Obviously in reference to Newsweeks publicity seeking, islamophobic front-cover - Muslim Rage - which includes a picture robbing the subjects of their context
What are the proper limits of religious freedom? Marianne Thieme, leader of the Party for the Animals in the Netherlands, offers this answer: “Religious freedom stops where human or animal suffering begins.”
The Party for the Animals, the only animal-rights party to be represented in a national parliament, has proposed a law requiring that all animals be stunned before slaughter. The proposal has united Islamic and Jewish leaders in defense of what they see as a threat to their religious freedom, because their religious doctrines prohibit eating meat from animals that are not conscious when killed.
The Dutch parliament has given the leaders a year to prove that their religions’ prescribed methods of slaughter cause no more pain than slaughter with prior stunning. If they cannot do so, the requirement to stun before slaughtering will be implemented.
Meanwhile, in the United States, Catholic bishops have claimed that President Barack Obama is violating their religious freedom by requiring all big employers, including Catholic hospitals and universities, to offer their employees health insurance that covers contraception. And, in Israel, the ultra-orthodox, who interpret Jewish law as prohibiting men from touching women to whom they are not related or married, want separate seating for men and women on buses, and to halt the government’s plan to end exemption from military service for full-time religious students (63,000 in 2010).
When people are prohibited from practicing their religion – for example, by laws that bar worshiping in certain ways – there can be no doubt that their freedom of religion has been violated. Religious persecution was common in previous centuries, and still occurs in some countries today.
But prohibiting the ritual slaughter of animals does not stop Jews or Muslims from practicing their religion. During the debate on the Party for the Animals’ proposal, Rabbi Binyomin Jacobs, Chief Rabbi of the Netherlands, told members of parliament: “If we no longer have people who can do ritual slaughter in the Netherlands, we will stop eating meat.” And that, of course, is what one should do, if one adheres to a religion that requires animals to be slaughtered in a manner less humane than can be achieved by modern techniques.
Neither Islam nor Judaism upholds a requirement to eat meat. And I am not calling upon Jews and Muslims to do any more than I have chosen to do myself, for ethical reasons, for more than 40 years.
Restricting the legitimate defense of religious freedom to rejecting proposals that stop people from practicing their religion makes it possible to resolve many other disputes in which it is claimed that freedom of religion is at stake. For example, allowing men and women to sit in any part of a bus does not violate orthodox Jews’ religious freedom, because Jewish law does not command that one use public transport. It’s just a convenience that one can do without – and orthodox Jews can hardly believe that the laws to which they adhere were intended to make life maximally convenient.
Likewise, the Obama administration’s requirement to provide health insurance that covers contraception does not prevent Catholics from practicing their religion. Catholicism does not oblige its adherents to run hospitals and universities. (The government already exempts parishes and dioceses, thereby drawing a distinction between institutions that are central to the freedom to practice one’s religion and those that are peripheral to it.)
Like a lion, perhaps, in a den of Daniels, I gave a talk last week on ‘Why I am an atheist’ to theology students at Bristol’s Trinity College. It was an enjoyable event, and hopefully helped me to think through and sharpen my arguments (though not, I suspect, to change anyone’s mind). Here’s the transcript.
There are three kinds of arguments that an atheist can make in defence of the insistence that no God exists. First, he or she can argue against the necessity for God. That is, an argument against the claim that God is necessary to explain both the material reality of the world and the values by which we live. Second, he or she can argue against the possibility of God, against the idea that a being such as God is either logically or materially possible. And third, an atheist can argue against the consequences of belief in God. This is the claim that religious belief has pernicious social, political or moral consequences and that the world would be better off without such belief.
Historically, much of the discussion of God has been about the possibility of God. Christian apologetics grew out of the attempt rationally to defend the possibility of God’s existence, while atheists wanted to show that the idea of God made no rational sense. Much of the contemporary debate is about the consequences of religious belief. The so-called New Atheists, in particular, have been scathing in their attack on what they see as the wicked and malevolent social consequences of faith – from the harassment of gays to mass suicide bombings. I, too, am sceptical of the possibilities of God. And, while I do not think, as many do, that faith is, in and of itself, pernicious, I do believe that there are often social and moral problems that arise from religious belief. What I want to concentrate on today, however, is on the first type of argument. And that is because for me, as it is for many other atheists, this is the primary motivation for my atheism – I simply do not see the necessity for God.
