Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Eric Pickles shows his ignorance, again

At the Tory Party's recent spring conference, Eric Pickles, the party chairman, is reported to have said,
I've stopped an attempt by militant atheists to ban councils having prayers at the start of meetings if they wish. Heaven forbid. We're a Christian nation. We have an established church. Get over it. And don't impose your politically correct intolerance on others.
He was referring to the National Secular Society's 2012 High Court case that ruled that it is illegal for local councils to include prayers as part of their official agenda.

Of course, Mr Pickles thinks it's OK to impose his intolerant and ignorant views on others. Baroness Warsi is also fond of airing her ignorance in public, using the term "militant secularists". For these two, the words atheist and secularists seem interchangeable, though they're not synonymous, and "militant" atheists and secularists are hell bent on destroying British society.

In 2007, I spoke about secularism at a Suffolk Inter-Faith Resource Forum of Faiths after it had become clear that faith representatives at a previous forum didn't understand what secularism is or how it benefited them. Here's a revised transcript, first published on the Suffolk Humanist website.


I'm here to talk about living in a secular society, and why I believe passionately that it's a good thing. I feel fortunate to live in a democratic secular society, knowing that if I lived in a religious state I wouldn't enjoy the freedom to speak about what matters to me, for fear of recrimination, harassment, persecution and punishment, even death, in some cases.

The word "secular" is often misused. It doesn't mean consumerism, or entertainment, or activities other than religious activity. It doesn't mean "atheist". It doesn't mean being "anti-religious", though some who describe themselves as secularists are anti-religious while many religious people support a secular state. It doesn't mean being value-free, in terms of morality or ethical behaviour.

A secular society is one where religion doesn't dictate political decisions - where the state and religion are separate - and where freedom of religion is possible, as no one religion dominates society. George Holyoake, the agnostic British writer who coined the term "secularism" in 1846, used it to describe the promotion of a social order separate from religion, without actively dismissing or criticising religious belief. Holyoake wrote,
Secularism is not an argument against Christianity, it is one independent of it. It does not question the pretensions of Christianity; it advances others. Secularism does not say there is no light or guidance elsewhere, but maintains that there is light and guidance in secular truth, whose conditions and sanctions exist independently, and act forever. Secular knowledge is manifestly that kind of knowledge which is founded in this life, which relates to the conduct of this life, conduces to the welfare of this life, and is capable of being tested by the experience of this life.
When Holyoake was promoting secularism, it was unusual to acknowledge any other religion than Christianity.

In general, secular societies are modern, liberal societies, not because of organised secularist movements, but through the gradual erosion of old-fashioned religious authority, the modernisation of government, and the development of ethnic mingling through migration.

Constitutionally secular states are all very different. There is no one-size-fits-all form of secular government, and there can be some confusion about how secularism is interpreted. In general, however, they allow freedom of religion or the freedom not to be religious, which makes them different from theocracies and repressive totalitarian states, including communist states, that forcibly suppress religious expression.

India's modern secular democracy was founded in 1947, on independence from British rule. India's first Prime Minister was a Humanist; Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, who believed passionately that India must be a secular state where religious people had to learn to live in harmony with one another. The Muslims, led by Mohammad Ali Jinnah, rejected this principle. The hasty partition of India, mismanaged by the British, caused great suffering and bloodshed. There are still religious tensions in India today, but people of different religious backgrounds can and do live and work side by side.

Section Two of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms details the fundamental freedoms everyone in Canada is entitled to, which are legally enforceable. They are freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, freedom of thought, freedom of belief, freedom of peaceful assembly, and freedom of association. The Charter's preamble includes a reference to God, though this portion hasn't been accorded legal effect and has been criticised for conflicting with the fundamental freedom of conscience and religion guaranteed in section two.

The first amendment of the American constitution ensures that the state won't favour one religion over another, but the country's secular status is confused. George Bush was fond of referring to his God, who seems to have been a sort of unelected co-President, and it's almost impossible to be elected at all if you're open about being an atheist. In a research sample of 2000 households, the University of Minnesota's department of sociology found that the respondents rated atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in "sharing their vision of American society." Atheists are the minority group they were least willing to allow their children to marry. This form of prejudice is widespread, but one effect of Professor Richard Dawkins' lecture tours in the States is that an increasing number of people have "come out" as non-believers, risking the criticism and rejection of their families. It appears that America isn't as Christian as some would like us to think it is.

