Sunday, 29 September 2013

Fundamentalism and the New Atheism - a Marriage Made in Heaven

Although I am a Christian I have no problem whatsoever with atheists. Why should I have? In any tolerant society people are free to believe, or not believe, whatever they choose.

One cannot impose religious belief down the barrel of a gun. Neither can one do so by mocking and denigrating the sincerely-held opinions of those who believe differently. At best, all one can do is to argue one’s case and hope to plant a seed from which something in time will grow.

Atheists are just as capable of thinking good thoughts, and of doing good deeds, as people of faith. Indeed some atheists would argue that they are more capable of so doing because they do not require the promise of posthumous reward in order to do the right thing by their fellow human beings. Such an argument misunderstands some of the basic tenets of Christian belief, but if I may I shall bank that one for another day.

What I do find depressing is what appears to me to have been the recent emergence of a New Atheism, defined not so much by the fact that the practitioner does not believe in God as by the insistence that I mustn’t either. Without any hint of irony the New Atheist lambasts Christianity, along with other faiths, with charges of intolerance and bigotry.

Despite the apparent lack of a belief in God, the New Atheist seems to spend the largest part of his or her waking time thinking, speaking and writing of nothing else. Indeed it is both to their shame and to mine that God seems to feature more in the thoughts of New Atheists than at times He does in mine.

Now although I call myself a Christian there is a type of Christian that I don’t care very much for. We’ve all met them – the pious belief that they know something you don’t, the unwavering confidence they have in the rightness of their own lifestyle and in the error, by implication, of everybody else’s. Their propensity to view their own take on the meaning of life as though it were The Undeniable Truth and the lack of provision that follows from such a mindset for opinions others may have which may digress, even in some minor fleeting detail, from their own.

Consider the approach to the debate adopted by the New Atheist and tell me how it differs, in any significant way, from that of the closed-mind Christian fundamentalist, or indeed the fundamentalist of any religion. The arrogant smugness and inanely-grinning, head-wobbling, self-satisfied superiority of Those Who Know What’s Best For Us mirrors so perfectly the tiresome, unrelenting persistence of the fundamentalist in pursuing the belief system that he or she knows is the one and only true belief system, which casts the lie upon all others.

To paraphrase a poster much seen on the buses and the London Underground – some people are Christians, get over it. And for those who profess to be guided by the Bible, don’t be so impertinent as to assume that your interpretation of its teachings is any more valid than mine, or your understanding of them any greater.

Friday, 27 September 2013

Isleworth Girl Jo Raises £430 for Macmillan Cancer Support

Activism is at its finest when it is performed for the benefit of others and not in the cause of self-promotion.  This morning a local girl and good friend, Joanna Manwaring (pictured right), organised a superbly successful local event at the Isleworth Working Men's Club in support of Macmillan Cancer Support's "World's Biggest Coffee Morning", a spectacular nationwide fundraising initiative in aid of the popular cancer support charity.

Macmillan Cancer Support provides practical, medical and financial support and pushes for better care for cancer sufferers.  Nurses help patients through their treatment whilst volunteers give a hand with some of the everyday tasks which so many of us take for granted but which for those suffering the ravages of cancer can be so stressful and difficult.

When I walked into the hall at the IWMC I was pleasantly surprised to see just how many people had turned up to offer their support to this project.  Every table was taken, and locals enjoyed a chat over a cup of coffee and a bite to eat whilst volunteers sold raffle tickets for prizes which had been donated by local individuals and small businesses.

A food stall was well laden with a great variety of offerings that members of the community had prepared and donated, from tasty jam scones (diabetes be damned, they were lovely) to onion bhajis and some truly succulent mini samosas which I was just too polite to eat in the quantities that I would truly have liked, donation notwithstanding.

When the raffle was called out I had a dread feeling that I was soon to become the proud owner of my very own eyebrow threading kit but luckily that was not to be, although neither did I win the Swedish massage (not sure how that would have gone down at home anyway), the meal voucher or the microwave oven - nor indeed anything at all.  It happens, to paraphrase Forrest Gump.

Aside from the charitable side of the event, it was great to reconnect with several people whom I used to see far more frequently when I was a more regular user of the IWMC.  I had a number of interesting conversations in which all the old issues and concerns, as well as a few new ones, were discussed and pondered upon.

