Friday, February 17, 2012

Militant secularism? Much of the world could do with it

Baroness Warsi is a Conservative peer, a Minister and co-Chairman (yes!) of the Conservative Party.  She is a failed Parliamentary candidate and undoubtedly was selected to be a peer because of David Cameron's desire to make the Conservative Party look more inclusive and diverse, even though voters didn't want her to represent them.  So, in the peculiarly British tradition of shouting loudly about democracy, but ignoring it when one wants to promote people to power based on who they are not whether they have a mandate, she is in the House of Lords, as a Minister without portfolio, because she is a female British born Muslim of Pakistani descent.  Without a doubt her religion helped her gain power.   However, that isn't the current issue (Labour, after all, promoted Peter Mandelson to be a senior Cabinet Minister after he had lost his parliamentary seat.  All of the parties happily use peers to grant jobs for cronies that the public don't give mandates to).

She has recently visited the Vatican representing the Government, which itself is remarkable.  However, the big controversy is that she gave a speech, published as an article by the Daily Telegraph, expressing concern about "a militant secularisation" of society.  By that, of course, she means assertive atheism.  This comes from a background of a number of events, the most recent being a court case that prohibits local authorities from starting their council meetings with a prayer.  Others include cases involving private companies setting rules around wearing religious icons etc.

So what did Baroness Warsi say?

She says "we stand side by side with the Pope in fighting for faith".  Really? Who is this "we"?  Is it the Government?  In which case, to hell with the lot of you (so to speak).  The Liberal Democrats should pull out of the coalition immediately and there ought to be a few Conservative MPs who didn't realise they were fighting for religion, not for their constituents.  Is this "we" the Conservative Party?  Who does she think she represents?

What she is calling for is at best inappropriate.  The state should not be "fighting for faith", it should be neutral.  Religious belief is like political and philosophical belief.  It is personal, people use it to inform their own behaviour and to provide some comfort and fulfillment emotionally, particularly when dealing with difficult issues of life around grief, relationships, tragedy and events outside their control.  

She claims that "to create a more just society, people need to feel stronger in their religious identities and more confident in their creeds. In practice this means individuals not diluting their faiths and nations not denying their religious heritages.   This begs so many questions, as to what she means by a "just society"?  What evidence is there that if people "feel stronger" in their religious identities that this will result in things being more just?  Every country where Islam has the state fighting for it, literally by assaulting, torturing and executing those who reject it, there is not "justice".  There are countless examples of Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Shintoists and others who "felt strong" in their religious identities and confident, who didn't "dilute their faith", but were fundamentalists, and happily spilt rivers of blood in the name of their religious faith.  

History is awash with people who took their religious identity and killed for it.  The UK itself has much recent blood spilt in this regard, with Northern Ireland crawling slowly out from the pernicious weight of Catholic/Protestant fundamentalism, "strong identities" that saw adults bullying children as they walk to school, if they weren't blowing people up or shooting them.   London of course has been a victim to Islamists murdering in the name of their religious identities.

Yet she goes on to say that Europe should be more confident and comfortable in its Christianity.  The reason being " the societies we live in, the cultures we have created, the values we hold and the things we fight for all stem from centuries of discussion, dissent and belief in Christianity."  That claim needs some closer scutiny.  She is quite right that Christianity, in its various sectarian versions, had has a profound influence on Europe.  Indeed, it is worth noting the various effects the three main strands have had on different parts of Europe.  Orthodox and Catholic Europe both demonstrate significantly less success, economically, than Protestant Europe.  Yet to pretend that the Enlightenment, a secular movement of reason, was not also a profound part of this, is to be wholly ignorant.  Before that, Christianity's influence had been predominantly authoritarian and had held back progress in science and technology, let alone justice for centuries.  Whilst Christians led the movement to emancipate slaves, there were many also who resisted granting women equal rights before the law and who embraced discrimination against Jews and others of different Christian denominations. 

It is difficult to argue that the significant leaps forward in confronting state sanctioned sexism, racism and criminal persecution of homosexuals were done, in many cases, with people of religion in strong opposition.  I don't doubt there is a significant strand of Christianity that actually does represent values that are universal and consistent with individual freedom, individual rights and property rights, and indeed ethical behaviour to others, but it has been extensively tarnished, blackened and corrupted by so much else that has been used to oppress millions.

