Tag Archives: secularism

Why we should take accusations of “militant secularism” seriously.

I’ve just been fuming listening to a ridiculous interview with John Gledhill, the Bishop of Lichfield and Alan Beith MP by Evan Davies on the Today programme. It wasn’t the interviewees who infuriated me, although Alan Beith’s argument that disestablishing the Church of England would lead to an aversion culture akin to “elf’n’safety” did come pretty close. What I found infuriating was the normally sensible Evan Davies’ repeated use of the phrase “militant secularism”.

I seem to remember being here before. Back in 2007, at the height of the rise of the so-called New Atheism as espoused by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, there was a similar counter push to present this new wave of assertiveness as sinister and extreme. I got particularly annoyed by a “balanced” (in the worst sense of the word) article by Stuart Jeffries in the Guardian which leant people claiming that “Atheists like the Richard Dawkins of this world are just as fundamentalist as the people setting off bombs on the tube” a wholly uncritical platform.

With the tube bombing now a more distant memory no-one has quite gone as far as Colin Slee, the now dead former Dean as Southwark, did in that article. Nonetheless, over the past week or so we have seen a whole slew of attacks, partially provoked by the National Secular Society’s court action against Bideford Town Council and the Richard Dawkins Foundation’s MORI poll suggesting that many people who define themselves as Christian don’t actually agree with basic Christian tenets (only 28% of people who self-defined as Christian said they believed in the teachings of Christianity).

It would be far too generous to credit Baroness Warsi with coining the term “militant secularism” – nonetheless, alongside “secular fundamentalism”, it was a term she used in her recent speech at the Vatican.

For someone as absurd as her (remember this is the woman who made a direct appeal to get BNP voters to support her when she was a Conservative Party candidate) to make such a statement is one thing; for the BBC to use it as if it is a legitimate term is something else entirely. Because the implication takes us right back to Colin Slee and his quite offensive notion of equating vocally expressing a desire to see Church and State kept separate with a desire to wound and murder.

Although I actually got on better with Dawkins’ The God Delusion than I was expecting, I don’t actually agree with him on a number of issues. I think he goes too far when he claims that raising a child as a Christian is a form of “child abuse” (I appreciate the point he is making about the important of allowing children to make their own minds up, and there are certainly disreputable practices worthy of condemnation, but you could the same thing about any parent passing on their beliefs to their impressionable offspring as child abuse – and yet it is an inevitable aspect of raising a child). I’m not a fan of the National Secular Society either, which tends to take things too far, and unlike Clive Bone I doubt I would have been sufficiently outraged by the idea of prayers happening at the start of town council meetings to take the matter to court. But none of these people can be described as extremist, militant or fundamentalist in any way which reflects the meaning of these words. At worst you could call them perhaps strident (although they are typically softly spoken), imposing or intolerant – and even then it is hard to see how they could be described as particularly more strident than, say a Giles Fraser, let alone a George Carey.

They are people with a point of view who express it. Not only are they not bombing tube carriages, but they rarely even employ the tactics of public demonstration – which would make them rather less strident than the majority of politicians (of all colours), trade unions or democracy campaigners (guilty).

In fact, the only palpable quality that these people have which warrants a term like “militant” is that their views provoke a fury in their opponents in such a way that in almost every other sphere we would consider extraordinary. It is akin to the heightened atmosphere that I lived through during the AV referendum campaign, except that it isn’t time limited in the way that was. That in itself is a subject worthy of further investigation, but in short, it suggests that opponents of secularists are playing the man not the ball. Nor is it limited to the religious. Plenty of non-religious people appear to be sufficiently provoked by Richard Dawkins’ voice alone to use similar terminology. Nonetheless, the implication of using such terminology for such unextreme views is, as it always has been, to keep the holders of those views in their place and to warn off others who might share them from expressing them. It is a framing device designed to chill debate.

That’s entirely fair enough in public square, so long as people don’t mind having their bluff called. But, like I say, it is another thing when a public service broadcaster decides to pitch in for one side. When they do so, they cross the line from referee to player. The meaning of words matter. The BBC ought to be more careful.

UPDATE:

Two things I should add to this post. On a happy note, Evan Davis responded to it on Twitter, saying:

On a more sour note, the Sunday Telegraph have today done a hatchet job on Richard Dawkins and attacked him for, um, being the great-great-great-great-great-grandson of slave owners. I suggest you ignore the article itself and just read Dawkins’ own account of the interview.