There are three kinds of reasons often given for the necessity of God. First, there is the claim that God is necessary to explain Creation and the maintenance of the cosmos. Second, that God is a necessary source of moral values; that without God we would fall into the abyss of moral nihilism. And third, that without belief in God, there can be no purpose or meaning to life. Let us look at each of these claims in turn.
— Catch-22, Joseph Heller (via cottonbutts)
It was a pretty short-lived scandal, all told; at about 4pm the Guardian broke a story that Anglican Mainstream had booked adverts to run on 26 London buses that read ‘Not gay! Post-gay, ex-gay and proud. Get over it!’ Leaving aside the fact that ‘post-gay’ sounds like it was coined not by a homophobic Christian group, but by a pretentious, obfuscating ‘queer theorist’ who was rejecting mainstream ‘gay identity’. Typical usages might include ‘this art has a really post-gay appeal to it’. It didn’t matter; the Twitter backlash had begun, and by 6pm Boris Johnson had felt enough heat, and announced that the campaign would not run on London’s buses. I suppose he had to come good in the end, even just a month before the next Mayoral elections.
The incident didn’t last long, and disappointingly I didn’t even get a chance to throw paint bombs at buses bearing the slogans, nor see what the Advertising Standards Authority might make of the dubious ‘science’ behind ‘gay therapy’. But, I think the incident, however brief, was deeply symptomatic of a shift in British politics – towards the same evangelical religious conservatism that is seen in the United States. Britain is, on the face of it, a much more secular country than the USA; less than 10% of people regularly attend church, and among the under 25s, less than 25% are religious. But what seems to be creeping into the realm is the same kind of faith-centric campaigning that goes on in the United States – against abortion providers and homosexuals in particular.
A lot of this seems to have been sparked by the Government’s slightly bizarre mixed message – on the one hand declaring that civil marriages may well be made open to gay people, and on the other declaring the need for faith to take a more prominent role in the public sphere. One suspects that in hard economic times, the Tories are desperately scrabbling around for some kind of social glue, rather than allow society to become more fractured; but the other side of this is the sort of glib truism that what happens in America will eventually be imported here too – whether that be hip-hop music or right-wing evangelicals becoming increasingly politically vocal. Everywhere, there are signs that the evangelical right is gaining confidence, as in the c4m (Campaign for Marriage) which currently has 400,000 signatories; and on abortion, where Tory MPs such as our beloved Nadine Dorries have been attempting to bring down the upper limit on abortions, and Christian groups have taken inspiration from the US grown 40 Days for Life movement and begun picketing Parliament and abortion clinics; though thankfully they tend to be outnumbered by pro-choice activists, who are catching up fast.
Hopefully, Boris killing the advertising campaign by Anglican Mainstream will be the first in a line of signals which ought to shock evangelical Christians who were seeking to import US-style faith based campaigns against homosexuality and abortion to the UK. Religious values have, in recent years, been a small feature on the national political state, where 2 out of the 3 main party leaders are self described atheists, and Cameron says his Church of England faith ‘comes and goes like Magic FM in the Chilterns’ (do you think he could make a less upper-middle class analogy?). It’s clear that some groups would like to see religious values return to centre stage, and that those groups believe that with a religious message, they can find far more traction on homosexuality and abortion than they could with a purely political message.
How fitting that on a day when Faith Schools come under fire for propagating lying and clearly homophobic material, the Telegraph should also choose to run the most overt of smear campaigns against Richard Dawkins – or Dick Dawkins, if you will. I mean sure, he’s a bit of a self-righteous tosser, but that doesn’t stop him from knowing the science. The Telegraph smugly tells us that the Dawkins family estate in Oxfordshire is one built on the back of slavery, which is undoubtedly true, but I don’t yet see a similar smear against the entire city of Bristol, nor against any of the thousands of established companies, including Barclays Bank, that made huge amounts of money out of the slave trade. Such a scoop is it to point out that a rich English landowner is descended, distantly, from those who owned slaves, that the Telegraph headline may as well have screamed ‘Richard Dawkins descended from prehistoric humans who practised cannibalism’.
