Sunday, 18 October 2009

TAM London - pt 2

Yes, we're back on this again, so those still waiting for HeroQuest news will have to wait just a little longer, I'm afraid.

Anyway, I said last time that there were four sessions in particular of TAM London that I wanted to focus on here. I'll start with Ariane Sherine, who talked about how an off-hand comment spiralled into an intercontinental Atheist Bus Campaign. This is, in many ways, an inspiring story, because it's about giving atheism (or even non-religion in general) a voice that it rarely seems to have. That's partly, no doubt, because, by its very nature, it doesn't have organisations on the scale of organised Churches. And, while British society is a lot less religious than, say, the USA - let alone places like Iran - it does still pervade our society. Not, I think, in an oppressive way, but still in a way that's quite unnecessary. Britain, after all, still has constitutional union of Church and State, and there's really no good reason for that in the modern world that I can see.

A bus campaign, of course, isn't going to convince anyone much. I rather doubt that the much better funded religious campaigns one sees on public transport do much better, either - although those for, say, the Alpha Course presumably have at least some success rate. But conversion isn't really the point. I think it's more about presenting a positive message, and demonstrating that the community is out there, and if you have doubts, you're not alone. The American versions actually seem to be better at the latter, perhaps because that side of things is more important over there.

What's really interesting is the response to this. I'm sure the great majority of Christians either aren't that bothered, or at least support the right of people to disagree with them, but there's clearly a minority whose responses have been decidedly, well... un-Christian. People that, perhaps, feel frightened and threatened by the thought that not everyone agrees with them, and feel a need to lash out in response. There were a number of examples of this in the talk, some of which did verge on the alarming - I may not agree with many parts of the Christian message, but I'm fairly confident it's not supposed to be about bile and hatred!

The very fact that there have been arguments about this, and about the wording that's allowed (hence the "Probably") just goes to show that this has been a worthwhile exercise, and that there is an imbalance here to be addressed. After all, the same restrictions don't seem to apply to the other side...

So that was one uplifting and good-humoured talk that I actually enjoyed more than I expected to. But now I'm going to turn to somebody who has put a lot on the line for the cause of skepticism, and of science in general. I refer, of course, to science writer Simon Singh, who I've mentioned before. The previous times I've seen him give talks, they have been on the subject of the Big Bang, and other directly science-related matters. Naturally, that wasn't the case this time. And that's because of the huge and likely to be long-running libel action that now takes up his time.

I won't go into the details, because it will only be repeating what is available in more detail elsewhere. I will note, however, that there has been a positive development in the last couple of weeks, in that Singh's appeal against the refusal of the right to appeal against the outcome of the pre-trial hearing (don't you just love the law?) has been upheld. Which may yet turn out to make no difference in the long run, but is at least a start.

The specific issue is related to the right to raise scientific questions of public interest, but it seems to me that it's even broader than that. There really is a serious problem with libel law in the UK, and it extends beyond just science reporting. Those in the UK will presumably already be aware of the related issue this week of the Guardian newspaper being prevented from reporting certain proceedings in Parliament, an absolutely astonishing course of events. (This latter incident does not, as I understand it, stem directly from libel law, but the same underlying legal principles seem to be at the source). Britain does not have the same rights to free speech as, for example, the USA, and it may yet be for the European Court of Human Rights to make a ruling on this.

That Singh is continuing to fight this case, despite the risk of financial ruin (he'll be several thousand pounds out of pocket, even if he wins a complete victory) is enormously to his credit. He rightly received two standing ovations, and an award for his contributions to skepticism over the last year. I can't imagine anyone else was even in the frame for that.

Well, that seems to be a long enough post; looks like there will have to be a part three. In which I can, hopefully, get down at least little way from my high horse...

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