Tag Archives: christianity

Giles Fraser, intolerance and double standards

I wrote this in the hope that the Guardian might be interested in publishing it in their “response” column in the paper – they weren’t. Waste not want not…

Reading Giles Fraser harrumphing about Ariane Sherine and the British Humanist Association’s latest campaign (“Choosing for oneself”, 2 December 2009), it occurred to me that the BHA’s next project should be to launch a range of posters with the slogan “motherhood and apple pie – we love them!” just as an experiment to see quite how much ink Christians would then go on to spill, condemning them for it in no uncertain terms.

For Fraser is not the only Christian to impugn sinister motives behind the “don’t label me” campaign. Writing for the Guardian, the most spiteful insult he could think of was to compare Ms Sherine to Thatcher; the Telegraph’s Ed West has decided that the campaign smacks of Stalinism and a quick Google search will reveal plenty of examples of Reductio ad Hitlerum.

This response represents a bit of a problem for a determinedly non-chippy atheist such as myself. I always used to detest the proselytising habit of some of my fellow non-believers. The BHA newsletter which I was sent a few years ago advertising Christmas cards with the crosses all replaced with a humanist “H” quickly went in the bin. I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on Dawkins and his religious critics in 1997[1] (long before it was fashionable) in which I took the man to task for suggesting in his Reith lecture that the X-Files’ weekly stream of monsters and the unexplained was akin to racist propaganda.

But something changed. I think it was December 2006 when the newspapers were filled with Archbishops claiming that “aggressive secularists” were trying to ban Christmas in response to a series of tabloid stories making inaccurate allegations about a few councils and a few government ministers’ Christmas cards containing the dread phrase “seasons greetings”. Up until that point I had naively assumed that secularism was something we could all agree on. Perhaps that was true 20 years ago but the rise of evangelism seems to have changed all that.

What I don’t understand is why so many “moderate” believers set the standard of acceptable behaviour more highly for atheists than they do for their fellow religionists. Just as Ariane Sherine’s plea for tolerance has been denounced by Fraser et al as extremism, so the Dean of Southwark compared Dawkins in this paper a few years ago for being “just as fundamentalist as the people setting off bombs on the tube.”

The “don’t label me” campaign is about consciousness raising. It isn’t about saying that parents shouldn’t be allowed to tell their children about what they believe, it is about letting them choose their identity for themselves. Many Christians – including my own parents – already do this. But it is an issue which resonates with many atheists because, sadly, many of them bear the scars of such an upbringing. It is a shame that Giles Fraser treats their plea for tolerance with scorn and not compassion.

[1] BA Hons (Theology and Religious Studies), natch.

Telegraph brands Christians as objectively anti-human

What the hell is Alex Singleton going on about? He has taken Christian Aid to task for using the slogan “We stand for humanity” on the grounds that it doesn’t “fit with the brand name.”

Now, it happens that I’m an atheist-pantheist-rationalist-secularist-humanist-whateverthemoodtakesmeist (I think that just about sums it up), but the last – the last – thing I would ever criticise a Christian group for being is pro-human. Quite the opposite; anything that emphasises the strong humanist thread that can be found throughout the Gospel (as opposed to the bits which get Mel Gibson all excited and quivery over) should be applauded. Without meaning to be patronising, well done chaps, you actually get it (millions don’t). Stick with that brand of Christianity and you won’t hear a peep of criticism from me.

Back to the blog, some eejit has commented: “I think it’s fair to say they have somewhat lost the plot.” I think its fair to say that only someone who doesn’t actually know the plot of the Gospels would actually write that. Who needs Dawkins, Hitchens et al, when you have fellow Christians, eh?

A lesson for us all, I feel

With the Atheist Bus Campaign now at £38,000 and climbing, Peter Black asks:

Wouldn’t all this money committed on both sides of the argument have been better spent on actually helping people have a good Christmas, the homeless for example?

Allow me to quote Matthew 26:6-13 (lolcats version):

6 So Jebuz was outside in Bethany, inside the house of Simon the lepr,7 Woman popped up wif can of tuna, and poured oilz on his head, as he sitted at cheezburger.8 But when his bfz sees it, thays angry, saying, Y to waste?9 Dis oilz might have been sold for much, and give to other kittehz wif no cheezburgerz.

