Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Karen Armstrong and the death of paganism

Karen Armstrong was up to her usual tricks on Start the Week yesterday, combining historical inaccuracy with the sort of passionate intensity that brooks no contradiction. She warned modern Christians not to be so "dogmatic" as to actually believe things, something she described in her postmodernist way as a "peculiar modern Western Christian development". Asked by Andrew Marr whether churches and other religious institutions (which he thought were "struggling") had any future, she told him:

They will struggle if they can't adapt. When faith traditions cease to be able to adapt to their current conditions, they die. That's what happened to the old paganism.

On the contrary.

The old paganism didn't wither because it failed to adapt, as Armstrong knows perfectly well. It was destroyed. It was consciously and deliberately persecuted out of existence. Within a few of generations of Constantine's conversion to Christianity another Roman emperor, Theodosius I, acting under the influence of a Milanese fanatic later known as St Ambrose, made the practice of the empire's traditional religion illegal. Temples were closed, soothsaying was outlawed on pain of death, the Oracle of Delphi was shut down, the Olympic Games were cancelled after more than a thousand years of quadrennial celebration, Plato's Academy in Athens was forced to close its doors (many of its leading lights fleeing to sanctuary in Persia), the Vestal Virgins were forcibly married off. He then went one further and issued decree prohibiting any pagan worship even within the privacy of people's own homes. His policy was one of religious totalitarianism.

Before Theodosius got to work in 381 AD, Classical paganism was very far from being dead. Over half the population of Rome was still pagan, as were large parts of the empire. And it had adapted, considerably, to survive. The Neoplatonism espoused by the pagan intellectuals of late Antiquity was a very different phenomenon from the worship of gods in the Homeric age, from the cults of Republican Rome, or from the myriad of mystery religions and popular shrines that flourished for centuries around the ancient Mediterranean. Christianity and paganism weren't simply rivals, either: they borrowed from each other, Christianity taking over certain pagan festivals and official paganism imitating Christian organisational structures and priestly hierarchies.

There was no inevitability about the death of Classical paganism. Its equivalent in India survived and flourishes still in the guise of Hinduism. Modern Hinduism is more theologically and philosophically sophisticated than most ancient paganism, of course; but then it has had a great deal longer to become so. And many of the old cults still survive. They answer, as Classical paganism answered, the needs of ordinary people in their millions. Had India ever had a Theodosius, intent upon suppressing the Hindu religion and replacing it with Christianity or (more likely) Islam, he might very well have succeeded. Instead, the country enjoyed rulers like Ashoka, a liberal-minded Buddhist, Akbar the Great, who enjoyed listening to representatives of various religions engaged in intellectual debate, or the British, who (as Diane Abbott recently reminded us) enjoyed playing divide-and-rule and in any case completely lacked the resources to impose their religion on anyone.

Karen Armstrong is obviously right that for a religion or a religious institution to survive it needs to be adaptable. And some are very adaptable indeed: the Church of England, for example, has successfully (so far) preserved its official status by putting itself forward as a sort of clearing-house for faith in general rather than for Protestant Christianity in particular. It likes to pretend that it has been ever thus: the Queen, who herself embodies another institution that knows how to adapt to survive, recently praised it for having "created an environment for other faith communities and indeed people of no faith to live freely." Whereas the religious and political freedoms of non-Anglicans have been wrested, over centuries, from the usually unwilling leadership of the once dominant Church of England.

But it's a curious mistake to write off ancient paganism as hidebound and unadaptable. It was anything but. And it embodied far better than any form of Chistianity ever has Karen Armstrong's own religious ideals. It was non-dogmatic. It was a religion (or religions) of practice rather than of belief. Its narratives were grounded not in history, which invites secepticism and archaeological research, nor in texts, which invite critical analysis and source-comparison, but in the recurrent cycles of nature and in a fluid body of myth and epic. The vulnerabilities which afflict the "religions of the book", which Armstrong imagines are modern and aberrant (though ancient pagan philosophers delighted in pointing out the implausibility of the factual claims made by Christians about Jesus) were alien to the spirit of ancient paganism.

None of that could save it from Theodosius' persecution. The fact that the emperor (like Christian and Muslim rulers of other previously pagan societies who came after him) saw the need to destroy traditional religion with such violence and finality suggests that it was, after all, a tough old bird that would, if left alone, have continued to serve the needs of people humble and great for centuries to come. It remains true, however, that Theodosius' campaign was successful. Unlike Christianity, paganism could not survive sustained persecution. It was too gentle, reasonable and flexible a faith. It had no core of fundamental belief; it made no historical claims; it compelled adherence to no creeds; it didn't care what its followers actually believed, so long as they turned up to sacrifices and listened to the lyre recitals.

In other words, it was nothing like the militant fundamentalism, or for that matter the "militant atheism", of which Karen Armstrong so disapproves. It lacked conviction. When a more dogmatic creed came along it was doomed.
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Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Death of a Murdoch reporter

Marie Colvin was brave, principled, fearless, a journalistic heroine whose death in Homs today has shocked fellow reporters in this country and throughout the world. Tributes have poured in. The Telegraph's Con Coughlin writes that she was "without doubt one of the finest foreign correspondents of her generation, and also one of the most fearless," calling her the Martha Gellhorn of her day. Others have stressed her dedication to bringing readers the truth about conflicts, not all of them (as with Syria) at the forefront of media interest, a dedication that had already cost her the sight of one eye.

