Tag Archives: Religion

Feminism Enabled Gay Marriage

Feminism enabled gay marriage, and that’s a good thing.

Last week we heard the Catholic bishops parroting the tired old line about marriage being “between a man and a woman”, and that the secular government was somehow redefining the concept for the rest of us. This argument sounds more and more pathetic every time I hear it.

Marriage has often been redefined! In the Old Testament we had polygamy, a practice that continues in many parts of the world to this day. When that fell out of favour, the bond of marriage was still very much a transaction in which the girl had no input. This practice, of a father arranging a marriage on his daughter’s behalf, is still very popular in many parts of the world and many British citizens still submit to it. The idea of romantic love leading to marriage is also a new innovation (at least, new when compared to the idea of marriage itself). Literature, from Tristan & Isolde, to Romeo & Juliet, to the Jane Austen œvre, is full of stories of romantic love colliding with the more traditional view of marriage as a financial arrangement.

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On Secularism and such like…

Earlier this week we had one of those cultural moments when ideas of atheism, secularism and religion were debated. In an obviously provocative manoever, Baroness Warsi spoke of ‘militant secularism’. Militants like Richard Dawkins rose to the bait, apparently affirming her pronouncements, while less militant atheists like Alain De Botton adopted a more conciliatory tone on twitter. Several people pointed out the oxymoronic notion of a ‘militant secularist’ by incorrectly quoting AC Grayling, who last year equated militant atheism with “sleeping furiously”.

There is lots to be said about this perjorative term ‘militant secularism’. It is a form of victimology that social conservatives like propagate. Sayeeda Warsi has form on such issues, naughtily spreading the ‘Winterval’ myth when she knows it is a lie. It enables bigots, who like to use religion to excuse their prejudices, even when those values are very much at odds with the tolerant philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth.

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Debating Breivik's Manifesto

As tweeted yesterday, I was asked onto Paul Hammond’s morning show on UCB Radio, to discuss Norwegian gunman Anders Behring Breiviks’ manifesto, which has been published online.  I made the case that, unpleasant though Breivik’s views are, censoring his manifesto would only give him a martyrish status.  Also, the reasons given for suppressing such writings would quickly be used to attack and censor other books (like the Bible).

Here is the audio of my segment [6 Mb].

On the UCB’s Facebook page, a few people raised dissenting views.

… surely the human rights of the Norwegian students and there families should be held in higher esteem the Anders Behring Breiviks. He gave up his rights the moment he blew up the building in Oslo.

I think this is just a confusion of the concept of human rights.  Of course rights such as free expression may be lawfully removed, but its wrong to say that a killer or any other hated person in society can forfeit their rights in this way.  If that were the case, we would call them ‘privileges’ not ‘rights’.

Another common sentiment:

But I would caution against publishingg such material. Not everyone has the wisdom or intelligence to be able to read it. God forbid but what if there was to be a copycat killing because of publishing this?

To this, I am reminded of Bronwen Maddox writing in The Times, discussing the ramblingsof another killer, Cho Seung Hui:

The accusation that the NBC broadcasts may provoke copycat attacks — the most serious charge against the network — appears to rest on a notion of severe mental illness as contagious, common and predictable.

UCB is a Christian radio station, and as such there were a few comments invoking the more nebulous concepts of God and Satan:

He had his foot in satans kindom, he is a freemason wich is v evil ,he also listend 2 chantin an playd demonic games on computa,he gave the devil an entrance 2 his mind.ther so much ocult activities that warp the mind an insesetive the value of life

I don’t think this is helpful.  Evil and even satanic Anders Breivik may be, but these are adjectives to describe his end state of mind, not the process by which he became like that.  Explaining a good or a bad act as being the work of God or Satan is a way of avoiding hard thoughts and (maybe) a difficult truth.

Kate Middleton insults the Church

Many wry smiles and twittered Lolz at the news this week that Kate Middleton has been confirmed into the Church of England.

Is it appropriate for a British subject such as myself to comment on our Queen-elect’s faith choices? Probably not, firstly for reasons of deference, and also because to question such an act is to risk being patronizing and a bit sexist. If I express cynicism about Ms Middleton’s faith, then am I not suggesting that she is not her own woman?

In this case, I actually think some comment is justified. Faith should be a private affair, and had Kate chosen to have a quiet confirmation, with no associated press strategy from Clarence house, then the rest of us would do well to shut up. However, since the news has been released by her own media team, I see no reason why we should not raise a few questions about the act.

