Friday 30 November 2007

My normblog profile

My normblog profile appears here today.

Thursday 29 November 2007

An old-fashioned feminist on the religion vs atheism debate

Andrew Sullivan links to an interesting article by Katha Pollitt in The Nation, on 'the current vogue for atheism'. Pollitt is at pains to offer balanced coverage of recent debates on the role of religion. For example, she attempts to understand what lay behind Ian Buruma's now-notorious description of Ayaan Hirsi Ali as an 'Enlightenment fundamentalist', while maintaining her own admiration for the latter, 'despite her conservative associations'. As she says: 'Not every feminist has to be a social worker or a grassroots organizer. I'll bet plenty of women, Muslim and not, have been given courage by her books and example. Just to speak out is a feminist act.'

And while Pollitt is critical of the decision to ban Muslim academic Tariq Ramadan from entering the United States, she is clear that 'he is no friend of women's rights'. She adds: 'If Hirsi Ali is too alienated from her former community to speak for it, Tariq Ramadan strikes me as the latest edition of the elder who claims to represent the community but actually represents the interests of fathers, husbands and brothers.'

Still, wonders Pollitt, why do discussions about Islam in the modern world always revolve around people like Ramadan:

I'd rather hear from Marjane Satrapi, whose 'Persepolis,' a brilliant graphic memoir of growing up under the Ayatollah Khomeini, has just been made into a dark, tragicomic and equally brilliant animated film. And from Pakistani-born Mohsin Hamid, author of the hilarious novel 'The Reluctant Fundamentalist'.

But Pollitt's main argument in the article is that tirades against religion by atheists are unlikely to cause Muslims or other believers to 'wake up one morning and abandon their ancestral faith':

Even if you are a ferocious Sam Harris-style atheist who thinks religion is completely stupid--the province of shysters and fools--you have to admit it would be quite astonishing if that view persuaded the devout anytime soon....

...if all you can offer people is reasons to quit their religion--which also often means their community, their family, their support system and their identity--you're not going to have many takers. For every brilliant angry teenager you strengthen in doubt, there's a mosque- or churchful of people who'll choose the old-time religion if the only other choice is nothing.

Pollitt comes to the conclusion that it's 'pointless' for non-Muslims to weigh in about Islam: 'Why should Muslims care, any more than a Jew cares what a Hindu thinks about Moses? It's their religion, and they'll figure out what they want to make of it.' She doesn't claim to offer an alternative, except for encouraging the media to feature a more diverse range of voices to represent Islam - including writers such as Satrapi and Hamid. As she concludes: 'Maybe art can go where atheism cannot.'

Katha Pollitt's writings (she's a prize-winning poet as well as a regular columnist) are little known in Britain. I came across her name for the first time quite recently, when a collection of her essays was discussed in the New York Review of Books. Reviewer Cathleen Schine describes Pollitt as 'a good old-fashioned feminist and leftist' who is also 'an exquisite observer' of life, love and politics, as well as being a very funny writer - 'a sort of M. Hulot of the feminist left.' The extracts that appear in Schine's review certainly whet the appetite for more.

Since writing this I've discovered Katha Pollitt's blog, which links to articles and reviews of her work, including this and also this from the Guardian.

Iranian activists save rape victim from gallows

After the recent case of the Saudi rape victim sentenced to 200 lashes and a prison term, there's better news from Iran. A young woman who was sold into prostitution at the age of nine, and who had been sentenced to death for incest after her brothers confessed to raping her, was saved from the gallows by the intervention of human rights activists, including Shadi Sadr, a lawyer who was herself imprisoned earlier this year for taking part in human rights demonstrations.

But the verdict in this case should not be taken as an indication that Iran is a less misogynist country than Saudi Arabia. Sadr points out that the Iranian judicial system remains deeply conservative and unfair to women: 'These male judges have not had any training about sexual charges. They all have a chauvinistic point of view and they see the woman as guilty'. And she points out that in many poor Iranian families 'a girl is considered one of the first commodities or properties that can be traded or sold in the eyes of a parent'.

More optimistically, Shadi Sadr believes that constant pressure from human rights campaigners is making Iran's judges more sensitive to public opinion: 'There will be so many protests or so much complaints from the human rights activists that the judges are under pressure not to issue a death sentence.' So, perhaps those Amnesty letter-writing campaigns do have an impact, and change is possible, even in Ahmedinejad's Iran.

Wednesday 28 November 2007

More archiepiscopal antics

Following the Archbishop of Canterbury's recent tidings of woe about western modernity, vicar and regular Guardian commentator Giles Fraser endorses his boss's cultural pessimism, reducing modernity to consumerist materialism in the process and making the sweeping suggestion that religion offers the only alternative to market forces. Fraser argues that following the collapse of Marxism 'the only people offering a genuinely countercultural critique of western modernity are to be found in churches, mosques and synagogues'. Norm disposes of this fallacious argument here. Fraser's article is further evidence of its author's trajectory from thoughtful liberal Christian to tub-thumping anti-secularist.

