“First, atheists have no prima facie problem with secularism.” How would you know? When were you appointed spokesperson for atheists in general? An atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in a god or gods. Describing someone as an atheist doesn’t tell us any more than that. It doesn’t imply a value system of any sort, a political position, or anything other than a rejection of religion.
“So, as a ‘secularist’, do you think that religion adheres to your lofty 'Live and let live' ideals?” Religion doesn’t function in a vacuum, nor does it adhere to any ideals. It can’t force itself to do anything. People do these things. Talking about religion without acknowledging its complexity is pointless. There are many religions, and every religion is practised in different ways, in different cultures and communities. An increasing number of British people, for example, don’t subscribe to any organised religion but have developed an individual belief system, which some may describe as “spiritual”, others may call “Christianity” that owes nothing to theology. The proselytising religions, such as those that thrive in the US, exploit people’s ignorance and confusion. The ones that are inextricably linked to different cultures in the developing world are regarded as part of their followers’ identities, hence very difficult to reject. Nevertheless, in countries like India, which was led at independence by the humanist role model Jawaharlal Nehru (a passionate advocate of secularism), most people live harmoniously with their neighbours; Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, Christians and non-believers.
It’s interesting that you should describe the US as largely secular. It’s true that the US has a secular constitution, yet a very large proportion of its population is religious. Dawkins has frequently pointed out how many of its fundamentalist Christians reject evolution. The UK is a far less religious country, yet we have religious education in schools, something that you do not. In my experience (as someone who’s been involved with education for a long time), the more that students learn about different religions, the less likely they are to be religious. This observation has been borne out by research conducted by the University of Manchester and the Church of England. When I visit secondary schools I find that only a small proportion is willing to say that they’re religious. This is despite the fact that many primary schools are still church schools, a legacy of the UK’s dual system.
We have a problem with faith schools, due to muddle-headed politicians, including Tony Blair, who’ve promoted “multiculturalism”. Some religious organisations agree with British Humanists that segregated education is not good and campaign with us to stop their proliferation. There are a few Muslim schools and a significant proportion of them have attracted very poor Ofsted reports (reports on standards commissioned by the government), and are liable to be closed if they don’t improve.
“... the good Baroness - from her privileged position - may well find Dawkins' view 'simple-minded'. I somehow doubt that she has actually bothered to read 'God delusion'.” Baroness Mary Warnock did not inherit her title. She was elevated to the House of Lords as a reward for her achievements in the fields of education, philosophy and ethics, where she's an asset and a useful counter-balance to the irrational influence of 26 bishops. I can only imagine that you think that she hasn’t read Richard Dawkins' book because you know nothing about her.
As for your assertion that religion and faith cause “harm to rationality, sense and sanity (that leaves the mind open to arrant superstitious nonsense of various kinds), not to mention the psychological toll of indoctrination,” this is a familiar argument against religion that I’ve used myself, and that’s been used by many humanist critics. If you read any of Mary Warnock’s work you’d know that she doesn’t ignore the harmful effects of religion. Her position (and mine) is that religion, whether you like it or not, has been woven into human history for millennia, and that there have been benefits. Many of those who criticise aggressive Islam in the 21st century, for example, may not be aware that Muslim scholars led the world in science, medicine and mathematics between the 8th and 13th centuries BCE, the Golden Age of Arab Science. We have inherited art, architecture and musical masterpieces from people who were patronised by Christian individuals and institutions. Many children would not have learned to read and write in the UK between the Industrial Revolution and the 1944 Education Act, had it not been for the philanthropy of the churches, including the non-conformists, that often struggled to pay for their work. Yes, this education came at a price, which was religious instruction. RI is now RE in the UK, no longer about making children religious but teaching them about religion.
