Archive for the ‘Religion and society’ Category

An arresting idea

Tuesday, April 13th, 2010

Is there any possibility of the Pope being prosecuted on his forthcoming trip to Britain?  It seems highly unlikely, but just the fact that people are even talking about it helps raise the profile of those who want to protest at Vatican crimes and misdemeanors.

This particular story started with an article by Richard Dawkins in the Washington Post of 28 March: Ratzinger is the perfect Pope.  In that article, Dawkins said:

This former head of the Inquisition should be arrested the moment he dares to set foot outside his tinpot fiefdom of the Vatican, and he should be tried in an appropriate civil – not ecclesiastical – court. That’s what should happen. Sadly, we all know our faith-befuddled governments will be too craven to do it.

On 11 April, the Sunday Times published a story with the silly headline, “Richard Dawkins: I will arrest Pope Benedict XVI.”  (the headline was subsequently altered after representations from Dawkins).  Dawkins had to issue a correction in a comment on the article when reposted to his own website:

Needless to say, I did NOT say “I will arrest Pope Benedict XVI” or anything so personally grandiloquent. You have to remember that The Sunday Times is a Murdoch newspaper, and that all newspapers follow the odd custom of entrusting headlines to a sub-editor, not the author of the article itself.

What I DID say to Marc Horne when he telephoned me out of the blue, and I repeat it here, is that I am whole-heartedly behind the initiative by Geoffrey Robertson and Mark Stephens to mount a legal challenge to the Pope’s proposed visit to Britain. Beyond that, I declined to comment to Marc Horme, other than to refer him to my ‘Ratzinger is the Perfect Pope’ article…

Here is what really happened. Christopher Hitchens first proposed the legal challenge idea to me on March 14th. I responded enthusiastically, and suggested the name of a high profile human rights lawyer whom I know. I had lost her address, however, and set about tracking her down. Meanwhile, Christopher made the brilliant suggestion of Geoffrey Robertson. He approached him, and Mr Robertson’s subsequent ‘Put the Pope in the Dock’ article in The Guardian shows him to be ideal:
The case is obviously in good hands, with him and Mark Stephens. I am especially intrigued by the proposed challenge to the legality of the Vatican as a sovereign state whose head can claim diplomatic immunity.

Even if the Pope doesn’t end up in the dock, and even if the Vatican doesn’t cancel the visit, I am optimistic that we shall raise public consciousness to the point where the British government will find it very awkward indeed to go ahead with the Pope’s visit, let alone pay for it.

Geoffrey Robertson’s article is here: Put the Pope in the dock (2 April).  Others who have written supportively (though from different angles) about the idea are George Monbiot (The pope on trial would show what equality before the law means, 12 April), and Libby Purves (Arrest the Pope? I rather think we should, 12 April).  Christopher Hitchens has written about the issues as well: The Great Catholic Cover-Up  (15 March),  The Pope Is Not Above the Law  (29 March), We Can’t Let the Pope Decide Who’s a Criminal (12 April).

Richard Dawkins returned to the theme in a piece for the Guardian/Comment is Free, published today: The pope should stand trial.  He starts out with the key point:

Sexual abuse of children is not unique to the Roman Catholic church, and Joseph Ratzinger is not one of those priests who raped altar boys while in a position of dominance and trust. But as so often it is the subsequent cover-ups, even more than the original crimes, that do most to discredit an institution, and here the pope is in real trouble.

A lot of people still seem to have trouble understanding what the problem is.  That puts it succinctly.

Posted by: Dan @ Incredulity Services

Raj Patel is not a messiah

Tuesday, April 13th, 2010

Raj Patel is the best-selling author of Stuffed and starved: markets, power and the hidden battle for the world food system (originally published in 2007), and The value of nothing: how to reshape market society and redefine democracy (2009).   Some people think he is some kind of messiah: he denies it.

In an article in the Guardian on Monday, Patel took the opportunity to write about his situation:

In part, I suspect the reason the story isn’t going away – the New York Times just ran a followup – is because it fits a narrative in which we’re steeped from birth. From the Bible to Knight Rider to The Matrix, the story’s the same: in crappy times, a single person will emerge to make all the difference and turn everything around. Although it makes for great viewing, it makes for a bad society. Ultimately, tales about messiahs are bedtime stories steeped in power. They’re debilitating soporifics, inducements to be passive as we wait for social change because, some day, our prince will come.

Why wait, though? If the world is to transform, faith in politicians offering hope and change is a recipe for disappointment. Ask almost anyone who voted for Obama. Change happens through millions of acts of rebellion and mutual aid, not through faith in one great leader. What’s depressing about this whole Maitreya thing is that it is a sign that we’ve given up on ourselves, that we need to depend on The One rather than finding the means to fix our own problems directly.

There’s a lot there with which Incredulity agrees.  But I want to be picky.  The idea that religious beliefs act to discourage activism is a familiar bit of rhetoric – I’ve used the “get up off your knees” line myself – but is it true?  There are plenty of religious people whose beliefs have inspired their progressive radicalism or reformism, and of course reactionary activism too. 

