Bibles in Pollock Halls? You’ve got to be joking…

November 6, 2009

Edit: Since writing this, it has come to my attention that the Christian Union actually have nothing to do with the motion (see comment dated 11/11/09). It was proposed by two of their long standing committee members, which is what led to the confusion on my part. I can only apologise for that assumption. Please note, however, that although much of the argument here is misdirected towards the CU, it loses none of its validity.

Unfortunately not. The Christian Union at the University of Edinburgh have put forward a motion for the student association’s AGM to allow themselves or another organisation to put Bibles in each of the bedrooms in Pollock Halls. If you’re a student at Edinburgh University, I urge you to read this post, although it’s likely to be quite long, and if you have a comment, if you disagree or whatever, post it here in the comments thread. I’d like to get a discussion on this motion going and hopefully get a bit of interest so that the necessary 300 students turn up to the AGM and it’s not a complete waste of time for everyone involved.

But first, a bit of history. A few years ago the Student Representatives Council passed a motion banning Gideon or any other religious organisation from putting Bibles in the rooms at Pollock Halls, the student halls. Following that, the CU proposed a motion to the general meeting lifting this ban, which got a majority of the vote, but not enough votes for it to pass (the EUSA system requires that at least 300 people vote for a motion for it to pass, they got 200 and something). This all happened before I was at uni and before the Humanist Society existed, but there are legends that when Gideon were allowed to place their Bibles in the rooms, it resulted in them being thrown out the window, torn to pieces or even in some cases burnt. I’m not exactly in favour of that but it demonstrates how a lot of students feel about evangelising on campus.

Anyway here’s a copy of the motion as it is now. As far as I can tell it hasn’t been amended so this is what will go before the general meeting. Seeing as I’m not in Edinburgh and won’t be able to attend the meeting, all I can really do about it is post a point-by-point rebuttal of what is says. This is more or less the argument I would give if I were to speak, and if I were given more time than you’re allowed at that meeting.

So, first up

The association notes: Article 9 (Freedom of thought, conscious and religion and freedom to manifest such beliefs in public and private) and Article 10 (Freedom of expression which includes the freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers) of the European Convention of Human Rights which is incorporated into UK law by the Human Rights Act 1998.

That’s absolutely true, it does say that. This is no doubt an inclusion of one of the proposers of this motion, law student David Nixon, who even managed to use the right to freedom of assembly to justify denying non-Christians access to the Christian Union earlier this year. That was bizarre, twisted logic and so’s this. He’s trying to use the right to freedom of conscience and expression to justify leaving a Christian text within the privacy of someone’s room. You have the right to express your opinion, you don’t have the right to come into my living room and do it. Interestingly, the motion doesn’t mention the second point to each of these articles, which states that these rights may be subject to conditions or restrictions in order to preserve the rights of others, among other things.


The association believes: That the Bible has had a powerful impact on Scottish Culture and is useful to the study of many disciplines including literature, history, law, social anthropology, classics, divinity and philosophy.

That’s true as well (although I’m not sure how it’s useful for the study of law – it is, of course, a perfect example of how not to do philosophy), but so what? Would you use it to justify putting the complete works of Robert Burns in every room in Pollock? The Bible is available online (this point will come up repeatedly, just to warn you), as well as in the library. Anyone needing access to it has it right there at their fingertips.

That many religions, philosophies and spiritualities respect the contents of the Bible.

Most of them consider it blasphemy, actually. Regardless, this is a popularity argument and has no place in a motion of this type.

That many students have taken comfort in a Bible passage in times of distress and this is important given that the University Chaplaincy Centre is only open 9am – 9pm weekdays and is only staffed 9am-5pm.

Let’s take a look at that claim, shall we? Nightline is also open throughout the night, but let’s leave that aside for a minute. What are common causes of distress? Maybe being a member of a disadvantaged or minority group? Say there’s a student who’s gay, but having only just moved to university, noone there knows. Quite a difficult situation, I’d say. Now say that student opens the Bible and discovers that according to that philosophy, they deserve to be put to death. Not exactly ideal. The same kind of discrimination found in the Bible refers to women, pagans, and anyone who’s not a Christian. This isn’t exactly the kind of thing that should be allowed to be placed in people’s rooms. Those who do want to consult the Bible can do so online, or in the library.

