental concerns, free speech, feminism, equality, the rights of minorities and immigrants, social justice, and was anti-fascist and anti-racist. It lampooned all religions, Islam was not singled out.

Covers that often depict what some see as racism (for instance, showing Justice Minister Christiane Taubira as a monkey), are actually criticising racism. Taken out of context, and not knowing the stories (often two current events of that particular week combined), the misinformed and wilfully biased jump directly to the wrong conclusion.

If you can’t see the difference between the anti-Semitic stand-up comedian and friend of the National Front, Dieudonné, joking about urinating on the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem or sending someone to the gas chambers, and a Charlie Hebdo cartoon that shows the Prophet Muhammed lamenting the fact that some of his followers are “jerks” (for their extremist actions in the light of the Danish cartoons), then you’re missing the point.

Anti-Semitism is a form of racism; Jews are an ethnic group not solely defined by their religion. You can be both Jewish and an atheist. You cannot be an atheist Muslim – a Muslim is a person who follows the religion of Islam. It is a choice in a way that your ethnicity is not. You can be an Arab, a Celt or a even a Jew and be a Muslim.

I sometimes question, with my critiques of religion, if I am Islamophobic. Am I afraid of Islam? In some ways, yes, I am. I’m Christophobic too. I am afraid that a set of beliefs based not in evidence, but in blind faith, that are out of step with modern thinking, that are anti-science and anti-humanist, that advocate violence and intolerance based on irrational ideas, that convert people to the ideology through unthinking indoctrination and fear, that condemn me to eternal damnation for not also believing, will screw up this world and the people in it. If climate change doesn’t get us, then some religious war probably will.

But all too often ‘Islamaphobia’ and ‘racist’ are terms used to label those who merely criticise the tenets of Islam. They are hot-button keywords designed to shut down an argument that you don’t like. It’s equal to calling someone a pedophile – it has a power of its own and can stick, a molotov cocktail in a single word.

There was a meme that quickly did the rounds on social media in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders, once the inevitable backlash started against “Je suis Charlie”. It showed the harrowing image of one of the gunmen advancing on the injured policeman, Ahmed Merabet. “In case you are confused”, it said, “this is a terrorist”, pointing at the gunman, and “this is a Muslim”, pointing at the man on the ground.

But that is a false equivalence. One is a terrorist and one is a policeman. One is a Muslim terrorist and one is a Muslim policeman. Both are Muslims.

It’s clear (to most) that not all Muslims are the same, and no Muslim should be obliged to either make excuses or apologise for the actions of an extremist. There is not one Islam. Just like Christianity and the Bible, there are as many interpretations of the Quran as there are Muslims. Each Muslim will cherry-pick from the book, interpret according to their own beliefs, conscience and moral barometer. It is a book that can be used for war or peace – and that makes it problematic.

Radio DJ James O’Brien produced some good radio when he shut down a caller who was demanding a condemnation from the Muslim community. “Your name’s Richard”, O’Brien fired back, “shouldn’t you apologise, on behalf of all Richards, for the actions of shoe-bomber Richard Reid?”.

It was a clever argument, but like the meme mentioned above, not quite logical (all Richards to do not share an ideology). Although I don’t agree with it, I can understand why some people want to know what other Muslims think of the terrorists’ actions. The terrorists made it plain they were avenging their Prophet. Whether you like it or not, they were directly inspired by their faith, and if you have Muslim neighbours or relatives, you may be curious to know where that influence comes from.

The killers were extremists, but extremists of what? What does an extremist cake decorator do? What does an extremist sports addict do? What does an extremist atheist do? What does an extremist Buddhist, Christian or Muslim do? Perhaps religion does have something to do with these terrible events after all.

The move to distance the general Muslim population from the extremists and proclaim that they were not Muslims is an example of the ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy. Islam is often claimed to be a ‘religion of peace’, but a simple read through the Quran and Hadith will soon disavow you of that idea (and the same is true of the Bible). ‘Divine books’ that are open to such a variety of interpretations are plainly imperfect and reveal their mortal origins all too clearly. It is advancing secular reasoning that has mostly tempered the extremes of religion.

You can find justification in the Quran and Hadith to kill those who insult the Prophet Muhammed. You can also find verses that show mercy and compassion within the religion. It all depends on how these passages are translated or interpreted – usually to reflect the taste of the particular ideology of the reader.

Many Muslms are angry. They’re rightfully angry at the terrorists who have dragged their version of the religion, once again, into the mud. Many are ethnic minorities in Europe and experience real racism on a daily basis, so it might be understandable that they confuse criticism of their philosophy – a philosophy that strongly defines them – with racism. But if there’s to be any real debate, reason must prevail – genuine criticism of bad religious ideas must be allowed.

