Cristina Odone: drop the martyr act

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If you haven’t heard that St. Martins-in-the-Fields stopped Cristina Odone from using their pulpit to rant about how religious people are persecuted last week, you simply haven’t been paying attention. She was banging on about it on the Today programme and now has a column in the Observer saying the same thing:

When a Christian cannot speak out in church for fear of censure, alarm bells ring. The citadel that threatens to emerge from this new world order is like Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials in reverse: the dogmatic oppressor is no longer the omnipotent church, but the omnipotent secularist clique that demands total conformity.

What a very silly person. I have no idea what the capacity of St. Martins-in-the-Fields is but doubt it has a capacity of more than 1,000. By contrast, in going on about this via every media outlet available to her, she has had contact with millions. It was a church that banned her, not the high priesthood of Richard Dawkins. In what way is she subject to “omnipotent secularist clique that demands total conformity”?

In New Humanist this month, Richard Norman writes an important corrective to the recent outpourings of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. I endorse it. But one thing I am in constant awe of is the ability of religious commentators to whip themselves into a frenzy that they are being persecuted. In the Guardian last year, at least one religious commentator compared Dawkins’ views to that of the actions of a suicide bomber, without a hint of irony. As Christmas is approaching, we can but wonder if the fever pitch will exceed last year’s nonsense about secularists plotting to ban Christmas, a throng which was joined by none other than the Archbishop of York (a diocese which knows more than a thing or two about blood libel and thus you would hope would go to rather more pains not to spout unfounded nonsense). I’m not optimistic.

Going back to Odone’s rehearsed charges, Shabina Begum wasn’t banned from wearing a veil, but an ankle-length jilbab; if she’d settled for a headscarf and long trousers she’d have been fine. Nadia Eweida wasn’t banned from wearing a cross by BA, but from wearing one on top of her uniform in a contrived way. The Portree Primay School scandal was resolved two weeks ago.

But these are all froth. Meanwhile a woman is imprisoned in the Sudan, with demands for a death sentance to be put on her head, for giving a teddy bear the wrong name. And we’re supposed to believe it is secularists that are having it all their own way?

So yes, I do happen to think that Dawkins and Hitchens rather over-egg their respective puddings, but compared with the people they are arguing with they are paragons of restraint.

20 thoughts on “Cristina Odone: drop the martyr act

  1. The problem for liberal Christians like Odone is either they stay quiet and let the Fundies do all the talking, or they try and say something, and the Christianophobes denounce them as if they are Fundies as well.

    There. I’ve said it James – send me the nails and planks.

  2. They could try actually allying themselves with secularists against the fundies for a change.

    Or how about simply trying to tell the truth for a change instead of filling articles with bile and deception? I thought Christians were interested in the Truth?

  3. Odone was clearly expressing an opinion and not claiming “The Truth”. The over-the-top language you have used to criticise her, and in the more recent article, does not suggest an openness on your part towards dialogue and co-operation.

    It wasn’t one of her better comments, but Odone was editor of the Catholic Herald in the days when its nickname was the “Catholic Heretic” due to it liberal nature (it now tends to be both conservative and Conservative). Liberal Christians like her often do seem to be ground down between the Fundies and secularists who are all too ready to jump to assuming that anyone who has any attachment to Christianity, however liberal or non-literalist, shares the same outlook as the Fundies.

  4. When someone claims victimhood and cites three examples to back her case, all three of which are factually wrong, it is hardly over-the-top to criticise her (this coming from someone who spends his whole time spouting bile at people he doesn’t like – e.g. Nick Clegg?).

    I don’t accuse her of being a fundamentalist, never have. I do accuse her of being an intellectually dishonest conspiracy theorist. And I do argue that there is a general tendency amongst religious people to have an outlook that tends to see people like Dawkins and Hitchens as The Enemy and religious extremists as merely rivals. That is dangerous and I make no apology for pointing this out.

  5. Of course you have the right to criticise Odone using any language you like. As I said, it wasn’t one of her better articles anyway. My point, however, is that aggressive secularists like yourself are not using the sort of language which might encourage liberal Christians to seek the sort of alliance you say you’d like to see.

