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.


  1. I am fed up to the back teeth of people trying to ‘raise my consciousness’, for whatever cause. It is the height of arrogance to assume you are on a higher plane than someone else who has come to a different set of views than you or who does not prioritise your particular set of concerns.

  2. It is hard to respond to that comment with anything other than “tough.” We live in a free society, and people are free to raise issues in the public arena that matter to them. That’s life.

  3. James Graham :
    It is hard to respond to that comment with anything other than “tough.” We live in a free society, and people are free to raise issues in the public arena that matter to them. That’s life.

    Yours is an OK attitude until you then find they are using your tax money to do so, and often tax exemptions as well based on charitable status

  4. A quick aside. I don’t usually especially agree with Fraser, as he has a habit of turning into Basil Fawlty, but I don’t think the BHA are being completely ingenuous in their categories and claims here. Haven’t had time to dig in detail or blog it, but the concept of “humanist family” exists in their own setup.

    But – bearing in mind your dissertation and degree – I’m more interested in your take on the shifting meaning of “secularism” as a “political idealogy” vs “state of separation of church and state” (both are dictionary definitions), though and attempts to incorporate the meaning of the first into claims that it is the second – for example to capture the term “secular state” in the British debate for a full blown concept of laicisation. There are a lot of slightly underhand word-games out there imho, probably on both sides.

    Imho those who play the word games will end up shooting themselves in the foot, because they are engaged in marketing rather than argument.

    Perhaps “militant secularists” and “militant religionists” should both be renamed “militant marketing men”. I think that summarises how superficial both cases are.

    But there’s also a pretty fundamental debate about the nature of the Public Square on which debates will happen.

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