Anyway, back to the matter in hand, Michael Gove, my favourite man in the whole entire world – ‘cos let’s face it, he’s a constant source of content for this blog – has made another blunder. Gove has claimed that the Equality Act (2010), which essentially prohibits all forms of discrimination, does not, miraculously, apply to the teaching of Sex Education in his beloved Free Schools, which are instead free to use whatever materials they want, even if they are patently factually untrue. Now, I’m no expert on the responsibilities of the Minister for Education, but you’d think that the man ought to at least care a little bit about whether what was being told to (fairly young) children was in any way objectively true. The leaflet that has caused the storm claims that “[homosexuality] stem[s] from an unhealthy relationship with his father, an inability to relate to other guys, or even sexual abuse” (No proof for that claim), and then goes on to say that “scientifically speaking, safe sex is a joke” (Well that’s certainly not true, I’m not sure how something that prevents pregnancy in over 90% of cases can be called a joke?), or perhaps “the homosexual act is disordered, much like contraceptive sex between heterosexuals. Both acts are directed against God’s natural purpose for sex – babies and bonding.”(In the absence of proof of God’s existence, I think that’s on pretty dodgy ground as well.) How can it be then, that the Secretary of State for Education is turning a blind eye to all this?
The fact is that this is the de facto introduction of the kind of homophobic slime that was last propagated under Margret Thatcher, and this cannot at all be seen as an isolated instance; seemingly everything the Government has done in the past few weeks –the delegation of Ministers visiting the Pope and all that crap about putting Christianity at the centre of public life, is part of a new plan for a new, socially reactionary Conservative Party. We’re told that religion is sidelined in our current society; but that’s patently untrue – look that today, a smear against a leading atheist, and the permissive attitudes of the Department of Education to Christian homophobic materials, and the visit by a delegation of Government ministers to the pope – doesn’t sound like sidelining to me. And of course let’s not forget that most of the people who claim are the former and current archbishops of Canterbury or York, with their voting rights in the House of Lords.
Interestingly, this is a massive departure from what our esteemed Prime Minister said about sex education in 2010: ‘teaching children about equality for gay people and the importance of civil partnerships should be embedded in Britain’s schooling.’ Hmm, can’t see much evidence of that now. The fact is that for all the overtures of the Tories about gay marriage, they haven’t changed one tiny little bit, they are still the same old homophobic party, with the same old homophobic policies, appealing to the base prejudices of the same Daily Mail reading imbeciles.
In the Telegraph, Baroness Warsi just pledged her allegiance to the Pope in restoring faith to our society. She writes that “My fear today is that a militant secularisation is taking hold of our societies”, backing this up, moaning that “those who wrote the European Constitution made no mention of God or Christianity”. Now, I’ve not actually read the Bible cover to cover, but I’m not sure how much it would have to say about an economic union, nor about a single currency, nor about different voting systems, or the rights of EU member states. So, why then, would the European Constitution mention God? – And seeing as Baroness Warsi is so determined to foster a ‘a better understanding of faith’, would she care to enlighten us as to which God she might be referring to? After all, there’s a good 495 years of religious war in Europe over which God one ought to refer to.
Baroness Warsi’s fear of militant secularisation seems to me to be hyperbolic at best. Even if society is more secular than it was, can we please accept that the end of witch-hunts in the name of God might well be a good thing? And in any case, the notion of militant secularism might imply that the National Secular Society was picketing for general strikes, or that they were enforcing secularism at gunpoint. They really aren’t, and if you go to their meetings, it’s all but impossible to imagine them ever doing so. I might even argue that not only is secularism far from a militant force in society, but in the light of the violent fundamentalist right-wing Christians that closed down Jerry Springer: The Opera, and tried to bring a private prosecution for Blasphemy in the High Court, that what really exists is a wave of ‘militant religiousism’. Am I pushing it?
She informs us, in true clichéd style, that secularism is totalitarian in nature – doubtless crudely alluding to the professed atheism of Stalin, and (dubiously) Hitler. Now, the notion that secularism is totalitarian is laughable at best – this being as opposed to the long list of regimes that have rather neatly combined Catholicism and Fascism: Franco in Spain, Tiso in Slovakia, or perhaps Pavelic’s Croatia. Or maybe we might look further afield, to the totalitarian regime of Saudi Arabia? The fact is that far from being oppressive, secularism – the absence of religion from government – is the sole guarantee of maximal freedom of expression, religious or otherwise.
Furthermore, I find it rather odd that a Tory government that professes to be on the edge of legalising gay marriage should also be seeking ties with the most reactionary men in Western Europe; those homophobic, condom hating, virginal old men of the Vatican. Progressive Conservatism my arse.
PS. Sorry about the silence, I have something with more than a passing resemblance to tonsillitis.