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I have seen quite a bit online recently about psychics and spirit mediums being derided.

This has grown through two media stories.  That of the newspaper the Daily Mail having to pay out £125,000 in damages to psychic Sally Morgan after libeling her as a fraud without providing proof to back their claims up, and that of the UK television watchdog, Ofcom, fining Psychic TV £12,500 after they made claims that predictions given were wholly accurate.

Certainly, the issue of psychic scam artists and fraudulent mediums must be taken seriously.  However, there is a bigotry at play here, and it is a bigotry backed up by legislation in the United Kingdom.

The public perception of psychics and spiritualist mediums broadly is one of belief or disbelief.  In the latter camp, they are disregarded as the vast majority, if not all of them are merely con artists out to take money from gullible individuals.  This has gone as high as government and on 26th May 2008 the Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951 was repealed and replaced by the Consumers Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008.  Under this legislation, all psychics/spiritualists, whether participating as part of a church or other organisation, or alone, and offering services to the public, must state that their services are “for entertainment purposes only”.

It may actually surprise many readers to learn that many in the spiritualist movement actually support this legislation, for the simple fact it does protect the public from fraudulent mediums/psychics, and in the long term protects the reputation of the genuine ones in the process.  I however have several problems with it, as do some spiritualists, as it smacks of religious bigotry.

The vast majority of those who do not believe in spiritualism take the view that it is lot of nonsense or “mumbo jumbo”.  Yet – and this will equally surprise many – spiritualism is a legitimately recognised religious faith in the UK and many base their beliefs in Christianity.  Why then does the public take the perception that supposedly channelling messages from the dead is unbelieveable, yet praying to an invisible entity is not?  Why think that psychic healing is rubbish, yet the wine and wafer turning into the physical blood and body of Christ is an acceptable notion?

Indeed, there is much in Judeo/Christian (and Islamic) belief which is a lot more fantastical than the beliefs of spirtiualists; from the magical rib-woman, through the big boat with every species on Earth on it, a talking snake / burning bush / donkey, feeding the multitude with a few bits of bread and fish, to the resurrection.  Put in that context, do the claims of spiritualists now seem so very outlandish?

Ah, but I hear the doubters cry, the psychics and spiritualists take money from people.  Ah, but I reply, so do churches, synagogues, mosques and temples, even if it is only in the form of donations.  And the more fundamental churches expect their members to commit to tithing – giving one tenth of their income to the church (this is also true of some synagogues and mosques).  The Church of Scotland, Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church in the UK also ask the faithful to leave money in their wills to the church and “Gift Aid” it so as to avoid tax being paid on their donations.

The organised churches in the UK are multi-million pound industries. The Church of England actually states on its website that it takes £1000 million to run it every year, three quarters of which (£750 million) comes from donations from worshipers.  The Church of Scotland similarly took in £46,340,000 in 2012 and Roman Catholic churches in the UK are estimated to take in  at least £12 million annually.

Compared to those figures, the small amount which psychics / spiritualists earn and spiritualist churches take in must be a drop in the ocean.  And consider that spiritualist churches, unlike other places of worship, do not receive tax relief or exemption.  Many do not even have their own premises but have to hire halls for their services.

Consider also that many spiritualist mediums do not even charge for their services.  Some see it what they do as a “gift from God” and are afraid that if they charge for it, it will be taken from them.  I have no doubt that many of the doubters out there would like to think that all psychics and spiritualists shouldn’t charge. But then, the same could equally be said for ministers, priests, bishops, rabbis, imans, and clergy of all religions. The bottom line is even psychic and spiritualists have to keep a roof over their heads, eat and pay bills as well as anyone else.  And before anyone says that they could get a job, that is precisely what those who do not charge do – they have jobs and give readings in their own time.  Tell me, would you do your job then do another job at night and on the weekends for absolutely nothing?

I also have a problem with the “entertainment” aspect of the law.  If a believer attends a place of worship and feels their prayers have not been answered, do they expect their donation to be returned?  If they do not believe they are forgiven, would they then take their church/synagogue/mosque/temple to court for false representation?  About as likely as anyone going to see a movie which has been hyped up and getting their money back or being able to sue the cinema which screened it.  Yet under the law psychics and spiritualists are under an obligation to return money if the customer is not satisfied, and can indeed be sued.