10 Jebuz thinkz n sez, Y U freekn? she knows I like oilz.11 Always kittehz wif no cheezburgers; but I go bai, k?12 Thatz Y she pour on the tuna oilz, 4 2 bury mee.13 I sez 2 U, wen teh bibul iz told, it wil say wut shes dun 4 me. Shez cool. U suck.

Wise words, wise words.

Rowan Williams on religious hatred: quite silly actually

Before Thursday’s brouhaha about sharia law erupted, I had already intended to read Rowan Williams’ earlier speech about religious hatred laws, following on from the praise that Chris Keating garlanded it with on Monday. I’m afraid I don’t share Chris’ enthusiasm.

Let’s get one thing straight from the outset. Academic background or not, Rowan Williams is a politician. He is the leader of a worldwide movement which is happy to roll its sleeves up and get involved in political matters on a daily basis. He is a member of the UK’s legislative assembly. So when he says something, it matters. And when he makes a speech about religious hatred laws, at the very least he must acknowledge the role in which he and his political party (in this case, the Bishops) personally played in getting those laws onto the statute books. In particular, it should be remembered that the neutered piece of legislation we have now is not the draconian measure that the Church of England actively campaigned for and which we would now have were it not for the ineptitude of Hilary Armstrong, the anti-Parliamentary instincts of Tony Blair and arguably the intervention of another Rowan. For Williams, two years later, to make a speech justifying an Act of Parliament he didn’t actually want in its final form is utterly shameless.

In terms of his speech on religious hatred (which is equally as long but in fairness not quite as oblique as his speech on sharia), it can essentially be summed up by two statements:

The grounds for legal restraint in respect of language and behaviour offensive to religious believers are pretty clear: the intention to limit or damage a believer’s freedom to be visible and audible in the public life of a society is plainly an invasion of what a liberal society ought to be guaranteeing; and the obvious corollary is that the creation of an offence of incitement to religious hatred is a way of avoiding the civil disorder that threatens when a group comes to feel that it has been unjustly excluded.

and

It can reasonably be argued that a powerful or dominant religious body has every chance of putting its own case, and that one might take with a pinch of salt any claim that it was being silenced by public criticism; but the sound of a prosperous and socially secure voice claiming unlimited freedom both to define and to condemn the beliefs of a minority grates on the ear. Context is all.

These two principles are designed to guarantee what Williams refers to, both here and in other speeches as ‘argumentative democracy’ – the idea of the public realm being a marketplace of ideas where people can freely argue without fear of being shot down, moderated by restraint.

Superficially this all sounds fine. The powerful must not be allowed to drown out the powerless. The problem is, it is so subjective and his definition of ‘power’ is at best undefined, at worst to be taken to refer merely to the power of the state. It certainly is when he offers his critique of the Enlightenment – there we are asked to put it in the context of a few brave intellectuals standing up against an over-powerful church which influenced every part of public life. No supra-powerful church these days (thanks to the Enlightenment), ergo no real need to continue the Enlightenment project. Their work is done, time to move on, is essentially Williams’ argument.

But the power of the state is just one tool. There is the power of big money, something which religion continues to use around the world, from Saudi Arabia through to the US Presidential elections through to the bankrolling of UK Academies. There is also the power of violence.

Williams does not reflect on this and without wishing to sound like a neo-con this is pretty unforgiveable in the post-9/11 world where the asymmetry of conflict is now well understood (at least outside of Lambeth Palace). You don’t need to be a super-power to change the world these days, just enough people who are willing to die for your cause.

In a global world, does anyone have a legitimate claim to be a Goliath-fighting David? The brilliant film In the Valley of Elah explores this theme in the context of the Iraq conflict, showing how that metaphor can be applied and reapplied in different contexts. It’s an evocative image, and one which our global culture is in love with (from The 300 and the Seven Samurai through to Dad’s Army), but I would suggest in a world where everyone is both David and Goliath it isn’t a particularly useful foundation for law.