Our community is a lot richer for people like Jo, her partner Kevin and her helpers who gave up their time to make today's coffee morning a great success.  A total of £430 was made for Macmillan Cancer Support, and a great community event was enjoyed by a whole lot of people, brought together in support of a worthwhile cause.  Let's hope this catches on.

Isleworth Public Hall - Hounslow Council Feels the Pressure

The London Borough of Hounslow has made its first concession, albeit superficial, in the face of unexpected levels of pressure from the community over its plans to farm out Isleworth Public Hall to a commercial bidder.

Its deadline for submissions of management proposals, originally set at October 4th, has been extended to October 14th, and various questions from residents have been responded to (I hesitate to say answered) following criticisms that the original invitation for bids from LBH was too obviously geared towards commercial organisations in preference to community groups.

In a hilarious e-mail response to a local community activist one Isleworth ward councillor wrote (or more precisely cut-and-pasted): "The exercise is open to, and invites proposals from, all interested parties, particularly those from the local community. The process of the offer and application form is not presented in the usual procurement style or with the same complexities, but has been tailored as far as possible to make it simpler and accessible to wider groups and interests"

This "particular" interest in "proposals from the local community" is clearly demonstrated in the procurement document, which lists the following criteria:

Schedule 1 COMMERCIAL QUESTIONNAIRE (criteria pass/fail)

  1. Business Name 
  2. Registered or trading name. 
  3. Type of organisation (e.g. private limited organisation, partnership, sole trader) 
  4. Registered address
Nobody who is active in the Isleworth community is under any illusions at all about the direction of the Council's plans for Isleworth Public Hall, but we will continue to resist this assault on our community by every means possible.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

I've not long returned from a meeting of the Isleworth Public Hall Users' Group and it appears the London Borough of Hounslow is determined to wash its hands of the property - a day after Labour councillors in Isleworth circulated a leaflet claiming to have "saved" it.

I know these politicians are supposed to be clever, but just how is it possible for the same people to sell off a facility and to save it from being sold off all at the same time?

Monday, 9 September 2013

On Turkeys and Tents

Just as I predicted, it would appear the Lead Member and his administration at LBH have instigated a coup against the leadership of the Hounslow Federation of Tenants' and Residents' Associations (HFTRA). When the next meeting takes place they will be replaced with a compliant leadership comprised exclusively of turkeys eagerly looking forward to the coming of the Christmas season, and HFTRA will be safely back where it was when I was Lead Member - in the pockets of the local Labour Party. However with the current HFTRA leadership having vacated the tent, I do hope the Lead Member and his new "tenant leaders" have remembered to pack their umbrella.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Honest Politics and the Common Good

If we have lost trust in our politicians and political parties, how are we going to govern ourselves? What might reform and rejuvenate our politics?

Recently I went to a talk in London by veteran American campaigner Jim Wallis, and I think his proposal of a return to the old concept of ‘the Common Good’ could be the fifth thread of possibility for a faster revival of Independents in local and national politics.

Independents are able to speak out, but have often not been listened to because people do not know what they believe or what they stand for. Independents are not a political party, they do not have policies.

But over the last few years, as the Independent Network has discussed and experimented, four threads of possibility have emerged:

Honest Politics – we have set the Bell Principles as the standard by which we believe Independents should act in local and national politics.

It’s the Person not the Party – we encourage candidates to promote their campaign by getting prominent local people to endorse them, write about them, commend them: in this way, rather than the Independent Candidate asking to be believed and trusted on their own assessment of their own competence, the Candidate is calling on independent evidence from known trusted sources.

Improve the Election Process – Political Parties have the benefit of members who can deliver leaflets, so the election process is weighted against the small parties and Independents. Very often people will vote by post without seeing many of the candidate manifestos. Independents can set better standards by setting up a website and posting up all the candidates’ manifestos, by working with other candidates to share deliveries, by persuading more voters to vote by post only after looking at all the candidates, and to campaign for manifestos to be included with postal voting forms.

The Party Party – a Political Party is also a social network, where people enjoy working together on a shared interest. Many enjoy talking about politics, but do not like the idea of commitment to any one political party. ‘Politics for All’ meetings are a way of inviting anybody (including members of all the political parties) to a social event that will include wide ranging debates on local and national issues. Through such meetings, people with an interest but no commitment can find out how to get involved.