That by providing the Bible and other Scriptures the University is not necessarily promoting the contents of such texts but merely making a service available to students. There is nothing to prevent the university or EUSA attaching stickers to any books placed in Pollock making clear that the University does not endorse the views contained within such books.

Yes, it would be making a service available. A service that is already widely available on the internet, or in the library. Hardly one that is lacking at the moment.

5. That it is in the interests of promoting religious diversity and promoting freedom of expression and religion that EUSA do not prevent Bibles being placed in rooms in Pollock.
6. That the University should be a free market place of ideas and as such no view should be suppressed or censored. True tolerance would allow all views a chance to be fairly represented and would not ban the distribution of any books.

Erm, starting with number 5, no it’s not. It’s in the interest of freedom of expression and conscience to allow people to believe and express themselves as they wish in public or private. This is completely contrary to allowing people to impose the Bible onto people who aren’t interested or who hold different beliefs.

As for number 6, the Bible is not being censored. As I’ve said several times now, the Bible is available online and in the library; the University is in fact actively making it available. To claim, therefore, that it is being censored, is nothing short of ludicrous. In addition, the distribution of the Bible has not been banned. The CU is free to, and regularly do, distribute copies of their religious texts. I have 7 copies of John’s gospel given to me by members of the CU. Unless they’ve been taken away since I was last there, there’s a big box of them underneath the stairs in George Square Lecture Theatre, the very building where the AGM will take place! The only difference between them distributing them on campus, and putting them in people’s rooms, is that when they’re distributing them, people can say no. This motion just allows religious groups to push the Bible or other religious texts onto people who otherwise wouldn’t want it.

That any group or society representing any particular point of view who wish to provide literature to be placed in every room in Pollock should be allowed to do so providing the books are made available freely at their own expense.

Oh so we’re not just talking about religious groups? So why don’t we allow the Socialist Society to put a copy of the Communist Manifesto in each room? Of course in response, the Conservative and Unionist Society will want a copy of their literature in the rooms too, and so will any other organised group out there. The University already has this kind of resource available, it’s right next door to George Square and it’s called the Main Library! But that last part, about the books being made available freely “at their own expense” is an interesting addition, I wonder why they put that in? Could it be that they know the CU, with its large membership and funded by the UCCF, is the only group on campus that would be able to afford such a project? Methinks so. More on that later.

The Association resolves: To mandate the President of EUSA to represent these views to Accommodation Services so that the situation can be returned to what it used to be prior to the SRC deciding Bibles
should be removed from Pollock.

You mean returned to what it was before progress was made, right?

Secularists tend to have two responses to this kind of problem. The first, very prominent in the States, would be to allow every group, religious or not, to put their book in the rooms. This is how ludicrous situations like the Washington State nativity scene come about. The second would be to not allow any groups to do it. I favour that option, and here’s why. It doesn’t matter if you give access to all groups, the big fish will always be able to dominate, in this case the CU will be able to put the Bible in the rooms and other groups will struggle. Then we’re back to the situation, where one group is favoured over another, that we were trying to avoid in the first place!

So that is why we shouldn’t pass this motion. Agree? Disagree? Put your comments here!

There are also a number of other motions going through the AGM which are of interest. One is about taking action against Israel, and another is about not giving a platform to discriminatory groups on campus. Maybe I’ll put a similar post up about that one. But regardless of where you stand on any of these issues, go to the AGM and vote! It’s on the 17th November 7pm in George Square Lecture Theatre.

Disillusioned with democracy

February 25, 2009

More specifically student democracy, but there are wider implications too. First of all the Dutch MP was banned. Then when Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church were supposed to be coming over, they got banned. I don’t agree with these people, but what the hell happened to free speech?