I was going to talk about France and Turkey, but there isn't enough time, so I'll just mention the reasons that Britain is referred to as "Christian country". It was a pagan country in Anglo-Saxon times. St Augustine's mission was to make it a Catholic country. It remained so until King Henry VIII had a little difficulty with his first wife, his brother's widow, Catherine of Aragon, who he'd married to secure an alliance with Spain. Catherine failed to produce an heir and Henry lost interest in a Spanish alliance because he fancied Anne Boleyn. Henry's marital and diplomatic difficulties led to the establishment of the Church of England. Like many male monarchs who were fixated on their wives' ability to produce male heirs, Henry was, of course, ignorant of the fact that it's the father's chromosomes that determine the gender of a baby, but women have traditionally taken the blame for most things.

It's ironic, considering how the established church was founded, that Edward VIII was forced to abdicate when he wanted to marry an American Divorcee, and that the current heir to the throne had to marry his divorcee in a register office. Not only that, but his talk about being a "defender of faiths" in a multi-faith country was ruled out of order by Archbishop Rowan Williams. As things stand, if Charles declares himself a convert to another faith or rejects faith altogether, he can forget about the crown. Some have speculated that Prince Harry isn't a religious man, after he chose to talk about his mother rather than do a religious reading at her memorial event. There are many inside and outside the Church who think it's time for disestablishment, reflecting the nature of a multi-faith, secular Britain. It's also time to stop allowing the Church to assume control of every state occasion, Government ceremonial, and many other public celebrations. I thought it was significant that the bereaved and the victims of the 7/7 bombings in London chose to organise and conduct a memorial event in a park that was entirely secular, so it included everyone.

So why is it important to defend the secular nature of our society?

There's been talk from a minority of introducing Islamic Sharia law in this country, to settle family and neighbourly disputes. It would, say those who advocate its use, be a form of mediation and conciliation service. I say that Sharia law and British law are incompatible, and the form of Sharia law that's practiced in Muslim countries is essentially unfavourable to women. Human rights and British law come before religious "rights" and the claims of some fundamentalists - you can't have a state within a state.

There are conflicts between the secular state and ideas like "multiculturalism" and "communities". Under the premiership of Tony Blair, the Government sought to appease religious organisations that made demands for recognition by granting them special channels of communication. This has resulted in unelected religious leaders presuming to speak on behalf of citizens who ostensibly share the same religion, but whose attitudes and values vary enormously. The Conservatives declared that this approach to "consultation" was fraught with difficulties, and that it's better to consult people directly, not through religious leaders. It's also presumptuous to talk about religious "communities", when this assumes a commonality that may not exist. I look forward to the day when the word "community" is only used to describe people who live in a geographical area, such as my village. We have community concerns, such as the provision of affordable housing for local young people, otherwise we're a diverse mix, in terms of attitudes and interests. We don't expect or want special privileges. Neither should groups based on religion. If a group of any sort - the Women's Institute, a sports organisation, a residents' association - wants to campaign on a particular issue, they expect people to sign up, to agree with the aims and objectives. Too often, religious leaders have spoken without any such endorsement, only an assumed authority. As for "multiculturalism“; we must be careful what we mean by that too. The last census allowed you to tick a box that identified you as "mixed" in terms of ethnicity. It's no longer appropriate to talk about the "black community", as though everyone with a dark skin shared the same interests, so why should you assume that everyone who describes himself or herself as Christian, say, share the same attitudes and values?

At a previous forum we spoke briefly about being British. That's the unifying nature of a secular state - we're all British. We have to reclaim the term from the isolationists and the extreme nationalists. As British citizens, we all have an interest in maintaining our basic freedoms, including the freedom of religion, and the freedom from religion - in other words, to keep religion and the state completely separate, and prevent anyone from seeking to impose their religious beliefs on anyone else. I'm more interested in how people behave than what they believe, unless their beliefs motivate them to behave badly. Religion has no claim to the moral high ground, and it's insulting to over a third of the UK population who don't have a religious faith to suggest it does.

From Archie Bland in The Independent:
I’m not sure I’ve ever met an actual militant atheist. But they sound scary – probably armed, and certainly dangerous. They sound like they search your house for Bibles, or stand outside churches on a Sunday morning waving placards and booing anyone who goes in.
Update, 10/4/2014. At a reception for Christians at 10 Downing Street yesterday, David Cameron reiterated the same fallacy as Pickles:
Now, look, there were 3 things that I wanted to say tonight about what I hope we can do more of in our country when it comes to Christianity. And as Eric Pickles said this week, we should be proud of the fact that we are a Christian country, and I am proud of the fact we’re a Christian country and we shouldn’t be ashamed to say so. But I think the 3 things I want to focus on – and I hope we can all work on this – the first is to expand the role of faith and faith organisations in our country. This has been a consistent theme of this government; I’m sure there’s more we could do to help make it easier for faith organisations.