Meanwhile Fraser's fellow theological pugilist Theo Hobson leaps to Rowan Williams' defence in the row over the Church's attitude to homosexuality. Hobson is responding to the accusation of another archbishop - Desmond Tutu - that Anglicans are 'obsessed' with the issue of gay priests and that Williams has failed to demonstrate that God is 'welcoming'. According to Hobson:

when a liberal cleric attacks Rowan Williams, it is really the worst sort of hypocrisy. When Tutu became a priest, he pledged to uphold the church's teaching, and to respect the authority of the hierarchy. When it became apparent to him that official Anglican teaching was homophobic, he was free to resign. By remaining a priest, he actually became complicit in the homophobia. Instead of honestly confronting his guilt, Tutu wants a scapegoat.

This is strong stuff, especially given the status of semi-sainthood generally ascribed to Tutu. The BBC's trailers for the Radio 4 interview (broadcast last night) in which the South African churchman makes these criticisms have been reverential in the extreme - 'when he speaks, the world listens' kind of thing. No mention of Tutu's hamfisted condemnation of Israeli 'apartheid' or his participation in dubious international conferences. Tutu is right, of course, about the Church and homosexuality, just as he was right about South Africa. But that doesn't mean he's infallible. In fact, he shares with Rowan Williams a naivety about global politics, and particularly about events in the Middle East, that seems endemic among Anglican prelates.

Tuesday 27 November 2007

Defend adult education: sign the petition

There's another excellent post on liberal adult education and the threats to its continuing existence from the Fat Man here. It's ironic that a political party that arguably owes its existence to the adult education movement of the late 19th and early 20th century has done so much to undermine it since coming to power. First there was the ending of support for 'non-vocational' adult classes, and now we have 'ELQ': the decision to remove public funding for the teaching of students studying for qualifications equivalent to, or lower than, qualifications for which they have previously received an award. This will restrict the opportunities available to mature students who wish to change direction, or make up for missed opportunities, and runs counter to the government's rhetoric about 'upskilling' and 'widening participation'.

The Guardian published a letter the other day, protesting against the move, from the great and the good in higher education. Here's a snippet:

Widespread unintended consequences are likely, particularly in relation to widening participation. Significant numbers of adults will discontinue their lifelong learning because they cannot afford it. Their withdrawal will make large tracts of university continuing education unviable - often in the very institutions criticised for not doing enough to widen participation.

You can sign the petition against the ELQ policy here.

Sunday 25 November 2007

The Michael Foot of Anglicanism

We have only one global hegemonic power. It is not accumulating territory: it is trying to accumulate influence and control.

Who said that? John Pilger perhaps, or Seamus Milne? And what about this:

Our modern western definition of humanity is clearly not working very well. There is something about western modernity which really does eat away at the soul.

Sounds like Madeleine Bunting on a bad day.

In fact, both statements are from an interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury in the 'Muslim lifestyle' magazine, Emel, in which he contrasted America's foreign policy with the heyday of the British Empire:

It is one thing to take over a territory and then pour energy and resources into administering it and normalising it. Rightly or wrongly, that’s what the British Empire did — in India, for example.

It is another thing to go in on the assumption that a quick burst of violent action will somehow clear the decks and that you can move on and other people will put it back together — Iraq, for example.

Needless to say, the archbishop had little to say about America's role in liberating Kuwait from Saddam, protecting the Muslims of Bosnia and Kosovo, or rescuing Afghanistan from the repressive grip of the Taliban. Nor did he explain how these actions compared unfavourably with Britain's century-long occupation and exploitation of the Indian subcontinent.

The kindest explanation for these remarks is that Rowan Williams is a bookish theologian who has been thrust into a leadership role, in which academic evenhandedness comes across as weakness (witness the gay clergy affair) and an eagerness not to offend translates as political naivety. In other words, he is the Michael Foot of the Anglican church.

Less kindly, the archbishop's disillusionment with 'western modernity', combined with his expressed admiration in the interview for Muslim piety, and the fact that -as the Sunday Times comments tersely - he 'makes only mild criticisms of the Islamic world' - can be seen as yet another example of liberal Christian fascination with (and unconscious envy of?) Islam.

There's more on this from Bob here (thanks for the link), including an excellent demolition job on the Archbish's comparison between US and British 'empires' . He concludes:

The fact is, Williams is not alone. An insanity has gripped Western elite opinion, rendering it unable to see with any proportion, unable to make moral judgements. America, Israel and Blair are magnified into the worst possible monsters; all other crimes are relatavised away; all good things America does are literally invisible and unthinkable for these people.