And anyway, the Faith of the Royals (and Kate Middleton will very soon be the very Royal ‘Princess Catherine’) happens to be a topic of public interest, public discussion, public concern. This is the way our country is constituted. Fact. Catholics are constitutionally demeaned, and should any future heir or near-heir to the throne marry outside Europe (very possible as the world and the Royals become increasingly cosmopolitan) the current system would bully the unfortunate spouse out of their original faith, in favour of Anglicanism.

And ‘bullied’ appears to be what has happened to Kate M. At the very least: ‘pressurized’. No-one who heard or read the news reports would have considered for a moment that this decision was taken by Kate Middleton alone. Rather, we are all entirely certain that this is a cynical and pragmatic act in order to sidestep a theological conundrum that, in Twenty-First Century Britain, is increasingly absurd.

Kate Middleton is not alone in paying lip-service to a religious faith, having previously demonstrated no interest in it. Couples routinely attend church for the minimum number of weeks specified by the vicar, before the picturesque parish church wedding will be sanctioned. Others even sign a statement, saying they will bring up any children of the marriage on the Catholic faith. And I’ve known a few people who have ostensibly converted to Islam in order to marry a Muslim, while demonstrating very little interest in, or knowledge of the religion itself.

I should not care about any of these instances of hypocrisy. After all, it is not my faith that is cheapened by these all-to-convenient faux-Damascene moments. But nevertheless, it still irritates me. In being so casual and opportunistic in their conversions, Kate Middleton and hundreds like her cheapen the covenant that the true adherents have with their church. With this confirmation, the message that Wills, Kate and the Royal Establishment have conveyed is that Church-going and church-membership is a mere accessory, a thing of necessary convenience like a new SIM card or an MOT. Something borrowed. For ordinary subjects to behave in this manner is hypocritical. For the future heads of the Church to do the same is gross negligence, a dereliction of duty, a desecration of the Church of England, cheapening an institution that is already weak and belittled. There is no better argument for disestablishment than a rushed and panicked Royal confirmation.

Perhaps I am being unfair. Perhaps Kate is being genuine, and the timing is just bad. After all, if being chosen as the next Queen of England doesn’t inspire faith in a Higher Power, what would?

The Chilling Effect of Rarely Used Laws

Governor of the Punjab Salmaan Taseer visits Aasia Bibi, Christian woman condemned to death under the Blasphemy Law. (Creative Commons Licenced photo from salmaantaseer on Flickr)

A depressing story to kick-off the New Year: The governor of the Pakistani province of Punjab, Salman Taseer, has been assasinated. The perpetrator cited Taseer’s support for the repeal of Pakistan’s blasphemy law as the motive for the murder.

Human Rights campaigners often spend their time lobbying for the formal abolition of laws.  For example, at the end of 2009 I was involved in a free speech campaign to repeal the archaic law of seditious libel.  Some argued that there was little point in wasting time abolishing laws that have fallen into disuse.  They are de facto abolished anyway:  Couldn’t parliamentary time be better spent?

Certainly not.  There is always the chance that the law might be used by some future, illiberal government.  And in the case of blasphemy in Pakistan, we see how an oppressive law (for that is what the offence of blasphemy is, and must always be) can be used as an excuse for violence.  Supporters of Mr Taseer’s killer now cite the existence of these little-used as their excuse for righteous murder.  You don’t actually need to charge someone under a particular law, for that law to have a horrible chilling effect.

Geeks on the March

… and the April, and the May.

The latest fundraising project for the Libel Reform Campaign is the Geek Calendar.  The video below features a number of eminent scientists and science journalists explaining why the libel laws are so terrible, why science and medicine are particularly threatened, and therefore, why they agreed to feature in the calendar.

The Geek Calendar project is, I think, a fantastic example of a good idea that has been very well executed, with the help of new technologies. (To add a disclaimer lest the reader thinks I am sucking my own trumpet, the project was not managed by me – though as part of the Libel Reform Campaign I did get to watch the team in action at all stages.) The above video is a classic example of how a little forward thinking creates a significant amount of added value. The ‘geeks’ (including celebrities such as Jonathan Ross) were already being photographed – so why not do a quick interview while you’re there?

