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Saturday 18 February 2012
Letters: The history of Secularism
The ancient world of disbelievers
John Gray's argument, that secularism is merely religion in a different guise, which Peter Popham repeats (15 February; letters 16, 17 February), is absurd.
Secularists have an intellectual and credal pedigree of their own, going back to Greek and Roman believers and half-believers who knew nothing of Jehovah, such as Aristotle (whose Ethics is a marvel of moral writing) and Cicero (whose On Duties led the field for many centuries, and was weakly imitated by St Ambrose).
The ancient world had its sceptics and disbelievers too, such as Pyrrho of Elis (whose views were echoed in the Pyrrhonist Crisis in England in the 1620s) and Epicurus of Samos, whose aspiration to ataraxia, or freedom from worry, was given a fine poetic expression by the Roman poet Lucretius.
Few people can disagree that the morality of the Gospels is elevated and transformative; but the views of theologians, of whom St Augustine was the worst, with his immoral and repellent views on original sin and predestination, and the inclusion of books in the biblical canon such as Revelation, with its outpourings of unhinged apocalypticism, make organised, theological, corporate Christianity a questionable proposition.
In a multi-faith democracy, the government has to be secularist to have a level playing field between the different faiths. It also has to be agnostic.
Toleration of different faiths also requires each faith to accept that there are certain laws, set by the democratic secularist government, that they have to observe. You can argue about the public/private boundaries of such laws to achieve a balance of interests but not about the supremacy of secular laws.
The real issue is not religion but, as Peter Popham touches on, power.
As a fully paid-up atheist, I find myself in an ambivalent position as regards the role of religion in modern Britain. On the one hand, I feel that religious faith, particularly in its "fundamentalist" guise, is essentially an evil influence. But I also feel very strongly that religion has provided, almost by chance, a moral compass for people. I find myself echoing Larkin: "And what remains when disbelief has gone?"
As one of Peter Popham's "atheistic Buddhists", can I point out that I also have five books by Richard Dawkins of which I regard The Ancestor's Tale in particular as a masterpiece.
I also sympathise with evolutionists who feel that, after 150 years of cheap gibes about evolution, they are entitled to hit back hard at the theistic ideologies that gave rise to them.
Whatever my disagreements with Dawkins, I have enormous respect for him. I wish I could say as much for the Vatican's minions, the Jesus junkies of the Bible Belt, and the obscurantists of Saudi Arabia. There are more than two sides to this debate.
Argentina's legal claim to the Falkland Islands
In your article, "There is a point where islanders will say to the Argentines, 'To hell with you ...' " (4 February), regarding Argentina, the United Kingdom and the Malvinas Islands, you incorrectly declared that I had stated on Twitter that "The British military are occupying the islands against the islanders' wishes". I believe this "error" was designed to provoke a reaction in the interviewee, the illegitimate representative of the British Crown in the Malvinas Islands, Nigel Haywood.
Argentina rightly inherited the Malvinas Islands and other South Atlantic islands after it gained its independence from Spain in 1810. In fact, in 1825 London recognised our government and its jurisdiction without reservations. But in 1833, Britain occupied the islands militarily, expelled the Argentine population living there, and replaced them with British citizens.
My country, our government, and myself, as Argentine ambassador to the UN (2007-11) and now as ambassador to the United States, have stated in diplomatic, political and social fora, that the British occupation is illegal, that the military base is disproportionate, and that its true purpose is to protect the illegal exploitation of natural resources in the South Atlantic waters.
The history of the illegal British occupation is so clear-cut that the UN Decolonisation Committee and General Assembly have incessantly called for negotiations regarding its sovereignty, both before and after the 1982 conflict. Of the 16 unresolved cases of colonialism that are on the UN agenda, 10 pertain to the UK.
By refusing to comply with the many resolutions issued by the international community and expressed through United Nations resolutions, Britain challenges not only Argentina but the entire international community, represented at the UN General Assembly.
Ambassador of Argentina to the United States, Washington
The Falkland Islands are an embarrassing left-over from a British colonial past. But there is something of an irony in Argentina's claimed wish to decolonise the islands. Argentina is itself a colonial construct: 20 years or so after the territory won its freedom from Spain, the British took a shine to the Falklands.