None of these four threads address the issue: but what do Independents stand for or believe?

Perhaps Wallis’ revisiting of the Common Good as a rallying point for political activism is a possible fifth thread that would make up a platform for Independents under the banner of Honest Politics and the Common Good. Wallis does not advocate utilitarianism, the greatest happiness of the greatest number, as Bentham put it. The Common Good has to take into account individual rights and the rights of minorities, so for an Independent Politician there will need to be constant listening and negotiation.

The Independent politician will need to be a leader and an advocate, a person willing and able to argue the case for a minority against vested interests and big business, a person able to persuade and inspire. Politics is not a clean game. It is messy and by its very nature requires compromise and fudge. Maintaining personal integrity is a major challenge for an Independent politician, and so having an over-arching vision of the Common Good will help set a framework and a compass when in situations with conflicting demands.

So how do these Five Threads of Possibility sound to you?

• Honest PoliticsPerson not Party • Improve the Election Process • Politics for all, we know how to Party • Our Policy is the Common Good of our nation and community

All of this works best at a local level – Parish, Town and District Council. When it gets to County, National and European levels, there is a need for political parties that are shorthand for a specific type of policies. However, as coalition becomes more likely, the Independent or group of Independents all focused on the over-arching Common Good can have great influence, out of all proportion to their numbers.

Reproduced with acknowledgements to Independent Network

Thursday, 5 September 2013

On Honour - With a Little Knowledge, Trust and Respect

I was fascinated to read the story about Captain Robert Campbell, a World War One British Army officer who was captured by the Germans and sent to a prisoner of war camp in Magdeburg.

Whilst he was in captivity he received the sad news that his mother back home was dying of cancer. Desperate to be at her side for her final hours, Captain Campbell wrote a personal appeal to the Kaiser asking that he be allowed to go home. His request was granted - on the condition that he returned once his business back in England was done.

Having spent a week with his mother in Gravesend before she sadly passed away, Captain Campbell dutifully returned to Germany to hand himself over once again to his captors. As soon as he was safely under lock and key he set about trying to escape once more, as indeed is the patriotic duty of any prisoner of war.

What strikes one immediately is the incredible sense of honour that led Captain Campbell to keep to his word. He could quite easily have reneged on his promise. This was war, after all. However he had given his word to the Kaiser and he felt bound to stick to it.

It wasn't only about honouring a promise, of course. What Captain Campbell knew was that if he had broken his word, the next British prisoner who had found himself in a similar position would not have been granted the same favour. Having experienced the sense of helplessness and despair that came with the news that his mother was ill when he was locked away as a captive in a foreign land, he could not bear the thought of putting somebody else through that same heartbreak. By sticking to his word, just possibly if the situation were to arise again somebody else might be granted the same favour.

I could not help when reading this story but to compare the supremely noble and selfless actions of Captain Campbell with the perennially unscrupulous and self-serving ways of the modern politician. When the then Deputy Leader of the Hounslow Labour Group, Councillor Ruth Cadbury, told a Borough Council meeting back in 2007 that lying to electors in the course of trying to win their votes was perfectly acceptable and simply "politics", it would not have occurred to her that anybody listening to her words would have felt unable to trust the word of any member of her Group again.

Ruth now, of course, has her eyes on a bigger prize - the Labour nomination for the Brentford & Isleworth constituency at the General Election which is likely to take place in 2015. Yesterday one of our members received through the post her "election address". Entitled "Ruth2Win", Ruth describes herself as the candidate who is "Well Known, Well Trusted, Well Respected", and appeals to fellow Labour members to support her on the basis of her not unimpressive track record in representing her party in the area since the early 1980s.

Although I have a lot of time for her as an individual and recognise and respect her commitment to the cause of her Party, if she was selected as a parliamentary candidate I would not feel able to vote for Ruth on account of her attitude towards political campaigning. I am one of those sad people who thinks there is still a need for honesty and integrity in our politics.

Nevertheless it is nice to see more openness and less secrecy in the candidate selection process, to the point where even spectators such as myself feel moved to take an interest. May the best man (or woman) win.