    I’m a regular reader of the Guardian, and they seem to have basically two articles on religion. One is on Islam, and tries to be sensitive, emphasising the positive aspects of the religion, explaining away the negative, and suggesting that anyone who view Islam in terms of its negative aspect or most illiberal followers is just a racist “Islamophobic” who is to be despised. The other is on Catholicism, and is a no-holds-barred attack, emphasising the negative aspects of the religion, jumping to questionable conclusions, and with no attempt at all at a balanced view. These articles seem to reoccur, with different authors but the same underlying themes several times a year. They are not unjustified, they are reasonable commentaries, but after a while one does start to wonder “why is it always articles which look at Catholicism in the most negative way, and Islam in the most positive way – why, never, for a change, the other way round?”.

    Yet you seem to be saying one simply cannot say just “Hey why can’t you give us Catholics a break for a change?” without this accusation of a “martyr complex”. I say “Catholic” rather than “Christian” as the Catholic Church seems in particular to come under attack, despite the fact that it is actually much more liberal than many suppose, and is in open (and often losing) competition across the world with fundamentalist illiberal evangelical denominations. In some ways it is a sign of this country’s Protestant heritage that there is still a tendency to assume the RC Church is the worst of them all.

    To some extent, I think the RC Church is a victim of a general anti-religious fervour stirred up by reaction to Islamist extremism and terrorism. Liberals fear being called “racist” if they make a direct criticism of aspects of Islam, so they turn instead to a criticism of all religion, and know that if they single out Catholicism in particular they’re safe because no-one’s liberal credentials were ever questioned for attacking Catholicism, and Catholics don’t fight back anyway.

    If the only sympathetic opening the RC Church gets is from the political right, then it will be pushed that way, and I can see that happening – Odone’s article is a sign of it. If someone with a strong history of standing up for liberal Christianity ends up writing stuff like that, it’s a sign there’s a problem, and that problem will only be made worse if the reaction of liberals is the sort you have given.

    The sort of snide remarks and questionable assumptions about Christianity you have a history of making in your blogging could be argued with, but I think it clear with your “martyr” comment that you are not interested in hearing the other side. The problem for someone like myself, liberal, but with an appreciation of my Christian cultural background, is that if I start challenging people like you on this, I know I am soon going to get typecast as “there he goes, another nutty Christian with a martyr complex”. So I keep quiet, and so the sort of stuff you say just goes unchallenged. It’s only the Fundies who make a big noise, and so they tend to end up being assumed to be the mainstream rather than the fringe.

  6. All I ask is for a sense of proportion and a basic respect of the facts. I’m sorry you choose to label that as “Christianophobia”.

    It is organised religion that has all the money and resources, not the very much disorganised secular movement. If you don’t want to be labelled as a nutty Christian, you should be coming to us, not demanding we pay Christians respect every time they mouth off about the evils of condoms and homosexuality. Get your own house in order first.

  7. There you go again, I am trying to make a reasonable point, you just mouth off with assumptions and prejudice. Where in my article did I demand “we pay Christians respect every time they mouth off about the evils of condoms and homosexuality?”. Why indeed raise these issues – I didn’t – doesn’t it just prove my point that you have a prejudice which paints anyone who even mentions Christianity with some sympathy as if they are uncritical supporters of the most illiberal elements within it?

  8. an intellectually dishonest conspiracy theorist.

    That’s a bit harsh, isn’t it? That Cristina Odone is wrong is obvious enough, that she’s misguided seems also likely, but can we really say that she is intentionally fabricating a conspiracy? I think it’s perfectly possible that she genuinely feels ‘persecuted’. This doesn’t mean that she’s right, but it doesn’t make her a liar either.

    I think that this ‘Christianophobia’ thing is plain old bandwagon-jumping. Some Christian groups have spotted the fact that being a bit obnoxious can get you more attention from the government, and more concessions to your odd beliefs from the multifarious branches of the state. In this, they’re just following the example of other ‘community representative’ groups.

    As a liberal I think it’s important to defend the rights of religious people to their beliefs, and the rights of others to disagree. On a more pragmatic level, I think it’s important that people feel comfortable in society, and that people who hold generally middle-of-the-road views should not be pushed to the margins by those who disagree with them.

    I’m not really sure what this debate is about; if Christians want to call for changes to the law, then we can debate (and, most likely, argue against) those proposals on their merits. If they’re just calling for a bit more tolerance of their exercise of their rights then I find it hard to see how we can refuse. Perhaps I’m just particularly un-bothered by religion, and those who see it as an active force for ill in our society might be less tolerant.

  9. But you aren’t a reasonable anything Matthew. I’ve written an article, criticising an article and despite the fact you accept it isn’t Cristine Odone’s “best work” you insist it is an act of “Christianophobia”. You’ve spent the past month spouting prejudiced and indefensible bile about Nick Clegg and are now coming to me about the importance that I treat you with due reverence and respect.