She was also an employee of the Murdoch empire, working for the Sunday Times, digging for the Digger.

The Leveson enquiry has seen journalism in general, and the Murdoch papers in particular, subjected to public vilification. Journalists have been the target of dawn raids carried out by a police force that has plenty of questions of its own to answer and which finds itself in need of the good PR that comes with "getting tough". Whatever illegality that might be proved is unlikely to amount to little more than their predecessors have done for decades -- in other words, playing the game according to what they thought were the established rules. This, I think, is what lies behind Trevor Kavanagh's complaint (the source of much tittering) that the press has been the subject of a "witch hunt" in recent weeks. Reporters have been caught unawares doing what they considered to be their jobs, surprised to find that they have all along been instruments of darkness.

Marie Colvin worked for the same organisation that once sent Neville Thurlbeck to masturbate at a naturist guest-house in Dorset, which hired private investigators to hack into the mobile phones of a murdered schoolgirl; an organisation whose octogenarian chief executive has for decades been the bogeyman and bete-noir of liberal opinion in Britain and, indeed, around the world. It would be easy to assert that she was better than that; that there's no point of comparison between her heroic quest to bring the news from Syria and Thurlbeck's miking-up of Woman E to film Max Mosley's Chelsea spanking party. But even then, you have to wonder, if News International is the malign force of the Left-wing imagination, what someone like her was doing working for it -- or, indeed, why they would want to employ her.

It would be surprising indeed if in the course of her career reporting from war-zones Marie Colvin had never cut-corners, bribed corrupt officials, indulged in subterfuge to get to the truth. And few people would condemn her for doing so. War is, of course, more serious than celebrity tittle-tattle, even if for the reader sitting in the comfort of his or her own home, its sheer entertainment value and vicarious thrill should never be underestimated. It matters that there are reporters with the courage - even the foolhardiness - to put their lives on the line in what is clearly the public interest. In both cases, however, the reporter's job is essentially the same: to find out information that is not readily available and that in many cases is being deliberately withheld, and to bring it before the eyes of a wider public.

In the course of a very interesting piece of analysis over at INFORRM, Julian Petley reminds us of a notorious passage from Paul Dacre's lecture to the Society of Editors in 2008, in which the Mail chief suggested that without the huge sales generated by celebrity gossip mass-circulation newspapers might well go out of business, with "obvious worrying implications for the democratic process." Petley is unconvinced, pointing out not only that the News of the World went out of business precisely because of its tawdryness, but also that "those papers which carry the most soft news also carry the least hard news, thus badly denting the ‘subsidy’ argument." In the case of News International, however, one should perhaps consider what cross-subsidy the mass-market Sun is offering to the more highbrow Times and Sunday Times, which continue to invest in high-value, high-cost, public interest foreign journalism of the type embodied by Marie Colvin.

It's simpler than that, though. Any serious news operation, including Murdoch's, is about more than simply making money. News International employed Marie Colvin because, in some respects at least, it does what it says on the tin. For all his faults, and for all his allegedly malign influence on the British media landscape and wider national life, Rupert Murdoch a news man born and bred. He will have heard of her death with particular regret. In his own tribute, he reflected that she had "put her life in danger on many occasions because she was driven by a determination that the misdeeds of tyrants and the suffering of the victims did not go unreported." That she could have done so while working for Rupert Murdoch is a fact worth remembering in the context of the current debate about journalistic standards.
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Friday, 17 February 2012

What Trevor Phillips actually said

Oh dear. It looks as though I'm going to have to come to the defence of Trevor Phillips.

The Telegraph today is leading on remarks the Equalities Commission chairman made more than a week ago at a seminar on the subject of "superdiverse" societies. He is said to have told Christians that they "must choose between their religion and obeying the law." He "singled out the adoption agencies that fought a long legal battle to avoid being forced to accept homosexual couples under equality laws." The killer quote, in the paper's view, was the following:

To me there’s nothing different in principle with a Catholic adoption agency, or indeed Methodist adoption agency, saying the rules in our community are different and therefore the law shouldn't apply to us. Why not then say sharia can be applied to different parts of the country? It doesn’t work.

In other words: barmy equalities chief compares Christian religious scruples with Sharia, shock! Archbishop of Westminster just like Abu Hamza, says quango boss. Etc.

The Telegraph found some "legal specialists and religious leaders" to denounce Phillips, presumably just going on what its journalists told them he'd said. No surprise that Lord Carey, former archbishop turned pain-in-the-arse, was prominent among the rentaquotes. He described the comparison with Sharia as "ridiculous". We need lawmakers to respect the country's Christian heritage and "seek accommodation wherever a strongly held faith seems to clash with new legislation". Wherever? Presumably that would include Sharia, then, George?

Not to be outdone, Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Bishop of Rochester, claimed that Phillips was implying "a totalitarian kind of view in which a believer’s conscience should not be respected." Presumably he was echoing Baroness Warsi's silly comments the other day in the Telegraph about "militant" secularists displaying "similar traits to totalitarian regimes."