Ultimately, any such narrative is intensely political. Eurosceptics like to emphasise about how they are plucky Brits standing up against the immensely powerful monolithic Brussels. Nationalists, be they English, Welsh, Scottish, Cornish or Russian, flatter themselves that They have Us under their yoke. And of course it has now become a Christian tradition, each December, for people of faith to claim their celebration of Christmas is under attack from sinister secular forces.

The latter point is particularly relevant because of course Charles Sentamu, who is fond of denouncing the evils of ‘aggressive secularism‘, is the Ying to Rowan Williams’ Yang. Sentamu’s allegations are explicitly intended to limit atheist’s freedom to be visible and audible in the public life – not only are his allegations about Winterval et al without foundation and highly inflammatory but he is lecturing people what they can or can’t have on their Christmas cards. Where does this fit in Williams’ picture of things? Ostensibly nowhere – the irreligious are not to have any of the rights he insists the religious should have. And if we are to believe the rest of his speech, the Church is no longer a powerful entity, at least compared to the aggressive secularist hegemony (which in reality has as much substance to it as the Elders of Zion). To not even begin to grapple with this issue, in a six thousand word essay, when his second-in-command is going around making such blood libels willy-nilly, is sinister indeed.

Williams mentions the Behtzi case, but laughably tries to have it every which way:

In the case of the bitter controversy in the Sikh community over the play Behzti in 2004, it was clear that many deeply intelligent members of the Sikh community in Britain were torn between the belief that the play would cement in the minds of audiences largely ignorant of the Sikh religion a distorting and negative set of images and the gloomy conviction that violent protest against the play would have exactly the same effect (c.f. Nash, pp. 34-6): very much a no-win situation. Once again, there is the disconnection between the firm claim of an artistic establishment that protest against oppressive systems is justifiable, even imperative (and Behzti had identified a real and too-often buried concern among Sikh women), and the counter-claim that this kind of representation of a religious culture in front of what was likely to be a fairly religiously illiterate audience would be experienced as a straightforward flexing of the muscles by a hostile, alien and resourceful power.

Or, to put it another way: Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti was making valid criticisms but the hoi polloi is too stupid and ignorant to fully appreciate her argument. Therefore, on balance, her play should not have been performed.

This gets to the heart of it. Far from approving of an ‘argumentative democracy’ Williams wants to insulate the public from any argument it may not be able to fully appreciate the nuances of. The Ivory Tower of academia can have these debates but the rest of us must have it doled out in strictly vetted, bite-sized chunks. Given the events of the past 48 hours, I do hope the irony isn’t lost on anyone here. Given the enormous backlash that Williams’ speech has caused, and given his call a week earlier for people to exercise restraint, could he not be accused himself of knowingly “damaging believers’ freedom to be visible and audible in the public life of a society” and thus be restrained in order to “avoid the civil disorder that threatens when a group comes to feel that it has been unjustly excluded”? Or should such restraints only apply to anyone who happens to disagree with him? In reseaching his article I am reminded that the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 would have made it an offence to stir up religious hatred if you were “reckless as to whether religious hatred would be stirred up” if Williams’ had had his way: in a parallel universe his counterpart is currently sitting in a police cell.

Ultimately, we can’t agree who is powerful or weak any more than we can agree what is a valid criticism or not. In a global, information rich society, ideas about the powerful versus the weak are losing resonance in any case. The self-assured righteousness which religion imbues in its adherents and all too often descends into violence must be regarded as a powerful thing in itself – it doesn’t need the power of the state it had in medieval times to still cause oppression.