You may ask why I, as an atheist, should even care about this.  I care simply because I believe in fairness and in human rights.  And spiritualism, a recognised religious faith, has been singled out for unfair treatment.  It has been singled out because it is “different”, non-conformist and steps away from the mainstream, despite the fact that it’s beliefs and claims are no less outlandish than any other faith, and in many cases far less outlandish.  I also care because I am more than a little informed on the subject, unlike the vast majority of the public who are largely uninformed about spiritualism.

Spiritualists do not castigate the LGBT community, do not oppress women, do not carry out the genital mutilation of either gender, do not carry out the ritual slaughter of animals, and as a faith it is not exclusive but wholly inclusive, welcoming all.  Spiritualism is a religion of peace, whose followers have never gone to war nor committed violence in the name of ‘their’ God. The same of many of the above cannot be said of the vast majority of other faiths which society accepts as “normal”.

The United Kingdom is supposedly a democratic society in which we all have rights, and this includes the right to freedom of religion.  The Human Rights Act 1998 Article 9 states;

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in a community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.”

Because their services are being seen in law as an entertainment, believers in spiritualism are not being accorded that right, completely in contravention of UK legislation.

I would therefore argue that the UK government should either remove the stipulation that spiritualists state their services are for entertainment only, or apply that to ALL faiths.  Let us see that phrase, “For entertainment pursposes only” outside of every church, synagogue, mosque, temple, and all other places of worship the length and breadth of the UK, or remove it altogether.

To do any less is nothing short of pure religious bigotry.

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O wad some power, the giftie gie us,
tae see oorseels, as ithers see us.
(Robert Burns, To a Louse)

As an atheist living in Scotland, I am often amazed at the United States of America; a nation so full of potential for good and progress. Yet one which is being held back by religious belief.

There is a great irony between our two countries. Scotland has in the past been a presbytarian theocracy and we live with the residues of that to this day. Both this and us being part of the United Kingdom, means that we are officially a Christian country, yet one which is becoming increasingly secular. The USA on the other hand has not only never been a theocracy, it has the First Amendment assuring freedom of religion and a wall between church and state, yet the vast majority of US citizens are Christian and a great many of them would happily see it become a theocracy.

The events of recent years have made it painfully clear that the USA, while de jure a secular country, is de facto a Christian country. Just look at how many people believe and have falsely claimed in recent years that President Barack Obama is in fact a Muslim. Nonsense of course, for if President Obama is a Muslim, then for someone who works hard on a Friday and attends church on a Sunday, he is the strangest Muslim I have ever encountered. But the more important fact here is that even if Obama were a Muslim, in a country where freedom of religion is assured in the constitution, it should not matter one iota. The sad fact is that it should be perfectly possible for a Muslim to attain high office in the USA but it may never happen. Indeed, there is only one scenario where I could see that happening, and that is if a Muslim candidate were to stand against an atheist candidate. The USA is so fanatical about religion that I have no doubt they would sooner have a Muslim president than an atheist one, on the basis that any god is better than no god at all.

I have been told in the past that US politics are none of my business and I should keep out of them. Well, I’m not going to say sorry, because I am not, but I am afraid that, due to US foreign policy and America’s fascination with Christianity, as a citizen of the world, I cannot afford to ignore the USA.

One of the more worrying aspects of Christianity invading politics in the USA is the actual beliefs of those who form the politics or presidential hopefuls, and those in power. A great many of American Christians are firm “end times” believers. They take the Bible as a literal book of prophecy and believe that historical events, such as the founding of Israel in 1948, point to the end times and the return of Jesus coming. The Book of Revelation tells of Satan rising on this Earth culminating in a great battle between good and evil at Armageddon, which has been identified as Megiddo in Israel. So it is that some American politicians are all too ready to pander to these beliefs. One need only look to Mitt Romney’s 2012 election campaign, in which he openly stated his wish to spend vast amounts on arms and threw his support behind Israel to see the truth of that. Consider also that since 1948 there have been 45 United Nations resolutions against Israel due to continual invasion of Palestinian lands, warring with neighbouring states and appalling human rights abuses and the USA has, without exception, vetoed every one of those resolutions.