Then there was Neil Addison, a barrister and author of the Religion Law blog. He denounced Phillips Commission as being "so obsessed with equality that it has lost sight of freedom." On the other hand, the National Secular Society's Keith Porteous Wood, who has recently been highly critical of Phillips, was on his side for once, calling his remarks "absolutely right". There's balance for you.

The Telegraph report is based on one in the Tablet, but with the hysteria cranked up a notch or two, the better to drive home the paper's regular themes of Catholic victimhood, the threat of Islam and the organised craziness of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. But the report is almost entirely bogus.

As is much of the response to it. "Trevor Phillips is foolishly stoking Christianophobia and inciting hatred," says Cranmer. Tosh, Your Grace. Tosh and twaddle and hysteria-mongering, as well you know.

The event isn't named in the report, but it was organised by Lancaster University and the think tank Theos and took place last Wednesday at the Royal United Services Institute. A full (hour and a half long) video of the debate is up at YouTube; suffice to say that it was moderate in tone and occasionally soporific. On the panel were two academics, Trevor Phillips and the Attorney General Dominic Grieve. The latter two agreed on almost everything (Phillips noting how embarrassed he felt to be agreeing with a Tory). It was chaired by the former Labour Home Secretary Charles Clarke.

Phillips prefaced his remarks by saying that "People in my office who spend their lives trying to stop me being an arse said to me this afternoon, Try really hard not to be interesting." He did however say one fairly interesting thing, which was that in his opinion there was no conflict between the rights of various groups recognised under equalities laws. He said:

There is a theoretical possibility that preventing discrimination against one group on the basis of religious or racial equality may lead to some consequent disadvantage on the part of another. No-one has yet shown me a real-world example where that happens. Therefore, the idea of "conflict of rights", I think it's rubbish. I don't believe it. There are laws about discrimination, and actually they're quite clear. And the fact that you protect one person against discrimination does not at all lead to the proposition that that person has more rights than anyone else.

Not everyone will agree with his scepticism about conflicts of rights. I for one find extraordinary his implicit claim that there was no conflict, at least between the perception of the rights of guest-house owners Peter and Hazelmary Bull and those of the gay couple who were refused a double bed in their establishment. Self-evidently there was such a conflict, even if the law now has a clear view of the matter and favours the gay couple's right to non-discrimination over the Christian couple's freedom to run their establishment along religious lines.

If you want to make a case that a secularist establishment is trampling arrogantly over the religious freedoms of believers, then Phillips' incomprehension that the conflict of rights even exists would be a good place to start. But as I said, Phillips isn't a hero to secularists either. He has been known to say things such as "our business is to defend the believer." I think he's just in denial about possible flaws in the current one-size-fits-all equality framework.

But this apparently wasn't interesting enough for a journalist from the Tablet who was in the audience. In the Q&A that followed he pressed Phillips on the subject of the Catholic adoption agencies, no doubt hoping to get material for a story. Phillips did not, as the Telegraph claims, "single out" the adoption agencies for criticism. He was responding to a direct question.

Dominic Grieve, who answered first, said almost precisely the same thing as Phillips -- although the Telegraph did not see fit even to mention his presence at the seminar, still less to report his comments. Grieve said that the tension between equality and freedom of conscience was going to be a topic of debate "for a very long time to come.

Adoption agencies richly highlighted one of the big conundrums. My personal view is that those who are providing public services which are funded by the state cannot discriminate, but that is a different thing from recognising and acknowledging that faith groups may provide services which are restricted to their faith community but which nevertheless have a wider public benefit.

Phillips then said:

I agree entirely with Dominic. The law stops at the door of the temple so far as I'm concerned. When you're inside the church, inside the temple, you're governed by what you are. But once you start to provide public services that have to be run under public rules, for example child protection, then you have to go with public law... You can't say that because we decide we're different we have a different set of laws. That, by the way, er, to me there's nothing different in principle between a Catholic adoption agency saying "the rules in our community are different and therefore the law shouldn't apply to us", why not then say, "Okay, then Sharia law should apply in certain parts of the country." It doesn't work.

I agree with Trevor. In fact, I find his remarks here far more reassuring than, for example Rowan Williams' suggestion a few years ago that it was "unavoidable" that Sharia law would be recognised in Britain and that it was "a bit of a danger" in an approach that said "there's one law for everybody and that's all there is to be said." Because there is one law for everybody and that is all there is to be said.

The main point, though, is that Trevor Phillips wasn't telling Christians to choose between the faith and the law or comparing Catholic qualms about gay adoption "with draconian punishments such as stoning adulterers to death", as the Telegraph implied.

He was agreeing with Dominic Grieve.
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Thursday, 16 February 2012

Let's give the Falklands to Argentina

Ahead of the thirtieth anniversary of the Falklands war, there has been a big diplomatic and rhetorical effort by Argentina and its president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner to push the country's continuinng claim over these guano-soiled lumps of rock in the South Atlantic. For his part, David Cameron has been striking Churchillian poses, dispatching Prince William and sending what is apparently our one decent warship to deter any (highly unlikely) Argentinian military moves. What nonsense. If the Argies want the Falklands so much, why don't we just hand them over?