Anywho last week was the EUSA AGM. I always make sure I’m at these meetings and stay to the end, but this time I was in London for the AHS Launch, so instead I encouraged everyone I knew to go to kind of make up for it. Attendance is particularly important because in order for any decision to be binding, 300 people are required to vote in favour of it, or a 2/3 majority, whichever is higher ( 300 is always higher because we never get anything like 450 people). Since I’ve been here we’ve struggled to get those 300 people. And this particular AGM was really important because one of the motions was to allow referenda to take place over the internet, which would mean we’d never need the 300 people again. Out of something like 25,000 students, this should not be difficult. I got back from London and didn’t hear anything about it, so assumed that it went off without a hitch.

Then the Student paper came out and the headline was “Apathy mars General Meeting”. 180 people showed up to the meeting! Out of 25,000 students! So nothing whatsoever got passed with the numbers needed, instead it was just “the will of the students”, which effectively means nothing. I was thoroughly depressed. A few pages in was more bad news for democracy. The EUSA elections are coming up and a large number of the positions on the SRC have either not been applied for at all (!) or have only one candidate and will return uncontested. Ridiculous! What’s more, some of the sabbatical positions have only had 2 nominations! These are well paid positions which involve taking a year out of uni and vastly improving your job prospects upon graduation, there should be a queue to nominate.

And then, to cap things all off, the Christian Union tabled an amendment a week or so ago which would mean only people who could sign a declaration of faith would be able to join the society. The declaration reads:

In joining the Union I declare my faith in Jesus Christ as my Saviour and Lord, and I shall seek both in my life and in thought to be ruled by the teaching of the Bible.

This goes explicitly against EUSA rules which state that membership should be open to all students of the university. So I let them know my objection and in coordination with EUSA, they changed it so that anyone could join, but only people who sign the declaration can vote on governance issues. Obviously this is far from democratic, only certain people are allowed to vote? It’s blatant discrimination on religious grounds, surely? So I replied and complained again, this time also to Naomi Hunter, VPSA, saying that the new amendment may fit the wording of the EUSA constitution, but certainly not the spirit. ‘Sure, you can join the society and pay your membership, but you can’t have a say in what goes on, you’re not a Christian!’ Brilliant. What happened to one member one vote? Redefining what a member is in order to slide around the EUSA constitution is unacceptable, and EUSA say it’s fine. So I’m pissed off.

Is Faith in God a Delusion?

September 24, 2008

Just a quick one today because I have a lecture soon. Last night I attended a debate between Alistair McBay from the NSS and David Robertson, author of The Dawkins Letters, entitled ‘Is Faith in God a Delusion?’ Frustratingly, neither party seemed intent on answering the question at hand. Basically, Alistair pointed out a few of the strange things that religious people believe, and outlined the position of the NSS in its fight against the “religious demand for inequality”. David replied by repeatedly calling atheism a “faith” and a “religion”, saying that to a certain extent you have to take everything on faith. His main point, however, was that when you’re talking about this kind of thing, you can’t take in your own preconceptions about what you can count as evidence. This is what I want to discuss.

His inclusion of the word ‘preconceptions’ of course makes atheists sound closed-minded. But I’d like to meet the Christian who approached the subject totally open-mindedly, examining all the evidence not only from science but also from all religions and cultures around the world, and rationally came to the conclusion not only that God exists, but specifically the personal Christian God who intervenes in our lives on a day to day basis. I doubt it would ever happen.

The fact is that although there is no definitive boundary between what we can class as evidence and what we can’t, there is a spectrum as to what we can count as good evidence and what we can count as bad evidence. Here are the 10 evidences for the existence of God as Robertson lays out in The Dawkins Letters, as taken from the blog “Why Believe

  1. Creation
  2. The human mind and spirit
  3. Our inbuilt moral law
  4. The existence of evil
  5. Human desire to find God through ‘religion’
  6. Personal experience
  7. History
  8. The true Church
  9. The Bible
  10. Jesus as revealed through the Gospels

Now, let’s be honest, a lot of this isn’t what we would call good evidence. Some of them are the same idea repeated, some of them are just as good evidence for God as against, some of them don’t really make sense at all. It just so happens, apparently, that all the good, hard, tangible evidence is on the side of science, whereas the soft, mushy, bad evidence is on the side of religion. And Robertson seemingly expects us to give them each equal weighting. I disagree. Maybe later when I have more time I’ll go through each of these evidences one by one.


