Tag Archives: religion

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.

One pig flu over the cuckoo’s nest

We are officially now in the grip of a new panic. Quite how justified all this screaming and shouting about swine influenza is remains to be seen, but there is certainly a lot of secondary nonsense starting to form.

My favourite thus far is the Israel government’s insistence that it should be renamed “Mexican flu” on the basis that pigs are not kosher. Are we to infer from that that eating Mexicans is Okay?

I’ve written about this strange mutation of Jewish (and Islamic) dietary law into a perverted list of “animals which must not be mentioned” before. A couple of years ago there was the bizarre attempt to replace the Three Little Pigs with dogs in a school play (the council apparently “stepped in” and insisted the heroes were porcine). My favourite remains the finger wagging Labour got in 2005 for portraying Michael Howard and Oliver Letwin as “flying pigs” by, erm, the Ham and High (the local paper for a sizeable proportion of North London jews). None of this seems to have anything to do with religion and everything to do with people (either religious people themselves or silly people claiming to speak on their behalf) going out of their way to find offence in nothing. And it seems to be getting worse. I am quite certain that if Leon the Pig Farmer were made today, a combination of the media and a small bunch of hopping idiots would have lead to it being branded as anti-semitic. The idea that religious people have an inalienable right to not be offended is still only believed by a minority of people, but that minority seems to be growing, getting louder and become increasingly irrational.

There is absolutely no connection between pigs and Judaism (they aren’t actually mentioned in the Torah) except in the mind of someone who can’t get over the fact that the latter don’t eat the former despite the deliciousness that is bacon. It is no more offensive to Jews to talk about pigs as it would be to talk about rabbits or elephants (or indeed pretty much any animal which Jews can’t eat – i.e. most of them). Yet strangely, people like Yakov Litzman seem to now be making the connection themselves. Ultimately, the only thing that all this hypersensitivity seems to achieve is to give true anti-semites another stick to beat Jews with.

Go back a hundred years ago, and the images of choice for anti-semites were spiders and octopi. We were meant to associate Jews with alien, many tentacled creatures spinning webs of deceit. Portraying them as cute, wuddly piggy-wiggies – at least as far as I am aware – simply didn’t come into it. Yet start shouting foul every time a pig appears in popular culture, and you can bet the BNP et al will leap at every opportunity to goad.

Why on Earth would you want to arm your true enemies like that? And why on Earth would you want to muddy the water between your true enemies and your friends in this way? It is a perverse form of madness.

Addendum: I have to admit to being entertained by this related web page which I came across (I was going to make a gag about man flu, but the Mexican joke was better), for two reasons. Firstly, it seems unaware of the commandment against murder, which one would have thought prohibits most opportunities for cannibalism straight away. Secondly, Leviticus does in fact prohibit man from eating any animal from eating any animal which doesn’t have cloven hooves or chew cud but pointing that out would mean admitting that humans are animals and that most Christians ignore the Bible when it comes to dietary laws in the first place. And I love the conclusion that cannibalism is okay so long as there’s nothing else on the menu. Who writes these things?

Addendum 2: I’m a little uncomfortable, by the way, at this talk of equating references to usury with disguised anti-semitism. Usury has a lot to answer for – and is explicitly prohibited by the Torah. The only reason we historically find jews specialising in banking is that is one of the few professions Europeans allowed them to perform back in the day when the church actually enforced those particular laws. I don’t doubt that the BNP do use it in a coded way, but I hope that won’t be used as an excuse to stifle debate about economic reform.

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.