Monday, February 13, 2012

Comment on Comment: Council Prayers

As is the practice in a number of Councils, Bideford Town Council put a prayer at the start of the agenda for its Meetings. A Christian minister of some sort was invited along to lead the prayer, and the councillors were expected to go along with it. Until one refused.

The Guardian editorial tells the story of what happened next:

In court on Friday, Mr Justice Ouseley ruled that the saying of prayers during Bideford council meetings was unlawful. Though the judge was at pains to stress the narrowness of the legal point on which he ruled, the case was being widely watched. The communities secretary Eric Pickles was quick to condemn the judgment. Diametrically opposed responses from the National Secular Society, which supported Mr Bone's complaint, and the Christian Institute, which underwrote Bideford's costs, were nevertheless both agreed that something of more general importance was at stake.

Thank God Eric Pickles was on hand to give his well-informed opinion!

The judgement is here if you're interested. Actually, despite my lawyerly ways, I think the legal arguments are far less interesting than the arguments of principle. To recap, Christian prayers were a formal part of the meetings in which important public business is decided. Councillors uncomfortable with those prayers either had to stay silent and pretend to go along with them or leave the chamber. Honestly, I don't think you have to be a militant secularist to see what's wrong with this scenario.

Giles Fraser, a minister for whom I have a lot of respect, basically admits this in his Comment, "Banning council prayer sessions is just the start – what about parliament?" Giles suggests that it might not be such a bad thing if this was the start of a movement towards full disestablishment. We can but hope.

Of course, we couldn't have commentary on something involving the National Secular Society without someone bashing them, despite the fact that they're manifestly in the right on this one. "Why the Bideford ruling on council prayers is a setback for secularism" by Jonathan Chaplin admits that the prayers should probably go:

Dare we hope that, in the aftermath of the ruling, councils will quietly and sensibly opt to leave prayers off their official agendas and allow them to be held prior to council meetings on an entirely voluntary basis? That would seem an obvious instance of the "reasonable accommodation" called for in a religiously plural society, and there is no loss of religious freedom involved. It's hard to see how this would amount to any kind of defeat for authentic Christianity: aren't the sincere but unofficial prayers of genuine believers of greater worth than the official ones of the religiously indifferent or reluctant?

But at the same time he takes delight in crowing about the fact that the NSS didn't succeed in showing that the prayers amounted to discrimination:

NSS certainly takes home a point, but their lead arguments – that such prayers, lasting about three minutes and allowing an opt-out, are so imposing upon nonbelievers as to violate their human rights – didn't make it past the halfway line at this particular meeting. Mr Justice Ouseley concluded that the mere fact that non-religious councillors like Clive Bone might feel "uncomfortable" during council prayers did not constitute a discriminatory disadvantage serious enough to warrant the protective intervention of the state...

The ruling is not an "important victory" for secularism, as NSS's Keith Porteous Wood crowed, but actually a long overdue setback in their ongoing campaign to manipulate the legitimate principle of non-discrimination so as to bring religion to heel.

If I may, I'd like to make a few points here:

1. The NSS won. That means that councils across the country are likely to start looking again at their practices. That sounds like a pretty heavy victory to me.

2. Apparently being able to leave during the prayers prevents them from being sufficiently detrimental to amount to discrimination, even if leaving is quite naturally embarrassing. Does Jonathan support this principle? So if instead of prayers, atheists were invited to speak against religion at the start of council meetings, would he feel that the ability to leave the room stopped it being discriminatory? Pillock.

3. He also comes out with this gem:

When a senior judge acknowledges that mere temporary subjective discomfort in the presence of religious or other beliefs or practices we happen to dislike isn't enough to justify the blunt instrument of legal proscription, religious freedom is strengthened.

The religious freedom of the majority, yes. Which, of course, is the only important kind. Bear in mind that this is a public body performing a public function.

Ah well. Not all Christians can be expected to see the crumbling of their age-old special privileges as a good thing. Onward Christian Soldiers! And let the rest of us get on with our jobs.

Comment on Comment: Those Pesky New Atheists

Those who know me, know my position on religion: I'm not a fan. That said, I'd like to think that in my own special way I'm fair to religion, and I certainly don't appreciate any suggestion that I'm particularly ignorant of religion. It's an accusation so easily tossed at 'New Atheists', a term which translates roughly to 'non-academic (or insufficiently academic) atheists who aren't ashamed of being so'. It's also pretty ludicrous: Studies tend to show that self-described atheists know more about religion than self-described believers. It kind of comes with debunking it, I suppose. It is true that the famous 'New Atheists' tend to pay little attention to theology, but probably for that reason they tend to be much more in tune with what the average person in church believes than most theologians.