The Geek Calendar team have also been using behind the scenes imagery to build momentum for the project. At the other end of the production line, there have been several opportunities for us to spread the word and seed the #GeekCalendar hashtag via social networking sites – when the shop went ‘live’ for pre-orders; at the launch party last week; and when the calendars arrived through people’s letterboxes.

It also helps to have a strong constituency for the message and product.  As Nick Cohen pointed out in April, it is clear that one reason that the Libel Reform campaign has been so successful in lobbying the government (both the Labour administration, and the post-election Coalition) is that there exists a community of technologically savvy, but also very motivated and passionate geeks, to drive the message forward.  Earlier this year, Christina Odone labelled this group “the Lib Dem Spooky Posse of Internet Pests” after a forestorm of tweeting against her during a spat with former MP Dr Evan Harris.  Over at the New Statesman blog, David Allen Green gives a little more insight into the ‘Skeptics‘ movement.  These people would hate to be compared to the religious Right in the USA…  but in their dedication to their cause, and their belief that their engagement can actually cause change, I percieve more than a passing similarity.

Qu’ran burning and America's moral plummet

Just as I was mulling the idea of writing a blog-post on Liberal Conspriacy about the stupid Koran-burning event planned at a church in Florida, Dave Osler gazumps me with a lucid take.  As a campaigner for PEN, the idea of book-burning presents a particular conundrum: The aborrence of the act, versus the right to free expression.  I think Dave’s final paragraph nails the argument:

But Dove World Outreach Centre do not exercise state power. For much the same reasons as al Muhajiroon should not be banned from demonstrating at the funeral processions of squaddies and the English Defence League should not be banned from the streets of British cities, the lesser evil is to tolerate its cretinous intolerance.

Earlier, Dave dismisses Heinrich Heine’s quote (“wherever they burn books they will also, in the end, burn human beings”) as being a soundbite.  I would not be so glib.  Reading the hysterical comments over the so-called ‘Ground-Zero Mosque’ from prominent and elected US politicians, I fear some particularly nasty events may unfold later this year.

The rise of fascism and other dictatorships is often cited as an excuse to regulate free speech.  “If only we could have stopped Hitler giving speeches” goes the argument, “we would have prevented Nazism.”  That is one way of looking at it, but such an approach is unsophisticated and leads to a fascism of its own.  The proper response, when rabble-rousing turns to vitriol turns to hate-speech turns to incitement… is counter-speech.  If demagogues threaten division and hatred, then others in power need to refute them as forcefully as possible. Democracy’s core values, as embodied in our concept of human rights, are always under attack.  It is when ‘cretinous intolerance’ is are inadequately defended that the moral fall begins.

Regarding the Cordoba Initiative controversy, those who should be standing up to the bigotry are often staying silent, or worse, pandering to the mob.  For example, Senate majority leader Harry Reid, in a close re-election battle with a Palin-style politican in Arizona, chose to pander.  President Obama’s response, while initially strong, was blunted by clarifications and spin.  Only Michael Bloomberg, major of New York, has taken a stand on principle.  The different responses of these three men to this moral challenge is clearly indicative of their very different electorates,  The dark side of democracy threatens the light.

Defending the Cordoba Mosque

Over in New York, an argument is blazing over the Cordoba Initiative, an Islamic cultural and community centre planned for downtown New York.  Shrill critics have labelled it the ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ and called for the project to be cancelled, due to it offending the sensibilities of the families of 9/11 victims.  However, a calmer look at the proposed centre reveals although it is in the vicinity of the World Trade Centre site, its hardly on top of it.  Other mosques exist in the downtown area, and Feisal Abdul Rauf, the leader of the project, has been praised for his interfaith work.

This controversy has clearly been manufactured by those who seek to polarise American political debate.  It is depressing and astonishing that the arguments against the centre have gained any traction at all.  One might expect this in Europe, with its muddled and inconsistent relationship with secular ideals.  Or in theocracies like Saudi Arabia and Iran, with their blanket intolerance of other faiths.  But for a country which explicitly enshrines human rights such as free expression and freedom of religion in its constitution, it is bizarre that the debate has advanced so far.  Most ironic is that the Anti-Defamation League, an organisation set-up specifically to combat religious prejudice and anti-semitism, has led the calls for the plans to be scrapped.  Their statement prioritises public outrage and ‘offence’ over freedom of expression, assembly, and religion – A dubious position indeed.

