When I was asked to reply to Cristina Odone’s piece in the New Statesman on state sanctioned intolerance, I dashed off about 4000 words, just to clear my head. I have removed most of the non-sequiturs and edited out the most extreme rage and confusion, but here is where the piece began. The New Statesman piece is very different, much shorter, and more level-headed. Enter at your peril. This is not a proof read version. This is almost entirely different to the version to THIS, my careful version.
I was replying to THIS
In the past, I have been described as “angry atheist”. So before I begin, Let me make it clear, these are separate issues. I am angry and an atheist. In the last few years I have performed and spoken at a variety religious events and festivals. I find that amongst liberal atheists and liberal believers, there is a lot of common ground on many issues, those of poverty, health, equality. I even find this amongst some of the less liberal on both sides. Whether you believe in a god or not, it doesn’t really bother me, unless you then use it as an alibi for your bigotry or for thoughtless justifications of your ethical superiority.
Before I start my rebuttal of Cristina Odone’s book excerpt, I should say that my experience with the faithful is that few are bothered about the issues and presumed oppressions she states. Many are tired of so much of the media face of the religious being one of petty mindedness and judgement on others who may not live as certain excerpts of their texts insist they should. I believe the views of a few Christians who feel they are facing a jack boot in the UK are vastly overly exaggerated in the media.
Now let me begin.
Christians are not being pushed out of public life, but the presumed superiority of morality cherry-picked from an ancient book is not held with the same high regard it may have been a few decades ago. Evolution has supplied humans with minds that, with some effort, allow us to think for ourselves and to rise above unquestionable, rigid dogma.
Christians are not being asked to stay indoors.
Their churches are have not been closed by the state and they are not heavily picketed by baying mobs every Sunday, unlike plays and musicals that have dared to criticise faith.
All state schools in England and Wales have collective worship, where else in the world has daily Christian worship in schools mandated?
Do we find parents pretending to be atheists to get into schools?
“We had to go to a series of lectures on Charles Darwin just to make sure that we could get Cyril into our local atheist school”
The only other countries with faith based bias in admissions are Israel, Estonia and Ireland
So the real gripe of this minority is not “why are Christians being so oppressed”, but “why aren’t we getting everything our way like the good old days?”.
The loss of advantage is frequently confused with oppression. Those who expect the divine, unquestioned right to dominate are shocked when they lose it. We see this when certain men bleat that feminism means men are now the oppressed gender, this requires powerfully blind eyes to evidence and statistics. “It is so unfair, they are pushing us down and down until eventually we’ll be as equal as them”.
(On gender, Christina does note that the “new atheists” are all men, as if that makes a point. Firstly, in the day to day humdrum world, I meet many who are not men. Secondly, if she is worried by the male dominance of it all, she might want to take a look at the religions she is propounding when it comes to male dominance. It has been a while since the one female pope and eccentric ballroom dancer Ann Widdecombe chose to join the Catholic church precisely because to wasn’t sullied by menstruating priests.)
Christina Odone states that the state was trying to stop her discussing traditional marriage, whereas it turns out a venue and an organisation were preventing her to use their premises. Her speech was not being banned, but just as there should be free speech, so there is the freedom to say, we don’t want you using our front room for your speech. You cannot ban a conference on basis of colour, sexuality or creed, but you can decide not to host it based on the opinions an organisation holds.
I believe I have the right to bang on about atheism if I want, and I’d rather not, preferring to talk about bassoons being played to earthworms or the work of Nick Cave, but I do not believe that I should believe I can choose any venue I want to do it in. I accept that all manner of educational and religious premises may choose to say no to letting me cry, “the universe is a Godless place, let us find our own purpose free from the paranoia of hellfire”.
Both the Law Society and Queen Elizabeth II Hall may have been a little nervous of organisers, World Congress of Families as their website does state homosexuality is akin to pornography and incest when it comes to toppling the natural order of things. Meanwhile, Andrea Williams, head of Christian Concern, the co-organiser of the conference, has recently been over at a conference in Jamaica, lobbying for the island to retain its law that makes gay sex illegal. We hear if intolerance to Christians, but so much of that intolerance is an intolerance to their wish to be intolerant to others. Tolerance to the intolerant is a bloody liberal minefield. After all, aren’t the real victims here the bigots?
( I wonder just how pleased the organisers were when they found out the Law Society would not have them? perhaps cock-a-hoop at this delightful piece of new propaganda for them? How crass of me to imagine that)
In terms of same sex marriage, its legality would not mean Cristina has lost a right. heterosexual marriage remains intact. The legislation does not demand that Cristina must marry a lesbian. Same Sex marriage is very much an opt in scenario.
(as for Cristina’s annoyance that they could not hold a conference in a center named after the head of this country’s church, may I recommend they go for the Queen Elizabeth II pub in Bognor Regis next time, i think they have a function room)
Christina considered not being allowed to use any venue she wanted, trampled on her rights as a taxpayer and citizen. Well, if we want to play the game of who is being trampled, let me tell you how the boot meets my face when no atheists are allowed on Thought for the Day or that humanists are not allowed to lay a wreath at the cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday, you see it was 14 religious groups who were invited to renew and review the ceremony, yes Christina, those marginalised groups who are pushed out of the public arena. Those religious groups who are pushed out of the public arena by being given 26 seats in the House of Lords, solely because of their religious position, and of course, I’ve already mentioned the schools. For a group that have been pushed out of the public square, you are still occupying quite a lot of it. Poor trampled me. Sadly, my rights as a citizen to not allow me to have everything as I want it, and nor does it allow you to.