And should anyone consider this to be a wholly Republican malaise, consider that as recently as 29 November 2012, when the United Nations recognised Palestine as a non-member observer state, thereby giving them debating and voting rights, it was the Democrat Hilary Clinton who condemned the move, describing it as “unfortunate and counterproductive”. Meanwhile as I write this, Democrat President Barack Obama has just completed a visit to Israel, where he further avowed US support. Meanwhile the human rights abuses continue against Palestinian civilians, all too often with US-built military hardware.

It is insane to consider that ten years ago the USA led an invasion of Iraq, based upon the claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, terrorist training camps and for humanitarian reasons after the killing of 200,000 Kurds. Whilst I admit the Ba’ath regime’s terrible human rights record, there were of course never were any WMD nor terrorist training camps. Israel however is known to have nuclear weapons, they used phosphorus bombs upon Palestine, their secret service, Mossad, have carried out covert action around the world which is nothing more than state-sponsored terrorism and continual military strikes have resulted in 1.5 million Palestinian civilian deaths. Yet the USA not only refuses to condemn Israel, they openly support them.

And why? Because there are so many American Christians believe that conflict in the middle east is all leading up to “the big one”, as predicted in the Bible, and some even seem to be anxious for it to happen. The real danger of course is that with Israel and the Islamic state of Pakistan already having nuclear weapons, and many middle eastern countries having Russia and China as allies, that it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It would only need one conflict to get out of hand to lead to a global, possibly nuclear conflict. And that is why neither I nor any other person on the face of the planet should ignore US politics or the extent to which religion affects US foreign policy.

It is not only the threat of war where the infestation of US politics with religion threatens us however, there is also the environment to consider. The USA is the second largest polluter in the world, accounting for 18.27% of global carbon emissions and coming second only to China (23.5%). Yet there are many Christians in the USA who completely deny the fact of global warming and mankind’s impact upon climate change. The view of some of them is that if God had not meant us to burn coal and oil he would have told us not to use them in the first place (which makes one wonder just why the creator would have buried them so far underground?) but instead apparently gave mankind enough to last thousands of years. Others, when seeing some of the already evident signs of climate change, such as widespread flooding and droughts, instead point to the Bible to tell us these are signs of, yes, you’ve guessed it, the end times. And of course, just as well as hoping for the ultimate battle between good and evil at Armageddon, the Christians are more than happy to carry on as normal, so long as it is anything which helps to hasten the rapture, including destroying the Earth, the only home which our and other species have.

There are lies, there are damned lies, and then there is creationism. It astounds me that an enormous 60% of US citizens reject the Darwinian Theory of Evolution but instead either believe in creationism or intelligent design. This means that the vast majority of Americans are refuting confirmed, testable, scientific fact, and opting instead for a bunch of baseless and impossible mumbo jumbo.

Of course I fully realise that the school system in the USA has independent schools, many of which are Christian schools, which teach creationism, and there are parents who maintain their right to send their children to these schools. Certainly, that is their right and far be it from me to even suggest that right be taken away from them. What I do object to however, is filling the minds of children with nonsense in the name of science. These children are being brought up as ignoramuses and just as the rest of the developed world laughs at their parents, so they shall at their children. I make no bones about this, I consider teaching creationism and other Biblical myths to children to be a form of child abuse.

Yet as well as creationism being taught in private Christian schools in the USA, I find it disturbing to see it creep it’s way into state schools. Louisiana is one state which has signed up to the Accredited Christian Education (ACE) Programme, which will see Christian-based eduction taught in state schools. I have particular distaste for the ACE Programme due to one of their more outlandish claims of “proof” for creationism; the Loch Ness Monster.

