Tuesday, 14 February 2012

The war against religion?

If you've read Baroness Warsi (Tory cabinet minister with no responsibilities, appointed to make David Cameron look non-sexist and non-racist), you might be under the impression that Christians are being lynched in the street or burned at the stake on a regular basis.

Britain is 'under threat' by the 'rising tide' of 'militant secularisation', she says, neatly implying that 'Britain' is a coherent concept which in some way requires religious belief, and that non-religious people are a security problem.

Only the last time I looked, most British people don't practice any form of religion, and yet appear to believe that they're both still British and non-threatening. On the other hand, virtually all the major crimes I can think of recently: 7/7, 9/11, Ulster loyalism and to a slightly lesser extent Irish Republicanism, Serbian aggression and a whole swathe of other atrocities were committed by religious people. It used to be states burning, hanging, drawing and quartering their citizens on religious grounds: now it's amateur groups. I could start listing the violent and intolerant sections of various religions' holy books, but that's just point-scoring. I'll content myself with pointing out that many religious groups - particularly the cruder ones which grab the headlines (not all: I've a soft spot for the Quakers for instance) -  insist as a matter of absolute fact that they're right and everybody else is wrong - and to an extent, fair enough: so why isn't the same respect extended to those of us who are atheists. There's little point having fundamental belief if you don't feel the need to convert or condemn the infidels - which is where religion threatens us all. (I'll exempt Judaism and Islam from this: they haven't tended to be proselytising faiths, though forced or voluntary conversions aren't unknown).

I just don't see the fabric or the security of this country being threatened by people calling a little more loudly for a science, education or morality based on evidence and humanist values: they imply respect for individuals' beliefs, while requiring a little more rigour in public policy.

Warsi sees it differently:
For me, one of the most worrying aspects about this militant secularisation is that at its core and in its instincts it is deeply intolerant. It demonstrates similar traits to totalitarian regimes – denying people the right to a religious identity because they were frightened of the concept of multiple identities.”
I just don't see it. Religion is - and has to be under circumstances - intolerant. If you're convinced that your way is the only way to heaven, surely you have to be militant if you want to keep for own group and possible converts out of hell. I can't see anything more militant in atheism than a few dyspeptic professors and frankly that's small beer compared with say Galileo's lifelong house arrest, the legal murder of Catholics under the Common Wealth, the ban on Catholicism lifted only in 1848, the genocidal campaigns against heretics in the Vendée and elsewhere, the Gordon Riots, the exclusion of Dissenters from public life… need I go on? Warsi's inventing a straw man by raising the spectre of 'totalitarian regimes': I can think of two deeply religious countries of the top of my head which regularly top the league table for oppression, intolerance and ruthless abuse of human rights: Saudi Arabia.

Is the British polity under attack from 'militant secularists'? It doesn't look like it from here. An Established church. Compulsory worship in all schools. Bishops in the House of Lords. Religious groups being handed control of schools with no oversight whatsoever. A Prime Minister officially defining Britain as a 'Christian country' (Warsi seems very confused about this: as a Muslim, she's calling for more Christianity).

Forget Warsi's shrill carping. There's something else going on here. Over in the United States, capitalism failed as long ago as the 1970s. The wages of the working class have declined since about 1973. America's heavy industries failed to invest and innovate, leaving massive swathes of the heartland destitute. The Democrats, stuck in Cold War narratives, refused to evince a leftwing agenda of state support and investment, for fear of being accused of Socialism. The Republicans, unable to challenge their economic orthodoxies (sound familiar, by the way?), decided that they needed a new way to attract working-class voters.

They hit on the 'culture wars'. Neither party had a leg to stand on when it came to economics, but the Republicans realised that the people could be distracted by social matters. So they constructed a new country, 'Real America', the bits between the (liberal, urban, socialist, Jewish) coastlines. Liberal America, they said, was going to take away your guns. Liberal America would force Real Americans to have abortions. Real Americans would be forced to abandon school prayers, the Pledge of Allegiance, SUVs and 'states' rights' (i.e. racist laws). Liberal America would turn your children gay and your wives into feminists. Real Americans want a theocracy: Liberal Americans want a Soviet Atheist dictatorship complete with Death Panels and schools which brainwash your kids. Liberal America would spend your taxes on Mexican-American History classes, immigrant rights and 'socialised healthcare', like Cuba. Real Americans supported Israel because the Bible said so: Liberal America supported burnoused Arab terrorists. Liberal America was Godless America. Real America believed in God and Guns.

And thus it came to pass: every defeat for Real America (such as the legalisation of abortion after Roe v Wade) was further proof that 'militant secularists' were on the march. Never mind their hero Reagan's genial lack of religious feeling (or the deism of the Founding Fathers) - this was not a reality-based struggle. While the rednecks out on the plains saw this as final apocalyptic battle for America's soul, the Republican leadership saw it as a magnificent way of locking in votes for ever, despite the overwhelming evidence that a vote for the Republicans was a vote for the military and corporate powers which destroyed middle America. It's a distraction technique, and a stroke of genius.

You can read up on this stuff: it forms the core of political speeches by Republican candidates even now: Gingrich, Santorum and co (as this Gary Younge piece explains. They believe in Small Government and Self-Reliance - except when it comes to the bedroom.

Warsi has clearly picked this stuff up, and I strongly suspect that the Tories are deliberately copying American political strategies: too much of this stuff is popping up in Tory political discourse in recent years. They're talking about Freedom from the state - education, healthcare - and creating a siege mentality amongst their core voters which isn't borne out by the facts. But as in America, we're not dealing with reality, they're attempting to create one.

