Delia Ives's blog

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Some years before the World Wide Web was a twinkle in Tim Berner-Lee's eye, the power of modern communications bought harrowing images of poverty and starvation in Africa into our living rooms, somehow emphasising what a small place the world had become. This stimulated urgent appeals from Oxfam, Band Aid, Live Aid etc. Backed by popstars and the power of television these became runaway successes and raised large sums of money in relatively short spaces of time. Faced with the competing claims of mortgages and other living costs one did one's best to respond. This was a 'fire brigade' action to alleviate an emergency and no alternative solutions were available; but I am sure we all felt the disconnect between giver and receiver and wondered how much of our donation would get to the intended recipients. Which one of us who watched the reports from Ethiopia would not have preferred, had it been possible, to have immediately passed the contents of our larders through the television screen directly into the laps of the starving.

Then in 1990 came the World Wide Web and, over the ensuing years, the explosion in communications it made possible.

In 2004 Matt Flannery and Jessica Jackley witnessed the power of microfinance firsthand while visiting East Africa - Jessica working for the Village Enterprise Fund and Matt filming interviews with small business entrepreneurs - they were able to see and hear first hand how small grants of only $100 - $150 had been used to build small successful businesses which could then support a family. Microfinance is about giving poor people a ‘hand up’, not a ‘hand out’ by providing them with expanded cheap access to financial services. It recognises that people, whatever their situation, are well equipped to help themselves once they have the necessary starting capital, the 'seed-corn', so to speak, of their enterprise.

Matt and Jessica returned from Africa determined to use the internet to expand the flow of funds to microfinance institutions. Their aim was to to make it possible for donors from anywhere in the world to select the individuals, groups or small businesses they wished to help and to then follow their progress. In October 2005 the first peer-to-peer microlending website "Kiva" was announced to the world. ("Kiva" being a happy choice from Swahili embodying the meanings of "agreement" and "unity") Shortly afterwards the US weblog Daily Kos discovered Kiva and broadcast the website to hundreds of thousands of its readers. The word was out... and the rest is history.

Anyone with a paypal account and internet access can donate through Kiva and millions in the developed world have already shown they are very willing to afford at least the minimum amount of $25. The individual donor chooses an entrepreneur according to gender, sector or region and their donation is then pooled with others and passed on as a repayable loan. The only element of charity in the transaction is the loss of interest suffered by the donor which, of course, as rates stand at present, is negligible. The lender is kept posted at regular intervals of the progress of the chosen business, and when the load is repaid at a previously agreed date the donor can choose whether to retain it, relend it, or donate it to Kiva.

A further interesting feature of Kiva is that one can choose to lend as part of team self-selected by a common interest or other grouping. All sums lent by each member of the team, irrespective of its destination, adds to that team's total, thus introducing a minor element of competition. There are thousands of teams to choose from or one can start one's own.

Since its birth Kiva has grown from a small personal project to one of the world's largest microfinance facilitators, connecting entrepreneurs with millions of dollars in loans from hundreds of thousands of lenders around the world. The top lending team with, at the time of writing, $429,425 to its credit, is called the "Atheists, Agnostics, Skeptics, Freethinkers, Secular Humanists and the Non-Religious". It would be good to keep them top. Their next "Loan-a-Thon" Day is on July 1st. and the team have set a target of loaning $1,000,000 before the end of 2009.

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Religious Broadcasting

There seems to have been an awful lot of religious broadcasting this Easter. Even allowing for the fact that it is the festival of the pagan goddess Eostre, I sometimes wonder if the Religion & Ethics Department of the BBC is on some kind of desperate mission to rescue the fast-vanishing minority christians sects, especially the Church of England, for which Easter seems to have acquired some significance other than reasons connected with the season.

The BBC claims it is dedicated to providing a balanced output but religious broadcasting is not normal entertainment or documentary programming, it is propaganda, and as such it is not capable of being balanced by non-religious broadcasting, i.e by such as Eastenders, Match of the Day, Holby City, Film 2009, etc, etc. As propaganda it can only be properly balanced by anti-propaganda, i.e. anti-religious programming.

To effect this a sea-change increase is badly needed in the amount of time dedicated to atheist, humanist and rationalist philosophies but the fact that "Religion" & "Ethics" are bracketed together in the same Department might make this very difficult to achieve. It seems to suggest that religion & ethics are somehow equivalent; i.e. two sides of the same coin; when you are doing religion you are also doing ethics. Many of us, viewing the havoc that has been and continues to be wrought in the name of religion would fundamentally disagree with this.