The first recorded sighting of an aquatic monster anywhere near Loch Ness appears in the seventh century Life of Columba by the Celtic Monk Adomnan, who wrote the biography of Saint Columba, an Irish prince who founded a monastery on the tiny island of Iona and brought Christianity to the Picts and Scots. In his work Adomnan recounts a monster attacking a monk in the River Ness and St Columba chasing it off by invoking the help of Jesus and the saints. It is worth noting that Adomnan was writing some 100 years after Columba’s death and many more outlandish claims about him which, if believed, Jesus may well have been jealous of. It is also worth noting that Life of Columba clearly states “River Ness”, and not the loch itself.

After this initial early sighting, Nessie appears to have become somewhat circumspect and does not put in another appearance in Scottish history, folklore or legend, right up the first modern sighting in 1933, which coincidentally was around the same time motor touring of the Scottish highlands was becoming popular. From then on the story of “something queer in the loch” grew into a legend, which attracted people with the hope of seeing the Loch Ness Monster, leading even to expeditions to find the elusive creature. And in 1972 one researcher, Robert Rines, claimed to have captured a photograph of one of Nessie’s fins. A large, green, diamond shape in the peaty water, the image was subsequently claimed, not least by Rines himself, to be the fin of a plesiosaur; a creature which lived 199.6–65 million years ago.

The Rines photograph is the sole evidence upon which the ACE Programme base their entire proof of creationism, stating that it shows man and dinosaurs did – and do – live together. The photo however was taken to the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena, where it was computer enhanced, and that computer-enhanced image was further artistically retouched by the Academy of Applied Science team, thereby producing the final flipper photo. The original photograph shows nothing more exciting that what appears to be bubbles and sediment in the water.

Of course, living in Scotland, far be it from me to complain about Americans believing in the Loch Ness Monster. For as long as they keep believing it, they will keep coming here and keep pumping their tourist dollars into the Scots economy, which I am more than happy to allow to continue for a great many years to come. What I do have a problem with however is the fact that what the ACE Programme are doing is basing one myth, creationism, upon another, the Loch Ness Monster. And that they are now being allowed to teach something which does not even pass as pseudoscience in public schools, on taxpayers money, bringing kids up to be a laughing stock, I personally find scandalous, just as every right-thinking US citizen should.

The idea of creationism in a state school is completely alien to me. It must be a cultural difference as it could never happen here in Scotland. Here we have two types of state schools, non-denominational and Roman Catholic. In both types evolution is taught as it should be; an accepted scientific fact. Here in Edinburgh we have a major tourist attraction named Our Dynamic Earth. The purpose of this attraction is to inform and educate about the origins of the earth, evolution and earth sciences. School pupils are taken on compulsory visits to Our Dynamic Earth as part of their curriculum, thereby underlining just how seriously we take the matter. Even the path leading up to the entrance of Our Dynamic Earth has large rocks from various times in Earth’s development.

I actually have a humorous story involving Our Dynamic Earth. I used to work as a tour guide on open-top buses in Edinburgh and one customer we had one day was a woman from South Carolina. Having once known a Baptist pastor from SC, I had an idea of what I could expect. She was little pleased as I pointed out that Princes Street Gardens lie in a valley carved out by a glacier 10,000 years ago. She was less pleased still when we came up close to Edinburgh Castle Rock, which I pointed out that it is solid basalt, millions of years old. She was visibly irritated in the Lawnmarket, the oldest part of the city, when I pointed out that it was first settled 8000 years ago. She became angrier, when I pointed out Arthur’s Seat, the 823 foot high volcanic cone at the heart of Edinburgh, and told passengers it last erupted 350 million years ago. She was positively fuming when we came round by Salisbury Crags, next to Arthur’s Seat, which I informed were pushed up by volcanic pressure in the same eruption and then polished by ice 100,000 to 10,000 years ago. She was close to exploding as I told passengers about James Hutton, the Edinburgh-born father of geology, who went walking up Arthur’s Seat one day and came to the conclusion the Earth could not be 6000 years ago but must be extremely ancient, and she was visibly apoplectic as we pulled into Our Dynamic Earth and I told passengers of how it tells of Earth’s origins, 460 billion years ago, up to the present day, and pointed out the rocks from different stages of Earth’s development. For some strange reason, she didn’t tip me at the end of the tour.