The trouble with taking a polarised view of the negative effects of religious is that it’s too simple, and that the story isn’t all bad. It’s about people, and their messy, disorganised lives.There have been freethinkers who were more than mere atheists since at least the 6th century BCE, all over the world, who have developed ideas and values independently of religion, and we owe a lot to them. But atheism, in itself, isn't anything more than a position on faith and atheists, in general, do not set an example of rational, well ordered lives. They can be just as irrational, intolerant and ignorant as the religious, and I'm sometimes irritated by the air of superiority adopted by some of the most anti-theist contributors to Internet debates on religion. They, like Richard Dawkins when he’s most exasperated, remind me of Professor Henry Higgins in George Bernard Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion’, who thinks that all would be well if everyone was like him. I often get the feeling that Dawkins doesn’t really understand people very well. When he writes about science, he’s brilliant. When he writes about the stubborn resistance of religious people to accept what he tells them, he sometimes makes me laugh.
As for the burqa, which is where all this started; I agree that the burqa should be discouraged but I do not agree that it should be banned by law. In the UK, there is more than one sort of burqa-wearer. A very small minority may be bullied into wearing it by backward imams and male relatives. Even the Muslim Council of Britain, which the Blair Government actually consulted on multicultural issues, to its shame, has said that women should wear it, as rejecting it can be seen as a rejection of Islam. The niqab is mainly worn in the UK by women from communities that have immigrated from rural Pakistan, where literacy standards are poor, women receive no education, and boys have been educated in religious madrasas, as their families cannot afford anything else.
You wrote, “... the burqa is the ultimate symbol of religion-inspired subjugation of women; it brands the burqa-clad women as chattel, the property of some man, father or husband, and is often enforced by Islam on pain of death. What would you think if you suddenly found at an open place a woman put on a collar and a leash, being pulled by a man? The burqa, enforced by tribal patriarchal customs, is symbolically equivalent, although you may not quite understand this parallel unless you have lived in or in close conjunction with an Islamic country.” On the contrary, I fully understand the significance of enforced burqa-wearing in Islamist states. Most British Muslim women, like educated Muslim women from countries like Egypt, do not wear the niqab or even the hijab. Two Muslim women at a school sixth form conference last year were asked about their choice – one wore the hijab, the other did not. It was agreed that the choice is largely determined by culture, rather than the Qur’an. There is a worrying trend among young British Muslim women, including converts to Islam, who wear the full burqa from choice, against the wishes of their families. They appear to think that this demonstrates their devotion to Allah. However, schoolgirls who’ve adopted the niqab, in contravention of a school’s rules on uniform, have been sent home to change. Appeals by parents have been lost.
I fully accept that it must be necessary for the niqab to be removed in some situations, for security reasons, and I fully agree that burqa-wearing should be regarded as socially-unacceptable. However, I’m not alone in thinking that a ban enforced by law would not be appropriate in Britain. I’ve discussed this with members of my humanist group and with sympathisers on Twitter and Facebook. All of them, men and women, have said that though they hate the burqa, they would be deeply uncomfortable with the idea of arresting otherwise harmless women for their mode of dress.
On your blog, you asked if I’d still think it’s “a ‘human rights’ issue if, for example, Klan members decided to wear their white Klan costumes (robes, masks, and conical hats, designed to be outlandish and terrifying, and to hide their identities) to public places in the Southern parts of the US?”. I’d suggest that the best response to modern Klansmen wearing their outfits in public would be to point and laugh. If that’s all they were doing, I wouldn’t want to ban them from wearing fancy dress. I have no doubt that there is still racial prejudice in the American South, but the civil rights issue has been dealt with and now that black people have rights, Klansmen (and women) are no longer the threat that they once were [see the update below]. There’s a world of difference between them and their costumes, designed to threaten and intimidate, and the burqa and niqab, worn by women who are seldom a threat to anyone; if anything, they’re more likely to be threatened by racists and Islamophobes, here and in France. The racist politics of Jean-Marie le Pen and his ilk have had a lot to do with the French ban because Sarkozy has been losing votes to them. In the UK, one of the groups in favour of a ban is the British National Party, a nasty bunch of ignorant thugs. I wouldn’t want to be associated with them on the burqa issue, or anything else.
Click here to read what I wrote previously about the damage to women and children's health from the burqa.
Click here to read what I've said about secularism.
I wrote, above, "I have no doubt that there is still racial prejudice in the American South, but the civil rights issue has been dealt with and now that black people have rights, Klansmen (and women) are no longer the threat that they once were."
Since the 2017 US election and the rise of Donald Trump, sadly this is not longer true.