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UK Humanist Andrew Copson releases new book on secularism


DO religion and its institutions subvert reason and progress in modern life? In his introduction to Secularism: Politics, Religion and Freedom, Andrew Copson presents a holistic and hard-hitting case showing the importance of keeping religion out of politics. The CEO of Humanists UK, Copson is accustomed to speaking to ideologically diverse audiences and his new book strikes the rare balance of being both entertaining and informative as he takes novice readers on a fast-paced journey through the history and necessity of one of the most fundamental ideas of Western civilisation.

To begin, Copson sets out a clear end-game for the secular individual. He explains the work of Jean Baubérot and his tripartite conditions for secularism:

1. Separation of religious institutions from institutions of the state, and no dominance of religious institutions;
2. Freedom of thought, conscience and religion for all;
3. No state discrimination against anyone on the grounds of their religion or non-religious world view or their beliefs.

It is by no means a one-sided analysis of the subject. Copson tests Baubérot’s ideas, and pits core tenets of the social contract – such as fairness, equality, and freedom – against the people who have sought to implement them.

The book examines countries such as Denmark and the United Kingdom, which are effectively far more secular, despite their religiously-based legal frameworks, than countries boasting secular constitutions such as Bangladesh. To fully explore this issue, we are taken on a trip around the world. We are asked to consider how the minds behind partition of India both cultivated religious sectarianism and attempted to create a home for all Indians, and how post-partition India has sought to accommodate those who believe they require an exemption from common law.

Copson examines how a system like India’s might leave the country more open to the ethno-religious nationalism of Narendra Modi’s BJP, than a more equal, less accommodating system like that of the United States.
This system is described in stark contrast to the constitution that revolutionary France created in a violent attempt to discard and replace the Catholic Church.

Another example: Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s ultimately failed attempt to emulate a 20th century, pseudo-secular Europe requires us to ask the question as to how a truly secular state can come about, and how secularism can fall.

Through these, and other examples, we see that people of different nations had different relationships with different types of religion, and these present different social inequalities and heavily shapes what people are looking for in secular governance, if anything.

Copson provides a detailed and convincing argument, detailing how the longevity of a truly secular state cannot just rely on law, but must also win hearts and minds.

Copson evaluates, clearly and honestly, not only what secularism has achieved in placing the dignity of the human being above any theological considerations, but how allegedly secular states the world over utilise national identity to discriminate against religious minorities, secretly or explicitly, by sponsoring the majority religion of the state.

Copson’s gift, it seems, is the ability to condense decades of the evolution and analysis of the concept of secularism into 140 short pages. With the soft ambition so characteristic of his narrative voice, he leads the reader seamlessly from secularism’s conception (before it had been named) to how political religion took its roots in Europe and the Middle East.

Concisely, the difference between secularism in opposition to religion and secularism that simply ignores religion is spelled out.

Although not a polemical piece, Copson tackles the best of the arguments against pursuing secularism in their strongest forms.
Can enlightenment values shaped in opposition to Christianity be universalised? Does a secular state demand that everyone behaves as though they are non-religious? Can we accommodate those with extreme or pernicious religious beliefs?

Copson lays his firm conviction in the value of secularism open to every brutal criticism and diligently refutes each of them. Through a clear and honest intellectual process, he shows why compromising on secular law, both in theoretical necessity and in practice, erodes our personal and public freedom.

If you picked up this book hoping to glean a few, empty platitudes to argue that secularism presents a magic solution to the world’s problems, you’ll likely be disappointed. Instead, you’ll find something far more nuanced. The risks and rewards of both are laid out for readers to decide where their opinions fall.

Exporting hatred to Romania

By Neil Harrison

ROMANIA needs no help from abroad to promote intolerance towards its LGBT communities, yet the Liberty Counsel – a right-wing American organisation officially designated a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center – has chosen to poke its nose into a gay marriage referendum Romania plans on holding before the end of the year.

It did so be sending Kim Davis – the Kentucky county clerk jailed for five days in 2015 after refusing to issue same-sex marriage licences – to Romania to tell officials there that the legalisation of gay marriage in had impacted negatively on US Christians.

Liberty Counsel, which represented Davis when she got herself into hot water over her homophobia, said in October that D

Kim Davis in Romania

Davis and the group’s Vice President of Legal Affairs, Harry Mihet, were touring the Eastern European country to discuss the dire effects of same-sex marriage in the US, and to support Romania’s campaign to block legal recognition of such unions there.

The pair, according to a Liberty Council press release, “are holding conferences in Romania’s largest cities, including Bucharest, Cluj, Sibiu, Timisoara and Iasi. Their message is simple and based upon the recent lessons learned in the United States: same-sex ‘marriage’ and freedom of conscience are mutually exclusive, because those who promote the former have zero tolerance for the latter.”

Davis, who remains Rowan County’s clerk, was jailed for contempt after refusing to issue marriage licenses in compliance with the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v Hodges, which made it legal for gays and lesbians to marry in every state. Her office now issues licences without her signature.

