Saturday, 8 May 2010

A response to the loss of Evan Harris.

This is a comment I wrote in response to this article condemning Dr Evan Harris, the Lib Dem MP for Oxford West who sadly lost his seat in the election after a sustained attack by the religious conservatives in the press.

One doesn't know where to start with this. For instance, is Dr Harris "A stranger to principle" or is he a " dogged secularist"? Secular principles are still principles no matter how much you dislike them.

The idea that "his true love was the National Secular Society" shows a real misunderstanding of what politics is. People come into politics in order to change the country. Either they know what that change is in advance and they hope to persuade people to agree, or they plan to listen to the people and decide based on that. Almost all politicians are of the first kind, this is why we need elections. Dr Harris got into politics because of a belief that secular, rational principles are the best way to run a country. He evidently managed to persuade a lot of people of that at the last election. The idea that these principles made him illegitimate is as mad as saying that Ann Widdecombe should have been bared from standing because she was simply a shill for the Catholic Church. One can argue whose principles are better, I for one would argue that a secular, rational approach to the ethical concerns of politics is far better than most of the flatly immoral principles Ann pushes. But neither makes the candidate illegitimate.

"campaign to have people of faith – any faith – swept from the public sphere" You have fundamentally misunderstood the concept of secularism. The principle of secularism is the belief that the state should not have any connection with the church. This was historically a religious movement. If we have a state which is blind to religion, that does not feel itself legitimate in acknowledging the existence of religion or irrelgion, then that state cannot attack minority faiths. The belief that people should not be penalised for their religion is one that can only be recognised by a secular state. If we have a state, such as ours, where some religions are recognised, respected, and have the ability to get laws drafted in their favour, then ipso facto members of all other religions are penalised. For instance, there are specific privileges given to Muslims in this country to wear a mask in public in situations where that would not otherwise be legal. To have this system is to penalise anyone who, for whatever reason other than Islam, wishes to wear a mask in public in an otherwise unacceptable situation. Religious people should celebrate this. If we remove the bishops from the house of lords then we promote the interest of every religion other than CoE by giving them an equal footing (note, nobody is proposing that bishops should not be allowed to stand in their own right, simply that being a bishop in and of itself is not sufficient reason to become part of the legislature). If we promote the interest of one religion we must do down the interest of all others, and if we promote religion per se we must do damage to the interest of the irreligious.

Note that this does not mean religious people should be removed from public any more than the irreligious. Neither Dr Harris nor any other secular person demands this. The point of secularism is that a religious and irreligious person should be treated equally. So when a moral issue comes up from debate religious leaders should only be asked to contribute if they are widely recognised as being moral experts in their own right, not just for their religious status. Each person has the capacity to be wise, religion in and of itself does nothing to this. We should not ask what the clergy think but what those who are morally wise think. If the clergy are worth their salt they will be in this latter category. But the Catholic Church in particular, and the socially conservative wing of religions in general have shown themselves to be very inexpert in morality. Any organisation that can can oppose the spread of condoms is one which should not be listened to on public health issues, this is not a judgement about Catholicism, there are many Catholics who have a morally good attitude to condoms, but rather it is a judgement about the moral expertise of those who claim to be the conscience of the nation. You may notice that this belief that we should not accept the word of the clergy but instead accept the ability of each person to decide for themselves has a name, it's called protestantism. To assume a protestant wants to remove people from the public sphere for being religious is mad, but when the same claim is levelled against a secular person, somehow it seems sensible.

he supported the strange idea that terminally ill people should be helped to kill themselves.That's really not such a strange idea. It is supported by the great bulk of the population of this country. If someone wants to die I for one belief that it is profoundly evil of us to deny them that. To represent the view of many doctors and many of his constituents in this way is not surprising. The reason you find it surprising is your profoundly backward concept of morality. Your beliefs on this are presumably either explicitly religious or based on religious principles. I dont think this makes for good judgement on issues of life and death, it doesn't recognise that the goodness of human life is not an absolute, nor is it universal. People do not all have the same sort of a life, not all of them regard their own life as precious, some are capable of enormous self-sacrifice because they regarded others as more important than themselves. I dont think one can be a martyr and not accept that some things are more important than ones own life. If we then accept that some things are more important than life, and if we accept, as I do, that the desires of people and those things that make them feel independent and free are examples of those things then we must accept that people should be able to kill themselves. It is not hard then to argue that people should be able to ask (not to demand, of course not to demand) that others help them if they are physically unable to do it themselves. This is not a strange idea, it only seems strange to your profoundly odd concept of morality.

A drab, secular determinism was his sole motivation determinism cannot, by definition, motivate anyone. If you believe that your actions are determined then you cannot make any decision, you believe your actions are independent of any decision you make. Also, drab? Really? Secularism is drab? Science is drab? You need to go away and watch Carl Sagan's Cosmos. Watch Prof. Brian Cox's Wonders of the Solar System. Learn anything about the joy and wonder of a world seen through scientific eyes. The natural world is full of joy and wonder and can only be considered drab by someone profoundly ignorant of science.

His political demise will be mourned only by those with a strange fascination for death,” No. Once again you've not understood. Yes, he is praised by the many many people who support euthanasia. But more importantly he will be sorely missed by anyone who thinks that the best running of the country is best answered by people who are scientifically literate. Someone deciding on NHS policy should decide based on evidence, not on superstition, and Dr Harris was a hard-line opponent of magic beans like homoeopathy and chiropractic on the NHS. Those who believe that no-one should be censored if they want to present evidence about fraudulent claims have lost a vital supporter in the case for libel reform. Those who want sex education to be about reality not outdated dogmas have lost a firm advocate for universal sex education. Those who want equality for gays and lesbians have lost. Those who want a decent society run by reason no the church have lost. Those who dont want children being indoctrinated in faith schools have lost. Those who think that public institutions should not be allowed to be bigoted have lost. Parliament has lost. Mourn the loss of a scientist at your peril, you loose things that you literally do not understand.

1 comment:

  1. A good post, thanks. I never had a "favourite" MP until a few months back when I learnt about Dr Harris, initially through his involvement in the campaign for Libel reform. I'm now experiencing a rather unexpected sense of loss. Particularly tragic when you look at the combined vote of the two Oxford constituencies and see LDs the clear winners, yet they have landed one Con & one Lab MP... :O(


Feedback always welcome.