September 16, 2008

Faith is a strange thing, something we as humanists are generally opposed to. That sounds sad to a lot of people on the street, because ‘faith’ is so often used as a synonym for ‘trust’. But let’s be clear here, faith is a specific type of belief which goes beyond what the evidence says.

The reason I bring this up is because we had a conversation at the Chaplaincy Fayre today with Jack from the Christian Union. He started off by plugging one of their joint events with the Philosophy Society (which I’d also like to mention), which is called “Is Faith in God a Delusion?” It’s a debate on the subject between 2 fairly big names; Alistair McBay from the National Secular Society and David Robertson, author of ‘The Dawkins Letters’. It should be good, I’ll be there, it’s THIS TUESDAY 23rd September at 6.15pm in the George Square Lecture Theatre at Edinburgh University. Be there if you can.

Anyway so he was talking about the discussion they had deciding whether to use the word ‘faith’ or ‘belief’ in the title. It was interesting because he said the discussion was about whether to define belief in God as a belief or a faith position, but in my mind it doesn’t matter, that’s the subject matter of the debate. I would say that any faith is delusional by definition (after all, faith has been described as “an illogical belief in the improbable”), and so ‘belief’ would be the correct word to use, with the debate itself dealing with whether belief in God is logical or specifically a faith position. That in turn will determine whether it is delusional or not.

In any case that was merely the first sentence of our discussion. Jack denied that belief in God is a faith position because there’s plenty of evidence for the existence of God. We of course enquired what that was and he told us that the “rational information” of the universe was evidence enough to imply an intelligent designer. By that I presume he means that the universe is so complex it couldn’t have come about by ‘chance’. So then we realised we were talking to a creationist and gave other examples of rational information coming from an intelligent force, such as peanuts in a jar sorting themselves out through gravity with the smallest at the bottom, pebbles on the beach having the smallest ones furthest up the beach, craters on the moon as well as clouds that look like things. But he was having none of it. We also gave examples of how things are badly designed, such as the human eye, but he said he wasn’t commenting on the level of intelligence involved (even though he’s saying his perfect God did it :/).

We then got onto the problem of evil, and he said that it’s a punishment from God from the Fall. I said that there are a lot of innocent people who suffer, and the amount that people suffer isn’t proportionate to their sin, so what kind of judicial system does God run? Jack said it’s an imperfect system because the world has been corrupted by sin, and God’s waiting for everyone to repent before he fixes it. In the meantime he judges after death.

Now see, the problem is that a lot of people think that as long as the existence of God is possible, it’s perfectly rational to believe, regardless of whether things can be explained naturalistically. In fact, Occam’s Razor says that we should go with the option that presupposes the least, so even though the naturalistic option may seem against the odds, it’s better odds than presupposing the existence of an invisible, all powerful entity, for which we have no evidence whatsoever. Anyway, a bit of a ramble today. I apologize.

Cultural religion

June 17, 2008

I feel this one’s going to be a bit of a ramble, I have a few things I want to get in.

I find it strange that there are so many different grades of religion. I’m speaking mainly about Christianity here, as usual, and not in the denominational sense. On the one hand there is Christianity, as in the belief that Jesus Christ is the Son of the God of Moses and Abraham, but on the other there is ‘cultural Christianity’, where someone is a Christian only in the sense that they keep Christian traditions such as Christmas and Easter, although they do not believe in God or the Jesus of faith, as I like to call it. Among these we can count Richard Dawkins who says he sings Christmas carols because it’s a part of his culture. Some apologists may find it strange that such an oft-quoted uber-atheist would refer to himself as a cultural Christian, but I think it shows that Dawkins is a voice of reason rather than an illustration of the far end of an anti-religious spectrum. Personally, although I’ll happily spend Easter and Christmas with my family, I specifically opt out of the traditionally religious aspect, such as carols (which I’ve always seen as a form of prayer), and attendance at Christmas mass (particularly difficult in my family, but I don’t want to make it look like there are more practicing parishoners than there actually are). Strangely, I have no issue with singing along to Bob Marley, despite the religious imagery.