It was the willingness to oppress people for religion that saw the Founding Fathers of the United States create a new land, independent, that was secular, founded by deists who did not want to bring the sectarianism of Europe into that land.  The Declaration of Independence was written by men of the Enlightenment, who whilst Christians, were not quoting the Bible, but were leaping forward humanity in a revolutionary manner by creating a state that existed to protect the rights and liberties of its citizens, not having them as subjects.

She claims the militant secularism is seen "in any number of things: when signs of religion cannot be displayed or worn in government buildings; when states won’t fund faith schools; and where religion is sidelined, marginalised and downgraded in the public sphere.".  I think if people want to wear religious symbols to work it should be up to their employers.  Signs of religion displayed in government buildings may exist for historical reasons, and nobody should get too worked up about that.  However, to purposely add them for "balance" is quite wrong. Similarly, if people want faith schools, let them fund them, but don't force people of other faiths or no faiths to fund schools, of any kind.  The problem would be resolved simply if parents got back their taxes that pay for schools so they could buy the education they want, rather than support schools that people may find objectionable.  

The wider claim that religion is "downgraded" in the public sphere is misleading.  It is entirely appropriate to have a secular state which is blind to religion.  However, if people want to embrace religion themselves using their own time, money and property, then they should feel free to do so. 

What she neglects is the fear Christians have in their private sphere in how the state appears to treat them relative to Muslims.  Many see Muslims happily preaching, as part of their religion, hatred of homosexuals, but when a Christian couple want to run a Bed & Breakfast and not allow homosexuals to share a room, they are pilloried even though it is their home.  Would an openly gay Muslim man be admitted to a British mosque?  Hardly and quite rightly that should be up to the mosque.   Christians should have the same rights to discriminate in their own properties as others.

Baroness Warsi says she is "astonished" that the "European Constitution" has no mention of Christianity.  I'm not.  It's entirely appropriate for an institution that encompasses 27 countries all with rather different heritages, and which one day is likely to embrace some that are not predominantly Christian at all.  However, it it questionable surely whether many of these "Christian" countries are so today.  France, the Czech Republic and Estonia all have significant atheist minorities.  How would Jews in Europe react to a "Christian" EU?  

However then she simply goes off the rails altogether putting up a strawman when there is an enormous elephant in the room that she ignores.  She says:

"one of the most worrying aspects about this militant secularisation is that at its core and in its instincts it is deeply intolerant. It demonstrates similar traits to totalitarian regimes – denying people the right to a religious identity because they were frightened of the concept of multiple identities."

"That’s why in the 20th century, one of the first acts of totalitarian regimes was the targeting of organised religion."

To claim, in effect, the likes of Richard Dawkins "displays similar traits to totalitarian regimes" is quite vile. Even more vile when she ought to know that the religion with the worst record for totalitarianism, is her own.  With the exceptions of Turkey, and the former Soviet and Yugoslav republics that are predominantly Muslim, every other Muslim dominant state in the world prohibits apostasy.   What can be more totalitarian than criminalising people leaving a religion that most were "born with"?  I reject any atheists who seek to close down places of worship or shut down peaceful religious expression.  However, I don't know of any who actually do seek this.  Who denies people a religious identity?  

In fact the law demands people "respect" religious identity, when it is no more deserving of respect that any other belief system whether it political, philosophical or scientific.  People in the UK are increasingly fearful of making jokes about Islam, or criticising it, because there are Muslims, and more than a few leftwing activists ready to throw "Islamophobia" labels at those who do so.  Yet the very same people will happily pillory Christians.  The fact that Baroness Warsi is a Muslim and can't identify this double standard is astonishing. 

Yet to make the claim that "one of the first acts of totalitarian regimes was the targeting of organised religion" ignores some truths.  Organised religion has been hand in hand with more than a few totalitarian regimes, albeit with some brave exceptions.  The Nazis were not without blessing from Catholic and Protestant clerics.  The Croatian Ustashe thugs had express endorsement from the Catholic Church, as the Serbian Chetniks did from the Serb Orthodox church.  Again, Baroness Warsi ignores the role Islam has had in being central to totalitarian regimes from Afghanistan to Iran, to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, to Syria and Sudan.  The Japanese militarist regime was hand in glove with Shintoism.  Yes, the communists suppressed religion, but beyond the USSR and Albania, religion was not the first target, but part of an orchestrated campaign to eliminate ANY private non-state sphere.   Her cheap shot that seems to equate secularists and atheists with Nazis and Communists is vile and uncalled for, and is one of the lazy arguments by some Christians against atheism.