Two excellent music documentaries from BBC4

BBC4 has screened two excellent music documentaries in the past week or so. First we were treated to a retrospective exploration of the life and work of Ella Fitzgerald, to mark the 9oth anniversary of her birth. The programme was illuminating about Ella's early life - including new information about her early experiences as a street child and reform school inmate, before success in a singing competition dramatically changed her fortunes. There was some fascinating archive footage of Harlem in the 20s and 30s. As someone who came to jazz fairly late in life (brought up on a diet of rock and pop in the 60s and 70s), I've been slow to appreciate Fitzgerald's genius, initially preferring Billie Holliday's languid and tortured voice to Ella's more mellifluous sound, which can easily be mistaken for superficial smoothness. One of the contributors to the documentary claimed Ella had the best jazz voice ever, and on the evidence of the clips shown here, he may well be right. The programme sent me back to the recordings, and especially the great 'songbook' albums recorded with Norman Granz, with renewed enthusiasm.

Last Friday saw the first in a three-part series, Brasil, Brasil, tracing the history of the country's musical culture. The first instalment was good at demonstrating the mixed African and European roots of samba, and again there was some excellent archive material - this time of Rio and Sao Paulo in the early years of the last century. The programme took us up to the arrival of bossa nova in the early 1960s and included great clips of Jobim, Gilberto, Stan Getz et al. The series is shaping up to be as good as last year's South Bank documentary about current Brazilian star Seu Jorge. Can't wait for next week's instalment.

Friday 23 November 2007

Harry Potter: enemy of God

Further to this post about Harry Potter and the literalism of the fundamentalist mind: here's a snippet from the newly-released documentary Jesus Camp, about an evangelical Christian summer camp for kids in North Dakota. This is pastor Becky Fischer whipping up her young flock:

Becky Fischer: And while I'm on the subject, let me say something about Harry Potter. Warlocks are the enemies of God! And I don't care what kind of hero they are, they're an enemy of God and had it been in the Old Testament Harry Potter would have been put to death!

Crowd: Amen!

Becky Fischer: You don't make heroes out of warlocks!

To which there's no better riposte than Mark Kermode's, in his review of the film on Radio 5 Live this afternoon: 'If this had been the Old Testament Harry Potter wouldn't have been put to death: because he's a fictional character!' (or words to that effect)

An offence and an anachronism

Christian fundamentalist activist Stephen Green wants the BBC prosecuted over its 2005 screening of Jerry Springer - The Opera. The charge? Blasphemy. I wonder how the particular target of his wrath - the corporation's director general Mark Thompson, who was last year named as one of Britain's top 100 lay Catholics - will feel about that.

The human rights group Liberty argues that the blasphemy law violates the European Convention on Human Rights. According to its legal officer Anna Fairclough: 'These blasphemy laws should be shelved in dusty archives, not used as a tool to bring mischievous prosecutions against the arts.'

Nice to see the Christian thinktank Ekklesia agreeing. In the words of its co-director Simon Barrow:

Human rights advocates, including people of faith, have quite rightly campaigned against blasphemy laws in Pakistan and other countries, and having one on the statute in the UK is both an offence and an anachronism.

Privileging one religion above other views is indefensible in a democracy, and for Christians there is the added irony that Christ was himself arraigned on a charge of blasphemy. Using the law to attack opinions about belief is to misuse it, and suggesting that God needs protection against free speech makes no theological sense at all.

The Christian message is about the power of self- giving love, not the love of one's own power. This is why it is wrong religiously as well as legally and democratically.

...which is rather similar to what I was trying to say here (scroll down to point no.6).

Thursday 22 November 2007

A transatlantic greeting

Not so many hits today from the other side of the pond. Ah, that's why. A belated Happy Thanksgiving to you all.

Criticism of Islam is not racist

I've been wanting to write about Ronan Bennett's extraordinary savaging of Martin Amis in Monday's Guardian, but I haven't had the time or energy for the detailed fisking it demands. However, here are a few thoughts. First, Amis' original comments were unwise and open to misinterpretation, but they were not racist. Second, one wonders why Bennett and the Guardian have sought to revive this debate at such length and with such ferocity weeks after the dust had settled on it. Thirdly, Bennett's claim that 'we' have let Amis get away with racism is overblown, given the novelist's denunciation in the introduction to Terry Eagleton's book, not to mention the mostly hostile media coverage at the time. Fourthly, Bennett's claim that hostility to a particular religion is necessarily racist is a threat to freedom of expression and should be fought tooth and nail.

Anyway, there's no need for a line-by-line response to Bennett's piece, as more able critics have since weighed in. A resounding riposte by Christopher Hitchens appeared in Wednesday's Guardian, while yesterday's letters page included this defence of Amis by fellow-novelist Ian McEwan, which is so good I make no excuse for reproducing it in full:

A religion is above all else a thought system. Since Islam, like Christianity, has many adherents and makes highly specific, extravagant and supernatural claims about the world, it should expect, in an open society, to be challenged. Ronan Bennett insists that because religion is "also about identity, background and culture, and Muslims are overwhelmingly non-white", to criticise this thought system is "Islamophobic", and therefore racist. This is an old ploy, familiar to the extremes of the political left and right, of attempting to close down debate. Seventy years ago, a critic of the Soviet Union could expect to be called a fascist. Something of the same spirit prevails today in relation to Islam, especially in the pages of the Guardian.