We are told that Christians, Muslims and Jews feel they are no longer allowed to express any belief. Yet many public buildings I go to have prayer and chaplaincy rooms, though not designated rooms for the books of Darwin, Hume and Bertrand Russell. Oh no, maybe it’s me being trampled on again? I turn on the television, listen to the radio, and there I here religious leaders talking, space for rabbis, bishops and imams, I don’t hear this broadcast silence you tell me of. As usual, “the silent majority” are not living up to their part of the bargain and are being very noisy.
What rights, enshrined in law, do I as an atheist have that Catholics, Anglicans or the Amish of England and Wales not have? What are my secular privileges that mean I rise above you?
Every time you say state sanctioned intolerance, when you write of crushing the rights of of those who dissent, what rights are gone? Do you not have freedom of worship?
“I believe that religious liberty is meaningless if religious sub-cultures do not have the right to practise and preach according to their beliefs”
But you do have the right, you will not be forced to have an abortion, to divorce, to marry a Lesbian, to embrace assisted dying if your death is agonising and the pain impossible to relieve. Your personal rights are my personal rights.
A Christian couple close their Bed and Breakfast as they are not allowed to demand only heterosexual couples, once B&Bs were allowed to insist on No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs, i think we have moved on. I do not believe that I should be allowed to run a hotel that refuses people based on colour, faith or gender, and I see that as progress. My personal right to avoid such people, if I wanted to, remains, but my rights in running a business must be in accord with the laws of the land. Just as that couple are not permitted to be so specific, Richard Dawkins is not allowed to run a carvery that refuses to serve Mormons (as far as I know).
Things change. As you say, once there was a time where churches dominated and tithes were paid, and the bubonic plague laid waste to villages, and the graveyards were filled with mothers and babies who had died in childbirth, and the marriage of children to men was an accepted part of existence. The past was indeed different, I would debate whether it was better because you had so many more churches to mourn your many losses.
As for biblical literacy, well, the terrible statistics you suggest are not due to lack of faith schools. And why should it be so important to name The Ten Commandments? How may of those people could name the four fundamental forces of the universe, the approximate number of stars in our galaxy, Newton’s Laws. Some of the Ten Commandments are not much use for day to day living, others were, as astonishing as this may seem, not rules that had been undreamt of before The Bible.
We then are told of how America does things differently when it comes to religion. Does that make a better society? If a society with a strong religion is good, then why the appalling murder rates, teenage pregnancy rates, numbers of STDs. If a society without religion is lost, look at the state of it with religion. I know that Christina worries about teenage pregancy, it might also worry her that a nation with such strong religion and apparent moral roots has a very high rate of teenage pregnancy.
I am confused as to why Christina quotes the study that suggests most Americans are more likely to believe an atheist is a hit and run driver than a rapist. An odd survey question, and hardly a suggestion of healthy thought. Would she have paused before quoting countries that thought a hit and run driver was more likely to be a Jew than a rapist, or a Catholic rather than a paedophile?
Yet again, gay rights, women’s rights, pro-choice rights are not rights beyond yours, you have the personal right to take no notice of them, it is your rights to stop other having rights that is being slowed.
Christina writes of a Religious Pride march based around the pattern of Gay pride, why not, though remember, gay pride was a march to say , “look, we are part of your society too” not “you have no right to expect to be a full member of our society”.
I do not want a society where religious teenagers are more likely to commit suicide due to fears of oppression and not being “right”, in the way that we see statistics that suggest that is true of LGBT teenagers.
Believers do not need to be pushed to the margins of society, nor do they need to push others to the margins of society. If you don’t like the feeling of being on the margins, then use that wonderful evolved empathy we should nurture in ourselves to think of those others who have been marginalised by over adherence to occasional words of ancient prophets.
There is much competition to appear to be the most oppressed and down-trodden amongst people who are anything but. It is a canny game to play the victim. It didn;t take long after the banking crisis that bankers started bleating that everyone had picked on them quite enough and it was so unfair. Everyday Sexism starts to get noticed and males whine, “what about sexism towards men”. Atheists get a bit mouthy and the religious, often so good at infighting amongst other religious sects and creeds, pal up and mewl that secular society has left them out in the cold.
Loss of superiority is not loss of equality. It is true, the right to be intolerant and refuse services based on colour, sexuality and creed has diminished, but does that make a more intolerant society? Let the faithful have the right to express their faith, but not to impose it. Let’s spend more time worrying about the pressing issues of a society that is promoting a marginalised poor than who has consensual sex with who.
Cristina still has the right to live her personal life openly by her own rules, and more people than ever before have the legal right to live their personal lives openly too, and I think that is progress, not oppression.
I am banging on about the human mind, weird books, and gorillas, and lots of other things too, across the UK – From Sheffield to Falmouth, Cardiff to Norwich and probably your town too (sometimes with Josie Long and Grace Petrie as well) – dates and details HERE
DVDs of Happiness Through Science HERE