For some, that anger has turned into making excuses for the killers, putting the blame on Charlie Hebdo, or the West, or secularism. Perhaps their faith is not quite as rock-steady as they would like to think. Perhaps the satire of Charlie Hebdo was a little too close to the truth, enough that reasoned argument fails and the accusatory grenades of ‘racism’ and ‘Islamophobia’ have to be thrown.

In the end, it’s an incredibly sad situation. The growing far-right in Europe will use the events in Paris to expand their reach and bolster their hateful arguments;  fearful governments will have an excuse to bring in harsher laws and curb freedoms; religious fanatics will gain followers and claim victory; and everyday Muslims will be under more pressure and experience more prejudice, leading to a decrease in understanding between cultures that should be able to live in harmony. No one wins.

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The child-like faith in reason

At the end of last week, BBC News Magazine posted an article titled A Point of View: The child-like faith in reason by political philosopher John Gray. Gray’s basic assertion is that “believing in the power of human reason requires a greater leap of faith than believing in God” and “to believe that human beings can be much improved by rational argument is to assume that they are already reasonable, which is obviously false”.

He starts with the claim that ‘evangelical atheists’ are constantly ‘promoting’ the idea that religion is childish, but the real truth of the matter is that it’s the other way round, “belief in human reason is childish”. And within just a few paragraphs he brings in the Nazis as proof (oh, Godwin) and has a little anti-EU rant.

The basic argument is easy to refute. Belief in a god or gods relies entirely on faith – there is no supportable evidence for any kind of supreme being that created the world or life on it, who watches us, interferes in our lives, answers prayers, causes events to happen, or who guides and judges our morality. On the other hand, the application of reason has  given us the answers for how the world came to be and how we came to live on it, and why certain events happen, as well as being the most successful method of developing a better moral society. Reason requires far less faith than religion.

What Gray seems to be getting at, however, is that relying on reason is foolish (a more accurate word, I think, than Gray’s provocative childish) – humans are incapable of applying it and improving. This may be partially true (but I’d like to refute that too, in a moment), but to say it is more foolish than religion is plainly daft.

The crux of his argument is that if we applied reason to our past experiences then we should improve, but we don’t, we just keep making the same mistakes. But is religion a better method? Religion is dogma, law set in stone, it doesn’t change. The same rules that were laid down for a set of Bronze Age goat-herders in the Middle East are true, today, for an inner-city banker in central London.

It is the discarding of these ancient, often morally abhorrent (even for their time) ideologies, and the increasing utilisation of reason, I would argue, that has improved our society. Even religion itself cannot ignore the power of reason – all major religions have been tempered by the secular and humanist ideals of equality and justice over the past two or three centuries, and they continue to be influenced today, in direct opposition to many of the laws within their supposedly immutable holy books.

It is, of course, true that human beings are not rational – we know that. In fact it is through the use of reason that we know it, and are often able to distinguish between a rational act and an irrational one. And true, this knowledge doesn’t necessarily stop us from acting irrationally.

Gray says, “science may yet confirm what history so strongly suggests – irrationality is hard-wired in the human animal”. I think science has already confirmed that. We all know of the idea that a person who runs away from a noise in the tall grass, nine times of out of ten of which is merely the wind, will survive and pass on their genes, whereas the person who ‘reasons’ (usually correctly) it is most likely the wind, so doesn’t run, will get eaten by the tiger who was hiding there the one time it wasn’t. Of such evolutionary behaviour are religions made.

Pure human reason would be as robust as the scientific method. Emotion would not get in the way, neither would confirmation bias, herd mentality, programmed habit, or ideological allegiance. All these can play a part in our decisions, personal or social, and none of them are entirely reasonable.

But I know of no atheist or humanist (‘evangelical’ or otherwise) who actually believes we can have some utopian society based entirely on reason. What a reasonable person knows and is aware of is the very fact that humans have these often irrational traits. The improvement has come in recognising them, and applying a better standard to our decisions despite them. It’s gradual, but society has benefited immeasurably.

Expand your human view and we’re better off, largely thanks to reason, in nearly all areas – health, education, equality and justice. Yes, there is still slavery, torture, war, revenge, prejudice and even genocide, but these things are no longer acceptable to society at large, and united international justice is far more effective and fair now than in the past.

