Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Article excerpt

My friend and colleague Roy Brown has just sent me the draft of a statement he will submit to the UN Human Rights Council this spring, on behalf of the International Humanist and Ethical Union. This is a group to which we both belong, which campaigns on freedom of thought and expression, women's and children's rights, education and much besides. Roy's draft concerns discrimination against people who do not have a religious faith. It is extraordinary how many countries discriminate by law against nonbelievers, in violation of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which protects freedom of conscience. Most of the offenders are Muslim-majority countries, in some of which apostasy, 'insulting' the religion or its prophet, and blasphemy, are punishable by death.

Here in the United Kingdom it is (mainly Christian) believers who think they are discriminated against, not because - as in those sunny climes - they suffer as nonbelievers do there, but because they no longer command automatic respect or enjoy immunity from criticism. This they now receive in full measure, and react accordingly. As a result the debate between religious and nonreligious votaries is frequently acerbic. Reviews of books on the matter, as my own experience currently attests, tend to follow party lines: thus, all heat and no light.

A look at my diary for the week shows that, among numerous other things, I must prepare lectures, finish writing several articles including this one, chair college meetings at the rate of two or three a day, fulfil broadcasting engagements, and finalise plans for a book tour in Australia and the US. Life therefore has a slight resemblance to preparations for military manoeuvres in challenging terrain. In the midst of it I make time to continue research for a new book, and to read for review purposes.

These solitary moments, the silence disturbed only by turning pages and a scratching pen, are a refreshment.

Most of the education I'm currently getting comes from my students, a bright and engaged crew: avid readers, questioners, challengers, sceptics, intellectual experimenters. As the saying has it: docendo disco. University teaching is an exhilarating process. I might have taught some of these topics dozens of times, but they feel new, because of the response of receptive minds learning about them for the first time; there are always surprises and insights on offer. …

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