Tuesday, January 11, 2005
Is nothing sacred?
For a variety of reasons, we live in an age of political rectitude. Prevailing inhibitions mean we take our liberties for granted and rarely stand up for what we believe in. It's not so much that people have forgotten how to stand up and be counted, rather that it's nowadays considered eccentric and uncool, and risks offending someone with a contrary opinion.
Yesterday, I decided to buck the trend and join the National Secular Society. I did so because there is a fundamental principle at stake and because I see my interests threatened.
Though a lifelong atheist, I had seen no point in belonging to any organisation until now. Atheism is not a philosophy - I am an atheist only by virtue of other people's belief. I saw no point in declaring myself as, say, a 'humanist' because of my non-belief, any more than I saw a need to join a society for people who don't play croquet.
But the past two months of religious bullying have proved a sobering corrective. In December, there was the violent Sikh theatre protest in Birmingham, which led to a play being taken off. This month, there has been a Christian protest against the BBC's screening of the musical Jerry Springer - The Opera, which is now turning particularly nasty.
The final straw for me, however, was to learn that the Vatican is running a discreet diplomatic campaign to have 'Christianophobia' (whatever that is) recognised by the United Nations as an evil equivalent to anti-semitism. Not only is this a perversion of human rights and anti-racism, it is also part and parcel of the efforts by several religious groups to place themselves off-limits for the purposes of criticism.
At stake is the fundamental principle of pluralism. This principle means that each of us should be free to hold and practice our beliefs (or non-belief), and should be free from discrimination and persecution. However, there's a catch. One cannot simply demand these rights for oneself but must respect the right of others to hold contrary views. The outcome is often messy and frequently entails being confronted with views one finds distasteful. But that is the price of living in a democracy. The alternative is theocracy, to live under the tyranny of one religious or political sect, where all dissent is oppressed. There are enough appalling lessons from history to know this.
For this reason, the state must be secular. Michael Meadowcroft, writing in the Yorkshire Post (1 October 2004), argued that theocracy...
"... challenges the whole basis of democracy. Consent is essential to the survival of democracy and can only be sustained within a society based on rational debate and with democratic decisions based on objective arguments. These debates and decisions are, or should be, influenced by broad political philosophy, but this itself is open to challenge. Arguing that a policy is God's will does not allow much room for a second opinion.Mary Kenny, writing in yesterday's Guardian, fails to grasp this point. She believes that Christians are justified in copying the tactics of Islamic and Sikh thugs as a means of enforcing their beliefs on others, and effectively asks us, "Is nothing sacred?"
"The flaw in the fundamentalist case is actually very straightforward: religious faith is, by its nature, subjective and is beyond objective analysis. Only the individual can have faith. The inanimate state cannot 'believe'. No state can be religious, in the full sense of the word... What is more, it runs counter to any concept of religion to suggest that it can be possible in practice to enforce, by law, standards on non-believers that can only be followed by individual believers."
In a secular state, the answer must be that nothing is. To declare one's views 'sacred' is a personal choice, not a statement of objective reality. There can be no such thing as a right not to be offended. If there were, anyone could enforce censorship simply by declaring that their feelings have been hurt.
In today's Guardian and on Ekklesia (a voice for more tolerant Christians), we learn of the vile agenda of Christian Voice, the group at the heart of the protests against the BBC. Yesterday, Christian Voice announced it would bring a private blasphemy prosecution against the BBC. Bring it on, I say.
Libby Purves in today's Times confronts Christian Voice with the words of the Sermon on the Mount, then asks,
"Is that quite clear? Is it clear, I wonder, to the director of the campaign group Christian Voice, Stephen Green, who... announced in Pharasaical glee that he made no apology for giving out the home addresses of BBC executives, and endorsed protests outside their homes? Is it clear to the creep who said 'Christians should carefully consider what the Sikhs achieved with a few well-aimed stones' ?"She adds, in case anyone was in any doubt,
"... the vital issue is preventing art and debate - however shocking - from capitulating to bigoted protest."Bigoted protest presents a real threat to our liberty. That's why Liberals need to stand up and be counted. Gary Younge, in an excellent call to arms (Bring back the lash) in yesterday's Guardian, noted that the liberal left has forgotten what it stands for. He warns,
"... with each failure to promote its principles and values, the liberal left ends up on the defensive, ceding the ideological foundations it needs to build any substantial comeback. As a result the national conversation ends up taking place almost entirely on the right's terms."Still think it's not worth the bother? Remember Edmund Burke's words, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."
Well somebody is doing something. Read this statement issued yesterday:
"A kind of Christian Taliban, modelled on the Religious Right in America, is forming in this country, and they are attempting to dictate what can and cannot be said about religion. For all our sakes, that must not be allowed to happen. It has never been more important for religion to be held up to close scrutiny and critical examination. It must also, like every other ideology, be open to satire and mockery.Who said this? It should have been Charles Kennedy, the leader of the one mainstream British political party with the word 'Liberal' in its title. In fact it was Terry Sanderson, Vice President of the National Secular Society.
"A culture war is developing in Britain, and it is time for liberals and others who value free expression to speak out more forcibly. If they don't, the freedoms that we cherish will be rapidly eroded."
I am ashamed to discover that, according to the Liberal Democrats' official website, no party spokesperson has yet made any statement on this issue at all.
Why the silence, Charlie?
The point is that this is an issue of fundamental importance to any Liberal. Not only should the Liberal Democrats be speaking out, they should be taking the lead and carving out a distinct reputation.