The societies who still foster hate along ‘racial’ or sexual lines are generally ones where some form of irrationality (often faith-based) still holds sway at government level. The Nazis, to use Gray’s rather tired example, did not apply reason to their (bad) scientific policies, but prejudice and hate that was born of myth. It is mainly religion that condemns women, homosexuals, and those who are not the ‘chosen people’ of whatever faith – whether it’s Islam, Christianity or Aryan Supremacy.

Gray is very negative. An attitude like his will result in exactly what he propositions – no improvement in human benevolence, social conditions or morals. As individuals we are all subject to our various human follies, but striving for our governments to apply more reason to their policies, small steps – sometimes three forward and two back – will eventually lead to real overall improvements.

Sense About Science have a campaign to Ask For Evidence. The more people who take up this challenge, the fewer places companies and policy-makers who promote pseudo-science have to hide. This is the kind of thing that starts small but eventually reaches the halls where laws are forged. On a bigger scale, Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature uses statistics – and reason – to show that violence has declined and that this is almost certainly due to an age of enlightenment that has gradually and successfully spread.

Our personal experiences are comparable to anecdote and Gray carries out the equivalent of using individual studies to make his point. We should be looking at the meta-analysis, the Cochrane report, to see how we’re doing, and we’re doing relatively well. Reason can be applied as a scientific method to correct our choices. Reason does not require faith. Reason works.

I responded to another BBC Point of View article back in May 2014 – Is it Better to be a Humanist than Religious?

The death sentence in Islam: culture or doctrine?

I was at a family gathering recently when the the news came on the television and two stories were reported, one after the other: the imprisonment and death sentence of Meriam Ibrahim in Sudan, and the stoning to death of Farzana Parveen on the steps of the Lahore High Court in Pakistan.

One of my in-laws, a Muslim, commented, “that’s terrible, but there’s nothing in Islam about this kind of thing, it’s just their culture.” I made light conversation around the subject, but didn’t challenge the statement – he’s a nice person who I didn’t want to argue with or strain our relationship, and anyway, it wasn’t the time or the place for it.

But is it true? Is it true that Islam does not condone death for apostasy, 100 lashes for adultery, and death for marrying against your family’s wishes?

The case of apostasy is clear – those who turn their back on Islam should be killed. True, if you just use the Quran as a guide, the advice is ambiguous. Depending on your view you could make the verses work either way, it’s a matter of interpretation (Quran 2:217, 4:89-91, 9:5, 74, 16:106). But Quran-only Muslims are a tiny minority – indeed many Muslims think ‘Quranists’ are apostates – and should be killed.

So where does the explicit law originate? The answer is the Hadith – the set of books that tell the life of Mohammed, how he interpreted and used the Quran, and therefore what is law for Muslims – and pretty much all Muslims accept the Hadith (though not all Muslims accept all Hadith). Here’s some of what they say:

“If somebody [a Muslim] discards his religion, kill him.” (Bukhari 4:52:260)

“The blood of a Muslim … cannot be shed except in three cases … for murder … a married person who commits illegal sexual intercourse … and one who reverts from Islam and leaves …” (Bukhari 9:83:17)

“Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him.” (Bukhari 9:84:57)

There’s very little interpretation necessary from the Hadith, and it is not an extremist view, it is mainstream Islamic belief.

What about the punishment for adultery? For this the Quran has the answer: “The [adulterous] woman or man found guilty of sexual intercourse – lash each one of them with a hundred lashes …” (Quran 24:2).

But the evidence requirements are strict – four good Muslim (male) witnesses to the act itself (Quran 24:4), something that is pretty much impossible in order to prevent false accusations (not to mention the conundrum of labelling a Muslim ‘good’ if he’s part of a group of men watching someone else’s bedroom antics). However, if the guilty party confesses, then that is admissible – though they can safely retract the confession before any punishment is carried out. (Malik ibn Anas 41:2:13).

There is another form of evidence though, one that is the cause of much injustice and suffering, and that is if an unmarried woman is found to be pregnant then she can be accused of adultery (Bukhari 8:82:816) – a situation that has led, all too often, to women who are the victims of rape being punished.

The Hadith backs up the punishment of 100 lashes (Muslim 17:4192 and others) but also adds death by stoning (Bukhari 8:78:629, 8:82:816, Muslim 17:4192, 4196, 4206, 4209 and others). Actually, the Quran also once reportedly advocated stoning but, rather amusingly, the passage in question was lost after being eaten by a goat (Sunan ibn Majah 9:2020).

