Monthly Archives: May 2012

Pious Misrepresentation of the Day – a complaint to the BBC

This is the unabridged version of the complaint I sent to the BBC concerning a Thought for the Day radio broadcast that stepped way over the line of religious contemplation into an outright attack on atheism and secularism.

“I wish to complain about the disgraceful misrepresentation of secular atheism as broadcast on BBC Ulster’s Thought For The Day on 28th May 2012. The recording begins at 25 minutes 45 seconds into this podcast:

In it, the Rev Dr. Johnston McMaster asserted a number of human disasters were due to atheist secularism, in an attempt to promote his own religion.

Of the four examples of atheist secularism cited – the French Revolution, Nazi Germany, Communist Russia and China, at most only one meets the criteria of secularism – i.e. the state is neutral on matters of belief. Communism actively discriminated against religion, and Nazi Germany discriminated against Jews and promoted Christianity, or at least used it to it’s own ends – it is certain that it had a treaty with the Vatican which they adhered to until the end. The French Revolution heralded the end of the feudal era in France, driven by principles of the Enlightenment. Modern secular Europe, possibly the most stable and peaceful region of human civilisation, has roots in this turbulent period. I think the French would take a dim view of the opinion that it was a disaster or a failure.

To summarise, the preacher was guilty of the following logical fallacies:

* Straw men – see above plus ‘God is consumerism, nationalism or consumerism’ – these are not in any way religions.

* Affirming the consequent – ‘Stalin was an atheist and evil, therefore all atheists are evil’ makes as much sense as ‘Hitler was a vegetarian and evil, therefore all vegetarians are evil.’

* Begging the question – ‘God is dead’/’God doesn’t go away’ – requirement being he ever ‘lived’.

* Lying – ‘we need God to be good/be humane/be dignified’. This is known to be false – see this scientific study as an example –

* Special pleading – Karl Marx’s ‘opium of the masses’ true of ‘some forms of religion’ implication being ‘but not ours’. Why should Christianity be an exception?

That’s a lot of logical fallacies to squeeze in in only 3 minutes.

Oddly, given how disastrous secularism allegedly is, Norway has just disestablished their church and, weeks later, still haven’t had one decent massacre. The last one they had was because of a religious fanatic.

I believe the broadcast contravened the following BBC Editorial Guidelines due to the gross misrepresentation of secular atheism:

12.2.1 The beliefs and practices of religions and denominations must be described with due accuracy.

12.2.2 The religious views and beliefs of an individual, a religion or denomination must not be misrepresented or abused, as judged against generally accepted standards.

The subject matter of this broadcast was controversial, and was not impartial, nor clearly distinguished as opinion and not fact, contravening these two guidelines:

4.4.5 We must apply due impartiality to all our subject matter.  However, there are particular requirements for ‘controversial subjects’, whenever they occur in any output, including drama, entertainment and sport.

A ‘controversial subject’ may be a matter of public policy or political or industrial controversy.  It may also be a controversy within religion, science, finance, culture, ethics and other matters entirely.

4.4.7 When dealing with ‘controversial subjects’, we must ensure a wide range of significant views and perspectives are given due weight and prominence, particularly when the controversy is active.  Opinion should be clearly distinguished from fact.

In the interests of balance, the BBC should either apologise for this disgracefully biased broadcast, or allow an opposing view to be broadcast as Thought For The Day.”


7th June 2012, a response – I’ve reproduced the email from the BBC’s Senior Religious Programmes producer, Rev Dr Bert Tosh, apologising for the ‘over-much generalisation about “secularism and atheism”‘, agreeing that Thought for the Day ‘is not the appropriate vehicle for a discussion about the relative merits of religion, humanism, secularisation’, and assuring that ‘corrective action has now been taken to avoid any recurrence of what happened on this particular occasion.’

An adequate apology, and closure of the matter. Perhaps it would be too ask that a humanist be allowed to broadcast a Thought for the Day? 😉

7 June, 2012

Dear Colin

Editorial Complaint – Thought for the Day

I’m replying to your recent complaint about a Thought for the Day piece which was broadcast on 28.05.12.

Dr McMaster’s contribution was intended to describe the effects which a loss of religious faith and a “sense of the transcendent” might have on society. His comments were/are contestable, but they were not meant to suggest that religion is the only guarantor of “our humanity” or people’s ability to negotiate “the difference between good and evil”.  Dr McMaster acknowledged that religion itself “has done enormous harm and [that] God has frequently been recruited to bless wars and our Irish violence”. In affirming what he feels to be positive about religious belief however, there was, on reflection, over-much generalisation about “secularism and atheism”. We accept that Dr McMaster’s script should have been amended before broadcast, consistent with the established conventions around this slot, and apologise for any upset or offence caused.