More on faith schools

Following my piece on Sunday, I’ve written another article on faith schools over on Comment is Free:

It is a shame that the supporters of faith schools lack the faith that their ethos could survive a few children of atheists running around the playground. Ultimately, society as a whole is the weaker for indulging their insecurity.

Why do faith school supporters want them to be so awful?

I have to admit to coming out of the Lib Dem debate on 5-19 education feeling somewhat perplexed. After a complicated series of four amendments wrangling over the same bunch of lines, what the party has come up with seemed to be little more than a state commissioned figleaf scheme. Let me explain.

The motion as originally worded (negotiated on the Federal Policy Committee by, among others, Evan Harris MP) allowed faith schools but banned selection on the basis of faith. The amendment which was passed replaced this with the following commitment:

Requiring all existing state-funded faith schools to come forward within five years with plans to demonstrate the inclusiveness of their intakes, with local authorities empowered to oversee and approve the delivery of these plans, and to withdraw state-funded status where inclusiveness cannot be demonstrated.

As I snarked on the way out of the auditorium, what this amounts to is faith schools being free to discriminate, but will have their funding withdrawn if they discriminate.

In fact, however, it’s actually worse. Never mind the abstract debate, for me the acid test is the couple I know whose humanist wedding I attended who currently attend their local church every Sunday (along with their Orthodox Jewish neighbours) in order to ensure that their children are let into the local primary school. What would this motion, as amended, do about this closely observed hypocrisy? Absolutely nothing. My friends could stop going to church, not be able to send their children to the local school, be able to demonstrate the school is non-inclusive and have the school’s funding scrapped (in so doing, harming the education of lots of other children). Or they can keep quiet, go to church and act as a figleaf for the school’s “inclusive” policy when the inspection comes. Stick your head above the parapet, and you might be able to claim revenge eventually. But it is in your child’s interest to keep your head down and be a part of the lie.

What is most crazy about all this is that many of the best faith schools out there don’t have exclusive selection policies; ending discrimination on the basis of faith only affects a hardcore. Yet speaker after speaker in the debate claimed that the motion unamended was an attempt to scrap faith schools by the backdoor. It was a grotesque libel perpetuated by, among others, Vince Cable and Tim Farron. What did they hope to achieve by making such ridiculous claims?

I strongly agree that schools need an ethos, and a religious one is better than none at all. A total ban on faith schools while broadening the range of organisations which can help run schools would mean that the National Secular Society and even Microsoft could sponsor a school while the Quakers could not. There are much worse organisations than religions that could end up running English schools under this policy.

But here’s the thing: I’m constantly hearing religious people out there banging on about the Golden Rule these days, that “heart” common to all religions which we are to believe makes them vital and moral things. Yet when you go along with all that, and merely ask for the ethic of reciprocity to extend to, well, everyone, all that nice, woolly tolerance suddenly vanishes. Suddenly asking them to not discriminate is an unacceptable position. Suddenly, far from the Golden Rule, the core of religion they want to preserve is the right to shut people out. And they dress this neat little package of discrimination up in talk about the need for “inclusiveness.”

It is no wonder that the supporters of the second amendment, which called for all faith schools to be phased out, are not prepared to take them at their word. The movers of this amendment repeatedly raised the issue of homophobia in schools and how difficult it is to grow up as a homosexual in a faith school, yet this issue wasn’t addressed. Rather than deal with this fearsomely important point, in an act of supreme irony the movers of the amendment were branded extemists.

As I’ve said before, I would rather ally with a liberal person of faith than an illiberal atheist. But liberals don’t condone intolerance. The message I got from the supporters of faith schools on Saturday was that intolerance is an integral part of religion without which faith schools would not be worthy of the name. Keep saying nutty things like that and I’ll join the barricades alongside Laurence Boyce.

Godless carols

On Sunday, the gf and I went to the Hammersmith Apollo to see the final performance of Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People. By coincidence, albeit perhaps not that much of a coincidence given that both being plugged into a lot of the same networks, we hear about a lot of things at around the same time, Will Howells sat almost exactly in front of us.

A good time was had by all. I’m not much of a comedy night person (I did have a phase of going to pub standup before I moved up to Leeds in 2000 but I never got back into the habit), but this was a good example of what I was missing. Add to that a combination of quality musical acts and science writers and it was a splendid evening. The impression given by Robin Ince was that he’d quite like to turn this into an annual event; I sincerely hope he does.