Romania, according to a Politico report, is gearing up to hold a referendum to amend the constitution to prohibit gay marriage, a move that civil rights groups warn could put the country on an “illiberal” path alongside the likes of Hungary and Poland.

Romania’s civil code forbids same-sex marriage, and civil partnerships – whether between heterosexual or gay partners – are not legal.

But the constitution’s gender-neutral formulation on marriage, which defines it as a union “between spouses,” has left the legislative door open to legalising gay marriage.

“This is an issue of immense depth,” Liviu Dragnea, leader of the governing Social Democratic Party (PSD) and the most powerful politician in Romania, told reporters in September, pledging to quickly amend the constitution. “Even if some of my colleagues in Brussels are unhappy with what is happening in Romania, we will make it happen.”

The planned vote – which could be held as early as November – is the result of a campaign by “Coalition for Family,” which brings together more than 40 groups, many of them religious or describing themselves as “pro-life”.
 With the backing of the influential Orthodox Church, the organisation collected three million signatures (Romania’s population is 20 million) in just a few months in 2015, enough to take the initiative to parliament.

“We have the constitutional right and moral obligation to defend the family from those tendencies of modern society which diminish its importance and accelerate its degradation,” says the Coalition for Family’s website.

All major political parties in Romania have expressed support for the constitutional change, with the exception of newcomer Union to Save Romania (USR), and the initiative is expected to be approved in parliament. The government has said it wants to call a popular referendum as soon as November, but the Constitutional Court’s announcement that it would analyse the law’s compatibility with the rest of constitution may push back the date of the vote. As long as participation exceeds 30 percent of the electorate, a vote in favour will give the green light to constitutional change, undoing decades of campaigning by LGBTQ groups in Romania and possibly putting the country on a collision course with Brussels.

“This referendum is evidence of Romania’s moving in an illiberal direction,” said Vlad Viski, the President of MozaiQ, one of Romania’s largest LGBTQ rights groups.

Romania’s referendum against marriage equality is not the first of its kind in the region.

In Croatia, a group called “In the Name of the Family” collected 750,000 signatures in 2013 to launch a referendum that successfully amended the country’s constitution to stipulate that marriage can only take place between a man and a woman. In 2015, the “Alliance for Family” mobilised Slovakians to trigger a referendum to restrict the family rights of gay people, but the vote eventually failed because of low turnout.

That same year, Slovenia’s “Children are at Stake” group used a referendum to block the government’s plan to legalise gay marriage. (The country passed the legislation this year.)

Efforts to prohibit gay marriage also tend to go hand-in-hand with campaigns to remove sexual education classes and restrict abortion rights.

Similar efforts to mobilise citizens to restrict gay rights have taken place in Georgia, Bulgaria, France and elsewhere across Europe. In many cases, US religious groups like Liberty Counsel have played an active role in their campaigns.

Romania’s Coalition is also receiving legal assistance from the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which has also been branded as an anti-LGBTQ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The international chapters of both the Alliance Defending Freedom and Liberty Counsel submitted pro-referendum legal opinions to Romania’s Constitutional Court while the body assessed whether the civic initiative could be considered by parliament.

Liberty Counsel’s Mihet said his organisation “provided legal support and shared lessons we have learned while advocating for natural marriage in the United States and elsewhere.” Andreas Thonhauser, a spokesman for ADF International, said that the group also gave legal expertise to other countries in the region that requested help.

Local churches – be it the Orthodox Church in Romania or the Catholic Church in Slovakia or Croatia – were also involved in recent anti-LGBTQ rights campaigns. Efforts to prohibit gay marriage also tend to go hand-in-hand with campaigns to remove sexual education classes from school curricula and restrict abortion rights.

Academics from Central and Eastern Europe, including feminist historian Andrea Peto from the Central European University in Budapest, have argued that this type of initiative constitutes an “anti-gender movement” that targets not only LGBTQ people but also takes aim at women and people who don’t fit into their conception of a “natural, traditional” family pattern.

Why did this gay liberation sign fall out of fashion?

BARRY DUKE poses the question

IN the mid-1970s, shortly after meeting Brian, a lad who was to be my long-term partner, I bought him a silver ring and had engraved on it the 11th letter of the Greek alphabet: the lambda.

Puzzled by the symbol, he asked me what it meant, and I explained that it was a sign of gay liberation that had crossed the pond to the UK from America.

At the time, both of us wore pink triangle button badges to show our commitment to the gay lib movement, of which we were very much part.

Had I had the cash, I would have a commissioned a ring with a triangular pink stone, but I didn’t and Brian had to make do with an engraved lambda, which he loved, particularly as it gave him the opportunity to explain to others what it meant.

Brian wore it until his untimely death in 1996. I would have worn it myself afterwards but it fit none of my fingers. So it languished in a draw until a new man, Marcus, came into my life 20 years ago, and both he and I were delighted to find that it fitted one of his fingers perfectly.

I had practically forgotten about the lambda until mid-October, when I noticed that Marcus, now legally my spouse, was wearing it, and that got me wondering how many people nowadays would recognise the symbol.

So we did a test, showing it to a number of people, mostly in their fifties or older. Not one recognised its significance.