Much of what passes for moral guidance in the Bible, especially, but not only, in the Old Testament, appears to me to be morally repugnant. I like to feel free to say so. Similarly, there are firmly held beliefs in "mainstream" Islam that are questionable. One instance is apostasy. The orthodox view appears to be that men and women who turn away from their religion are guilty of a serious thought crime. Recommended punishments range from ostracism to death. There are numerous websites now on which courageous ex-Muslims across the Middle East, Pakistan and Bangladesh correspond with each other in secret. The dominant emotion is fear of being discovered. Such a dispensation appears to me to be an offence to rational inquiry and free thinking. To say so, Mr Bennett, is not to be a racist, but to exercise the gift of consciousness and the privilege of liberty.

I've known Martin Amis for almost 35 years, and he's no racist. When you ask a novelist or a poet his or her view of the world, you do not get a politician's or a sociologist's answer. You may not like what you hear, but reasoned debate is the appropriate response, not vilification by means of overheated writing, an ugly defamatory graphic, and inflated, hysterical pull-quotes. I wonder whether Ronan Bennett would care to expend so much of his rhetorical might excoriating at similar length the thugs who murdered - in the name of their religion - their fellow citizens in London in 2005.

Wednesday 21 November 2007

Light versus dark blue

Coincidentally we found ourselves in Oxford last weekend and Cambridge the weekend before. Both cities have strong personal associations: I was a student at Cambridge in the mid-70s and worked in community education on the outskirts of Oxford in the mid-80s.

We were in Cambridge to see Peter Gill's production of The Importance of Being Earnest (which transfers to London in January), starring Penelope Keith as Lady Bracknell, and with a supporting cast that included Rebecca Night who recently achieved fame as the star of the BBC's Fanny Hill. It was an enjoyable production, though you could almost hear the disappointment in the audience at Penelope Keith's low key interpretation of the famous 'handbag' speech. Our reason for visiting Oxford was more mundane: to do a spot of early Christmas shopping.

The two visits, so close together, revived our old debate about which city we like best. I used to prefer Cambridge's small-town, semi-rural feel, by comparison with the more urban, semi-industrial atmosphere of Oxford. And I've always liked the way you can walk freely through the colleges in Cambridge, whereas Oxford's tend to be hidden away behind high walls and 'keep out' signs. But this longstanding preference was challenged when we lived and worked in Oxford in the '80s. We grew attached to the city and its surroundings: there's a certain magic when you drive through the 'canyon' on the M40 from London and see Oxfordshire and the Cotswolds spread out before you, a first glimpse of the West Country.

In fact, the two cities now feel remarkably similar, with their identical Borders bookstores and anonymous new shopping centres. Interestingly, on both visits we found ourselves eating in restaurants located in converted public institutions. In Cambridge we had lunch at Browns, in the old Addenbrookes Hospital building, and in Oxford we ate in Carluccios, one of a number of new eateries situated in the old prison: the Malmaison hotel, in the same complex, has even retained the bars on the windows.

Monday 19 November 2007

Building bridges between believers and non-believers

This makes a refreshing change: a religious leader seeking dialogue with the secular world, rather than picking a fight with it. In a recent speech to the Catholic bishops of England and Wales, Archbishop Bruno Forte of Chieti-Vasto in Italy argued that 'The non-believer is not outside believers, but within them' and suggested that 'dialogue between believers and non-believers can be understood as an exercise of reciprocal respect and a witness to religious freedom.'

The Archbishop added:

In this age of ours that lacks great hopes, perhaps more than ever the real difference is not between believers and non-believers, but between those who think and those who do not, between, on the one hand, men and women who have the courage to face life’s pain, to go on trying to believe, hope and love, and, on the other, men and women who have given up the struggle, who seem to content themselves with the penultimate horizon, and no longer know how to burn with desire and yearning at the thought of our last horizon and last home.

(via The Tablet)

Friday 16 November 2007

Saudi justice: punish the victim

200 lashes and a six-month prison term. That's the penalty for rape in Saudi Arabia...for the victim. According to a BBC report:

An appeal court in Saudi Arabia has doubled the number of lashes and added a jail sentence as punishment for a woman who was gang-raped. The victim was initially punished for violating laws on segregation of the sexes - she was in an unrelated man's car at the time of the attack. When she appealed, the judges said she had been attempting to use the media to influence them.

The 19-year-old woman, who is from Saudi Arabia's Shia minority, was gang-raped 14 times in an attack in the eastern province 18 months ago. Seven men from the majority Sunni community were found guilty of the rape and sentenced to prison terms ranging from just under a year to five years. The rapists have since had their prison terms doubled, but the sentences are still low considering that they could have faced the death penalty.