Stand out moments:

  • Robin Ince himself was one of the strongest comedians, but Stewart Lee, Chris Addison and Dara O’Briain more than kept their respective ends up.
  • The musical acts, if I’m brutally honest, were often a bit meh, but St Jarvis of Cocker was fabulous (he did Something’s Changed and I Believe In Father Christmas by Greg Lake – my bid for the Christmas 2009 Number One). And Tim Minchin‘s beat poem about having a drunken row with a New Ager in a dinner party was a sensational way to round off the evening.
  • Sadly, Jennifer Aniston wasn’t available to do the “science bit” but Simon Singh, Richard Dawkins and Ben Goldacre somehow managed to get by without her. Singh’s piece about the Big Bang Theory and Kate Melua was entertaining and Dawkins reminded us why, even if he does on occasion go off the anti-religion deep end, his writing has captured so many people’s imaginations over the years. But it was the passion and sheer moral force of Ben Goldacre which was the standout performance of the three, almost singlehandedly giving the occasion a sense of legitimacy by talking about the peddling of vitamins in South Africa. A normally witty writer, Goldacre didn’t make a single joke but his contribution was stronger for it.

Ricky Gervais, for whom a lot of people apparently turned up (the gf overheard a woman on the way out who was outraged that the event wasn’t merely Ricky Gervais and friends), was a problematic performer. The thing about Gervais is that he isn’t and never has been a standup comedian. He does this character, one not entirely dissimilar to the one in The Office and Extras (and, lamentably, Stardust). If you remember that, then his not particularly funny observations about getting a goat for an African family for Christmas makes a certain amount of sense, and his jokes about rape and paedophilia can, to an extent, be justified. More extreme things can be found in the League of Gentlemen, certainly, where it is clear that the actors are playing characters. The problem is, how many people still see Gervais as a character and how much does Gervais himself still see it as a character? Leaving aside whether you can ever justify rape gags, the simple fact is his skits on Sunday weren’t funny – or original – enough and too reliant on shock value to get a nervous laugh. This is a shame since he is capable of truly excellent standup such as his daddy longlegs skit.

As I said above, I really hope they do make it an annual event. But if they do, here is some advice:

1. If you’re going to use Powerpoint, remember the cheap seats. We weren’t in the cheap seats, merely the inner circle, but even we couldn’t see Simon Singh’s slides. It did occur to me that this may have been some kind of anti-God ploy – on the offchance the Heavenly Host does exist, let’s make watching it slightly annoying for them and see how they like it! hah! – but if it was it was a little counter-productive. It isn’t as bad as when I went to see Phantom of the Opera in the Manchester Opera House many moons ago when the shock entrance of the Phantom was somewhat marred by the fact that from our elevated angle, we cheapies could see him blithely walking on stage 30 seconds before, but that was Andrew Lloyd Webber – what did I expect?

2. If people are going to just recycle vaguely relevant old material for the occasion, tell them to not bother. There was an act that did a song about Peter Gabriel on the basis that he was sort of named after the angel, but I sort of stopped paying attention after about 30 seconds. The evening was long enough and didn’t need this sort of filler.

3. A bit less music, a bit more sciencey stuff. I liked the fact that it wasn’t just an evening of jokes about eeeeevil Christians but was a celebration of science. It could have done with a little more.

But these are minor quibbles at the end of the day. I had a great evening and look forward to what they cook up for next year.

Who says atheists don’t give money to charity?

I donated my tenner this morning, but I’ve been keeping an eye on the Atheist Bus’ Just Giving page all the same.

When I donated, the £5,500 target had already been met. At the time of writing, the target had hit £20,300 and counting.

My only concern is that with this coming in the run up to Christmas, it will almost certainly be used as a hook to pin the “atheists want to ban Christmas” annual story on the media donkey once again. Can I suggest that a small footnote is made at the bottom to the effect of “* And have a happy Christmas, too!”?

UPDATE: I’ve since been informed that the poster campaign is due to start in January, so that kills that idea.

Rowan Williams: still clinging onto exceptionalism

Blink and you might miss it, but someone at the BBC has finally spotted the real problem with Williams’ speech and his repeated clarifications:

He made that clear to the Synod, too: “…as the assumptions of our society become more secular…Christians and people of other faiths ought to be doing some reflecting together.”