What about the issue of marrying against your family’s wishes? This stems from the concept of arranged marriages. A marriage cannot happen without the consent of the woman’s male guardian (Sunan ibn Majah 9:1953-55) – however, the woman must also consent to the marriage (Quran 4:20, though it should be noted that silence is taken as consent (Bukhari 7:62:67)).

Marriages tend to be arranged because private pre-marital courtship is forbidden (Quran 24:3-4, 31-32), a condition that inevitably leads to family-led match-making. There does seem to be a conflict about a woman arranging her own marriage – Sunan ibn Majah 9:1956 says “… no woman should arrange her own marriage. The adulteress is the one who arranges her own marriage”, and we know from above that adultery can be punishable by stoning. But some Muslims look to another Hadith, Bukari 7:62:72, to say that a woman can, in fact, arrange her own marriage, and there are other places where the refusal of a guardian to endorse a woman’s choice can lead to the guardian’s replacement, and that the punishment for killing a believer intentionally is Hell (Quran 4:93, except in those three instances cited above: murder, adultery, or apostasy).

It seems to me, despite some contrary verses and the usual confusion that can be created through individual interpretation, there is doctrinal scope within Islam for using the harshest punishment in relation to a woman going against her family’s marriage wishes.

I would end with one caveat to all this: although religion (not just Islam) does explicitly decree the death penalty for what are, essentially, trivial ‘crimes’, and it can also contribute to (if not actually create) a culture where such penalties can seem justified, violence against women happens all over the world in any number of cultures. Having said that, I think primitive religious attitudes in all societies have a lot to do with the prevalence of misogyny – culture so often has a deep vein of religion running through it, even if it has eventually been smoothed over by more rational, secular attitudes.

A thought on the case of Meriam Yehya

Meriam Yehya Ibrahim Ishag is the Sudanese woman who has been sentenced to death for apostasy – she was born to a Muslim father and a Christian mother and has married a Christian. She has also been sentenced to 100 lashes for adultery because, under Sudan’s Sharia Law, a Muslim woman cannot marry a Christian man, so the marriage is not recognised.

But which is it? If her marriage is void because she’s a Muslim, then she gets the 100 lashes, but she can’t then be accused of apostasy – she’s being recognised and charged as a Muslim. However, if she’s being sentenced for apostasy then that means she has left Islam and is no longer a Muslim, so cannot have committed adultery.

Another example of religious logic (not to mention injustice and barbarism).

Is it better to be a humanist than religious?

In the BBC News Magazine on 24 May 2014, an article appeared entitled A Point of View: Is it better to be religious than spiritual? It was written by Dr. Tom Shakespeare, someone who I have great respect for in relation to his work with disability rights, ethics, and social rights.

And I enjoyed his article here too. He talks about the increase in those who label themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’ (SBNR) but argues that they have perhaps chosen an unsound set of beliefs, concluding that a worldview labelled ‘religious but not spiritual’ would be a far better choice.

This is fine as an idea, but to make it he rejects humanism as being “not positive but negative – it centres on rejecting religion”, and makes the claim that it is religion that makes us socially responsible, offering insights into charity and justice, with humanism (and non-religious spirituality) focussing on self-obsessed individualism.

I would call myself a humanist and I do not recognise humanism as being negative, individualistic, or even centred on the rejection of religion. The British Humanist Association defines humanism with three main points, and all fly in the face of Dr. Shakespeare’s assumption.

Humanists tend not to be religious, that is true, but this is merely a result of the fact that most humanists look to the scientific method and reason to understand the world around them. As religion is largely made up of unfounded, and very often completely irrational claims about the natural world, it is no wonder that the majority of humanists reject religion.

But this is not a negative assertion. It is the by-product of a positive world view that puts trust in human ingenuity and endeavour, both of individuals and from our fellow humans as a social group.

And Humanism is not an individualistic (I can only read this as a euphemism for selfish in this context) stance. Humanists place great importance on empathy for their fellow sentient beings (not just humans, animals too). They tend to believe that we only have one life and we should therefore do our best to make it the best we can, both for ourselves (certainly) but also for those with whom we share our only planet.

At one point Dr. Shakespeare says “without religion, the danger is that an individual thinks that he or she is the centre of the universe”. Apart from the fact that we can’t help but see the world through our own eyes from within our own head, I don’t see religion making any difference to this point of view.

If we take Christianity as an example, many believers think that they are constantly and personally being watched by a god, that it is judging them as individuals all the time, that it will answer their prayers (selfish or charitable), that the Earth was created just for humans to have dominion over, and that there is a special place in Heaven for them – and this is the place, after death, that really matters. (There are probably many ‘christians’ who are actually closer to being humanist than true Christian, especially in the Church of England.)