Last month Foreign Office Minister Kim Howells called for Britain and Saudi Arabia to work more closely together on a basis of their 'shared values'.

Thursday 15 November 2007

Debating the meaning of secularism

There's been a bit of a spat about religion and secularism over at the Thinking Anglicans website, sparked off by an article in the Church Times by vicar and regular Guardian columnist Giles Fraser (via Ekklesia). The latter takes the National Secular Society to task for the 'trickery' with which it employs the word 'secular', sometimes to mean the separation of church and state (with which Fraser agrees) but at other times using it as 'little more than a synonym for virulent anti-religious prejudice'.

In an early post on this blog, I criticised the NSS's tendency to blur the distinction between secularism and atheism, so I have some sympathy for Fraser's argument. But I'm disheartened by the animus which this liberal Christian commentator displays towards secularists, as in the sneering language of his opening sentence:

The Thought Police at the National Secular Society (NSS ) have held their latest annual gathering, patting themselves on the back for another bumper year of God-bothering.

Thought Police? Isn't that a bit strong when describing a minority pressure group, committed to freedom of belief, and having very little political influence? Fraser is deeply sceptical of the NSS's claim that it seeks 'a society in which all are free to practise their faith, change it or not have one, according to their conscience'. But he offers no evidence to back up his argument that the organisation's real aim is the 'eradication' of religion.

You can find some less heated debate about religion and secularism at two useful websites. The Religion and Secularism Network is based at Cambridge University, while The Immanent Frame is a blog on secularism, religion and the public sphere supported by the US Social Science Research Council, and devoted almost exclusively to discussion of Charles Taylor's new book A Secular Age.

'They want to take us back 14 centuries'

Here's 'Um Zeinab', a mother of six, describing what life is like for women in Basra:

I was heading to work in the morning. I used to stop at the main road to wait for the bus. As normal I was wearing a shirt and skirt and some make-up.

Suddenly, a motorbike came heading towards me at top speed. Maybe it wasn't my day to die because the bike rolled over and the driver fell off.

He had a beard and a black robe worn by the militia. I was so shaken. He didn't say anything but I could feel his anger. After that I started to wear hijab and light make-up or even no make-up.

My daughter, who is at the university, told me that some men are watching how women dress and ask them: 'Why are you wearing a skirt and a shirt?' One of her friends who doesn't wear a hijab received a letter threatening her.

Two days ago two women were killed in al-Makal district. All these incidents are recorded as 'killers unknown' and the bodies remain unidentified, because no-one dares collect them.
People said the women had received a warning beforehand, and that the gunmen then came to their houses and killed them - one of them in front of her kids.

I blame dark, fundamentalist extremists for these incidents. I don't know what's happened - have we become savages? I don't know what's happened to people's way of thinking, they've changed overnight. I remember back in the 1970s our teachers used to wear miniskirts and have the latest hair-dos. These are terrible setbacks. We don't know what they want, or why they want to take us back 14 centuries.

This personal account forms part of a BBC World Service report on what the local police chief calls the 'terrible repression against women in Basra' at the hands of Islamic militias. Other examples have included a woman killed in her home in front of her six year old son, who was rumoured to have been conceived in an adulterous relationship, and a university student shot in the legs for not wearing a hijab. Apparently 42 women were killed between July and September.

The police chief, Major-General Khalaf, who deserves praise for his own bravery in speaking out, said that local police were too scared to investigate the killings and relatives reluctant to report the crimes for fear of a scandal.

Will the Shia religious parties who dominate the Iraqi government condemn the actions of their co-religionists in the south of the country?

Monday 12 November 2007

Potter's end

I've just finished reading the final book in the Harry Potter series. Yes, I know, it's a bit sad, a grown man reading books meant for children, etc . But before you conclude that this is a sorry case of arrested development, I'd like to remind you that I do read other stuff, and I make no apologies for reading those children's books (Philip Pullman's trilogy would be another example) that have an appeal far beyond their intended youthful audience. We read the first Potter book with our children when they were at junior school. By the time the later instalments appeared they were teenagers and had put away such childish things, but leaving us with a lingering need to see how the story ended.

To begin with I found The Deathly Hallows far less appealing than the earlier books. It's much darker, for one thing, and its murderous opening sequence is more reminiscent of adult horror fiction than children's fantasy. There is little relief in the chapters that follow, as Rowling departs from the familiar and comforting framework of the Hogwarts school year and follows Harry and friends as they pursue their dogged quest to defeat Voldemort. There's an excessive emphasis on the 'technology' of magic, too, in this book, which will alienate less-than-fanatical readers who can't tell their Hallows from their Horcruxes and won't remember every detail and plot-twist from previous volumes. And just as the first book was criticised for taking too much time in setting up the context, so this final volume can be taken to task for devoting page after page to authorial tying up of loose ends.