Laurence Boyce: j’accuse (UPDATE)

I had intended to respond to Laurence Boyce’s handbagging in response to me calling him a bigot a while ago. Not wanting to get dragged into the comments thread (which appears to still be getting longer and longer…), I meant to post a riposte here last week but I got knocked out by the lurgy for a few days. Not sure how of interest it is to people now and I’ll try to keep it brief, but here goes…

First, it should be pointed out that when I originally called him a bigot, I was half-joking. Indeed, for me, I was being nice. The incident occurred, m’lud, at 11.15 on the evening of Monday 7 January 2008. The fact that I called him an “equal opportunities bigot” might possibly give the reader a clue about me having my tongue in my cheek at the time. The point I was originally making was simply that while Angus Huck didn’t like Islam, Laurence Boyce didn’t like any religion. It was as simple and as prosaic as that and I’m not convinced I particularly left myself open to interpretation. It is rather ironic, to say the least, to now find my target – an outspoken critic of fundamentalist religion – has interpreted me so literally. I certainly didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition!

But since I’m a repeat offender, I won’t try to wriggle out of it that easily. My objection was to Laurence stating that “Islam is a vile, pernicious, and utterly false ideology (just like every other religion).” If you find the word “bigot” a bit strong I will happily substitute it with “factually wrong and inflammatory” – it amounts to the same thing.

Why would I, as a fellow atheist, think such a thing? Because one of the things I least like about organised religion is that it tends to deal in absolutes, and this description is an absolute. However much Laurence might try to wriggle out of it, anyone who practices a “vile, pernicious and utterly false ideology” must themselves be vile, pernicious and utterly without merit; how would they be able to withstand the power that Laurence attributes to it? If religion is truly “vile, pernicious and utterly false ideology” then we surely have a moral imperative not merely to establish a secular state, not merely to try and stop people from being exposed to it and to “convert” people away from it, but to ban or at least severely restrict it. That’s broadly how I feel about Nazism. If Laurence truly believes his description, then surely he feels the same way about Sufism, Bahaism and the Society of Friends?

To assert something as being an “utterly false ideology” is also to imply that there is such a thing as a “true ideology” or at least an unfalse one. Again, isn’t this the sort of language we complain that practioners of religion adopt? Is it not also to suggest that a religion could hypothetically be founded on “truth” and therefore avoid the mistakes of all the others? Isn’t that pretty much what every single religious founder has set about doing since the dawn of time?

And where does this falsehood reside? There are obvious factual assertions made by various religions which science has shown quite comprehensively to be wrong, and there are those who cling onto these facts as if their whole faith is underpinned by them. But for others, this is less crucial. Indeed, both Lambeth Palace and the Vatican have, individuals aside, had very little problem adapting to the theory of evolution. The real challenge to religion was Galileo and Copernicus. Mainstream religion is rather adept at incorporating scientific theory into its world view. Fundamentalism (which I would broadly accept as being pernicious in character) is a modern phenomenon: Christian fundamentalism is a 20th century creed while Wahhabism only dates from the 18th. They have grown in popularity, and are growing, not because of something inherent in religion but because of something inherent in modernity (future shock?). Shouldn’t we be denouncing modernity?

And while we’re on the subject of modernity, can we really excise religion from all progress in science and philosophy? These spheres didn’t just evolve despite religion but frequently under the patronage of it. If religion were “utterly vile and pernicious” why did it so happily allow Greek philosophy and Islamic mathematics to flourish? The Renaissance was a complicated period in which religion showed its ugly side more than once, but it also inspired great art, engineering and architecture (hand in hand with capitalism of course, but that’s another story). You don’t have to be Tristram Hunt to acknowledge the important role that protestantism has played in the development of liberal democracy. Only the most crass analysis (step forward Mr Hitchens) can categorise all these leaps as somehow alien to religion rather than one of its many aspects.

Laurence also objected to my comment that “religions are ultimately what you make of them. Secular ideologies are too,” and my assertion that the fact that Marxism is what you make of it is “self evident”. Here I feel he has got completely the wrong end of the stick:

Let us get one thing straight: Marxism is not simply what you might choose to make of it. While the task of nailing down the principles of Marxism might not be entirely trivial, we can nevertheless be clear in the main about what Marxism does and does not entail. For instance, it is surely uncontroversial to assert that Marxism comprises a belief in the common ownership of property and the means of production (a terrible idea by the way). Now I suppose there is nothing to stop somebody from saying, “I’m a Marxist, though I don’t believe in the common ownership of property and the means of production.” But on the whole, I prefer the simpler, “I’m not a Marxist.” It’s brief and to the point, and has the compelling advantage of not stretching the meaning of words beyond the bounds of reason.