This establishment of Argentina, their decolonisation, would hardly meet the criteria set out by the United Nations Committee on Decolonisation today. The ruling Spanish elite took over, in a fashion that would have seen the Anglo-Saxon minority of Southern Rhodesia "decolonising" Zimbabwe in the 1960s.
If the 200-year-old Argentine claim for the Malvinas/Falklands is accepted, would it not be fair for the indigenous tribes, who were quietly getting on with their lives before the Spanish came along, to say, "If it's all the same to you, could we have our land back please?".
Just as the British went round planting flags all over the world in other people's backyards, so did most of the nations of western Europe. This global carve-up has left us with a post-colonial mess, lines drawn on maps by kings, politicians and diplomats that were not just then and remain unjust.
NHS patients need access, not choice
Isn't it about time someone exploded the myth that what patients demand of the NHS is "choice" (letters, 10 February). Both this government and the last put "choice"" forward as the main driver for change within the NHS.
What patients do consistently demand is local access to specialist services, yet, for the last three reorganisations, the results have been about centralising specialist services to ensure better economies of scale.
Where does that leave "choice"? It means that if local specialist services are rejected by a GP then the patient may be expected to travel hundreds of miles to the next nearest specialist centre.
Are GPs really going to commission services that will leave their patients travelling several hours a day because the alternative specialist centre has a couple of percentage points better outcomes than the nearest one?
I am a GP member of the Mansfield and Ashfield Clinical Commis-sioning Group. This was a pragmatic choice so I could help develop better patient care by working co-operatively with colleagues through clinical commissioning.
Such groups could have been established without the Health and Social Care Bill. It was unwise to attempt to make massive structural changes and create more layers of bureaucracy at a time of austerity.
The number of amendments proposed to the Bill make one wonder if the Department of Health, Andrew Lansley and the Coalition have a clear vision of the changes they are trying to enact. The majority of the Bill should be dropped, as many have already argued, and we should concentrate on developing clinical commissioning and local accountability.
If the Bill is passed it is likely that it will need to be altered again in five years. Politicians will continue to tinker with the health service. Why don't they let the NHS evolve in a more measured way and with consensus?
Dr Julian Law
Drones kill the innocents, too
I am appalled to read (report, 17 February) that Britain and France are planning the creation of a prototype of a ground-controlled "fighter drone".
With such a fighter plane, we can say goodbye to any concept of the bravery of those who control them. Instead, we will ask them to sit at a console playing computer games with people's lives. Not only will they be committing quasi-legal assassinations of known al-Qa'ida senior figures, they will also be killing an unknown number of innocent civilians, including children, who happen to have the misfortune of living too near al-Qa'ida suspects.
There have been so many such deaths in places such as Pakistan.
The causes of binge-drinking
Rather than placing a sticking plaster on a gushing wound with his lame proposals, David Cameron ought to be asking why a growing number are binge-drinking (Steve Richards, 16 February). What is the pervading unhappiness and malaise which drives so many to drink, cigarettes, or excess of food or drugs? I blame an increasing emphasis on the work ethic, on the earning of money and insidious consumerism.
Emilie Lamplough (letters, 17 February) must know that the foetus/baby distinction is merely semantic. Biologically, we're talking about the same individual. What sort of "private" decision consigns to oblivion another human being's beating heart and distinct genetic code?
Dr Christopher Shell
In the gathering of bishops presided over by Pope Benedict (17 February), there are two ladies on the front row. Are they lady bishops or lady wives of bishops?
Another ill wind
Richard Garner (Chalk Talk, 16 February) misquotes the saying, " 'Tis an ill wind that blows nobody any good". It means "there's no situation so dire that someone doesn't benefit", the opposite of what he is saying.
Dr Ann Soutter
How clever of Deborah Ross to conclude her column (16 January) with a picture of a left-handed piano, with the bass strings on the right, and the treble on the left. It must be worth a fortune.
Not in the Moody
Moody's, the credit rating agency, is threatening British banks with a downgrade (Business, 17 February). Isn't it about time an agency was created to rate the rating agencies?
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