None of which detracts from the beautifully-constructed final denouement (spoilers follow), which sees Harry sacrifice himself Christ-like to save the wizarding world from the satanic Voldemort, only to experience resurrection and a restoration of the old order. There's also a postscript which gives us a glimpse of an adult Harry seeing his children off on the train to Hogwarts. The book, and the series, ends with the brief sentence: 'All was well'. That this recalls Dame Julian of Norwich's 'All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well' is hardly accidental. This concluding book is replete with unmistakably Christian references, something Rowling herself has acknowledged in recent interviews.

All of which is one in the eye for those fundamentalist Christians who have disapproved of Harry Potter from the outset: their literal belief in the devil and the occult precluding any positive depiction of magic. Their tin ear for metaphor and allegory appears to be shared by Simon Jenkins, who recently interpreted the popularity of Potter as a sign of renascent 'pagan fundamentalism'. Jenkins' mention of the enduring appeal of The Lord of the Rings as additional evidence in this regard must have had the ultra-Catholic Tolkien spinning in his grave.

Surely it can't be long before Rowling's heptology (?) is accepted in the canon of modern Christian literature, alongside Tolkien's epic and C.S.Lewis' Narnia books? For those with an interest in such things, it's curious, and a little depressing, that it's hard to name a recent major work of fiction with an explicitly Christian theme that isn't written primarily for children, or set in a fantastic alternative world. Question: Is convincing realist fiction with a religious meaning possible in a secular age?

Finally, how's this for a succinct summary of the Potter series:

Geeky wizard goes to school. Has adventures. Dies. (OK maybe).

Friday 9 November 2007

Who are the real totalitarians?

'Far from fading away, religion is on the ascendancy.' So claims Soumaya Gannoushi, citing a range of evidence to support her argument that belief in God is far from dead in contemporary Europe. Like other contemporary 'faith-ists', Gannoushi interprets the increasing interest in religion as an inevitable response to the 'meaningless' of modern society:

It is ironic that the further modern humans seem to move from religion and its many constraints, the more they thirst for it; the greater their sense of emptiness, and meaninglessness, the deeper their need for spiritual fullness and a moral horizon. In the certainty and coherence of religious belief, they find a way out of the wasteland of nihilism and the ruins of meaning.

Like many religious believers, Gannoushi is unable to imagine that life might have any meaning outside the 'certainty and coherence' of faith:

The truth is that while a few individuals, intellectuals and academics might co-exist with nihilism and even celebrate it as affirmative and Dionysian, the majority are unable to bear its icy grip on their souls or crushing burden on their lives.

This opposition between religion and nihilism is, of course, patently false and betrays a crass inability to understand the myriad ways in which the majority of people, who are not formally religious, find meaning in their lives.

Gannoushi characterises the recent revival of interest in religion as generally 'calm' but points to two 'aggressive' exceptions: 'The first is a Christian right rising in many parts of Europe - such as Switzerland and France - which across the Atlantic finds its most sinister expression in the evangelicals allied to neoconservatives'. And the second?

The other is no less totalitarian in its claims, but is secular rather than religious. It preaches absolute belief in science, reason and progress and calls for the eradication of religion and its "evil superstitions". Its proponents, who in Britain include Richard Dawkins and Anthony Grayling, are the new Jacobins, who are every bit as dogmatic and militant as their 18th century predecessors.

Yes, it's our old friend 'Enlightenment fundamentalism' aka 'aggressive secularism' aka 'militant atheism'. And it's the familiar rhetorical strategy of creating a false moral equivalence, to the effect that these new secularists and atheists are just as extreme as the religious fundamentalists they oppose. Except they're not, of course, despite Gannoushi's irrelevant reference to the excesses of the French Revolution. It's religious fundamentalists, rather than the likes of Dawkins and Grayling, who are 'totalitarian' in their calls for the expression of views hostile to their own to be proscribed, and who press for the 'eradication' of heretics and apostates.

Some readers will be astonished that Gannoushi does not mention, as one of her 'more aggressive trends', the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. It's the elephant in the room in her discussion of renascent faith, and it's the missing link explaining the renewed efforts of secularists to defend pluralism and freedom of expression against the aggressive claims of extreme religionists.

Monday 5 November 2007

Happy holidays?

Now here's a bad idea. The Institute of Public Policy Research is suggesting that the UK, as a nation, should celebrate other religious festivals besides Christian ones:

If we are going to continue as a nation to mark Christmas... then our public organisations should mark other major religious festivals too.

It's easy to identify the flaws in this well-meaning but misguided proposal. Firstly, how do you decide which 'other' festivals to mark, and which not to? Are we just talking about the festivals celebrated by the 'big three' monotheisms - Judaism, Islam and Christianity - or should the list include Hinduism and Sikhism (and if not, on what grounds)? What about Buddhist, or Mormon, or pagan festivals? What exactly counts as 'major'? Is the criterion bums on seats, or some other undisclosed measure of major-ness? Secondly, what if the festivals of a particular faith celebrate something malign, or offensive to those of other faiths? Should public organisations in Northern Ireland mark the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne, which is dear to the hearts of Protestants, even at the risk of giving offence to Catholics? Who is to adjudicate on which are 'good' faiths/festivals, and which are 'bad'?