We welcome all feedback, and take careful account when people feel that the BBC has got something wrong, or fallen short of their expectations. Diverse views and honest debate are important within our output, but we also need to take account of what is appropriate in different programme slots. Thought for the Day is meant to provide a religious/ethical and personal view on loosely topical issues. It is not the appropriate vehicle for a discussion about the relative merits of religion, humanism, secularisation etc. We need to ensure that our guidance to contributors is clear in this regard and that what we broadcast is consistent with Thought for the Day’s editorial brief. Corrective action has now been taken to avoid any recurrence of what happened on this particular occasion.

I hope this is useful and am grateful to you for taking the time to get in touch. Your concerns have been shared with senior editorial colleagues.

Yours sincerely

Rev Dr Bert Tosh

Senior Producer Religious Programmes – BBCNI

Fallacio – the act of debunking false arguments

I am not a philosopher. Logic and reason were things I mostly figured out on my own. It is only recently, when debating online with fundamentalists of every stripe, be they religious, homophobic, global warming deniers, conspiracy theorists or even some vegans, that I came upon logical fallacies in their official form.

There are hundreds of them, and it seems fundamentalists use a significant proportion. Everything from special pleading, non-sequiters, straw men and ad hominem attacks, arguments of popularity and tradition, sunk cost fallacies, to suppression of evidence, confirmation bias, slippery slope, arguments from ignorance and of personal incredulity, misrepresentation, and bare-faced lying.

Many of the less honourable acts on the Internet are fallacies of some sort – trolling is a form of poisoning the well, quote-mining is a form of misrepresentation, and ad hominem is a well understood phrase in the faceless Web.

Bullshit (American) or bollocks (UK) is perhaps a new addition. A common argument based on bullshit is the infamous Chewbacca defence – it is an argument of attrition, a tide of nonsense put forward with enough vigour and volume that a rational opponent must either exhaust themselves refuting it, or withdraw from the argument, which is claimed as a victory by his opponent.

The Internet has been a phenomenon – I think of it as the Information Revolution. Perhaps it will herald a new Age of Reason. One thing for sure is that it tests our ability to vet and evaluate information in quantities we have never experienced before. Thus we need to learn reasoning skills at a far earlier age, in favour of raw knowledge. The knowledge is all around us – it is now a cheap commodity, though the quality is variable. It is how we assess that information that is now the premium skill.

This brings us back to fallacies. I blogged a few months back about David Cameron’s proclamation that “Britain was a Christian country” – the implication being that Britain should uphold Christian values for no other reason than our ancestors did. This is a fallacy straight out of the list above, the appeal to tradition – a popular one with Conservatives, as a cursory read of the Daily Telegraph or Daily Mail reveals. My usual response to an appeal to tradition is the example of geocentrism, which was considered by most to be the correct model of the Universe until Galileo Galilee put forward evidence for the Copernican heliocentric model, at the cost of his freedom. Just because most people believe something, does not mean it is true.

If our own Prime Minister, a privileged man with the finest education one could hope for in the UK, can commit such basic errors, what hope for the rest of us? Well, learning how to spot false arguments is a good start (here’s a PDF poster of common fallacies). Teaching our children how to think clearly and rationally is another. And perhaps most importantly, we need to rip asunder fallacious arguments as soon as they are uttered, by the myriad means we now have at our disposal.

Religious criticism : the importance of not being silent

This blog is an adaptation of a comment I wrote on the Belfast News Letter in response to a letter attacking Mormons as ‘not true Christians’ by a family of Northern Ireland Protestant fundamentalists.

If my religious criticism offends a religious person, I will not apologise and I will not refrain from repeating it. I will not be silent, so asking me to refrain from commenting on religion simply because I do not subscribe to one myself is pointless.

The mark of any robust system of thought is how it responds to criticism – that religion’s only defence is to discourage, threaten or outlaw dissenters tells me just how sturdy a foundation it has. It should be noted I am not attacking religious people, but their ideology. That their sense of self is so bound to it that to attack it is seen as attacking them is just one of the many failings of religion.

I will admit that I am not particularly well read in the intellectually gymnastic, pseudo-academic discipline of theology. I am content to study science, because unlike theology, it demonstrably works; the test of science is that it can make accurate predictions, which it does.

That many religious people are repeatedly shown to have inadequate knowledge of not only science but their own faith, and that their arguments are fallacious, prejudiced and deceitful is not my fault. Indeed, take Pascal’s Wager, a known fallacy in that it presumes a false dichotomy of Christianity or atheism, when in fact they could both be wrong – Christians will burn just as surely as I if Lord Brahma or Zeus turn out to be the real god!

I will not be silent. As pastor Martin Niemöller regretfully said of the lack of opposition amongst the German intelligentsia during the rise of Nazism:

“First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.”

I support gay rights even though I am not gay, I support racial equality even though I am not of an ethnic minority, I support women’s rights even though I am not a woman, I support the right to religious belief and worship even though I am not religious.

Yes, I think all religions are based upon doctrines of ancient fabrications, assertions, assumptions, plagiarism and forgery. On that basis, any attempt by members of one faith to smear the belief system of another as somehow lesser, when their own faith has such shaky historical and moral foundations, is an act of naked religious supremacism and should be opposed on the basis of fairness. Thus, it is not only my right not to be silent, but my duty.