I was visiting a friend at Durham University last week. Durham is a beautiful city, but everywhere you look you see some symbol of religion, whether it’s the Cathedral, one of the seemingly millions of church buildings (which are actually still churches, as opposed to Edinburgh where they’re more likely to be kitchen showrooms), or the cemetery. My friend told me that the Christian Union go out of their way to convert students, staying behind after meals to talk to those who are still in the room, and using their late night toast-supplying events to try and convert drunks before they go back to bed. I looked forward to a full blown debate but it seemed most of them had gone home for the summer, and the only person who approached me had nothing to do with the University. This is an example of genuine Christianity, the evangelical wing, rather than the take it or leave it approach of the cultural Christians.

I was on my way to the train station when a guy in a sash handed me a leaflet advertising a DVD. I glanced at it and noticed the title (paraphrasing – it appears an over-zealous neat freak has thrown the leaflet out. I’m looking for it online but no luck) ‘The Christian Institution of the Family: A Dynamic Instrument for Changing Society for the Better’, and stopped in my tracks.

I went back to this guy in the sash (who turned out to be American), and asked if his group was involved in the making of this DVD. Of course, was his reply, so my first question was “why does it say ‘Christian Institution of the Family’?”
“I don’t know what you mean”
“Well, do you for some reason believe that people didn’t have families before Christianity?”
“Oh of course they did, but Christianity really introduced marriage and monogamy.”
“So what you’re saying is that before Christianity, people had never heard of the concept of staying with one partner?”
“Err… well… not really, but Christians made it more commonplace”
“So this ‘Christian Institution’ is really more of ‘Christian tweak’ on an already existing institution. It’s a bit of an outlandish statement to take claim for something that was already there in the first place, don’t you think?”
“Well there are statistics on monogamy and success of the family unit, correlated with the Christian tradition, on the DVD”
“I’m sure there are but Christianity has flourished in Europe, America and Oceania, three of the richest areas in the world. I’m sure there are other reasons behind those statistics. Don’t you think it’s more likely that monogamy and the tendency to stay with one’s partner and family is a product of evolution, rather than a religion?”
“Oh, I don’t believe in evolution, Sir.”

On the other hand, I was in the pub with a friend of mine who I’ve known since I was 4, and her boyfriend, neither of whom are churchgoers. We got talking about the whole Catholic vs Protestant thing which is so prevalent in my area, and the boyfriend said “I don’t define myself as either, I just call myself a Christian”. I replied “I always say I was brought up Catholic, but I’m not a Christian anymore.” This led to a quick argument with my friend who was adamant that I am a Christian, simply because I was brought up Catholic and went to Catholic schools, regardless of whether I believed in Jesus Christ or not.

There’s a danger. Many people (admittedly those who care least about such issues) cannot or do not differentiate between a cultural Christian and a genuine one, and so it can be dangerous to label ourselves using the word Christian when we do not hold the specific beliefs that define a Christian. There are many people who’ll happily put down on a form that they’re Christian when they don’t believe in God, which elevates the status of religion in our society, and gives it an influence inflated above that it deserves.

Christians on the March

February 24, 2008

I’ve been meaning to blog this for a few days now but I’ve been writing essays. It’s become clear that the evangelical wing of Christianity is becoming much more active in the UK. Before, Christianity was something you could choose to partake in, or to ignore, but more and more I’ve noticed people going out trying to convert people.

Take Thursday, for example. I was eating my lunch in the Student Union, minding my own business, when 2 people came up to me asking if they could talk to me about “spirituality”, as they put it. “Sure,” I thought, “but it’ll be the biggest grilling you ever get”. The 2 Canadian students were from an organisation called Agape, associated with the Christian Union somehow (incidentally the CU have also had a marquis up in the Meadows to try and get Christianity out there a bit more).