    You keep going on about “fundies” as if the problem was “fundies”. The problem is people like Cristine Odone, the Archbishop of York and others who claim to be moderates and then run around spreading lies. The problem is institutions like the Catholic church funding campaigns which spread lies about condoms because it suits what they perceive to be in the interests of their agenda. And if I speak out and criticise these things, rather than engage with those criticism you dismiss it all as prejudice.

    I say again, get your own house in order before coming to me. And stop telling me that it is ‘prejudiced’ to speak out against people who tell tall tales.

  10. Rob, I would refer you to the quote above:

    When a Christian cannot speak out in church for fear of censure, alarm bells ring. The citadel that threatens to emerge from this new world order is like Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials in reverse: the dogmatic oppressor is no longer the omnipotent church, but the omnipotent secularist clique that demands total conformity.

    Seriously, in what way is talk about a “new world order” that “demands total conformity” not conspiracy theorising? And given that she is an experienced journalist yet all three of the three examples she cites as “evidence” to this are factually wrong, how it is unreasonable to call her intellectually dishonest?

  11. James, why don’t you try looking at what I am saying rather than jumping to conclusions?

    Odone’s article was opinion – I think it was over-the-top and exaggerated, but no more so than some of the stuff you’ve written about religion in this thread. I am actually concerned that someone like Odone, who is about as liberal a Christian as you can get, has been pushed into writing stuff like this – that was actually my main point.

    I don’t want to get stuck into arguing about condoms, because my line would be “I don’t agree with what they say, but what you say they say isn’t actually what they say, and I do at least have a better idea of what they’re saying than you do, and could attempt to explain it from their viewpoint”. From your tone in this correspondence, that would be far too subtle for you to understand, and you’d be attacking me under tha assumption I was the RC equivalent of a fundie.

    What I was trying to get at is that there’s a growing gulf of incomprehension as Christianity becomes ever more a pursuit of a small minority, and both your tone and Odone’s tone is an indication of this.

  12. It can be difficult to be delicate and frank at the same time, sometimes. Basically I agree with James, that christians aren’t persecuted in this country, that disagreeing with someone isn’t persecution, and that if somebody speaks in church, there is no more or less reason to disagree with them than if they made the same statement out of church.

    Many years ago in another life I went to a number of alpha-type charismatic christian events, and one thing we were taught was to identify with early christians being persecuted by the Romans. It is a powerful tool, I guess, for strengthening identification with the group. From there to ‘persecution complex’ is something of a leap, but it is a possible leap isn’t it?

    I don’t think that individual believers are delusionally seeing persecution where it doesn’t exist. Rather I suggest that there is a culture and a narrative of identifying “people disagreeing with you”, with “people feeding you to the lions”.

  13. Matthew – I know plenty of Christians who can out-liberal Odone without breaking a sweat. That nice Mr Theo Hobson for instance. If she’s your liberal poster child, you’re in deep trouble.

  14. Joe, my point was not that Christians are being persecuted in this country, but that James has reached the position where he is saying he can say what he likes about them, however misguided or full of assumptions based on the idea that every Christian is one of the loud-mouthed extremists types, but they can’t reply back. I didn’t bother to respond to this article initially, it was only when James made this point further with the “Amazing Mr Pritchard” article that I felt moved to put finger to keyboard.

    Let’s take another of James’ assumptions that “organised religion has all the money and resources”. Actually, organised religion has a lot of old and expensive to maintain buildings, old and retired clergy to maintain, and dwindling congregations to pay for it. It is simply not true that it has oodles of money to spend, the reverse is true. That is why disorganised religion in the shape of small fundamentalist sects is able to steal a march on it. There are all sorts of things like this which James is saying which are very dubious, yet I’m always reluctant to jump in and try and put the other side precisely because I don’t want to get typecast as some sort of person who bangs on an on about religion. Yet if I don’t, who are the ones who do – yes the extremists who don’t mind being typecast in that way.

    On your point about Odone and the Alpha movement, if you suppose a liberal Catholic like Odone would have anything to do with the Alpha movement, you couldn’t be more wrong. So again this is a comment based on the assumption that all Christians are of the type characterised by one particular sort, which comes about just because that sort tends to be the loudest mouthed.

  15. James, I am judging Odone not on this one article but on her historical record back to the time when she was ediitor of the Catholic Herald when it was the voice of English liberal Catholicism.

