Thursday 16 February 2012

Faith under fire?

What’s a decent secular liberal supposed to do for a daily newspaper these days? A refugee from the indiscriminately pro-faithist and worryingly fundament-apologist Guardian, I’ve recently found uneasy shelter in the pages of the Times. But this week has seen the latter paper launch a full-scale, confected moral panic about an entirely imaginary threat to organised religion.

Last Saturday the Times’ front-page headline (£) screamed about ‘Christianity on the rack’. Leave aside for one moment the unfortunate metaphor (historically, it has tended to be Christians who have used the actual rack to extort confessions from heretics and unbelievers). What on earth had happened, one wondered? Had the church been disestablished, the bishops kicked out of the Lords, door-to-door preachers arrested, or Salvation Army bands banned from town squares? No. A judge had told a town council that opening meetings with specifically Christian prayers was inappropriate, when councillors these days were members of all religions and none (a ruling that, paradoxically, would hardly provoke a ripple in most parts of the ultra-religious US, where this kind of separation of church and state is written into the constitution as a guarantor of religious freedom).

The Times headline was disingenuous to say the least – downright dishonest would be nearer the mark – in its claim that the judge had banned ‘public prayers’, as if this were some kind of ominous foreshadowing of a totalitarian future. There was nothing in the court’s ruling barring Christians, or anyone else for that matter, from praying in the street, or even in shops or restaurants, if they wanted to. The judgement related specifically to official political meetings, and was designed to protect the rights of non-believing representatives (presumably the majority these days, if opinion polls are to be believed).

And then today, when you’d think a serious paper would have better things with which to lead its front page (continuing repression in Syria, anti-bailout riots in Greece, that sort of thing), we have a story (£) about the Queen, no less, riding to the rescue of  a ‘beleaguered’ Church, beneath a photograph of Rowan Williams bowing gratefully to the monarch. Apparently Her Majesty has made a speech defending the role of the good old C of E in public life, ‘after a week in which religion has come under intense attack’.

Apart from the National Secular Society’s court victory over council meeting prayers, of what did this ‘intense attack’ consist? Well, it seems that on Tuesday, the Richard Dawkins Foundation, which we are told ‘propagates a vehement atheist agenda’ (note how the word ‘atheist’ is rarely used by pro-faithist commentators without some kind of hostile qualifier: if not ‘vehement’ then ‘militant’), published a survey ‘claiming many people who identified themselves as Christians did not take a literal approach to Christian doctrine and the Bible’. Well, knock me down with a feather. Oh, and Baroness Warsi ‘defended religion during a trip to the Vatican to meet the Pope’. And, er, that’s it.

So a judge defending the rights of non-believers not to have religious rituals imposed upon them in their workplace, a bunch of atheists quoting what people actually think about religion, and a publicity-seeking politician actually defending religion – all this amounts to an ‘intense attack’? And doesn’t the Queen weighing in sort of make the secularists’ case for them: that, far from beleaguered, the Church remains at the heart of the Establishment, its official leader none other than the head of state?

The piece was written by Ruth Gledhill, the paper’s normally level-headed religion correspondent (well, compared to the Buntings, Odones and Armstrongs whose bylines adorn the faith-related papers of other broadsheets), and I was inclined to blame the skewed agenda of the paper’s editorial team for the overblown headline and the tendentious slant of the piece. But then I saw that Gledhill had written a ‘commentary’ piece inside today’s paper, under the headline ‘The new atheists have succeeded only in uniting faiths against them’. It’s basically the same thin gruel (a dash of Dawkins, a burst of Warsi) rehashed into a pro-faith and anti-secularist polemic.

What is one to make of all this? Well, firstly, I ought to re-state the usual personal caveats. I am by no means anti-religion. I had a religious upbringing, was quite devout in my youth, and retain a deep fascination with and on-and-off attraction to faith, which somehow rubs along with my wishy-washy liberal humanism. Having got that out of the way, I’d like to make three points.