The IPPR's proposal is the latest manifestation of what we might call 'multifaithism'. An early example was Prince Charles' declaration that as king he wanted to be 'defender of faiths' rather than 'defender of the Faith'. More worrying were recent attempts to broaden the blasphemy law to cover other religions besides Christianity.

Multifaithism (which has some similarities with the 'faithism' that I described here) is based on a number of unexamined assumptions. One is that there is an element of truth in all religions and that, beneath their superficial differences, different faiths are all really saying the same thing. Another is that religion is generally a benign and uplifting phenomenon, related to which is the notion that having a faith is better than not having one.

It's a curiously British phenomenon, and one in which 'other faiths' are seen through the misleading prism of liberal Anglicanism. Faiths such as Islam and Hinduism are assumed to be basically benign, with a 'true' core which is about peace and love and which has been corrupted by the false prophets of extremism and fundamentalism. Real differences between faiths are glossed over in a search for a common front between faiths against the encroachment of secularism. The irony is that the 'faith' of the majority of modern Britons - agnosticism - is excluded from the picture.

This is not to deny that there are real issues to be faced as British society becomes more fragmented in its beliefs, while still retaining a sentimental attachment to age-old Christian festivals. But the attachment is precisely that: sentiment, rather than positive belief. It's nonsense to pretend that the majority of Britons mark Christmas or Easter as an expression of Christian belief, rather than as an opportunity for a holiday. To suggest that we should all mark Eid or Diwali or Passover in the same agnostic, off-hand way is surely to undermine the special religious meaning that these festivals have for their respective believers. The IPPR's suggestion smacks of a certain paternalism towards other faiths, a desire to colonise them for wider public consumption. The secular alternative, which is to tolerate a multiplicity of faiths in the private sphere, but to keep the public sphere free of association with any particular brand of belief, is surely the better path.

There's more on this here.

Friday 2 November 2007

Have you been perfected?

From the people who brought you Obama Girl, Giuliani Girl and 'Hot4Hill', comes this response to Ann Coulter's recent claim that Jews need to be 'perfected' by converting to Christianity:

(Via Englishman in New York)

Mass beatification revives passions of Spanish Civil War

The pope's beatification of nearly 500 Catholics, most of them priests, monks and nuns, killed by Republican militias during the Spanish Civil War, will dismay liberal Christians, mystify non-Catholics, and anger many on the secular left.

The response to the decision has demonstrated that the passions ignited by events in Spain in the 1930s are still very much alive, and it's likely that the pope's actions will entrench rather than heal the divisions in Spanish society that are a legacy of that period. Indeed, it has been argued that this industrial-scale beatification is a calculated political tactic by the Vatican, in its continuing battle with Spain's socialist government over issues such as same-sex marriage, divorce and control of education.

The comments on this item on the BBC news website - many of them by descendants of those who were involved on both sides in the civil war - are among the most impassioned and articulate I've read for some time. They're recommended reading for anyone who doubts the cruelty of Franco's regime or the Church's complicity in it. Here's one from William Garcia:

When the fascist army marched into my grandmother's home village in Andalucia, in the very first weeks of the war, it was the Catholic priest who betrayed local people to the invaders. He gave them a list of everyone who lived in the village, so they knew if anyone had fled or gone into hiding. He told them who the 'troublemakers' were, who the leftists were, the intellectuals, the trade unionists, the people who didn't go to church regularly and those who had not baptised their children. It did not take long for the fascists to round all of these people up, along with anyone they didn't like the look of and men of fighting age, and shoot them all en masse in the village square.

For anyone who thinks this was an isolated incident, I'd recommend reading Paul Preston's magnificent but chilling biography of Franco.

For some on the Left, this complicity with fascist repression explains, even if it doesn't quite justify, the killing of priests by Republican militias. Here's Freens:

The successor of the man who praised Franco's 'Catholic victory' in Spain in 1939 has 'beatified' over 400 clergy executed by the militias during the Spanish Civil War. At best reactionaries, and at worst fascists, they represented not only social parasitism but also one of the most repressive forces in Spain, a force which gave its blessing to the mass murder by Franco's men of many thousands of men and women whose politics had even a liberal tinge.

Are we sure that all of those killed were really fascists, and isn't justifying the execution of people for what they represent, rather than what they actually did, a slippery moral slope? At the same time, there may be a certain resistance among progressives to any tarnishing of the reputation of their last remaining historical heroes - the anarchist and non-communist Left of the Spanish Civil War. But it should be possible to admit that there were occasional atrocities on the Republican side, without in any way equating this with the systematic, government-sponsored repression that followed Franco's victory.