    I do think Catholics have a point in that the way their religion tends to get presented, particularly in liberal circles, is with an overwhelming emphasis on the negative aspects, and often with a failure to appreciate where it differs from more vocal Christians who tend to be on the evangelical wing.

    But you are telling me I’m not allowed to make this point, indeed if I do so I will get dumped on my head just more of the same sort of one-sided comment which led me to complain in the first place.

    It seems to me this sort of thing has pushed Odone to a more shrill and conservative viewpoint, if this article is anything to go by. That’s a shame, and it suggests you are not open to the sort of dialogue you claimed you wanted to see in your initial comment.

  16. Now to my “bile” on Clegg.

    It seemed to me at the start of the leadership debate that we were being railroaded into having Clegg as leader, in part by forces which haven’t historically been kind to us, and I wanted to know why. I was deliberately being provocative, because I wanted people to come back with a strong defence of Clegg which would convince me it was worth remaining active in the party if he became leader.

    At the end of the contest, I’m still mystified by what it is that so many people find in Clegg. I can see why the right-wing press were so keen on him – they thought (and I think you are right – wrongly) that he really would push the party radically to the right which is what he meant by his “comfort zone” comment. It now seems to me that the comments he made which led to this were just part of his um-err trying to say whatever it is that will endear him to whatever audience he is currently addressing.

    I don’t think he’s a bad man, just not leadership material. I remain of the opinion that the party will be making a serious mistake if it elects him as leader. But I think my opinions on why that would be have shifted – from fears that he would take the party to the right to fears that he just isn’t mature or capable enough to do the job well.

  17. Ah, so you have a right to be provocative, but I don’t? Do you have to get a license from the Post Office or something?

  18. Of course you have a right to be provocative. I hadn’t intended this to be a long debate, though my experience is once started it almost always becomes that, and follows a predictable route. I felt your comments, more in the Mr Pritchard article than this, were ignoring what I believe to be a genuine point, and indeed trying to shut down the making of this point by ridicule rather than opening up debate on it.

    The genuine point is that liberals tend to bend over backwards to be positive about Islam, for fear of being called “racist” if they don’t, but tend to bend the other way when it comes to Christianity particularly in its Catholic version. This comes about partly because of historical anti-Catholicism (which is the foundation stone of British nationalism here, and of liberalism in much of continental Europe), and partly because these days Christianity is largely viewed in terms of its loudest-mouthed types, who tend to be fundamentalists/evangelicals, but such is the cultural ignorance of Christianity these days that most people don’t realise there’s a difference.

  19. Matthew, you brought “every” Christian into this. James was just criticising one, for talking nonsense, and not generalising.

    It happens to be exactly the sort of nonsense that the alpha line will lead to. If alpha have got moderates talking up their narrative, then there is a problem, isn’t there? I didn’t suggest Odone has any connection with alpha, never mind assume it. I pointed out a parallel, and you can draw your own conclusions.

    I have no sympathy whatever for the church’s pleas of poverty. It is a huge landowner, and land prices have been going through the roof. And it is not beneath abusing glebe land to effectively steal thousands of pounds from random innocent individuals. A single CofE evangelical church can employ more people than the National Secular Society does in the whole country. That is the scale of wealth gap. Yes, they say they are strapped – no begging organisation can ever admit that it has plenty of money. So this is no reason to believe them.

  20. James’s last paragraph goes further than one person, and his Mr Pritchard article emphasises his point which is that he feels anyone who makes even the slightest complaint that Christians are now a misunderstood minority who don’t always get a fair press is a bad person should be forcibly shut up. That is why I volunteered to be given James’s shutting-up treatment.

    The idea that we live in a society dominated by the Christian religion, and there are just a few people standing up against that in the NSS is surely nonsense. As the NSS would be sure to agree, secularism is the absence of religion, not a religion whose only adherents are NSS members. We live in a secular society, not a Christian one. Since most people in this country have no Christian involvement, they will tend to view Christianity in terms of how its most vocal adherents promote it, and how it is portrayed in the media, and my contention is that in both these cases it’s misleading.

    According to James, if I say “Hey that comment you made about my religion is one-sided and biased to the negative, and I’d like to express dissent from it and put the other”, I’m an unacceptable person with a martyr complex. James and other secularists can say what they like, but the other side can’t respond and if they do they are just to be shouted down rather than listened to. That is what I am objecting to.

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