Will it work? I doubt it. It's a core vote strategy, and it's clear that even up against the least popular Prime Minister of recent years, the Tories only managed a 35% share of the vote: there isn't a natural Tory majority out there. I also think that religious bullying of this kind doesn't play in most of Britain, thanks to the legacy of the Civil War. After the Restoration in 1660, the word 'Enthusiast' became a term of abuse in polite society, applied to anyone whose religious fervour threatened to return the country to civil war and the years of the stake. Despite occasional outbursts of state and popular intolerance, the UK gradually decided that religion was a private matter rather than a public flashpoint.

Why are the Tories suddenly banging this drum? Because, like the Republicans, they know that their cherished economic orthodoxes have failed. The Finance Tories (hardline free-marketeers, financial engineers, uninterested in social values) and the One Nation Tories (hunting, paternalism, jam and Jerusalem, social fabric) are in serious danger of parting company. Cameron's solution is the same as the Americans': wrap yourself in cross and flag, generate controversy, keep quiet about economics - that's for the big boys who read the FT, not the Mail-reading voters.

Cynical, no?

(Disclosure: I'm a Catholic Atheist. If you're one, you'll understand what I mean).

Update. I've been discussing this all day with @z_rose on Twitter. She objected to a couple of inaccuracies in my characterisation of religion, which I've corrected, and suggested that I've fallen into the trap of accepting dominant discourses around religion as genuinely representative. She makes the point that many religions and religious people aren't exclusive when it comes to truth, or oppositional, and that accepting the media's love of discord is to cede the ground for debate to extreme positions (implicitly mine as well as those of religious groups). I'll concede a lot of this, though I do think that massive swathes of American society are more Manichaean in approach than we acknowledge, and on the rare occasions I attend Mass I'm always surprised by the sermon's intolerance: Israel right, Palestine wrong; contraception evil etc. There are nice religious people, moral religious people and open-minded religious people - just as there on my atheist side.

She also says religion is a lived experience rather than a static thing: again, I agree up to a point. It drives me mad when the media present all Muslims as observant fundamentalists: plenty drink beer and don't pray, just as most 'Christians' don't darken the door of a church from one year to the next. But - the more text-based your practice is, the less tolerant it is: if you genuinely believe that God personally dictated a ban on gays and shellfish and that these rules still apply, you're bound to practice them.

What have I learned from today? Warsi's a dangerous, short-termist with evil intent, like all Tories. But also that I shouldn't blog off the top of my head. I need footnotes to keep me accurate, despite the fact that - having been retweeted by my idol Marcus Brigstocke to 101,000 followers - the less nuance, the more readers.


Anonymous said...


Grumpy Bob said...

I agree with anonymous, an excellent post, one which I wholly agree with.

Anonymous said...

I hope you feel better now you've got that off your chest

Jonny K said...

"On the other hand, virtually all the major crimes I can think of recently [...] were committed by religious people."

That's a gross exaggeration, and an unhelpful one. The whole News International corruption/hacking/bribery is undoubtedly major crimes, perverting the cause of justice, and neither was committed by religious people, nor in the name of religion.

What you're saying there comes across as attacking the religious, not just those who claim that the religious are under attack. I utterly agree with you in criticising these Tory tactics, but responding with over the top rhetoric feeds into their narrative.

More to the point, a vast majority of these things aren't really down to religion - religion's just a convenient excuse/label that does frequently highlight different cultures. Northern Ireland's not really about those who are protestant vs those who are Catholic because of religion. It's because catholics are (generally) descended from those who have been in Ireland longer, and identify as Irish, while protestants are, (historically), descended from those who identify as British. When you have a country made up of a mix of people who identify as from that place, and from those who identify as from a larger body, you have issues that are difficult to resolve. (I can't help worrying that Scotland, where I'm from, may have some issues in the future, or at least culture clashes around the referendum.) Similiarly, Israel-Palestine is not a conflict based (at root) around religion, it's conflict over land and dispossession. (There's a degree of difficulty in discussing the Jewish people, because they're a race as well as a religion, which makes it more complicated.) Al Qaeda, ultimately, dislikes Western decadence, cultural imperialism/hegemony and .. I really don't think I want or am able to defend that issue well.

The point is that those examples you cite as religion are often not really about religion, but some deeper cultural issue, where religion gets thrown in as a distraction. And claiming that religion causes all major crime, which is blatantly false (look at the London riots, for a start), just serves to to push a culture war as a thing.

You've got a very good point, but your second paragraph lets down your argument, makes some wrong claims, and falls into precisely the trap you're seeking to argue against.

Otherwise, decent argument.

Philip Martin said...

“With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” - Steven Weinberg

intelliwench said...

I've been looking for countries to expatriate to in case President Obama loses to any of the knuckle-draggers the opposing party is offering up. The UK seems to have fallen off the short list of prospects....

The Plashing Vole said...

Well, it's not all over for the UK yet. Might I recommend Ireland: the Church is seriously on the run (in some cases literally). There's always Scandinavia.

stanchaz said...

n this dreadful Holy War on Religion, I've had enough. I'm surrendering! 'Cause I'm gonna start my OWN religion, and get in on the good stuff: tax exemptions, and lots of taxpayer money to do what I want... Definitely! Hey Newt -wanna join? We're gonna have open marriages and multiple wives and all SORTS of neat stuff that you're just gonna love! But no nasty stoning of adulterers. Promise! As for Santorum- he makes a fine preacher...in fact, we'll make him Saint Santorum. As for Mr. Obama,  obviously, we'll need to demonize him even further, and his dog. As for Mitt and Ron, hey, just for you guys: no taxes AT ALL ...and human sacrifice of illegal aliens. Televised. Whoooppee! What a country! :-)