Monday, February 28, 2011

On arms and poverty

In 2000 I did a Thought for the Day for Suffolk Humanists on BBC Radio Suffolk to mark the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty on October 17th. I quoted some statistics, as follows:
"The cost of providing basic social services for all in developing countries is estimated at about £27½ billion a year over the next 10 years, which is less than 0.2% of the world income of £17.22 trillion. The sum needed to close the gap between the annual income of poor people and the minimum income at which they would no longer be poor is estimated at another £27½ billion a year, so the total cost would be roughly £55 billion, or less than the combined net worth of the seven richest people in the world."
These figures are out of date now, of course, but the differentials will be about the same. When I wrote that piece, I didn't refer to the cost of arms sales worldwide. If some of that money was diverted into the eradication of poverty, it would make a huge difference. In 2000, Britain exported arms worth £4,406 million. In 2007, this had risen to £5,474 million. Many of these arms have been sold to Middle Eastern and North African countries that are currently in the news, where they're being used against civilians who are demonstrating for democracy. In the middle of all this, our Prime Minister goes to the same region, to try to sell more arms. You couldn't make it up.

The photo is of an F-15 fighter jet by Boeing. Last year (2010), the US was considering selling 84 of these to Saudi Arabia. They cost £105 million each. King Abdullah has just tried to bribe his disenfranchised young people with £22 billion, in anticipation of the widespread unrest affecting his subjects.

Mark Steel wrote a brilliant piece in the Independent about hypocrisy, suggesting that the US government's line on Mubarak was, "It's not our place to intervene in a country run by a dictator we've armed and financed for 30 years."

Click here to join the Campaign Against the Arms Trade.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Keep civil marriage simple, and don't let's have legal humanist weddings

Since 1837, when the Births and Deaths Registration Act of 1836 led to the appointment of a Registrar General for England and Wales, it has been possible for anyone to have a civil wedding ceremony that's free from religion in this country. Since the 1994 Marriage Act, it's been possible to have a civil ceremony in a building registered for the solemnisation of marriage - stately homes, hotels, and so on - as well as in a register office. I don't understand why some atheists and humanists have been complaining that they're "discriminated against", because humanist weddings aren't legally recognised in England and Wales.

The subject's come up again because the Liberal Democrats in the Coalition Government, with the best of intentions, want to equalise gay marriages with straight ones. So far, it sounds like a bodge, which will create even more muddle than we have now. Dr John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, is frothing at the mouth at the prospect of vicars conducting same-sex civil partnerships, while the liberal Dr Giles Fraser, canon chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral, is eager to perform weddings for gay couples in church. Good, you might say, it's time that the church started recognising gay rights - but is it that simple?

In response to all the hoo-ha, the British Humanist Association produced a briefing for Valentine's Day on marriage and civil partnerships, which muddles things even more. They're broadly in favour of equality in marriage law for gay couples, but not in favour of bringing religion into civil marriage or civil partnership ceremonies. They repeat the same tired old complaint about discrimination against humanists. They say:
People wishing to get married in England or Wales all have a choice, if they wish, of a register office ceremony, which by law must not be distinctive of any religion or belief, including Humanism. Only the religious have the additional option of a legally recognised ceremony conducted according to their own religious beliefs. Although BHA-accredited humanist celebrants conduct hundreds of weddings every year, these have no legal validity and have to be supplemented by a register office ceremony.

In other words, there is a clear discrepancy in the law whereby, in England and Wales, religious marriages have legal validity but humanist marriages do not. The BHA believes that this unequal treatment on grounds of religion or belief is clear discrimination against humanists in marriage law and that the situation should be rectified.
This is nonsense. I've conducted humanist weddings for some lovely people, but I wouldn't say that many, if any, of them were very interested in humanism. Who decides who's a humanist? They were people who wanted the freedom to plan a wedding without religion that included lots of personal stuff, poems and music, in venues that usually wouldn't qualify as suitable for a civil ceremony, using words that wouldn't be allowed in a civil ceremony. They mostly went to a register office a few days before their humanist wedding to do the legal bit, but without exchanging rings, just keeping it simple.