How many people abstain from political engagement because they think a messiah is on the way?  Probably not that many: the problem is the opposite one of conservative messiah-believers using their collective political muscle to get their own way.  If we think that because they spend a lot of time praying they therefore don’t have time for doing stuff, we run the risk of complacency.

I’ll end with a line or two from the end of Patel’s article, with which I can wholeheartedly agree:

This… is the world I’m keen to live in: one without princes but with billions of world teachers, in which we live under neither God nor Master. It’s a recipe for change that makes for poor storytelling but great politics.

Posted by: Dan @ Incredulity Services

Reading the ‘New Statesman’ God issue #1

Monday, April 12th, 2010
This week’s New Statesman (5-18 April)  is their annual “God” issue.

Here’s how they introduce the issue:

This magazine has been resolutely secular since its first issue in 1913. Yet our annual “God” issue often proves to be our most popular. Proof, perhaps, that as Harold Wilson recognised, social democracy in Britain always owed more to Methodism than it did to Marx.

Methodism – nonconformism generally – was an important element in the labour movement (and the Labour Party), that much is true.   But the NS is here setting up a false dichotomy: you could be religious but still influenced by Marx.   Furthermore, not all secularists were Marxists either.

The NS also seems to assume that the increase in sales for the “God” issue is down to lots of Methodist social democrats suddenly deciding to buy the magazine.  That is not a safe assumption.   Sales might be going to people who are not social democrats, but are religious.  Or indeed to atheists who are neither social democrats nor Methodists but who are interested in reading about religion.

Whether the nonconformist influence on the labour movement was in the interests of the movement is another matter entirely.

For us, secularism has always meant a secular state, not a secular society.  A belief in a state that does not act on the basis of religious considerations is perfectly compatible with a recognition that faith has an important role to play in the public sphere.

This is also a rather confused comment.   To the writer, “secular state” appears to mean church/state separation, or disestablishment.  And “secular society” appears to mean religious unimportance “in the public sphere” – whatever that is.   That sounds a bit like the secularisation thesis, which states that religion has become much less significant in people’s lives.

But that’s a sociological point, and you might advocate that religion become less significant, without believing that it actually has. Indeed, you might want religion to become less powerful, precisely because you think it is too powerful.

Therefore, an advocate of a secular society (if we take that to be a society where religion is not important, as opposed to a society where religion has disappeared – another useful distinction) might also recognise that religion plays an “important role”.  But that is something they would oppose, rather than welcome – as the NS seems to.

However, acknowledging that doesn’t mean we are indifferent to the depredations of organised religion – far from it, as is shown by John Cornwell’s report (see page 22) on the crisis engulfing the Roman Catholic Church.

The crisis in the Catholic Church is precisely an example of its “important role” in the public sphere.  No doubt that wasn’t what the NS had in mind, though.

Religious observance in Britain is, with a few exceptions, in steep decline, but interest in science, metaphysics and epistemology has perhaps never been stronger. David Lewis-Williams (see page 53) is right when he says that the human appetite for belief is hard-wired. We hope this issue goes some way to sating your hunger.

That happens not to be what David Lewis-Williams says, but if he had said it, it would be implausible.   All human beings require food,and feel hungry if they don’t get it.  But many human beings live perfectly well without religious belief, and do not miss it.   What might be “hard-wired” are certain ways of behaving or interpreting the world around us, that lead people to make cognitive mistakes which we call religion.  Particular religious beliefs are unlikely to be hard-wired, such as – for example – that priests should be unmarried.

Posted by: Dan @ Incredulity Services

“Is Christianity being marginalised?” asks the Observer

Sunday, April 11th, 2010

This week’s “panel question” in the Observer asks Mary Warnock, Donald MacLeod, and Anastasia de Waal whether Christianity is being marginalised.

The introductory context to the question is this:

Nurse Shirley Chaplin lost her legal battle for the right to wear crucifix at work

So if you thought the question was about secularisation, it’s clear what is really being asked is whether Christians (and/or Christianity itself) are being pushed to the margins of society.  We are obviously intended to take Chaplin’s Employment Tribunal defeat as an example of that happening.   As opposed to what it really was, which was simply the Tribunal upholding the importance of NHS health and safety rules against someone who wanted to be able to disregard those rules merely because her jewellery was associated with her Christian beliefs. 


Secularism and religious “influence”

Saturday, April 10th, 2010

Tony Bayfield, former chaplain to the Lord Mayor of London, writes in today’s Guardian/Comment is Free that,

I understand the necessity of separating state and religion. Both state power and religious power are huge and, in the same hands, far too much. Religious parties working for sectional interests are a disaster – for the state, and for religion.

So far so good.

But I simply don’t understand the notion that politics is one thing and religion is another and religion should have no influence or say in the political arena.

It’s surprising to hear that Tony doesn’t understand the notion, since it seems a fairly straightforward – if ambiguous – concept. Presumably he just means he doesn’t agree with it.