They started off by asking about me personally, trying to get me to like them so they look like the nice guys. Then all of a sudden it turned to religion. “So,” he said, “do you have any kind of spirituality?” I replied with my position that I’m a humanist, which I had to explain, and then that basically I don’t believe anything unless I have a good reason to believe it, and evolution explains my existence (as an aside, this guy said he studied biology, but I had to explain macro-evolution to him) so I don’t need to invoke a creator God. “You believe you’re here because of chance?” Argh! Just because there’s no intelligent force behind it, doesn’t mean it’s chance!

“But if God exists” -big if – “do you think he loves us all?”. Well if he does he’s got a funny way of showing it, there are good innocent people in Africa living hellish lives, and the world is full of evil, so I don’t see how he can possibly love us all.

Quickly moving on, the guy (can’t remember his name for the life of me), then explained that there’s a big gap between God and us, and that gap is because of sin, and we are all sinful. I told him that I have a problem with thinking of myself as “sinful”, just because I’m not perfect; generally speaking I’m quite a good person.

Again , pretty much ignoring what I said, he went on to say that Jesus is the only way to bridge the gap between man and God, and it doesn’t matter how good we are on our own, without Jesus there is no way to bridge the gap, as it says in John 14:6 (John seemed to be a particular favourite of his). I asked one of my old favourite questions, how can you be sure that you are right, but the Muslims at the mosque down the road are wrong? For every quotation from the Bible that you have supporting your worldview, they have another from the Koran which supports theirs.

“Well the thing is,” he said, “Jesus is just so perfect that he must be right, and he died in our place.” I had issues with the Jesus being perfect thing but my main point was, how do you know that Jesus died in our place? How do you know he didn’t just… well die?  Because he believes in the Bible, was his answer. I explained to him just how unreliable the gospels are, that they were written a long time after Jesus died (Mark was the first written, and that was 30 years after Jesus died, all the others were much longer after that, and most of those were based on Mark’s account). “But wouldn’t you prefer to have an eyewitness account?” he replied. Yeah I would, but unfortunately that’s not what we have in the Bible. This guy seemed totally unaware that the gospels were not written by the apostles themselves and I pointed out that there are many parts where Jesus is alone, so how do we know what he did? None of the apostles were there when he was born, for example, or when he was in the desert, and in Luke’s account of the ascension it specifically says that it’s not an eyewitness account. So the only written record we have of Jesus’ ministry is a collection of myths, legends and hearsay.

The next part was almost pitiful. He brought up CS Lewis’ argument that Jesus was either lunatic, liar or Lord. Again, I’ve shot this down so many times, but my theory is that he was actually none of these, but was merely a normal man who did exist, a great teacher, but he was lied about in order to make him fulfil the Old Testament prophecies. It’s entirely appropriate, the Jews needed the Messiah to free them from slavery, and some of them were getting desperate.

“But the Bible is historical fact!” he replied. Apparently they found some books in an old library (at least that’s what he claimed), which verified the whole story. Then when he started to make sense, he said that biographies of kings at the time, for example, mention that Jesus was around. But that doesn’t make him the Son of God. Let’s look at it from another view, using the same argument. The gospel account says that Jesus rose Lazarus from the dead. If this actually happened, do you not think that the news would spread like wildfire across Palestine? Do you not think that historians of the day would think it worthy of putting it into their journals, that a man was raised from the dead? And yet there is no record of it outside the Bible. Hmm…
So I had a problem with pretty much everything he said, and I asked him questions that he’d obviously never even considered before. He was just a young guy that didn’t really know what he was talking about, he approached converting me just as he would have an on-the-fence agnostic who’d never really thought about it, and I’m sure that if he thought about his beliefs objectively, he’d be an agnostic. The only way he managed to get through our conversation with his beliefs intact was by ignoring my arguments.

I know this isn’t very constructive, but it’s just so frustrating when people come to you with half arsed arguments that haven’t been thought through, with smug moral attitude. At one point he actually said “if only you knew what I know”. Come back when you’re willing to have an open-minded conversation.