That of course lays him open to a quite proper charge by non-believers, that he is seeking to advance the interests of religion however it is defined. But that is quite separate from the criticism assailing him from within Anglicanism.

The point which much of the media has ignored is that Williams has argued for a system of exceptionalism whereby we atheists (or, as he put it in his speech on Thursday, sterile positivists) must abide by the rule of law while anyone of faith can negotiate whatever opt-outs they wish. At the same time, of course, he insists that the Church should be established and retain its existing seats in the House of Lords. Gay marriage, and even same-sex registered partnerships, is apparently a threat that undermines the institution of marriage, yet we should at least be open-minded about the idea of Muslim polygamy. People of faith can say what they like about atheists, but atheists should be locked up for slagging off the religious. In short, he believes absolutely in equal rights with the modest proviso that the religious are more equal than the rest of us.

Sadly, I suspect that because of all the sound and thunder over sharia, we won’t have a wider debate about this most pernicious part of his thinking. Ho hum. The only rational response is to all go and join Charlotte Church’s Jedis.

UPDATE: Another point which I meant to include here but forgot was a reminder that for all Williams’ exhortation about the importance of human rights, it was the Church of England that demanded that they be exempted from such rights when the Human Rights Bill was being debated in 1998.

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.

Does Rowan Williams have any more idea of what he’s going on about than I do?

It isn’t every day that a single line blog post elicits quite so many responses – clearly Rowan Williams has touched on a raw nerve.

I’ve listened to his WATO interview and I’ve skimmed through his speech (pdf). I’m still struggling to get my head around what exactly he’s going on about.

On the one hand, much of what he’s saying seems to be what we have already. Civil law is a fairly flexible beast and contains within it the scope for individuals dealing with it however they might like. Where there are restrictions to that, there is certainly a scope for reviewing it. Personally I’m delighted that we have regulated for Islamic mortgages for example – extending choice is a fundamental good thing.

There is no particular conflict between religion and a secular society in this narrow context, but what applies to religions must also apply to the rest of us. You cannot simultaneously say what Williams appears to be saying here on the one hand while taking a moral position on what the UK law on marriage, civil partnership or adoption should be. So long as people of faith are not being required to get married to people of the same sex, it should be none of their business at all what anyone else gets up to. The claim that same sex partnerships “undermine the institution of marriage” should, under Williams’ argument here, be utterly irrelevant.

Sadly though it appears that he must have it both ways, appearing to not only argue for exceptionalism, but refuting the value of the enlightenment project itself. He seems only interested in religious people having this flexibility and appears to attack the notion that it should be a universal right on the grounds that that would be a “legal monopoly” – the right is reserved only to people with their own quasi-legal (religious) framework. Any attempt to talk about universalism in the context of a single rule of law for all is denounced as positivism.

Yet he seems to lack the courage of his own convictions, waffling on about apostacy to the point of absurdity and essentially accepting that you couldn’t have sharia apply here. He seems to want Muslims to have the flexibility to pick and choose between sharia and the country’s legal system; my reading of that is that they wouldn’t be bound by either.

What I find completely baffling is this strange switching between on the one hand rejecting out of hand of us having a set of universal legal principles on the basis that it can get in the way of what he regards as the “good” aspects of sharia while on the other hand wanting to avoid a situation where all the “bad” caricature of sharia – stoning, limb removal, denial of basic rights to women – can be wafted away. How can we judge what’s good or bad without a set of universal principles? The conflict, some would say straw man, he subsequently creates he then declares can only apparently be resolved through theology. Oh, how convenient!

For the most part though, I’m just confused, which you can probably tell. I think its going to take me quite some time before I’ve got my head properly around what he’s talking about at all.

As I’ve said before I think there is some capacity in a liberal, secular society for allowing individuals to resolve private issues between them using whatever process they feel appropriate. But that only reinforces the need for a set of fundamental rights that everyone is entitled to in order to prevent abuse. Putting all this emphasis on an essential withdrawal from the public sphere also renders the Church of England’s current constitutional position untenable: we cannot have Bishops sitting in our legislature setting our laws while simultaneously demanding their right to pick and choose them whenever it suits.

UPDATE: I can’t really improve on Andrew Brown:

Dr Williams, characteristically, is interested in the arguments over what sharia law actually says. The rest of the country is more interested in whether and how it might be enforced. Only if Islamic law can be reduced to a game played between consenting adults can it be acceptably enforced in this country; and that’s not, I think, how it is understood by its practitioners.

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?