Religious people have specific rituals to observe during their wedding ceremonies. Sikhs, for example:
Most marriages take place in the morning. The ceremony starts with a meeting of the two sides called Milni at which holy shabads (hymns from the Sikh Scripture, Guru Granth Sahib) are sung. Often an Ardaas (supplication) is also said at the Milni (not prescribed).

The two sides say the Sikh greeting to each other with "Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa, Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh" (Khalsa belongs to the Wondrous Giver of Knowledge; to whom also belongs victory.)
And so on... There are no rituals at a humanist weddings, apart from ones that the couples devise themselves, or the familiar one of exchanging rings. This is one of the good things about humanist weddings; you have total flexibility. Anyone can conduct them, anywhere (within reason), anyhow. It's up to you. I've conducted one for a lesbian couple in a pub, for an impecunious couple in the bride's mum's garden (the family did everything themselves, including tea in the Scout hut later, and I got paid in firewood - he was a tree surgeon), and for a musical couple in an old chapel. They've been out of doors, in front of a log fire at night in an Elizabethan mansion, in a small terraced house, in a field by a river - all sorts of places. If the state were involved, its dead hand would limit your options. Why change things?

I suspect that some BHA celebrants quite fancy the status of being a registrar, authorised to conduct weddings. It sounds so much more important, doesn't it? But have they thought it through? The incidence of sham marriages in the UK has increased, so you'd have to be extra careful to ensure that the couple were entitled to marry. Would you be allowed to refuse to marry anyone who was entitled to marry? I have, when a couple planned a wedding that would have involved everyone (including me) dressing up in the local football team's colours, on the pitch. I put them in touch with someone who liked football.

What the BHA won't tell you, though it should, is that you don't need one of its celebrants to conduct your wedding. You can do it yourselves, with a friend or relative acting as celebrant. Some of the best weddings I've been involved with have had the least "professional" input, with family and friends contributing food, fun and favours. The wedding industry is responsible for charging people huge sums of money these days - £20,000 or more in some cases - and none of it guarantees a happy marriage. I conducted funerals for an old couple from Suffolk whose wedding cost them less than a £1 (for their bus fare into town and the registrar's fee), yet they were happy together for over sixty years.

My main objection to the BHA's silly campaign is that it undermines its stated position on secularism. If we want a level playing field, an end to religious privilege, we can't start demanding privileges for ourselves. The fact that BHA and non-BHA celebrants conduct lots of nominally humanist weddings every year isn't a valid reason to make them legal. The couples who think it's a good idea to make them legal would probably appreciate that it would save them the bother of having to go to the register office, but you need a better reason that convenience. This stuff about "equality" is nonsense. Where does it end? Who'll decide where to draw the line, when every minority religious group wants "equality"?

The church used to decide marriage law in the UK. Those days are long gone, but some religious groups have retained their privileges for historical reasons. The way to equalise things for everyone - religious or not, gay or straight - isn't to keep messing about with marriage law, but to reduce it to the same simple system they have in France and Germany (and in other countries further away); a civil ceremony for everyone, which may or may not be followed by another ceremony, religious or otherwise. The second ceremony would have no legal significance, as the legal bit would already have been done.

Rather than clamouring for "equality" with religious people and alleging discrimination, the BHA ought to be focussing on disestablishment and removing all religious privilege, so that we might have a truly secular state, fair to everyone. The NSS is doing a much better job of this. The BHA has lost its way.

Read more on civil registration.

And how to make a mess of marriage law.

The Suffolk humanist celebrants who used to do weddings have retired, so we no longer offer them, but we can help people with DIY weddings, in return for a small donation to our funds.

What is Humanism?

A good life without religion.
 Photo: A humanist wedding in a Suffolk garden. That's me on the right.