It then dawned on me that, while I was aware of its meaning, I had no idea of how it came to be adopted. A website called Lambda GLBT Community Services provided the answer.

The symbol, it said, was originally chosen by the Gay Activists Alliance of New York in 1970. The GAA was a group which broke away from the larger Gay Liberation Front at the end of 1969, only six months after its foundation, in response to the Stonewall Riots.

While the GLF wanted to work side by side with the black and women’s liberation movements to gain unity and acceptance, the GAA wanted to focus their efforts exclusively on gay and lesbian issues.

Because of its official adoption by the GAA, which sponsored public events for the gay community, the lambda soon became a quick way for the members of the gay community to identify each other.

Eventually though, the GAA headquarters was torched by an arsonist. This destroyed not only the building but all of the organisation’s records, and the movement never recovered from the loss.

But in its hey-day the GAA accomplished a number of high-profile successes, the most dramatic being the targeting of a prominent Upper East Side straight bar which displayed a huge axe it called “the fairy swatter”.

When the bar belligerently vowed that the exe would never be removed GAA members staged “a stunning strong-arm takeover” that led the New York Magazine to publish the headline: “Militant Gays Aren’t Kidding Around Anymore.” After that, the straight bar’s frightened customers never returned and it went bust. Businesses got the message: homophobia doesn’t pay.

The symbol, however, lived on …for a while. It was effectively displaced by rainbow flag, which soon became internationally known. An Internet search showed that some rainbow flags still incorporate the lambda, but I never seen one.

But why did the GAA choose the lambda? The most popular theory is that, simply, the Greek letter “L” stands for “liberation.” Other explanations include:

• The Greek Spartans believed that the lambda represented unity.
• The Romans took it as meaning “the light of knowledge shining into the darkness of ignorance.”
• The charged energy of the gay movement.This stems from the lambda’s use in chemistry and physics to denote energy in equations.
• The synergy which results when gays and lesbians work together towards a common goal (a gestalt theory which also stems from the physics-energy theory)
• The notion that straights and gays, or gays and lesbians, or any pairing of these three, are on different wavelengths when it comes to sex, sexuality, or even brain patterns. This again comes from the lambda’s presence in chemistry   and physics, where it is sometimes used to represent the wavelength of certain types of energy.
• An iconic rendering of the scales of justice and the constant force that keeps opposing sides from overcoming each other. The hook at the bottom of the right leg would then signify the action and initiative needed to reach and maintain balance.
• The lambda is also though by some to have appeared on the shields of Spartan and/or Theben warriors. The Thebes version is more popular because, as legend has it, the city- state organised the Theban Band from groups of idealized lovers, which made them extremely fierce and dedicated warriors.

Eventually however, the army was completely destroyed by Kind Philip II, but was later honoured by his son Alexander the Great.

There is no actual evidence, though, that the lambda was ever associated with this group. However, there was Hollywood movie in the 1962s called The 300 Spartans starring Diane Baker, Richard Egan, and Ralph Richardson that showed Spartan warriors who appeared to have lambdas on their shields.

Lambda GLBT Community Services points out that, back in December of 1974, the lambda was officially declared the international symbol for gay and lesbian rights by the first ever International Gay Rights Congress which was held in Scotland.

The Scottish Minorities Group hosted the conference in Edinburgh from December 18 to 22 in that year. It was co-organised by Ian Dunn and Derek Ogg. Ian Dunn had organised the first meeting of what was to become the Scottish Minorities Group in 1969. Derek Ogg later founded SAM (Scottish AIDS Monitor) in the 80s.

The conference aimed to provide an international sharing of experience, so that delegates could find out the social, political and legal situation for men and women from other countries.

The conference included sessions on the rights of young homosexuals and of gay women, and the problem of lesbian invisibility was explicitly addressed by a delegate from CAMP (Campaign Against Moral Persecution) in New South Wales. There were about 400 delegates at the conference, which led in 1978 to the establishment of the International Gay Association, later to become the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA).


Serbia’s gay Prime Minister joins Pride parade in Belgrade

WHILE Benidorm was celebrating its September Pride week, Ana Brnabic, the first openly gay Prime Minister in the Balkan region and the first Serbian woman in the top job, joined about 1,000 gay activists at Belgrade’s Pride parade.

It was the first time that a Serbian Prime Minister joined the annual Pride parade, which had been marred by violence in the past.

“The government is here for all citizens and will secure the respect of rights for all citizens,” Brnabic told reporters.

“We want to send a signal that diversity makes our society stronger, that together we can do more,” she said.

Labour Minister Zoran Djordjevic, Minister of State Administration Branko Ruzic, and Belgrade Mayor Sinisa Mali also participated in the – the culmination of the 2017 Pride Week.

“My message to the citizens of Serbia is that the government will respects the rights of all citizens, both the majority and minorities,” Brnabic told reporters. “We want to send a signal that diversity can contribute to making our society even stronger.”

Ahead of Pride, Mali, the mayor of Belgrade, said he expected that “everything will go fine and that Belgrade will once again show that it is a city in which everyone has equal rights.”