For the mere claim of an absence of a belief in something does not imply embracing the belief in something else.  A lack of belief in ghosts does not mean a belief in vampires.

Yet she then claims that she doesn't want to reject secularism, but that religion "should have a seat at the table" and that the UK shouldn't be a theocracy.  Let's be grateful for that, but why should "religion" have this?  What religion?  Whose interpretation of it?  What does this mean? 

Why should faith, not reason and argument, drive public policy?  Why should something be a law becomes someone says that the deity he believes in says so? 
I am an atheist. I believe in secularism for all states.  I don't believe the power of government should be coloured by any religious beliefs nor should governments treat citizens on the basis of religion.  The fact that the UK is, in fact, a state with a state religion (with the head of state leading the state church) is almost irrelevant in terms of public policy and lawmaking, although not entirely. 

However, as an atheist I do see leftwing atheists pursue religion, by which I mean Christianity (they seem scared to pursue Islam so vehemently, with no need to guess why), with a vengeance that I think goes too far.  In a capitalist free society people should feel free to pursue their own lives according to whatever belief system they have, as long as they respect the rights of others to do the same and respect the individual sovereignty of adults over themselves, their personal relations and their property.   Whether or not those beliefs are based on the supernatural or whatever, is irrelevant.   This includes being able to discriminate against people you hire or trade with based on those beliefs.   

After all, despite the best efforts of the left to equate Islam with a race (and to be fair the fascist right using hatred of Islam to justify its own racism), religion is and should always be a personal choice.  

Baroness Warsi would be far better placed embracing the secularism that is at the heart of most European states, and telling the Muslim world that it should do the same.  The utter disgusting vileness of the "crime" of apostasy outranks anything experienced by people due to their religion in the UK.  It is telling that whilst politicians run round in circles expressing outrage for the totalitarian regime in Syria embarking on its latest killing spree (it's being doing it on and off for decades after all), none raise this issue with the legion of Muslim states running from the Maghreb to New Guinea.

If militant secularism took over the Muslim dominated world there would be an quantum leap forward in the rights and lives of millions of people, particularly women and girls in these profoundly patriarchal and sexist societies.  People would not longer be brutally imprisoned, tortured and executed for "insulting" a religion they don't believe in.  It would be far easier to confront the treatment of women as property, the genital mutilation of girls, the treatment of rape as a crime rarely prosecuted unless the father of the girl is a witness, the rampant domestic violence of these societies.   In addition, the senseless sectarian and racist bigotry that is seen most clearly in the mindless Shi'a/Sunni divide, but also in how some Muslims treat others who they think are beneath them (see how Dubai treats Pakistani labour for a clue on this).

So in conclusion, Baroness Warsi's only, small, valid point is the way that some in the West have been hectoring Christians going about their private lives.   However, secularism should not be fought, it should be embraced, and most particularly in the theocratic dictatorships she has seen fit to ignore.  Some of the very ones who take aid from her government (Pakistan) and who shelter those who are out to destroy our secularism and kill us, and impose their own theocratic patriarchal death cult.  The world would be a lot better off if more states were theocracies.

There is a gap in Western society in relation to ethics and morals, which is seen most profoundly in the feral underclass that feeds ungraciously off of the taxes taken to keep them fed, clothed and housed, who have been corrupted by the moral relativism and entitlement culture propagated by the left in the past fifty years.   Baroness Warsi would be better placed attacking that culture, one that the Conservatives have barely touched upon, that the Labour Party has successfully nurtured for decades.  Combined with the identity politics that rates ethnic minorities as inherently disadvantaged, and so lowers expectations of their performance and heightens expectations of state help, it has perpetuated for Labour an ongoing constituency of dependency that provides a ready made group of people forever reliant on government giving them money (and voting Labour to make sure of it).

However, that would rely on her actually having some real courage, and given she is a politician appointed by fiat, not by election, one wonders why she can't have it?

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