Religious Doctrine and the Internet

If a religious tradition wants to evolve, it may also need to forget

Kwame Anthony Appiah’s series of Reith Lectures is called ‘Mistaken Identities‘.  I really enjoyed listening to the first lecture on ‘Creed‘ and am looking forward to the rest: ‘Country’, ‘Colour’ and ‘Culture’.

In the first lecture, Appiah walked us through the idea that religious practices and doctrines are far more fluid and open to interpretation and change, than the fundamentalists would have us believe.  This is a good thing in my view, as it offers hope that illiberal ideas spread under the guise of religion can eventually be abandoned.

But I found myself wondering whether the Internet and digital technology may actually stifle that process. Continue reading “Religious Doctrine and the Internet”

Ban the Burkini Ban

As someone who blogs about freedom of expression I really can’t let the ridiculous burkini controversy in France go by without comment.

Policemen have literally been forcing women to disrobe in public. That is deeply illiberal and wrong.

The arguments for enforcing such a policy do not stand up. Continue reading “Ban the Burkini Ban”

The Homophobic Jehovah’s Witness Video Teaches Us Lessons in Parenting and Pluralism

The theology of the cartoon is clearly homophobic. On social media people are calling it disturbing, bigoted, creepy and hateful. But I think the parenting depicted in the video is to be applauded and encouraged, for several reasons.

First published on the Huffington Post.  After this was published I received some challenging, passionate and extremely useful discussions about it on Facebook.  I will add some more thoughts about the video and my article in a separate post.


The Jehovah’s Witnesses are going viral. Social media users have discovered ‘One Man One Woman‘, a short animation about same-sex marriage.

In the clip, a mother tells her daughter, Sophia, that only straight marriage is in Jehovah’s ‘plan’ and that people should abide by those rules if they want to reach paradise. The sequence ends with the little girl revising bible quotes so she can explain to Carrie, her school-friend with two Moms, the true path to paradise. Continue reading “The Homophobic Jehovah’s Witness Video Teaches Us Lessons in Parenting and Pluralism”

‘1 in 5 Muslims’: How not to do a survey

The Sun have an alarming – some might say incendiary – headline on its front page today:

1 in 5 Brit Muslims’ sympathy for jihadis

CUc8VdfWsAEyOyx.jpg-largeThere are two aspects to the report by political editor Tom Newton-Dunn that suggest the figure is unlikely to be accurate. Continue reading “‘1 in 5 Muslims’: How not to do a survey”

After Paris, maybe we need to slap ISIS about with Matthew’s Gospel?

These are the words of a savvy operator who knows that the counter-intuitive move will confound the enemy.

Since the hideous Paris attacks last week, a point that has been made over and over again is that ISIS (or, Daesh if you want to annoy them) have a strategy of provocation.  Their atrocities are designed to ‘sharpen the contradictions‘ by provoking people in Western countries into acts of racism, and provoking Western governments into acts of war.  They hope that by sowing division and actually causing human rights abuses against minorities, more Muslims in these countries will become disaffected and radicalised.  Journalist Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed has a good analysis of the strategy: Continue reading “After Paris, maybe we need to slap ISIS about with Matthew’s Gospel?”

Why we shouldn’t execute Islamic State militants with air-strikes

Yesterday, the Prime Minister re-announced that his Government had targeted British citizens with missiles fired from RAF drones.  Two men are dead.  The Sun and others have cheered the news.  Others have expressed grave concern. Continue reading “Why we shouldn’t execute Islamic State militants with air-strikes”

Amidst Racist Shootings and Stabbings, the Resurrection of Jesus

I have heard the voice of Jesus

Recent weeks have brought us a couple of examples of improbable and extraordinary forgiveness in the face of brutal racism.

Today, the newspapers carry the story of teacher Vincent Uzomah.  Of the 14 year old who stabbed him while shouting racists slurs, Mr Uzomah said this:

As a Christian I have forgiven this boy who has inflicted this trauma and pain on me and my family. Our prayer for him is that he will make use of the opportunities and support that will be provided to him to become a changed person who will make a positive contribution to the society.

Continue reading “Amidst Racist Shootings and Stabbings, the Resurrection of Jesus”

Heckled about Free Speech and Charlie Hebdo

Amazingly, I also encountered a heckler during the speech! He protested that the incredibly crass cartoons that sometimes found their way into the pages of Charlie Hebdo were not worth defending. I unequivocally disagreed.

Last week I spoke at the launch of Draw The Line Here, the book of cartoons published by English PEN in response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

I touched on a few things that I have already noted here: the punctured optimism after the 7/7 bombings, for example.  I also explicity noted the fact that, on the day after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, all but two British newspapers carried the same terrible image of the murdered policeman Ahmed Merabet, yet only those same two newspapers (The Guardian and The Independent) felt able to reproduce the relatively benign image of Mohammed on the cover of Charlie Hebdo the following week.

Amazingly, I also encountered a heckler during the speech!  He protested that the incredibly crass cartoons that sometimes found their way into the pages of Charlie Hebdo were not worth defending.  I unequivocally disagreed.

A recording of my speech is embedded below (and also on SoundCloud). Continue reading “Heckled about Free Speech and Charlie Hebdo”

Discussing free speech and freedom of religion on TWR

TWR Today invited me to discuss the tension between free speech and freedom of religion.

Last month I was pleased to be invited by Trans World Radio, the Christian broadcaster, to take part in their TWR Today programme. I spoke to presenter Lauren Herd about free speech in the context of blasphemy, offence and freedom of religion.

During the discussion I tried to articulate something that has been bothering me about the debate we have been having about free speech, following the Charlie Hebdo massacre:

… So when even free speech campaigners are making the case for offence, I find those arguments frustrating because I feel that argument has been settled, in favour of free speech.

To be clear: I’m not knocking those campaigners who write think-pieces that defend the right to offend.  I’ve published such pieces myself in the past few weeks, as have my colleagues at English PEN.  Rather, my frustration is over how much of the debate is still focussed on whether there is any legitimacy in censoring for reasons of religious offence.  There is none.

Moreover, it is unfettered free speech that enables the freedom of religion.  Lauren Herd gave a pithy and poetic summing up that I predict will become a staple of my rhetoric on this issue:

We may not like hearing attacks on what we believe, but it is that same freedom for one person to express, that allows us to profess what we believe.

You can listen to the show on the TWR website, on SoundCloud, or via the player below.

Continue reading “Discussing free speech and freedom of religion on TWR”

We can win the fight to save Raif Badawi from the horror of Saudi Arabian ‘justice’

Earlier this month, British Prime Minister David Cameron affirmed his support for free speech in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. If he really believes that, then the British Government must urgently review its relationship with Saudi Arabia.

First posted on the Independent website.

Do we see a glimmer of light in the dark case of Raif Badawi? King Abdullah has referred the case to the Saudi Arabian supreme court, following the international dismay at the public flogging Badawi received earlier this month.

Last week the news was grim. The imprisoned blogger might not have received his scheduled 50 lashes on Friday morning, but this was no act of clemency on the part of the Saudi authorities. The flogging was only delayed because Badawi was too ill and weak from his flogging the week before.

One-thousand lashes and a 10 year prison term would be a brutal punishment for any crime. But the fact that Badawi has received this sentence for insulting Islam and of founding a liberal website is astonishing. The world is appalled. The Charlie Hebdo murders have drawn public attention to ideas of freedom of speech and blasphemy, and the Raif Badawi case offers a chillingly convenient coda to the events in Paris. Continue reading “We can win the fight to save Raif Badawi from the horror of Saudi Arabian ‘justice’”