I do not, of course, say that we should give the islands "back" to Argentina. That would be absurd, since they never had them in the first place. The Argentine claim is weak in international law and weaker still in morality, and any repudiation of British sovereignty over the territory should be on the understanding that this is an entirely voluntary act of friendship and self-renunciation.

Ideally, it would be accompanied by a declaration from the international court that British sovereignty is legitimate and inviolable, as it clearly reflects both the history of the islands and the present reality. But if that cannot be obtained, a simple assertion by Britain of its historic position should suffice. Just so long as it is understood that renouncing the islands is not a concession to Argentinian pressure, indeed no concession at all, but rather something that is in Britain's own self-interest.

It is embarrassing and counter-productive, in the 21st century, to still be flying the flag over insignificant lumps of rock half a world away. So Port Stanley has red-pillar boxes and fish-and-chip shops? There are Welsh-speakers in Patagonia, who have been happily Argentinian for two hundred years. There are communities in this country who maintain cultural traditions imported from their distant homelands, who nevertheless are fully British. Whether the ultimate suzerain of the Falklands/Malvinas sits in Buckingham Palace or in the Casa Rosada will make very little difference to the lives of the people who live there. They may well find themselves better off under the benign auspices of a geographically proximate democracy rather than, as at present, under what amounts to a military occupation.

It would be hard to deny that the Falklands are a relic of colonialism. They are British because the British settlement established there in the 1830s survived while earlier British Spanish, Argentine and Dutch settlements were either pushed out or died a natural death. The continuing "dispute" over their sovereignty - in other words, Argentina's continued campaign on the issue - is damaging to British strategic interests and, especially, commercial prospects in an increasingly significant area of the world.

It doesn't matter that Argentina lacks a good case, or that its obsession with these under-inhabited rocks borders on the pathological. What matters is that it has opinion in Latin America sewn up; and, I suspect, a friend in the Obama administration as well as in Sean Penn. The merits of the case matter less than the perception: to outsiders as well as to leader-writers at the Guardian, the British position looks like an outdated colonialism. And as long as that perception is maintained, as it will be, as long as Britain appears (even to the Americans) to be pig-headed and unwilling to negotiate a diplomatic solution, the Falkland Islands dispute will continue to overshadow and stymie Britain's ability to do business, not just with Argentina but with most of the other countries of Latin America.

To hand the islands to Argentina would of course be to sacrifice the wishes (if not necessarily the best interests) of its inhabitants to international realpolitik. It would, ironically, be far more "colonialist" than the current British policy of selflessly deferring to the islanders' views. Proponents of negotiating with Argentina tend to downplay this or ignore it altogether, but it must be faced head-on. Would it be a "betrayal" of a small, brave, loyal people who have proudly flown the flag for Britain? Perhaps. But what, frankly, have the Falklanders ever done for us, apart from costing the British taxpayer a great deal of money and helping to provide Margaret Thatcher with a crucial election victory in 1983? Not much. Why should the wishes of three thousand islanders outweigh the interests of the sixty-odd million of us who live on the British mainland?

If the Falklanders are so desperate to remain British then they can come and live here. There are only a few thousand of them, after all: we're hardly talking about mass immigration. If they are congenitally wedded to sheep and desolation there are plenty of under-populated islands in Shetland or the Hebrides. We could even import some penguins to cheer them up: it would be a lot cheaper than maintaining an armed garrison.

Alternatively, if there are too many qualms about blatantly ignoring the inhabitants' right to self-determination, Britain could just pull out, declare the Falkland Islands independent and tell them that, from now on, they're on their own. Rather as the emperor Honorius did to the ancient Brits in 410 AD. The Falklanders might well groan. They might find their economy unsustainable without continued subventions from London. In which case, they would always have the opportunity enter into a union with (relatively) nearby Argentina, who would be so delighted to take them on at almost any price.
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Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Richard Dawkins' mistake

On the Today programme this morning, ex-Canon Giles Fraser asked Richard Dawkins if he could repeat the full title of Charles Darwin's magnum opus.
"Yes I could!"

"Go on then," came the challenge.

"On the Origin of Species, er, with... oh God... On the Origin of Species, um... There is a subtitle... er, um, with respect to, erm, the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life."

That's not bad, said Justin Webb, just a tad patronisingly. It never does to be too confident, but it was frankly painful to listen to. I was willing him on.

Fraser was ecstatic:

You are the High Pope of Darwinism. If you asked people who believe in evolution that question and only two per cent got it right it would be terribly easy for me to say they don't really believe it after all.

Having collected himself, Dawkins repaired to his website, where he protested that Fraser wasn't playing fair:

The fact that I got it in the end, thereby demonstrating that I knew it all along but was temporarily flustered by the unexpected ambush will by no means deter them!

But he didn't get it in the end. He missed out what many would consider to be the most important words of all. It is On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection... Even I knew that bit, though I would have missed the part about favoured races and the struggle for life.

