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.

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