Note that I didn’t say “Marxism is what you want it to be” but “Marxism is what you make of it” – sorry to have to resort to semantics but there is a crucial difference as the former is how Laurence has chosen to interpret it while the latter is explicitly about action, not belief.

I wasn’t claiming that you can define Marxism however you want (although for what its worth I think Laurence defines it rather poorly here: Marxism is at its heart about class struggle and historical materialism more than anything else; Laurence’s definition leaves most Marxist academics out in the cold); I was arguing that what matters is what you do with it. It is possible to believe in common ownership of property and not feel compelled to take up revolutionary struggle in order to achieve it. Indeed, most Marxists don’t. Not every Marxist is a Stalin. Not every Marxist is even a Tony Benn. And not every Wahhabi Muslim is Osama Bin Laden. It seems remarkably obvious to write it but apparently it isn’t “self evident” so clearly I need to spell it out.

Why does this matter? Because if you’re a secularist and a liberal what matters fundamentally is what people do, not what they think. That isn’t to suggest that thoughts don’t lead to action or to endorse a mushy relativism where there nothing can be said to be wrong. I’d even agree that some ideas and creeds are very vile and pernicious indeed. But to claim, as Laurence does, that religion is somehow sui generis from liberal, enlightenment and secularist thought is to dismiss its origins, ignore history and flirt with notions about thought crime. Strip those noble ideals from their context and I would suggest you have something potentially very ugly indeed.

Ultimately, I think there is a better way than religion. The theos model really ceased to have any meaning once we realised Ptolmy was wrong. The fact there is good in religion (and there is plenty of good) doesn’t get away from the fact that it requires several logical backflips (the God of the gaps and its like) to fit in which what we have clearly established using the scientific method. While science can never disprove religion’s claims to be able to explain “why” we came to be, it superceded religion’s ability to explain “how” a long time ago.

That tension has lead to a culture clash with plenty choosing to deny modernity instead of accepting the moral superiority of honest intellectual inquiry. Those individuals are currently locked in an all-too mundane political battle across the world, from the US Presidential race, through to the Anglican Church and of course the Middle East. While I don’t expect him to man the barricades, I wish that people like Nick Clegg didn’t feel they had to apologise for their lack of belief, implicitly ceding the moral ground to organised religion which I do not believe it has any claim to.

But it is plain ignorant to label religion as a whole as evil. In doing so we perversely absolve the responsibility of those individuals who do evil in its name. And I am more comfortable with theists who do those logical backflips and manage to have a liberal world view than those atheists who seem to indulge in categorising the world into black and white in the very same way that they accuse religion of doing.

UPDATE: Laurence has chosen to elongate his already overlong and impossible to follow thread over on Lib Dem Voice.

There’s no way I can even attempt to offer a line by line rebuttal in the way he seems to have infinite time to do. There is something slightly bizarre in arguing with a “secularist” who lobs his own sacred texts by Dawkins and Harris at you rather than engaging in the debate itself.

He says “polls have show that around 36% of young British Muslims think apostasy should be punishable by death. As a matter of interest, how high would that figure have to go before ‘vile’ and ‘pernicious’ becomes about right?” This is of course to completely miss the point since if Islam were so vile and pernicious, 64% of Muslims wouldn’t be able to disregard this core belief. Of that 36% I have no doubt that most of them don’t really believe in apostacy beyond paying lip service to it. Certainly none of them seem to be in any hurry to start lobbing stones about. And of course what about all those Jews and Christians? If religion is so vile and pernicious, how come they don’t all support apostacy too? After all, it is as much a part of those religions as it is in Islam. How come you’re still alive Laurence? How come I am?