Never mind. It was, in any case, not a good comparison because the Mori poll question was multiple choice. The polled 'Christians' were not asked "What is the first book of the New Testament?" and expected to enunciate a word-perfect "Matthew" (a one-word memory feat as opposed to the 21-word memory that was asked of me). They were only asked to choose from one of the following: Matthew, Genesis,, Acts of the Apostles, Psalms, Don't know, Prefer not to say. 39% chose "Don't know" and only 35% chose Matthew.

Well indeed. But then the people being asked weren't theologians, either. A good comparison would be for a senior clergyman - Fraser himself, perhaps - to be asked to rattle off, say, the first three verses of the Gospel According to John or name the Books of the New Testament in the correct order. Knowing the full title of The Origin shouldn't be too much of a stretch for someone who has been preaching the gospel of Darwin for the past five decades. Stephen Jay Gould wouldn't have forgotten it.

The context for this was a piece of Dawkins-sponsored research that claimed to show that Christianity was less prevalent in Britain than the oft-quoted figure of 72% who ticked the Christian box in the 2001 Census would imply. It set out to demonstrate that these "Christians" were, mostly, at best nominal believers. For a start, the researchers only found 54% who admitted to describing themselves as Christian a decade ago. Had they forgotten or changed their minds, like all those people who now deny ever voting for Tony Blair? It's not clear.

Anyway, of those self-described Christians, around half said that they did so because they had been baptised (which in most cases, of course, reflected their parents' decision rather than their own). There was a range of other responses. "I believe in the teachings of the religion" scored 18%, as did both current and past church attendance. Half never went to church at all. 17% were weekly churchgoers, a figure that rose to just shy of 30% for those who attended at least monthly.

By contrast, a mere 6% were Christmas and Easter worshippers, which implies that the custom of nominal seasonal attendance is dwindling. People either worship more-or-less regularly or not at all - a finding which some clergy may find reassuring. (Though it's a surprise to me: the carol service I went to, at Ely Cathedral, was packed, and I'm sure I was far from being the only non-believer in the congregation.) The survey appears not to have asked why the 29% of regular worshippers attended church, which seems an unfortunate lapse. It would have been interesting to know how much truth there is in the stereotype of middle class parents faking religiosity to get their kids into a faith school.

The questions that most annoyed Fraser related to people's personal beliefs: he thought it impertinent of Dawkins to want to rate self-declared believers by seeing how many points of doctrine they were willing to sign up for. He has a point there. The most relevant findings were that 30% described themselves as having "strong religious beliefs", 45% said that they were "religious" and a full 60% said that Christianity was very or fairly important in their lives. As to the influence that the religion had on their lives, the most popular response that it encouraged them to be "a good person". I don't think that implies either that they think you have to be Christian to be a good person, or that the respondents are confusing Christianity with basic humanistic morality, as Dawkins was trying this morning to imply. The religion would be pretty useless, even on its own terms, if it didn't somehow help its followers to lead moral lives.

It's nevertheless interesting to see whether most Christians really do believe the things they're supposed to believe.

Anyway: over 60% believed in Heaven and (more surprisingly, perhaps) around 40% believed in Hell. Most believed in the power of prayer and "fate". A small majority (less than believed in Heaven) believed in what might be called a personal God. A mere 17% agreed with Jesus' alleged claim that "No-one comes to the Father except through me."

The Bible is regular (weekly) reading for a mere 15%. 32% could be put down as occasional readers - anything from monthly to once in the last three years. On the status of the Bible, the most popular response (42%) was this: "The Bible is not a perfect guide to morality as some of its teachings are not appropriate today, but it is still the best guide we have." It's a view that I suspect would also have many takers among professional clergy. 61% never took part in church-based community activities; mostly, these will be the non churchgoers, but even a majority of fairly regular attendees would seem to confine their church-related activities to actual services.

On the resurrection, the orthodox view (that Jesus physically came back from the dead) was endorsed by fewer than a third; the most popular answer being that the resurrection was a purely "spiritual" event. But 44% were prepared to describe Jesus as "the Son of God and Saviour of Mankind." This would include many who don't regularly attend church. I'm not quite sure not to make of someone who believes that Jesus Christ is their saviour yet can't be bothered to worship him one day a week.

There were mixed views on such subjects as bishops in the House of Lords (most people, I suspect, just don't care) or daily worship in schools. There was no strong feeling either in favour or against teaching creationism in classrooms, the state funding of hospital chaplains or the status of the Church of England as the established religion. But on social questions there was a clear trend: those who describe themselves as Christians tend to take "liberal" positions on questions of same-sex relationships, sex outside marriage (does that one even still count?) and assisted suicide. Most dramatically, there was emphatic support (63%) for the proposition that a woman with an unwanted pregnancy should be able to choose an abortion.

Three-quarters agreed with the propostion that "religion should be a private matter and should not have a special influence on public policy. Take that, Lady Warsi.

But this survey doesn't show that most "Christians" have a merely sentimental or cultural attachment to the faith. They may not go to church very often, they may read the Bible even less, they may have only the vaguest scriptural knowledge, they may not believe in the resurrection (the virgin birth question was apparently not even asked). But that doesn't mean that they don't think of themselves as Christians or attempt to lead some sort of Christian life.