Which brings me onto another aspect of religion, and I don’t mince my words here, Christianity in the USA and the fact it is a nuisance, and sometimes a dangerous one at that. The arrogance of many American Christians disgusts me, their overtly defensive attitude bemuses me and the lengths some of them are willing to go in the name of their faith horrifies me. I am a former Christian myself and I would never have stooped to the level of many American Christians, nor would anyone in the Independent Baptist church I was a member of.

I have crossed swords online with American Christians many times and I have been vilified, called a liar, had all sorts of insults and accusations thrown at me and even occasionally threatened with physical violence, generally by people who know they have lost the debate and with no other arguments to fall back upon, instead resort to personal attacks. The arrogance of many of these people is as equally astounding as their ignorance, including their ignorance of the Bible, Jesus and the faith they claim to follow. I have also encountered more outright lies and twisting of Biblical scripture from American Christians than I have from any other source. They are actually the worst advert for Christianity anyone could ever find.

In the documentary Religulous, comedian Bill Maher visited a church to ask the pastor and members of their beliefs. One man stated that he didn’t like where the documentary was going and said that if Maher was going to run down his God, he wanted nothing to do with it, and walked out. I actually have more respect for that man than the vast majority of American Christians. Not only did he do the civil thing in walking away, he was actually following his own faith to the letter; “But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.” (Matthew 5:37, KJV). Christians are not supposed to argue with non-believers, they are meant to walk away. Which immediately makes me wonder that when they do become defensive and argumentative, just who are they trying to convince; the non-believer, or themselves?

Worse still are the actions which some Christians will go to in order to “defend their faith”. I have seen and read of American Christians ostracising and shunning atheists and people of other faiths in their communities, threats and even violence against atheists, people of other faiths and members of the LGBT. What particularly disgusts me about this is that these tend to be the same people who point the finger and condemn the hateful Westboro Baptist Church for their picketing of dead soldier’s funeral. As far as I can see the only difference between the WBC and some other American Christians is one of presentation. There was one instance of this recently, which while it does not involve violence, certainly shows up the hypocrisy of some American Christians. I covered a story on a Scottish social networking site about Arkansas voting to allow guns to be carried in churches. This horrifies me. On the odd occasion I do enter a church, I remove my hat out of respect. I would never take a gun into any place of worship on the grounds that it is simply just not done. Of Americans responding, some in the gun lobby said they would – simply because it is their right to do so. I pointed out that the WBC cowardly hide behind the selfsame arrogant claim; that it is their right within law to picket soldiers’ funerals. I used this to make the point that just because you can do something does not necessarily mean you should do it. Needless to say, the gun nuts were not to pleased with this comparison (and being of limited intelligence, thought I was likening them to the WBC).

As I am a former Baptist Christian myself, I am somewhat bemused at American conservative Christianity. The type which is so beloved of the Republican Party and other right wing elements. I have heard Christians use and twist the scriptures to back up their views on capitalism, immigration, abortion, and even social healthcare. I have news for them; a black guy helping the poor and sick? That’s not Obama you’re thinking of – it’s Jesus. Try actually reading the Bible sometime instead of cherry picking the bits which suit your own bigotry. But then, I have always been firmly of the opinion that the vast majority of American Christians would not know Jesus if he bit them on the ass. And if he did come back, I have no doubt the first thing he would do to any American conservative Christian would be bitchslap them and shout in their face “WRONG!”

The United States of a America is an extremely young country, not even yet 250 years old, and yet it has grown to become the most powerful country in the world. Too much too soon at times methinks. I am by no means anti-American but in fact believe that the USA can be and has the potential to be a great force for good in the world. I become so very frustrated at the way religion stifles and holds the USA back in so many ways, and has even been a contributory factor in the sad fact that the US is now a major threat to world peace and the entire survival of the planet.

I come from a country and a people with over 1000 years history and experience behind us. We are by no means perfect and to this day live with the sectarian bigotry which had it’s roots in the Reformation and the hard presbyterian rule which Scotland had thereafter. We have learned the hard way however, evolved because of our experiences, and I like to think are now a better people for that. We have been a theocracy; you honestly do not wish to become one. And if you do, how much different then would you be from the intolerant fundamentalist Islamic states you so easily condemn?