Laurence links to an article by Dawkins about religion being a Virus of the Mind. What’s most interesting about this theory of Dawkins is how unscientific it is. He’s on shaky ground to start with when he redefines religion not as analogous to a biological virus, which are increasingly being found to have all sorts of useful applications in medicine (d’oh!) but a computer virus. That is to say, it is like something that has been specifically designed, by a human, to parasitise on a computer system. He talks about computer viruses being unlike computer programs because they are “not useful” – but that depends if you’re the programmer or not; the only non-useful computer virus is one that do what it was intended to do. And of course, unlike either a biological virus or a computer virus, we can’t map the code of a “virus of the mind”.

It’s sad to see Dawkins do this because his idea about memetics really was quite innovative and forces us to think about the promulgation of ideas in a different way. He’s a victim of having his metaphors deliberately misunderstood in the past, the “selfish gene” for instance, so why he went out of his way to come up with such a sloppy metaphor here is anyone’s guess.

Back to Laurence, he makes the claim that “if a religious moderate espouses a belief that we perceive to be of disturbing consequence, we just keep quiet about it.” Er, really? When did I do that? Didn’t this debate start because I decided to criticise the Bishop of Rochester, a man whose views on Islam Laurence appears to find much common cause? I seem to spend much of this blog slagging off religious “moderates”.

He goes on to include a long quote from the Book of Harris, which contains this insightful gem: “There is no telling what our world would now be like had some great kingdom of Reason emerged at the time of the Crusades and pacified the credulous multitudes of Europe and the Middle East. We might have had modern democracy and the Internet by the year 1600.”

Deep stuff, eh? Anyone notice the word “might” there? Because, you know, we “might” also have invented the nuclear bomb and we “might” also have destroyed civilisation before the internet even got a chance. The problem is Harris, and by extension his loyal disciple Laurence, are playing a silly game here where ideas can be shorn of their historical context. How would this “kingdom” (sic – think about it) of Reason have come about? Spacemen arriving with tablets of stone? If you can’t answer that question then resorting to counterfactuals is just pathetic.

I mentioned Aquinas in the comments below so I’ll mention him here: without wishing to over-egg it, this man is both one of the most important figures in theology but also philosophy. No Aquinas, no classical revival, no age of enlightenment. No golden age of Reason, monarchy or not. Yet the man was also a religious fanatic.

Martin Luthor, too, who Laurence chooses to quote, was a fanatic. Yet this doesn’t undermine the importance of protestantism in the Glorious Revolution whatsoever. For all its faults, the idea underpinning protestantism was intensely democratic.

I could go on, but it’s far too late. The point is that the history of thought is inextricably bound up with the development of religion. It is an incredibly rich and evocative background that we forget at our peril. Reducing this all down to “reasonable” white hats and “religious” black hats isn’t just reductionism of the worst kind, it’s downright unscientific. When Dawkins calls religion a virus, or a drug, my response is to demand hard, testable evidence. Talk of “Reason” as if it could have emerged without the hot and bloody crucible of religion, politics and economics is meaningless, frankly laughable, and smacks of mysticism.

It is notable that Laurence has avoided answering my fundamental charge, that he deals in the language of absolutes which is one of the main things that is wrong with the religion he criticises. Perhaps Sam Harris hasn’t written a chapter on it?

Those keraazy creationist folk!

John Dixon links to a fantastic web page listing 100 quotes from fundamentalist Christians. I haven’t gone through them all, but my favourite has to be this one:

One of the most basic laws in the universe is the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This states that as time goes by, entropy in an environment will increase. Evolution argues differently against a law that is accepted EVERYWHERE BY EVERYONE. Evolution says that we started out simple, and over time became more complex. That just isn’t possible: UNLESS there is a giant outside source of energy supplying the Earth with huge amounts of energy. If there were such a source, scientists would certainly know about it.

(of course, Revolutionary Communists seem to misunderstand this as well).

On a similar note, here’s a video proving the fallibility of evolution using a simple jar of peanut butter:

Hat tip: Harry’s Place.

And finally, I thought I’d include my favourite Mick Huckabee quote. I’m sure you’ve already read it, but I haven’t commented on it yet so it goes here:

“Interestingly enough,” Huckabee allowed, “if there was ever an occasion for someone to have argued against the death penalty, I think Jesus could have done so on the cross and said, ‘This is an unjust punishment and I deserve clemency’.”