This is the constituency which Christian leaders, populist politicians and Daily Mail editorials claim to speak for when they evoke notions of Britain as a "Christian country." But the people in this survey are clearly not calling for more religion in politics, and they do not, by and large, display illiberal attitudes on social matters. Devout or lukewarm, they tend to look upon religion as a private matter, a source of moral or spiritual inspiration, not as a source of political identity. This may please Giles Fraser more than Richard Dawkins, ultimately, even though the professor claimed to have found "lots of good stuff" in the survey. It sure as hell won't please Sayeeda Warsi.
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Friday, 10 February 2012

Bideford Council: Carry On Praying?

The High Court's decision in the Bideford council prayers case (brought by the NSS on behalf of an atheist former councillor, Clive Bone) has produced much wailing and gnashing of teeth among the Christian rights lobby: the Christian Institute, Christian Concern, various rentaquote bishops and so on. And it has, naturally, delighted secularists, including the NSS's Keith Porteous Wood, who said that it sent a "clear secular message" about the separation of religion from politics.

The BBC's Robert Piggott sees the decision as further evidence that "the tide has been flowing pretty firmly against Christianity in public life".

But for two reasons I think this assessment is entirely wrong. For secular campaigners, this is a very Pyrrhic victory indeed.

The first relates to the wording of the judgement itself (pdf). Mr Justice Ouseley rejected the main part of the NSS case, that incorporating prayers into its order of business the council was unlawfully discriminating against Councillor Bone and abusing his human rights. He was quite emphatic about this:

He is not compelled to participate. The disadvantage he asserts to himself, and to other Councillors whose lack of religious beliefs might lead them to feel compromised by being present during the saying of prayers, is that of either arriving after prayers, or staying in silence, ignoring what goes on around them but perhaps seeming inadvertently disrespectful, or leaving, disturbing their papers and concentration just before the substantial business begins, with a degree of public embarrassment since the press and public are usually present. This seems to me it is of no real significance. I would not regard it as a disadvantage for these purposes.

It seems to me that the Claimants’ arguments are close to the situation which would have existed if in Ladele v London Borough of Islington [2009] EWCA Civ 1357, [2010] IRLR 211, the registrar who objected to undertaking any part in civil partnership ceremonies, had not merely been permitted to opt out but had succeeded in preventing such ceremonies being undertaken by others because it embarrassed her to be singled out.

The decision to "ban" prayers was a narrow one, resting on what many would consider a point of pedantry: whether the prayers could be tabled as part of the formal agenda, in which case they had to be integral to the council's business, or whether they had to take place informally before the meeting was called to order. The case turned on the interpretation s.111 of the 1972 Local Government Act, which by coincidence has today been superseded by the Localism Act.

The 1972 Act put fairly tight restrictions on what councils were allowed to do. What struck the judge here, though, was that while the council asserted that saying prayers at the meeting was an important part of their conduct of business (giving the councillors a moment of solemnity and an opportunity to reflect on the onerous responsibilities they bore to the good people of Bideford) they also allowed Cllr Bone, and others who disapproved of the prayers, to absent themselves while they were being conducted. This was a contradiction. If the prayers were integral to the council's business there could be no excuse for Cllr Bone's absenting himself. And if they weren't important enough to require Cllr Bone's presence, they couldn't qualify as relevant council business under the Local Government Act. Catch 22.

And that was it. Cllr Bone wasn't being discriminated against, and if the council wanted to have prayers before the meeting, that was fine too. So long as the word "prayers" didn't appear as an item on the council's agenda. It might be argued - was argued - on both sides that the distinction is a crucial one of principle. But it does make the case seem like a tremendous waste of time and money, to me at least.

What the NSS plainly wanted was a declaration that council prayers violated the human rights of non-believing councillors. That would have provided them with ammunition to continue their battle against other manifestations of public religiosity. By confining his decision to a narrow point of statutory construction the judge denied them anything more than a symbolic victory.

As he said:

The Defendants saw success for the Claimants as threatening a range of other occasions, traditional, ceremonial, military or civic, national or local, in which a religious element, usually through the Christian Church, plays its part; and there are elements in what the Claimants have said at various times which suggest distaste for, and a campaign against, such a role. But I am not concerned with those circumstances. Nothing before me persuaded me that if the Claimants were right in their arguments here, they would inevitably succeed in any other particular aspects of their campaign, so that I should reach a conclusion other than the one to which I have come.

The second reason why today's decision may not mean anything is that (as I mentioned above) the Local Government Act has now been superseded by the Localism Act. Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, today criticised what he thought was the decision (it was an instant reaction) on the grounds that "we are a Christian country" and that "the right to worship is a fundamental and hard-fought British liberty." But he also mentioned that under the new legislation councils have "a general power of competence - which allows them to undertake any general action that an individual could do unless it is specifically prohibited by law. Logically, this includes prayers before meetings."

The powers given to councils under the new law are indeed much broader: the only limitations to their actions are those "expressly imposed by a statutory provision". No such provision prevents council prayers. It is likely - though it will need to be tested - that the case would have been decided differently under the new Act. What does seem clear is that the provision under which Bideford Council cannot hold prayers is no longer in force. So Bideford Council can start praying again.