Thankfully, the principles of tolerance appear to be waxing.  Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently gave a fantastic speech where he reaffirmed the principles upon which the United States was founded.  As a Jewish New Yorker, his words have a certain ‘rhetorical authority’ (as David Foster Wallace would call it).  Let’s hope this argument becomes another ‘teaching moment’, a step away from the global war that Osama Bin Laden sought to provoke when he planned the September 11 attacks.

“The attack was an act of war, and our first responders defended not only our city, but our country and our constitution. We do not honor their lives by denying the very constitutional rights they died protecting. We honor their lives by defending those rights and the freedoms that the terrorists attacked.


Daily Dish has some great commentary.

Elsewhere, on Offence

In The Independent, Michael Coveney discusses theatre that offends, and what to do about it. There is a quote from yrstrly too:

Freedom of speech carries with it a freedom to insult; otherwise, as Tom Stoppard says, it’s not a freedom worth having. Bhatti’s first play was not based on any real-life case history, but offered as an extreme allegory of hypocrisy. And as a Sikh herself, who is she to be denied that privilege?

It says much about the state we’re in that her new play comes with explicit support from campaign groups Index on Censorship, English PEN and Free World. Robert Sharp of PEN says that the Sikhs who took exception to Behzti (and many prominent Sikhs didn’t) should remember that when you are satirised or criticised, then you’re relevant, you’ve arrived. But is there any limit to the offence a theatrical play can cause, or should there be?

“None at all,” says Sharp, “except perhaps from a clear incitement to violence. Freedom of speech and freedom of religion are sister rights. There is neither in China or Iran. People here should respond to things they don’t like by writing reviews, or writing their own plays.”

Both of the readers of this blog will note the provenance of the sound-bites offered. The bit about satire of minority faiths as a badge of relevance was first mooted in 2005; Putting limits on free speech in cases of incitement was noted last month; and my thoughts on counter-speech and responding through plays and reviews was the subject of a Comment is Free piece last year.  Its a long term project, but you can see how the blog-as-scrapbook model is beginning to pay off.

Wootton Bassett

Islam4UK want to march through Wooten Basset in a provocative protest against the British presence in Afghanistan. It is, as Dave Osler says on Liberal Conspiracy, a huge “headache” for the principled secular left who want defend free speech. Also at LibCon, Scepticisle points out that Anjem Choudry, who leads Islam4UK, is a “media troll” who is being deliberately provocative.  He wants to provoke a violent reaction, and the best course of action is to not give him one.  This means allowing the march to proceed, however offensive the message.  The small numbers it will attract will demonstrate just how fringe and ridiculous Choudry and his ideas actually are.

I’m surprised by the illiberal line taken by James Alexander at Progress:

This planned event will turn to violence and lead to a counter-response by the English Defence League. Then the BNP will begin to stir up divisions in the surrounding localities.

Even if you disagree with the actions of the brave soldiers who fight to protect British security, it is wrong to antagonise the families of the fallen. This is hateful and evil. I am writing to the Home Secretary, Alan Johnson MP, to call for Islam4UK to be also banned.

I don’t buy into the meme that a provocative march will necessarily be met with violence from outraged Britons.  Politicians and public figures should seize this as a ‘teaching moment’ and now use their influence to condemn in advance such actions, and inspire people to a more tolerant approach.  Gordon Brown has failed to do this so far.

Alexander’s Progress piece seems to have been seized upon by the sort of comments that one usually sees on tabloid comment boards.  I’ve just posted my own comment which sums up what I think:

I disagree with James Alexander … in suggesting that the Islam4UK march should be banned. That would be anti-free speech. If our troops are fighting for anything in Afghanistan, it is human rights, including the right to free expression (something sadly lacking in that country at the moment). The greatest tribute to our soldiers, living and fallen, would be to maintain our principles consistently at home and abroad: This means allowing the Islam4UK march.

The idea that the British people en mass cannot control themselves when confronted with a sorry band of Islamists is ridiculous and divisive. Locals and others who disagree with Islam4UK’s ridiculous ideas are perfectly capable of staging a bigger, peaceful counter-march, without any of the pathetic threats of violence that the other commenters here are so keen to see realised. It is this, and only this course of action that is consistent with the British spirit of tolerance and democracy. Progress members should be using their power and influence to bring this course of action about. Anything less is to sink towards the level of the fundamentalists.

Photo by Robin Hodson

A Wootten Basset memorial procession, 17th Nov 2009. Photo by Robin Hodson on Flickr.