Which of course, if you think about it, is not merely “proof” that the death penalty has divine blessing but that the murder of otherwise blameless people is approved of as well.

All very easy targets. But such fun!

Martyrdom is over-rated

Terry Sanderson has an excellent article over on Comment is Free about the BA “Christian Martyr” case:

In order to be fair to everybody, BA used a union-approved ballot system to ensure that those who worked on Christmas Day were fairly and objectively chosen. If their name came up, they were at liberty to negotiate with their colleagues to change shifts and days on a like-for-like basis. But not Nadia. She insisted that, because she was a Christian, she must not be required to work on Christmas Day – or Sunday, come to that.

The tribunal commented:

“[Eweida’s] insistence on privilege for Christmas Day is perhaps the most striking example in the case of her insensitivity towards colleagues, her lack of empathy for those without religious focus in their lives, and her incomprehension of the conflicting demands which professional management seeks to address and resolve on a near-daily basis.”

Is truly liberal multiculturalism possible?

In my weakened state over having to do back to work on Monday I managed to get myself into a ridiculous argument about the Bishop of Rochester’s comments about Muslim “no-go areas” over at Lib Dem Voice. Apologies to all concerned who are already banging their heads in weariness of the debate. I just thought I’d make a few points in (slightly) less inflammatory terms.

I’ve lived and campaigned in a variety of multi-cultural parts of England for much of the past 15 years. Originally as a student (and penniless graduate) in Rusholme, Manchester; in Beeston, Leeds (just around the corner from home of the famous suicide bomber no less); in Leamington Spa (don’t laugh – it has a sizeable Sikh population in the old part of town where I lived) and now in Jewish North London. All those areas have their issues, but overall my conclusion is that we do multiculturalism quite well in this country.

Based on my ideal of a liberal society which upholds personal dignity and ultimately maximises not merely tolerance but mutual respect, I’m open to the argument that so-called silo-isation has gone too far and that the practice of having separate Muslim, Sikh or Jewish cultural centres, etc. ultimately does more harm than good. I do in fact accept the argument that language is an important factor for integration and generally support the drive for greater emphasis on teaching English while spending less on language translation services. I have little time for self-appointed martyrs like Shabina Begum who take a school dress code which is already sensitive to her faith and attempts to push the envelope several stages too far (if she was a white Christian she would simply have been dismissed as an emo brat who needs to get over herself). And I believe that as a society which places an emphasis on equal rights and individual liberties, while the state can’t expect individuals to like people with different values and beliefs it, it can insist upon tolerance and insist that people living in this country obey our laws.

The latter point is most significant. Many of the loudest critics of “multiculturalism” insist that immigrants and ethnic minorities conform to “our way of life” while insisting that we should never, ever write down those values we hold dear in any meaningful sense. It is for this reason that I am less cynical than some about Gordon Brown’s push for a British “statement of values” – it’s fraught with problems but might, just might, lead us down the road towards an entrenched Bill of Rights and codified constitution. The often lazy form of multiculturalism that has taken hold in the UK (particularly northern cities) is very much a product of our hollow so-called “flexible” constitution however much the ranting Little Englanders might like to think otherwise.

What annoys me the most about people like Angus Huck is that they take a perfectly reasonable position such as zero-tolerance of female genital mutilation, honour killings, and so on, and then leap to the conclusion that opposing such things must by necessity mean insisting that anyone living in this country must conform to a British way of life (whatever that is). How you can make the leap from objecting to the stoning of women to the banning of prayers being broadcast from the top of minarets is beyond me.

In the Sky News interview with Nick Clegg which has caused all the controversy, Clegg likens Muslim prayers to church bells. Both assault the senses; in what way is one benign while the other is menacing (and Angus, the argument that church bells have been rung for hundreds of years simply won’t do – we have neither the demographics nor the level of church attendance that we had hundreds of years ago, nor do we tolerate the religious intolerance of hundreds of years ago – at what point do you want society to have been ossified. It’s for Disney to come up with twee portrayals of the past, not policy makers)? Similarly, how can we single out Muslim men for being “aggressive and macho” and “intimidating” any more than we can any other group of young men? In any case, one person’s “intimidating” is another person’s “laughable posturing”.