Like I said, a Pyrrhic victory.
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Thursday, 9 February 2012

Obama and the Catholics

Tim Stanley, on the Telegraph blog, accuses Barack Obama of engaging in an "un-American" war on Roman Catholicism, "nothing less than a secular Jihad". Janet Daley suggests he has been "startlingly foolhardy" to have "provoked outrage in the Catholic Church and thus in that huge US constituency – now larger than ever due to a vast increase in the Hispanic community – which takes its Roman Catholic faith very seriously." We'll come to that later.

Daley and Stanley are merely echoing views on the other side of the Atlantic. For example, John Boehner, Speaker of the House of Representatives, called the measure "an unambiguous attack on religious freedom". It "must not stand and will not stand," he declared. Washington Post columnist and liberal Catholic E.J. Dionne accused the president of "throwing his progressive Catholic allies under the bus." Strong stuff. But not as strong as Timothy George and Chuck Colson, two leading Evangelical pastors, who in an open letter entitled "First they came for the Catholics" compared Obama's healthcare reforms to "the Nazi terror". Yes, really.

Three years ago, when we co-authored the Manhattan Declaration, we predicted that the time would come when Christians would have to face the very real prospect of civil disobedience—that we would have to choose sides: God or Caesar. Certainly for the Catholics and for many of us evangelicals, that time is already upon us... We do not exaggerate when we say that this is the greatest threat to religious freedom in our lifetime.

The proposal, remember, is that all employees, even if they work for, say, Catholic-run schools, should have access to birth-control as part of their health insurance. Should they want it.

Why so much outrage? It sounds as though Catholic leaders (and their supporters) have been knocked sideways that the admininistration has had the temerity not to want to treat all citizens equally. Stanley reminds readers that other Democrat presidents cosied up to the church hierarchy, disguising their support for abortion (or even, like Jimmy Carter, cutting federal funding for terminations) because "they never wanted to upset one of their biggest allies in the historic fight for social reform."

But not Obama, whose proposals to force organisations (even Catholic-run organisations) to offer contraceptive services as part of employee healthcare scheme have been denounced by bishops, Catholic commentators and Mitt Romney as violating the sacred American principle of freedom of conscience. Which in this case means the freedom of employers to exercise their conscience on behalf of, and potentially against the wishes of, their employees. Who might not be Catholics at all. Or they might be among the overwhelming majority of American Catholics who routinely and more-or-less happily ignore the Vatican's teaching on birth control.


Obama’s attempt to force Catholic employees to provide contraception coverage in employee healthcare plans has united the entire Church establishment – Left and Right – against him. And this is the establishment that garlanded him with honours three years ago at Notre Dame University, despite his aggressive support for abortion.

Bishops, conservative and liberal, are now a single voice in their disgust with the administration’s move. The scale of Left-wing outrage is astonishing. Even the columnist EJ Dionne – the Polly Toynbee of American Catholics – complained that “progressive” Catholics who had put their reputations on the line to support Obamacare had been “thrown under the bus.” Obama took 54 percent of the Catholic vote in 2008. He will struggle to do that well again.

So -- it's the "Catholic establishment" that Obama is at war with. Not Catholics in the pews. An important distinction worth bearing in mind. I suppose this display of righteous theological fury is what Dr Ratzinger had in mind when he told US bishops a few weeks ago that they had a duty to interfere more in politics:

[I]t is imperative that the entire Catholic community in the United States come to realize the grave threats to the Church’s public moral witness presented by a radical secularism which finds increasing expression in the political and cultural spheres... Many of you have pointed out that concerted efforts have been made to deny the right of conscientious objection on the part of Catholic individuals and institutions with regard to cooperation in intrinsically evil practices [he means gay marriage]. Others have spoken to me of a worrying tendency to reduce religious freedom to mere freedom of worship without guarantees of respect for freedom of conscience [he means contraception and abortion]...

In this regard, I would mention with appreciation your efforts to maintain contacts with Catholics involved in political life and to help them understand their personal responsibility to offer public witness to their faith, especially with regard to the great moral issues of our time: respect for God’s gift of life, the protection of human dignity and the promotion of authentic human rights... [R]espect for the just autonomy of the secular sphere must also take into consideration the truth that there is no realm of worldly affairs which can be withdrawn from the Creator and his dominion.

It looks like the bishops have been following their orders to the letter.

But what about ordinary Catholics? Here the picture changes. Polling by the Public Religion Research Institute found that a majority (55%) of Americans agreed with the Obama proposal that "employers should be required to provide their employees with health care plans that cover contraception and birth control at no cost."

Among Catholics, the figure is 58%. That's right. The proportion of American Catholics who support the measure is actually higher than among Americans as a whole. Worshippers in the pews are not going along with their leaders' bluster, which is all that Stanley or Daley can hear. It's true that among white Catholics, a key voting bloc (likelier to vote than Hispanics, for one thing) support for the measure is lower, at 50%. But that's still higher than the proportion who oppose it. It's identical to the figure for "mainline" white Protestants, incidentally. Support for the measure is lowest among white evangelical Protestants, which may go some way to explaining this week's swing to Rick Santorum among Republicans in Minnesota and Missouri.

