"The things I want to say to you get lost before they come."
Actually no, I don't consider myself poor. Legally, like from a "any persons earning less than x per annum is officially poor" perspective, I think that yes, yes I am definitely poor, but I am 25, renting a room in a good house, I've got a good job providing me with enough disposable income to buy DVDs on impulse and as soon as Harriet has bills sorted so I know how much I owe her, I'm going to buy that lovely TV I keep telling you all about. That's going to set me back, sure, but I'm going to buy it outright, no monthly payments at x billion per cent interest rates. I don't like owing money to anyone. I don't have any dependants. I'm not trying to raise a family. I don't even have a girlfriend wanting expensive presents. I am not stressing over money at all, thus while I am not wealthy, I don't consider myself poor.
So my initial monthly donation was not a lot. I know that tesco or asda - I can't remember which one, your marketing has failed - would have me believe that every little helps, but I really feel my gesture was token at best. I am better off now and thought it was maybe about time my donation reflected that. It's still not great, I'll admit, but now it at least covers the cost of all the junk mail they send me.
My feelings and attitudes towards religion have been changing recently. As a teen my opinion was "it's stupid you're stupid" because even as a teen I could use "it's" and "you're" correctly. Then I grew older and my opinion became more of a "as long as you're not hurting anyone, do whatever you like" kind of thing.
Today though, I am frustrated. There's a term I read a lot, 'New Atheism', to describe the polemic of authors and journalists such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins and I'm not sure I go that far, but I'm borderline. Hitchen's book God is not Great is, along with AC Grayling's What is Good?, next in my reading pile. I've got two fiction and one creative non-fiction on the go at the moment, so a complete break from fiction is planned next. Back when I did that one module on philosophy at university that I enjoyed so much it made me regret my choice of course, Ethics was one of the sections I found most interesting. So many of the laws of Western society come from the teachings of the bible and the role of the church, how do you build a just, fair and ethical system of laws when you take all the God out of it? It's actually kind of hard. But then, it's just as flawed, if not more so, when you put the God back in.
Plato describes an argument between Socrates and Euthyphro. Socrates was tried for Impiety (found guilty and sentenced to death, choosing to accept the judgement rather than flee he became one of the first martyrs for the cause of Free Speech). Euthyphro was a deeply religious man so Socrates asked him to define Piety, thus he might better form his defense. The resulting conversation has burrowed it's way inside me and clings to the core of all I dislike about religion: the Supernatural aspect gets in the way of the good it (sometimes) promotes.
After some definitions and challenges to them, Euthyphro declares that a Pious act is one that pleases all Gods, an impious act is one that all Gods dislike. This was ancient Greece. They had a whole bunch of Gods back then. It can equally be applied to monotheistic religions like the Abrahamic ones. An act that is Good is one the God approves of. An Evil act is one God disapproves of. The question Socrates then asks is this: Do the gods like this act because it is pious, or is it pious because they like it? The first assumes piety to be independant of the Gods. Their existence defines it, but it would be equally good without them. The second makes the system arbitrary: This thing is Good, this thing is Evil. There's no rationale or logic behind it, it's merely the whims of a fickle God or pantheon.
I believe people are good. I believe people, generally speaking, want to do good and choose to do good things. I believe they choose to worship God because they think he is good and it is good. Thus we can discount him being fickle and irrational. These aren't stupid people. I feel this whole post is very one sided and if you're religious you might see it as an attack on you, and that's not the intention. These people aren't stupid. You're not stupid. If God's wishes were irrational at some point you'd stop and say "hey, just what's going on here?"
And since you haven't and since billions of people now and for the past thousands of years haven't given up, we are left with the first definition, that God says these things because they are Good, and they are good regardless of his existence or not. And if we as humans can use our logic and our reasoning to tell what is good and what is not, then Good must be Logical and Good must be Rational. Good must be something that we, as thinking, debating, logical, reasoning, passionate, creative, curious, majestic and beautiful human beings can reach out to on our own. Something we can carve on our own stone tablets and hold up to the world to shout "This is Good. This is not something we believe, this is something we know."
I love America. Not all of it, but there's two things enshrined in their constitution that I absolutely adore. Well, there's many things, but two that I want to talk about here: Freedom of Expression being the first, Separation of Church and State being the second. In the United States of America you can believe anything you like and you can stand up and tell people "this is what I believe" but you can't make them believe it too. You can't even make them listen. How well that works in practice is something of an issue, but on paper it's fucking marvellous.
That's how I'd like all society to be. Faith being something entirely personal, with no reward or punishment for being of one faith or another or none at all. No state sponsored faith schools. No tax breaks for religious institutions. No Creationism taught in science classes, no Intelligent Design taught at all, no calls for bans on Harry Potter, Catcher in the Rye or my own personal favourite book, third on the American Library Association's list of the top ten most frequently challenged books of 2009: The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Just a society where everyone is free to read what they want and think what they want and give their own time and support and personal wealth - not the State's - to whatever charity, church, or organisation they choose.