We could be having the same debate about Jews in the 1930s, or Quakers 200 years before. These things go in cycles. If the price we pay for expecting Muslim immigrant communities to respect human rights and obey our laws is the odd mosque making a racket on a Friday morning, then it is a price well worth paying. I can’t understand how any liberal would draw the line any other way (although lets by all means listen to the debate).

Clegg’s words were exactly right here; Nazir-Ali’s claims were indeed “extraordinarily inflammatory”. The debate we’re having now only proves his point. They were all-but calculated to generate heat rather than light. If he had a specific area in mind, then why not name it? 70 years on from the Rothermere Press I think we are entitled to expose innuendo where we see it. The biggest throat laugh his article generated from me was when he tutted about Shariah-compliant finance being legislated for in the UK. Outrageous! The very idea that people might not want to practice usury – how very un-Christian! And surely just the thin end of the wedge towards legalised stonings for rape victims!

Sadly, Nazir-Ali seems to be essaying his colleague the Archbishop of York when it comes to making outlandish statements about other groups – remember the guff about “illiberal atheists and aggressive secularists” banning Christmas? This sort of lazy denunciation from the pulpit has become all too common from our so-called national church. Yet criticise them and you can usually rely on someone to attack you for not daring to criticise Muslims in the same way and of course of the old staple “political correctness gone mad”. Here’s a deal: I won’t call that trying to shut down debate if you don’t call my disagreement with you the same thing, mmm’kay?

I’m a political Christian!

I realise I offended some Christians last week with my pledge and many people felt that I “crossed the line”. I don’t accept that and would argue that my target in such things are people who wallow in the politics of identity (on which long time readers will appreciate I am an equal opportunities offender) not Christianity itself.

In light of the fact that Richard Dawkins has today outed himself as a “cultural Christian” allow me to go one step further: I’m a political Christian. Or more precisely, I’m a Jesusite.

Speaking personally, I find the historical figure of Jesus compelling. He was a true radical and deserves to be recognised as such. My reading of the Gospels is that his mission was primarily political, not religious (although since even Mark was written at least 30 years after his death, things got given a religious twist later), and his main target was hypocrisy. You won’t hear a peep of criticism from me for his turfing the money changers out of the temple, which is ironic given the fact that most Christians seem to have far more trouble with his opposition to usury than I have.

The narrative I see in the Gospels is of a man who strongly opposed the pharisaism and exhorted as an alternative a way of life based on values and core principles rather than rules. His was a liberation theology. The problem was that after his death, others including Paul – a pharisee – turned his message into the founding stone of a religious cult and in turn reinstated the rotes of laws that Jesus spent his life attacking.

This is of course a massive oversimplification and ultimately little more than speculation. But it is this tension between the liberators and the legislators that been the source behind much of the struggles within the Christian church and Western society in general. I happen to think that secularists ought to reclaim Jesus the politician as one of their own. Much of my contempt for Christianity is directed at those who see it as little more than bells, smells and conspicuous piety, and this contempt is shared by many believers.

Complaining about Christianity being taken out of Christmas is a case in point. It is ultimately a pagan ritual and Christmas was an attempt to subvert this (although to what extent Christianity subverted paganism and paganism subverted Christianity is a moot point). There is very little to be proud of here, and all the foot stamping demanding that we remember Christianity at this time of year is frankly insulting. If the Church and the religious are so keen for us to remember Christianity at this time of year how about spending it talking about its message and reaching out to people from where they are are rather than denouncing us as all politically correct secular extremists? That is how Jesus would have dealt with the situation and I suspect he would have resented what has fast become an annual finger wagging ritual being done in his name at this time of year.

At the heart of this Graeco-Roman death and genitalia obsessed sun god cult there is a powerful message which has resonated almost in spite of the vessel that has carried it for 2000 years. All too often I get the sense that so-called Christians would be happy if we forgot this fact so long as we kept up the nativity plays.