A bit of a digression, of course, but it leads up for the first link of the day, "Even atheists must recognise the importance of a sociological study of religion" by Philip Ball. Comment is Free seems to love bashing atheists, both new and old, and this is a perfect example:

The research reported last week showing that American Christians adjust their concept of Jesus to match their own sociopolitical persuasion will surprise nobody. Liberals regard Christ primarily as someone who promoted fellowship and caring, say psychologist Lee Ross of Stanford University in California and his colleagues, while conservatives see him as a firm moralist. In other words, he's like me, only more so.

Okay. Well, atheists have been saying that pretty much forever, so chalk that up to the atheists, right?

Yes, it's pointing out the blindingly obvious. Yet the work offers a timely reminder of how religious thinking operates that has so far been resolutely resisted by most noisy atheists.

Wait, what?

Yes, apparently atheists doggedly refuse to recognise a correlation between one's politics and one's religion beliefs. I'll admit, that's news to me. It sounds like the kind of thing atheists would be pretty comfortable with, actually. In fact, I'd imagine that religious people would be rather more upset than atheists.

Our author then goes on to explain why atheists resist this conclusion:

For one thing, regarding religion as a social phenomenon would force us to see it as something real, like governments or book groups, and not just a self-propagating delusion. It is so much safer and easier to ridicule a literal belief in miracles, virgin births and other supernatural agencies than to consider religion as (among other things) one of the ways that societies have long chosen to organise their structures of authority and status, for better or worse.

Again, what? What is this distinction between self-propagating delusion and social phenomenon? We don't have any trouble seeing belief in UFOs or horoscopes or homeopathy as both, so why not religion? Actually, I'm confused how you could have a self-propagating delusion which wasn't a social phenomenon!

All of this leads up to the following conclusion:

The Stanford research reinforces the fact that a single holy book can provide the basis both for a permissive, inquiring and pro-scientific outlook (think tea and biscuits with Richard Coles) or for apocalyptic, bigoted ignorance (think Tea Party with Sarah Palin). Might we then, as good scientists, suspect that the real ills of religion originate not in the book itself, but elsewhere?

Ah, a sneaky clever conclusion! Religion is not responsible for the evils done in its name!

Of course, by that logic it's also not responsible for good done in its name, making it utterly neutral in impact. I somehow doubt the author intended that conclusion. But more tellingly, his implications are simply wrong. Religion does, in fact, tend to push people to become more reactionary. Of course it's often co-opted by the cause du jour, but that's done so much more easily when that cause is a reactionary one. Witness the embarassment of St Paul's Cathedral when challenged to support the Occupy Movement; a few brave souls spoke out and the Cathedral was pretty much shamed into doing what you might have hoped would come naturally.

Of course there are examples of religion speaking truth to power, such as liberation theology (although remember which organisation pretty much crushed that movement). Jesus was a radical even if he was also a moralist. Organised religion, on the other hand, tends to manage only one of these.

I only highlight this article as an example of a ludicrous attack on New Atheists on CiF. Don't go thinking that's the worst, though! Just thank your lucky stars that Andrew Brown has been quiet for a while...

Comment on Comment: Introduction

I love Guardian's Comment is Free. I love the fact that it aspires to provide interesting and provocative commentary from a range of different viewpoints (including those anathema to the Guardian's political viewpoints). I love that when someone writes a column that is, actually, nonsense veiled by fancy words, the chances are that someone else will write a column to point it out. I love it.

What I loathe are the comments beneath the Comments.

Usually I have enough willpower to stop at the end of the article without scrolling down. That way madness lies. A seething mass of hatred and resentment. Peculiarly apolitical, loathing in equal measure capitalism and communism, feminism and religion. It seems to be the law of popular websites that intelligent feedback is drowned out in a sea of bile (see also BBC Have Your Say, where the comments are similar but much less literate). It is the law of the jungle down there, an that law is cynicism; anything less is treated with mocking disdain.

So rather than futilely post my thoughts on the topic du jour below the Comment, I thought I'd start putting them here. Comments on my comments on the Comments are, of course, welcome, but for the love of Pete, please don't seek to replicate the state of the comments on the Comments on Comment!