Despite this, its opponents seem to have the Obama administration on the run. The White House has been caught off guard. Talk of compromise is in the air. The bishops and their allies have successfully framed the issue as one of religious freedom rather than one of individual access to healthcare. That's not just hysterical, crackpot thinking: it's also profoundly illiberal. The consciences, opinions and right to self-determination of employees has scarcely featured in the debate. Since when did religious freedom include the right to inflict your scruples on your workers' private lives? That's not freedom; it's tyranny.
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Monday, 6 February 2012

Going on and on

The Queen has been reigning over us for exactly sixty years, and has chosen to mark the fact by reassuring her subjects (should there be any remaining doubt) that Prince Charles will only become king over her dead body.

The statement put out officially on her behalf put it more diplomatically - "I dedicate myself anew to your service" - but the message was loud and clear, and most commentators quickly picked up on it.

Around twenty years ago, it was, if not expected, at least canvassed as an attractive possibility that that time would come for Elizabeth II to abdicate in favour of her eldest son. It seemed the obvious thing to do, a kindness to her as well as to Charles (who has spent his entire life looking forward to the day when he becomes king). When Diana was still alive and, at least officially, in Charles's life, an age-related abdication seemed both modern and popular, even populist. Those progressive Dutch queens have long imposed informal term-limits on their reigns. For our Queen to just go on and on, as Mrs T once threatened to, would, many thought, be not just selfish and boring. Surely she'll take the hint.

Several natural stepping-down points have now come and gone. By the time of the Golden Jubilee (perhaps the most natural stepping-down point of all) it had become clear that the Queen had no intention of abdicating. Instead it was suggested that, though she would remain on the throne, she might enter into a kind of retirement, with Charles taking over more and more of her duties, being a "shadow king" and perhaps something approaching a prince regent. That didn't really happen, either, and may never happen, although the Queen won't be touring the Commonwealth this year as she did a decade ago.

And why should she? Her near contemporary Pope Benedict XVI wasn't even elected until his late seventies, and is still stumbling on, although there are no doubt many Catholics who rather wish he would make way for a younger pontiff. More to the point, it's much harder today to find voices calling for an abdication. In recent years, the belief in the unique virtue of the present monarch has become dangerously bound up with support for the institution of monarchy itself.

"There are still those who would prefer Britain to have an elected head of state" admits the Telegraph's Michael Deacon, grudgingly. And it is indeed extraordinary to think that there are, even in 2012, people in this country who imagine that the nation could be represented abroad, and symbolised at home, by someone chosen by the people. Almost as extraordinary a proposition as the existence of atheists in America, Eurosceptics in Germany or monarchists in the French Republic, I suppose. All nations have their superstitions and delusions, their unquestionable assumptions - it's part of what makes them distinctive and different. The monarchy is one of ours, along with the NHS and the BBC.
Deacon continues:

Let's imagine for a moment that the anti-monarchists got their way, the Queen were stripped of her crown, and we were asked to pick a president. What sort of person would we want to vote for, if we were completely free to choose?

Someone exactly like Elizabeth Windsor, that's who! So isn't it an extraordinary stroke of national good fortune, he wonders, that we've got her already? So we don't have to vote for her, which we obviously would.

This is where anti-monarchism hits a snag. Because if the people of Britain were free to vote for anyone to be their head of state, the candidate they'd choose would surely be… the Queen.

Hmm. If it were a straight choice between her and Prince Charles, perhaps. Otherwise, it's most unlikely that a woman in her mid-eighties would even stand for election, let alone win. But it's hardly a "snag" for anti-monarchism. Rather it's a snag for monarchism. If you're basing your argument for the continuance of the monarchy on the survival of an eighty-five year old incumbent, then what happens when, in ten, fifteen or twenty years' time, she's no longer there?

Of course the monarchy can survive, or even flourish, when the monarch does a reasonable job, which in Elizabeth II's case has meant keeping her head down and never saying anything remotely interesting. It was speculated at the weekend that she had misgivings about taking Fred Goodwin's knighthood away, both for the precedent it set and because of Goodwin's little-celebrated charitable work for the Prince's Trust. But she understands (unlike her eldest son) that a constitutional monarch is better seen than heard, and that the role consists in being rather than doing.

The present Queen may well be the most boring monarch in British history. Henry III runs her close, as does George II. (George V was personally duller, but constitutionally he was tremendously significant.) She has been for sixty years a vacuum at the heart of the state. Anti-monarchists, like atheists, need something to get their teeth into. Just as it's easier to oppose than Michele Bachmann's God than Giles Fraser's, it's easier to oppose a despot or a crowned fruitcake than Queen Elizabeth II. Belief in monarchy is possibly more irrational than belief in God, but the institution's opponents in this country have about as much chance of succeeding as does seventysomething Richard Dawkins in his recently-expressed hope that religion will be extinguished within his lifetime. Where public affairs are concerned, the weight of inertia is typically huge. It certainly is in the case of the monarchy (or the NHS, or the BBC). Boring is good, or at least safe from too much scrutiny.

Prince William gets it, I think. Indeed, considering his background and upbringing he appears to have become a miracle of normality and inoffensiveness. As for King Charles (or perhaps he will style himself George VII, as would be typical of his absurd pretension) the hope must be that when he finally succeeds to the throne he will be past caring, or just past it.
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