And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Matthew 6: 5-6)
When Lady Warsi came out with her denunciation of “militant secularism” allegedly “denying people the right to a religious identity” in Britain and Europe, my initial reaction was to treat it as self-evident bollocks from a self-evident dim-wit, unworthy of further comment.
I’ll leave aside for the moment the fact that Warsi’s comments were delivered during an official visit to the Vatican – an outfit responsible for the systematic cover-up of mass child-rape and torture by its own clergy, as well as the appeasement of Hitler and collaboration with Franco’s Spain, Tiso’s Slovakia and Pavelic’s Croatia. No, what struck me as self-evidently preposterous was that Wasi could claim that religion is being victimised at a time when, in Britain:
* Christianity (specifically the C of E) remains the state religion, with reserved seats in the legislature.
* “Religion or Belief” (but in practice, just religion) has legal protection in employment matters and religious organisations are exempted from other aspects of equality legislation.
* One third of state schools are run by religions (mainly, but not only the C of E), while religions are busy setting up ‘free schools’ where they will have something close to a free hand to promote their dogma within the curriculum.
* More and more ‘outsourced’ social service provision is being given to religious organisations, who are then free to proselytize to vulnerable clients.
* Religion is given a free plug (Thought for the Day) in the middle of the national broadcaster’s flagship news programme every weekday.
Hardly a picture of religion being “sidelined, marginalised and downgraded in the public sphere” (Warsi’s words), is it?
The other self-evidently (at least to me) preposterous aspect of Warsi’s ignorant and self-righteous bleating wes her use of words like “militant” and “intolerant.” Does she know what these words mean? Compare are contrast:
* The National Secular Society brings a court case against Bideford Council, to stop it holding prayers as part of its official business (councillors would, of course, remain free to pray before or after meetings if they so choose).
* At Queen Mary College last month a meeting had to be called off when a man came in, filmed the audience and threatened to “hunt down” anyone who he considered had insulted his religion.
Who, exactly are the “intolerant”, “militant” people at large in Britain today, Lady Warsi? Secularists, with their occasional legal actions, petitions and letters to the Guardian, or violent religious fanatics threatening people, picketing plays and demanding the banning of books? And that’s not to mention suicide-bombings.
As for the wider world, who is it terrorising Christians in Africa, the Middle East and Asia (where physical attacks have risen by over 300% between 2003 and 2010)? Secularists or religious people? Surely even Wasi knows (or can guess at) the answer to that.
Sadly, it seems that Warsi’s arguments have not been laughed out of court, at least not by the ‘intelligensia’ (the picture amongst the general public, and even most self-identifying ‘Christians’ seems to be more encouraging – further proof of the contention sometimes attributed to Orwell, that “There are some ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them”). A large part of the problem seems to be a confusion between secularism and atheism. Just as all cows are animals but not all animals are cows, so it goes with atheists and secularists. As Dave explains here, secularism is no more and no less than the seperation of church (or mosque or synagogue) and state - far and away the best arrangement for religious freedom. Julian Baggini makes the same point here, though in my opinion he is too willing to concede the maintenance of religious privilege in the public sphere.
It has certainly come to something when a leading liberal intellectual like Will Hutton (in today’s Observer) clearly doesn’t understand what secularism is (“Secularism unsupported by atheism is nonsensical,” quoth he) and has to be put right by Richard Dawkins, who has always been clear on the distiction between atheism and secularism, even while he is an outspoken advocate of both:
“Secularism unsupported by atheism is nonsensical.’ Really? You mean the US first amendment is nonsense? The Indian constitution? Their idealist founders enshrined secularism in those constitutions because they wanted all religions to be free: no religion should dominate; no religion should impose. Secularism is supremely liberal, the epitome of tolerance, and you, Will, should be the first to treasure it.
“Gandhi’s and ML King’s inner strength may well have come from religious conviction but they were passionate secularists because they believed religion was a private matter – inner, indeed – and an area in which, for everyone’s sake, it was important that the state remained neutral.”
Read the rest of this fascinating exchange here.
But my main mistake on Wasi was to assume that her Valentine’s Day message to fellow-bigot Benedict XVI was merely a frolic of her own. As Polly Toynbee (not someone I often quote with approval) has suggested, “For Cameron, Lady Warsi may be a useful canary: testing if American flag-and-faith culture wars might fly over here.”
Yes, the more you think about it the more it makes sense: Cameron’s too canny and sophisticated to be seen to advocate a turn to US-style religious bigotry and anti-science ignorance in British public life. But Warsi: she’s just the canary for the job.