Monday, 8 February 2010

The Pope, Cherie, and all that

I'm working up to a proper post on religion, secularism and the law, but I'm pushed for time right now and just wanted to splurge a few thoughts on the subject while they're at the forefront of my mind. I haven't even got time to find all the links but the people I refer to will know who I mean.

The occasion for my first ever post on this blog was my disappointment at finding a religious commentator whose work I liked, and who I had thought a reasonable and thoughtful person, using the label 'aggressive secularism' in what I considered a lazy and unthinking way. Nearly three years later, I had the same feeling last Friday, when I came across an editorial in the supposedly liberal Catholic weekly The Tablet (you should see how much conservative Catholic bloggers despise it) describing the National Secular Society as 'aggressively secularist' because of its response to the Pope's attack on Britain's equality legislation.

It occurred to me that the linking of 'aggressive' and 'secularism' by religionists has become one of those predictable combinations, rather like the pairing of 'militant' with 'feminist' or 'homosexual' a couple of decades ago. It has the same effect - of closing down any possibility of dialogue, since the individual or group thus labelled is viewed as motivated by anger and hostility rather than having cogent arguments worth debating. And it springs from the same sense of resentment, implying that secularists (or feminists, or gays) are to be tolerated, as long as they don't make a fuss about it. The same kind of rationale underlies the denigration of Dawkins, Hitchens, et al., as 'new atheists'. The implication is that the old atheists were all right, since they kept quiet and didn't raise awkward questions, whether about scriptural inconsistencies or the challenge posed to religion by modern science, that upset the status quo.

As to the issue under discussion in the Tablet editorial, it's obviously not a straightforward one. I'm a keen supporter of gender and sexual equality, but I'm not sure the state should get involved in determining who the Church ordains. On the other hand, I don't think anyone is suggesting that (as one Catholic blogger put it) the government is about to impose 'priestesses' on Catholics (though the sense of horror behind the use of that word tells you a great deal about the gender and sexual hang-ups of many opponents of women's ordination). And I think the Pope is playing a dangerous game, not only intervening in political debates in a sovereign nation, but also choosing this issue on which to pick a fight. Does the Church really want to cast itself as the enemy of equality and the supporter of discrimination and exclusion?

The other religion vs secularism issue that's been causing a lot of froth in the comment columns and on the blogs lately is Cherie Blair's decision, as a judge, to be lenient to an offender because he had shown himself to be a 'religious' man. Secularists are up in arms, while some religious commentators have (absurdly) seen this reaction as a threat to religious freedom. I happen to think Cherie Blair was wrong to do what she did - or at least to give the reason that she gave (I have no objection to judges using their discretion and demonstrating leniency, if appropriate). As critics of her judgement have noted, religious affiliation should not be privileged above other beliefs in such cases. How would we feel if a judge let someone off the hook on the grounds that he was a 'good socialist' or a 'good Conservative'? The privilege afforded to religious belief in this case appears to arise from a sense that being religious somehow equates to being 'good', and that faith inspires good works. But as recent history has shown - whether we're talking about Islamist or Francoist terrorism - the exact opposite is often the case.

I suspect Cherie was indulging in a bit of spurious multi-faithism - she's a Catholic, and the accused was a Muslim - and making some kind of point about how Islam can be a force for good, etc etc. But the courts are no place for such superficial and misjudged exercises in 'social cohesion', which, though apparently trivial, undermine the already fragile separation of church and state which is the basis of true religious freedom.

Oh, and then there was the Archbishop of Canterbury saying that Tony Blair was 'weak on irony' and hadn't done enough soul-searching. This, from the man who thinks sharia law would be good for Britain. I mean, come on...

Splurge over.

A propos of the Cherie case, this from Mr Bowie seems appropriate:


Minnie said...

Good splurge, Martin! Agreed - and I like the rationale you supply for Miss Booth QC's judgement (hadn't thought of that, & it makes sense in/of the context).

Martin Meenagh said...

It's not the absolute certainty of many atheists about their faith-based atheism that bothers me, Martin--I after all can only justify my own faith by, well, faith ultimately. I'm also open to the idea of a secular civic space, which must necessarily be based on us all being restrained; and I know that there are aggressive religious voices who will adopt the language of resentment at the drop of a hat, without really being aware of the irony and contradiction in most religious traditions.

There are liberal monists dressed up in secularist clothing around though. In itself, secular is just a word; an 'ist' is a person who is following an agenda. And when you can rely on anti-papal, anti-catholic, african-condom, antisemitic history based rants from liberals sent haywire by a conservative morality, and you know that such people exist, how can you say they aren't aggressive secularists?

I wish that everyone could just rise above the nuts, but it seems impossible when the media give them such an easy platform in the service of materialism and narcissism!