What about a seemingly more benign religion such as Buddhism? This is very much about the self, the enlightenment of the self and the rebirth of the self – the term ‘navel gazing’ could not be more at home here. Yes, there are charitable and social aspects to Buddhism, as with all religions, but I would argue that is almost as much a by-product of the religion as non-religiousness is of humanism.

Is the humanist view of the world self-centred? Humanists tend not to believe that the world was put here just for us; we recognise that we live in a stupendously vast universe, possibly one of many, in which we are a tiny speck upon a tiny speck; that we have one life but we also have a great responsibility to our fellow humans (and other life-forms) who will come after us.

Here is another quote from Dr. Shakespeare’s article: “If you’re an atheist, I can heartily recommend involvement in religion. It offers a sense of belonging and it offers tradition, which can be reassuring and comforting. It offers discipline, teaching us that there is something outside ourselves to which we should bend our personal will.”

Well, perhaps I can recommend karate? I have been attending karate clubs for almost 30 years now. It is one of the main social events of my week and is deeply mired in tradition, with the formal patterns (kata) being handed down through generations and having roots in the ancient past. It offers reassurance in the form of improved self-confidence. Karate is all about discipline – involving a high work ethic to practice the tiniest details in order to improve technique, but also to foster awareness and respect for your training partners. And it promotes social responsibility too, if that’s what is meant by ‘something outside ourselves’.

If not, then I’m a bit lost. Most atheists don’t accept that there is ‘something outside ourselves’ in any spiritual sense. Bending your ‘personal will’ to ‘something outside’ of yourself brings up several of the more distasteful aspects of religion: acting out of fear, obeying authority without question or skepticism, and sometimes doing morally questionable things for those very reasons.

Dr. Shakespeare is worried that those who are ‘spiritual but not religious’ are subscribing to a pick-and-mix set of beliefs that have nothing to say about charity and justice – unlike traditional religions.

Well, where justice is concerned I would rather keep our more secular moral system than one that stems from, say, the Bible, where stoning to death, slavery, and eternal punishment and torture, among other things, are advocated as forms of justice. If you argue that there are good things in these religions and that very few people adhere to these darker pronouncements, then I’d say you’re subscribing to a pick-and-mix set of beliefs, which is a good thing, and I’m glad your secular, humanist morals are trumping the outdated laws of your deity.

As for charity – does religion make you more charitable? Well, yes, it does seem as though some studies indicate charitable donations tend to be the domain of the religious. But they also show that it is not necessarily the religious aspect that compels this giving attitude – it is more the social construct.

And, the question must be raised, when a religious person gives to charity, is it completely altruistic, or might the donation also be seen as oiling the runners on the escalator to Heaven? It doesn’t really matter – the point is that charity, whatever the motive, helps in the real world, but if you’re arguing for the superiority of religion over humanism in this area, you should tread carefully. Philanthropy is a love of humanity, and what could be more humanist than that?

If we could snap our fingers and vanish religion from the face of the Earth tomorrow, charity would not end. We humans are social creatures, and it is social ties that promote charity, not dogmatic faith.

Taking my earlier example of karate, some of the clubs I’ve been involved with put on events to raise money for charity – something a multitude of secular groups, big and small, do all the time. Personally speaking, I tend to give to charity these days at the behest of those in my own circles, whether asked at social events, or by responding to requests via online networks such as Facebook or Twitter (both of which have been used by many individuals and causes to raise vast sums for charity). Religion offers a fantastic community structure, but without religion, existing secular networks of many kinds would expand and new ones would be created to fill the gaps.

I have a couple of other minor issues with the piece. Dr. Shakespeare says that ‘nones’ (those who answer ‘none’ to religious preference on census returns) are “people who belong to no religion but still believe in God”. This is not accurate – ‘nones’ include atheists (who do not accept the idea of any gods).

I’d also take issue with his description of paganism and Scientology as being “new religious movements”. Paganism covers a wide range of religious beliefs, many of which pre-date Christianity by several centuries. Perhaps he meant Neo-paganism, but that is usually a resurrection of an older religious idea anyway. As for Scientology, I wouldn’t class that as a true religion – a label it mainly uses in order to avoid paying tax wherever possible and to claim religious discrimination at every opportunity. It’s more of a pay-as-you-go self-help course, at best.

My overall response to Dr. Shakespeare’s article, however, is that it’s not religion that makes us socially responsible, caring, empathetic creatures – it is the fact that we are human, and that is what humanism is all about. It is not religion that is good, it is people that are good.