One member of parliament, above all others, has championed reason for the last 13 years, But Evan Harris was not re-elected in Oxford West and Abingdon. On May 6th he got 23,730 votes, a mere 176 votes fewer than his conservative rival.
Click picture to see hero movie (be patient) (or right click to download mpg file)
Let me declare an interest. Evan Harris is one of the most principled men I have ever had the pleasure to meet. His stands on human rights, civil rights and libel law reform have been exemplary. He is also one of the few (and now fewer) members of parliament who understands how science works and its importance for the future of the UK. He has been a tireless advocate for the idea that policy should be based on evidence (as opposed to guesswork)..
Harris is also an atheist, something that one would not expect to be very relevant in a country where the influence of religion has declined progressively for many years. It would not be relevant if it were not for the fact that his defeat was brought about by poisonous lies propagated by, ahem, evangelical christians. I’m an atheist too, but I have met some good christians, I think they are wrong about their sky fairies, but I also think they should be free to believe in them if they want. Some of them do good things as a result of their beliefs. But not in Oxford West and Abingdon.
The (just) winner was conservative Nicola Blackwood. She is a member of the Conservative Christian Fellowship. But curiously a search of her web site for ‘christian’ shows not a single result. Shouldn’t voters know about your beliefs? It seems distinctly dishonest not to admit that your views come from an old book as interpreted by old men, The voter should know your motives.
Her profile at the Conservative Christian Fellowship says
“Along with many Christians, she is concerned that right to freedom of religion is being undermined without proper understanding of the potential consequences for faith groups or the wider community. In particular, she fears that the voice of Christians and people of other faiths on key issues of conscience is too readily dismissed in public debate.”
But what did Nicola Blackwood know about the smear leaflets?
Nicola Blackwood’s web site not only doesn’t mention the word ‘christian. It says very little about policies of any sort, There is no
mention of euthanasia or any of the other questions raised in pamphlets that were distributed throughout the constituency. There is a well hidden disclaimer
"Nicola has distanced the Conservative Party from literature distributed by private individuals and special interest and pressure groups attacking her opponent".
That is a pretty weak response to the poisonous and inaccurate leaflets that were circulated (they can be seen here). The worst stuff came form two sources
The Reverend Lynda Rose.
Lynda Rose is an Anglican minister who seems to think it appropriate to call a good man "Dr Death" because of her religious ‘principles’. Here is part of her leaflet
Lynda Rose has extreme "pro-life" views, more like those of the pope than of the average anglican. She seems not unlike the extreme right wing fundamentalist religious groups found in the USA. Harris told the Oxford Mail that
“It is a pity that, instead of putting up a candidate to contest the election, an anonymous group, using money from no-one knows where, is distributing an inaccurate personal attack leaflet in this constituency for the first time ever.
“It is offensive and I would say profoundly unchristian to use the term Dr Death – associated with Nazi murderer Joseph Mengele or mass-murderer Harold Shipman – to describe any politician.”
The Reverend Rose replied to the this in a letter to the Oxford Mail (April 26th) that is reproduced on the web site Anglican
Mainstream ("Anglo-catholic, Evangelical, Orthodox, Charismatic, Mainstream"). There is not a word of apology for vilely defamatory use of “Dr Death”, but merely a huffy defence of Hansard’s voting records.
That takes some beating as uncharitable, intolerant, inaccurate (and defamatory) comment. But there is even worse to come.
Keith Mann was another candidate in the same election. In 1994 Mann was sentenced to 14 years in jail, reduced to 11 years on appeal, for 21 offences including possession of explosives, incitement, criminal damage, and escape from custody (from Wikipedia). His leaflets were even worse than those of the Reverend Lynda Rose.
This vile calumny, full of inaccurate allegations and written by someone wth a serious criminal record, was aimed at a deeply-principled man. No doubt helped Nicola Blackwood to scrape in, but I can find no direct denunciation of it from Ms Blackwood. Christians don’t seem to be fussy about their allies.
Then there were the newspapers, in particular the Daily Telegraph.
Cristina Odone was editor of the Catholic Herald from 1991 to 1996. She is another ‘good christian’ who wrote an abominably nasty piece in the Daily Telegraph on April 19th. The Lib Dems are a Jekyll and Hyde party. Forget nice Mr Clegg. What about ‘Dr Death’? It is worth looking at it as a prime example of inaccurate, ad hominem, nastiness. It is also worth looking at for the comments: there were a lot of comments (thanks to an alert via Twitter) and most of them were along the lines of this of one of the first, from the redoubtable skepchick
"Thanks for the heads up, Cristina! Now I know to cheer for the LibDems. I want to know that if I end up in a vegetative state, I’m given a peaceful death rather than my own Telegraph column."
Most importantly, read the calm, diginified and polite response from Evan Harris himself.
I have never said that that the current abortion rate is not of import (you just made that up Christina!) and indeed have argued for more effective sex and relationships education as other countries manage and which also delays first sexual intercourse. And for better access to effective contraception. We can disagree on that too but best to have a rational discussion rather than a distortion.
I have never said “God is bad, his followers mad”. You made that up again Christina! I respect the religious view actually but believe that the state should be neutral on religion and it should not be privileged by the state above other beliefs.
My own comment took a while because of the Telegraph’s clunky registration system.