That's how I'd like all society to be, but that's just my opinion. As you might be able to tell, it's something I feel quite strongly about and so I'd like to take my personal wealth and give some of it to an organisation that is working towards my perfect society: The British Humanist Association, a member of the International Humanist and Ethical Union. You can read their philosophy here, the Amsterdam Declaration 2002. It's a wonderful sentiment. A while back I was thinking of getting a tattoo on my wrist, I only didn't because I couldn't think of a design I liked that I knew I'd like years later. Right now I'm thinking the Humanism logo, the Happy Human. It'd be like an anti WWJD bracelet, because every time I looked at it I'd think "What would I do? What is ethical and just and right because there is nothing else: I have to make this decision and I have to live with the consequences."
Since this post is ultimately about Charity, let me say this: One argument I've seen many times in defense of religion is the charitable works these organisations call for from their members. Fuck that. People do charity because people are good. I've never done anything in the name of God, so what is it when I give to charity, a fucking accident?
So now that weighty moral dilemma I promised you about two hours ago when I started writing this: Charity is about sacrifice for a greater good. Charity is about taking your own stuff, be it money or time or whatever, and using it to Make Things Better for everyone. As firmly as I stand by humanism, as much as I do believe a diminished role of religion in society will Make Things Better, isn't that money better off going to a more worthwhile charity? And so: what makes a charity worthwhile?
The NSPCC do good work. If you're not aware of them, the NSPCC are a British charity, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. One of the many wonderful things they've done is set up Childline, a number (0800 1111) any child who is a victim of bullying or abuse or any form of cruelty can dial to speak to someone who will listen and who will help. I don't care who you turn to to define right and wrong: God, Kant, whatever, I think we can all agree that child abuse is capital 'w' Wrong. It's Bad. It's Evil and seeking to prevent it is good, it Makes Things Better.
I can't say the same for Secular Humanism. Sure I think it's good, sure I think it'll Make Things Better but despite the many atrocities religious dogma is responsible for, I can't say that religion is Evil. It may be wrong, but it's not Wrong. Can I take a portion of this money I've set aside to Make Things Better and give it to a political force, an opinion, an ideology? There's Child Abuse and Animal Cruelty and AIDs and Cancer and Heart Disease. There's Oxfam and Amnesty International. There's mental and physical disabilities, there's victims of wars and famines and natural disasters and I think all those things are undeniably worthy causes yet despite all this it's God, who I don't even believe in, that's pissing me off.
Even though either way it's a selfless act, am I being selfish choosing the BHA?
Here's the plan I'm going with at the moment, and I think I will actually put values to my donations because I read in an article somewhere recently that people are more likely to give to charity when they know how much other people are giving. I'm going to up my donation to the NSPCC to £10 per month. I'm going to give £5 per month to the BHA, and then I'll give £5 to a different charity each month. I will gladly accept recommendations.
Now I'm going to go watch the rest of the Intelligence Squared debate on whether the Catholic Church is a force for Good, Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry versus Ann Widdicombe and Archbishop John Onaiyekan. I don't know anything about John Onaiyekan, but Widdicombe vs. Fry and Hitchens? I almost feel sorry for her. Check out this great article Victoria Coren wrote. I've seen her on panel shows, read her column from time to time and had her tell me how stupid I am over and over again on that BBC flash game Only Connect. I'd be far more willing to listen to the pro-religion side if it came with humour like hers. Of course wikipedia tells me she's a poker champion and used to write porn reviews, so I can't see the Archbishop of Canterbury putting her forward as a role model any time soon. Shame.
I couldn't find a way to sneak it into the main body of the post, because that's all religion and charity, but here's some religion and science for you: I have, I'm sure, said a number of times that religion gets in the way of science. I was being silly then, it's not true. What I actually feel is that the deeply religious' opinion of Science is much like my opinion of feminism: I think it's great. I think equality is absolutely essential for the betterment of humankind. But regardless of that, I still enjoyed American Pie 1 and 2 when I first saw them, I still like action movies where we get to see men kicking ass and taking names to save the damsel in distress (Taken, I love you) and I still think The Social Network is a flawless piece of cinema. Anyone know any good pro-feminism charities for my January donation, to balance that out?
In his opening statement, Hitchens mentioned that the Catholic Church would not welcome Stephen Fry into it's ranks because of his homosexuality. I'm not saying everything Stephen Fry thinks is right and I'm not saying that Stephen Fry not joining means your organisation is wrong, but if you've set up a bunch of membership rules and you've banned Stephen Fry from joining your club, clearly you fucked up.