Firstly, I think it’s absurd to claim that religion in general or Christianity in particular is under attack in this country. The Church has an enviably prominent role in public life, is well-represented in the media and public prints, and believers of all stripes enjoy complete freedom of belief and practice. If there’s any beleaguering going on, it’s the fault of the Church itself – of its failure, for good or ill, to hold on to mass appeal in an age of increasing secularisation, declining religious practice and diversification of beliefs.

Secondly, to claim victim status, to cry wolf at every minor slight or offence against faith, hardly seems in the spirit of the Christian gospel, as I understand it. Did Jesus exhort his followers to claim constitutional positions, privileged media access, or special rights? Did he say, when you are persecuted for my sake, complain about it endlessly in the press? Or did he, on the contrary, advise believers to expect persecution, even to rejoice in it? Surely a church that whinges at every sign of opposition is an unhealthy, declining church: a vigorous, vibrant body of believers would surely welcome debate and challenge as an opportunity to show its mettle?

Thirdly, the call for the followers of different faiths to make common cause in defence of religion, while sounding nicely harmonious and ecumenical, is actually quite worrying. This week has seen the distinctly odd spectacle of a British Muslim politician (Baroness Warsi) defending Christianity in a speech at the Vatican. Even the Queen’s speech (in a passage which I suspect was supplied by her spiritually eclectic son and heir, who has expressed a wish to be ‘defender of faiths’, plural) argued that the job of the Church of England was not to ‘defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions’ but ‘to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country’. 

This is all very well, but pro-faithists like Baroness Warsi want believers of different faiths to unite against the imaginary and loosely-defined bogeyman of secularism. But what if some Christians, for example, feel their values are closer to those of their secular humanist neighbours than of some other religions? Elsewhere in today’s Times, we read claims that the leader of the Scientology cult, David Miscavige, ruled by terror and subjected dissenting employees to torture, harassment and abuse. Should Anglicans see their role as defending the right of Scientologists to practise this kind of religion freely? And as for the ridiculous claim that the freedom of religion is under threat from atheists and secularists, I can do no better than quote from Douglas Murray’s characteristically spot-on riposte to Baroness Warsi:

(It) is so much easier to blame the diminishment of Christianity in Britain on ‘militant’ and 'totalitarian’ secularists. All this despite the fact around the world today we do not see any secularists, in the name of separation of church and state (or mosque and state), murdering or attempting to murder a believer for their differences of opinion. What we do see, around the world every single day, is Christians being killed for their beliefs. And the people who are doing the killing are notably not secularists.
The real, rather than imaginary danger to believers comes not from secularism but from others acting in the name of religion, and as always, the best guarantee of continuing freedom of religion is a secular constitution and the secular rule of law. In their obsession with a hyped-up secularist threat, the Church and its pro-faith supporters are in danger of creating imaginary enemies, and choosing the wrong allies.


Ophelia Benson said...

"a ruling that, paradoxically, would hardly provoke a ripple in most parts of the ultra-religious US, where this kind of separation of church and state is written into the constitution as a guarantor of religious freedom"

Well, that's a bit too generous to the US, I think. If there were such a tradition entrenched somewhere - like Congress for instance! - and then were ruled against by a judge, there would be ripples that might as well be called tsunamis. Just ask Jessica Ahlquist.

Martin said...

I might have known someone would take me up on that! As I was typing it, the words 'school prayer' kept popping into my mind, and the various court cases around that in some states....So maybe I over-drew the contrast, but I wanted to make the point that the US constitution provides for this kind of religion-neutral public space, whereas that principle has never been properly established in the still-half-heartedly-Anglican UK. The US example also makes the point that a secular constitution can co-exist with enthusiastic religiosity.

AAllan said...

Richard Holloway's memoir 'Leaving Alexandria' is a wonderfully sensitive and moving account of where so many people are, in an uncertain ground, open to the unknowability of god, well away from the fundamentalists of religion and those of atheism. I heartily recommend it.

Martin said...

Thanks for the recommendation - I'll certainly follow it up.