Pope Benedict's actions must raise doubts, if they didn't exist already, about the whole process of beatification, which is the first step on the path to sainthood. To be described by the Church as 'Blessed', is it enough simply to have died for your faith, even if your life was reprehensible or your social attitudes (as must have been the case with at least some of these 'martyrs') decidedly unchristian?

These events also raise thorny issues for those of us who, at various times in our lives, have been attracted to both Catholicism and socialism, and even to both at the same time. In the last fifty years or so most 'thinking' Catholics in Britain have tended to be on the liberal left and the anti-clericalism of the European left has been largely absent from public discourse: in this country, anti-Catholicism tends to have sectarian rather than political associations.

However, to visit southern Europe is to become aware of the continuing battle for supremacy between a largely conservative Church and the forces of liberal, secular modernity. I remember being in Barcelona and feeling equally attracted by that city's liberal and progressive culture, and by the beauty of its churches. Then I came across a memorial in the cathedral to the priests that the pope has just beatified, and I felt as though I was being forced to make a choice between the two cultures.

Among the likely results of this process of beatification will be an intensification of the sense - which this pope appears to want to encourage - that liberalism and Christianity are rival ideologies, and a further shrinking of the space for exploring any kind of rapprochement between the two.

There's a piece on the mass beatification by Graham Keeley in today's edition of the liberal Catholic weekly, The Tablet. Keeley makes the point that not all Spanish Catholics supported Franco, and that some priests were themselves victims of his regime: 'Many modern commentators and political figures on today’s Left see the Vatican’s decision to beatify priests killed by Republicans or anarchists as a failure to acknowledge those priests who died at the hands of Franco’s firing squads.' While acknowledging that many Catholics welcome the beatification ceremony, he adds:

However, relatives of priests such as Gervasio Albizu, Martín Lekuona and the writer and priest José de Ariztimuño do not feel the same. These priests were among 16 killed by pro-Francoist firing squads in San Sebastian, in the Basque country, in October 1936 because they were thought to be Basque nationalist sympathisers. But none of these priests or laymen who died during the same conflict were selected for beatification.

This confirms the political nature of the Vatican's gesture and gives the lie to the claim by the president of the Spanish episcopal conference, Bishop Ricardo Blázquez, that the ceremony represents 'an act of reconciliation'.

Thursday 1 November 2007

Is there a right to propagate religious beliefs in public?

There won't be much sympathy for the fundamentalist Westboro Baptist Church from Topeka, Kansas, following their $10.9m (£5.2m) fine for picketing the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq -with placards bearing slogans such as 'Thank God for dead soldiers' and 'You're going to hell'. Members of the church, aka 'The most hated family in America', believe that the soldiers' deaths are God's punishment for America's sins: more specifically, for homosexuality (they have also picketed the funerals of AIDS victims).

However, the church is appealing on the grounds of free speech, and it has to be said that the case raises interesting questions about the freedom to express one's beliefs. Isn't the court that imposed this hefty penalty simply a mirror image of those faith groups who claim the right not to be 'offended' by anti-religious books, plays, cartoons, etc? If secularists have a right to offend believers, don't they also have a right to offend us - and shouldn't we just put up with it?

I suppose the response to this might be that, while there should be freedom to cause offence to the beliefs of others - there is no constitutional right to cause hurt and distress to another person. The religious extremists in this case were convicted of invasion of privacy and of causing 'emotional distress' to the families of dead soldiers.

Beyond this, I would argue that, while freedom of belief should certainly be protected, the freedom to propagate those beliefs in public should perhaps be subject to certain conditions. I'm aware this is a tricky area, and there's a danger of giving comfort to those regimes - Saudi Arabia and Pakistan come to mind - that restrict the rights of Christians and other non-Muslims to share their faith. However, it could be argued that citizens also have the right to protection from aggressive proselytising in public places and that those spaces should be preserved as faith-neutral zones.

The Westboro fanatics are at the extreme end of the spectrum, but I'm surely not the only one to be irritated by the vociferous preaching and amplified hymn-singing of the evangelical groups that are often to be found in British shopping centres on Saturday mornings. Other members of my family think I'm being over-sensitive, and betraying my unresolved conflicts with my evangelical past, when I grumble at this intrusion. But in the Midland town where we used to live, we couldn't walk down the high street at the weekend without being regaled with sermons on hellfire and divine punishment by preachers from a particularly fundamentalist local church. I've often wondered why local councils allow this, and whether they would give the same licence to (say) extreme Islamic groups to preach hate against Jews or gays outside Sainsburys.

The trouble is, these fundamentalist christians - whether the virulent homophobes of Topeka or the relatively benign happy-clappy types in our high streets - are so convinced of their rightness that they can't see that others might have a different view of the world, or be upset by their rantings. I know it's a difficult issue on which to adjudicate, but I'd argue for keeping the public square free of expressions of religious belief that impose themselves on others, and particularly of those that stir up hatred or cause distress.