“This truly vile piece of writing shows all the tolerance of an Ayatollah who advocates rule by religious dogma (well actually, of course, by his own opinions). There could hardly be a worse moment to seek to impose catholic values on the rest of society. That church, including its head, has been seem to fail to report to the police the most vile crimes. It is in deep disgrace precisely because of its lack of moral principles.
One thing was very clear: she doesn’t understand the web. Her follow-up article seemed to think that the response was organised by Lib Den HQ! The Lib Dems’ spooky posse of internet pests. Sorry, Ms Odone, but these days concerned individuals can speak up.
The Reverand Goerge Pitcher, anglican minister at St Bride’s church, Fleet Street, was the next priest to bring disgrace on christianity with another incredibly nasty piece, again in the Telegraph, The best result of the election: Let’s rejoice that Lib Dem Evan Harris has lost his seat.
Again there were many hostile comments, including quite a lot from christians.
“Speaking as a Christian, I find it amazing how many Christians are capable of being thoroughly nasty about people they dislike. I have made a mental note that if I ever find myself seeking a church in central London, I shall avoid St Brides, Fleet St like the plague.”
and from ex-christians
“Dr Evan Harris is more of a doctor than either you or Nadine Dorris are “human beings”. You are both spiteful, evil people, and you are exactly the sort of person that drove me to reject the Catholic Church, and ask for an official notice of my defection to be placed in the baptismal register of my parish.”
Father Raymond Blake is another cleric who thinks you should vote according to his interpretation of the bible. His web site is as political as that of the christian taleban of the southern USA,
and just about as charitable. He too uses the "Dr Death" abuse, with no consideration of what Harris actually advocates.
How is it that christians (and homeopaths) can be quite so unpleasant?
Religious people, and those with other belief systems that resemble religions are supposed, traditionally, to be warm, caring people, charitable, forgiving and selfless, That, at least is the image they like to cultivate. Of course it has never been quite as simple as that. Just think of the inquisition, the warring catholics and protestants and, right now, the sordid disgrace of child rape, and its cover up by the highest officials of the vatican.
Last easter, I added a bit to the 2008 diary section of this blog about why I’m not a christian It seems to be worth repeating here.
"When I was about 15 I went to a Summer camp which turned out to be run by christian evangelists (my parents swore they didn’t realise that it was a brain-washing camp). I was converted and became rather earnest. Then, at 18, I met a nurse. Being on Merseyside, she was Irish. And being 18, I was rather interested in sex. The price of sex was to go with her to mass, so of course I went. It was Easter and they were doing the Twelve Stations of the Cross. I still recall watching this, with mounting horror. The priests were just enjoying it too much. It was almost like a sado-masochistic orgy. The priests seemed to be almost masturbating. It was simply sick."
I was reminded of this streak of cruelty that runs through christianity by the comment made by an aide to Tony Blair who said
“I couldn’t help feeling TB was rather relishing his first blooding as PM, sending the boys into action. Despite all the necessary stuff about taking action ‘with a heavy heart’, I think he feels it is part of his coming of age as a leader.”
His enthusiasm for a war that has killed over 100,000 people (and cost a small fortune) seems sadly consistent with his catholicism,
Despite all this, some individual religious people have done good for humankind.
Likewise proponents of magic medicine are proud of their individual caring approach and this may indeed be helpful in eliciting a good placebo response.
The problem seems to be that neither group can tolerate criticism. They aren’t interesting in discussing anything, because they just know they are right. And if anyone tries to express an opinion that differs from their own, the niceness vanishes like the snow in spring.
The quotations above show the downright nasty vindictiveness of religious people towards an honourable man who happens to hold somewhat different views to their own.
Likewise the cuddly homeopaths show astonishing abusive nastiness to anyone who doesn’t believe in their magic. I allow them to say what they want on this blog but they routinely delete comments. Along with most of my scientific friends, I’ve been subject to abuse and utterly incorrect allegations. I don’t enjoy it, but if its the price of free speech, so be it.
I fear that these things represent the incursion into UK politics of the extreme polarisation seen in the USA. a place where religious people seem to think it is moral to shoot doctors who do abortions.
Some morality. Thank you Tony Blair.
Some other blogs on this topic
Tessera wrote Playing dirty politics. Attacks on Dr Evan Harris
A liberal Dose (Neil Fawcett) wrote Extremists to the left of me, fundies to the right.
Richard Dawkins wrote Evan Harris: Is this why he lost his seat?
Ophelia Benson wrote three good posts (via comment from Swiss Frank)
http://www.butterfliesandwheels.org/2010/peculiar-george/and, via Butterflies and Wheels,
Clifford Longley has trenchant comment on Platitude of the Day
Texas schools board rewrites US history with lessons promoting God and guns. Chris McGreal, in the Guardian writes about the sort of thing that the clerics mentioned here might love.
“US Christian conservatives drop references to slave trade and sideline Thomas Jefferson who backed church-state separation”
“Several changes include sidelining Thomas Jefferson, who favoured separation of church and state, while introducing a new focus on the “significant contributions” of pro-slavery Confederate leaders during the civil war.”
“The new curriculum asserts that “the right to keep and bear arms” is an important element of a democratic society. Study of Sir Isaac Newton is dropped in favour of examining scientific advances through military technology.
There is also a suggestion that the anti-communist witch-hunt by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s may have been justified.
The education board has dropped references to the slave trade in favour of calling it the more innocuous “Atlantic triangular trade”, and recasts the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as driven by Islamic fundamentalism.”