It is long overdue for the BBC to recognise the very significant number of its licence payers who want no truck with organised religion and have every right to expect their own views to be at least equally respected and allotted proportionate air-time. It is evident that the Religion & Ethics Department, as presently constituted, is incapable of providing this and urgently needs reform.

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Politicians and Religion

By Delia Ives

To use a famous phrase many politicians in the UK "don't do God". What they really mean is that they want to hedge their bets. They don't want to upset any religious group sufficiently for them to withhold their votes or otherwise create a fuss . .

We always suspected Tony Blair was religious but he didn't come clean about it until he left office. Many might call that hypocritical!

We aren't sure about the strength of Gordon Brown's religious beliefs but why on earth shouldn't we know? Why shouldn't politicians be precise about their religious position when they ask us to vote for them? Are politicians in effect saying that we don't need to know because their beliefs don't make any difference to the way they act in office? They should ask themselves if beliefs like that are worth having anyway! And if their beliefs do make a difference to the way they act, aren't we, the voters, entitled to have chapter & verse? Perhaps at the next election we should all question our candidates much more searchingly on this subject so that we know exactly what we are voting for.

Refreshingly Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg has come out unequivocally as an atheist and the Lib Dems are promoting a Freedom Bill. Whether or not this is enough to persuade you to vote Lib Dem you can still help to roll back infringements of liberty by supporting the Freedom Bill.

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By Delia Ives

Perhaps we should let believers of all denominations have their God but with the following rider:-

It is a god that has never had any interest whatsoever in the human race and never will have; will never make his existence known and whose existence we shall never prove or disprove.

So its probably not worth worrying about it.

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Thoughts on Disestablishment

I was baptised into the Church of England, as was fairly common practice in the first half of the last century, but my active churchgoing ended at about age 6 when I threw a tantrum to avoid going to Sunday School. The parish church was anglo-catholic and as far as I can remember my main problem was with 'genuflecting'. Looking back, I suspect I found it embarrassingly theatrical, although I wouldn't have been able to find such words at the time. Also vaguely disturbing was the promise that when I was a little older I would be able to go into the confessional box and confess my sins. Up to then I think I hadn't done much sinning. I probably just thought I had better get out while I could.

Brief though my period of church-going was, I believe it instilled in me an appreciation of church architecture. The parish church was (still is) a red-brick Victorian building, now Grade 1 listed, with the richly decorative interior characteristic of its times. Sitting on a hard chair in the north aisle, bored with the drone of the curate my eyes would wander over the ornate furnishings and columns and, flinching from the gory crucifix, come to rest on the stained glass. Years later, some time after my artistic tastes had homed in on Burne-Jones as a Victorian favourite, I discovered that the windows of the church were designed by him.

So, I have no particular ill-feeling towards my early religious experiences, and over the years have become quite fond of the Church of England mainly in its role as a benign custodian of much of England's cultural heritage of architecture, music and the decorative arts. Of course, as an atheist, I have never done anything to support the church and in this I am evidently not in a minority. Churchgoing statistics show that an overwhelming proportion of the population are content to live out their lives without religious faith or, at least, organised religious worship. City churches lie abandoned and threatened with demolition and I strongly suspect that if the anglican church had not been so uniquely entwined with our unwritten constitution it would long ago also have been consigned to the inconsequential sidelines of national life. But it anoints the monarch that is also its titular head, sends its Bishops to the House of Lords and I have no doubt sends its representatives to serve on Govenment quangos where for reasons that escape me it is credited with special moral authority to offer advice.

This system obviously made some kind of sense when we were nearly all Christians or dissenters (who could be ignored) but we are now a much more diverse nation. How can the Church of England continue to justify its unique position in the years ahead as its congregations fall to near zero and the population divides between the atheist or religiously apathetic on one side and various militant religions on the other?

But if the Church of England disestablishes what will fill the vacuum it leaves? Will we discover too late that it was not the Church of England itself that was important but the influence it denied to anyone else? Is anyone producing a master-plan for how we manage without the Church of England: for how we can avoid undue influence of vociferous minorities on our ethical and democratic values: for the maintenance and preservation of redundant historic churches and cathedrals? I fear not.

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