Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg joins those trying to silence secularists

With only 50 days until a UK General Election I’m running out of parties to vote for. On solely economic concerns I’d likely vote centre-right Tory, but Cameron’s government has been giving full rein to evangelical Christians such as Local-Government Minister Eric Pickles, who seem to regard the non-religious as second-class citizens whose feelings don’t matter.

The Conservatives’ whole pitch is aimed at UKIP-voting Christians with no sign that they want the vote of the non-religious. They rejected humanist marriages, which would cost them nothing, just because they see it as a minority concern. Behaving to type, they are pushing through a bill enabling Christians to impose prayers on Local Council meetings, even though 55% of the public don’t want such prayers, with only 26% in favour.

Labour are little better of course. They could readily sink the council-prayer bill if they wanted to. And in 13 years of office up until 2010 they did much to promote and entrench “faith” schools. With Opus-Dei-member Ruth Kelly as Education Secretary, they renewed the legislation that compels school children to worship the Christian god, while their flagship legislation, the 2010 Equality Act, contained a specific exemption allowing state-funded schools to continue to discriminate over religion.

I did have higher hopes of the Liberal Democrats, who now oppose compulsory prayer in schools. And of course their leader, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, is an atheist himself. But when he was pushing for reform of the House of Lords, Clegg wanted to retain automatic places for unelected Church of England Bishops, and he personally benefits from the “faith” school system for his own kids, and there has not been a peep out of the Lib Dems over the council-prayer bill.

All three parties seem to be calculating that they would lose Christian votes if they adopt secular policies, whereas they think secularly-minded people won’t care enough to let it affect their vote. It is unclear, though, whether their calculation is correct, given that a recent poll for The Times revealed that being an atheist tends to improve a politician’s standing with voters whereas overt Christianity has little effect.

Nick Clegg radio interview

Now, sadly, Nick Clegg has joined the ranks of those telling secularists to shut up. Sometimes I find it hard to believe I am actually writing this in a 21st-Century Britain where fully half the nation is non-religious. We have laws requiring school-kids to worship the Christian god, we have automatic places in the legislature for unelected bishops, and we have state schools legally allowed to turn away pupils because they don’t go to church on a Sunday; and yet anyone who advocates for a more secular society is told they’re being “militant” and that they should shut up — and they’re even told this by many non-believers!

Clegg’s remarks came in an interview with Premier Christian Radio, where he said:

“I’ve never had that much time for what I call vociferous secularism. I’m always a bit sceptical of anyone who acts with raging certainty about anything. I suppose in that sense I’m liberal to my fingertips. I’m constantly questioning.”

So anyone who advocates secularism is not a liberal and is not questioning? Presumably they are illiberal and unthinking dogmatists? And what’s that about “raging certainty”? Does advocating a policy imply “raging certainty”? The Liberal Democrats will put forward many policies in their election manifesto, presumably after much internal discussion. Would they all have “raging certainty” about every one of them?

It is bizarre to suggest that, unless you have “raging certainty” about the non-existence of gods, you should keep silent if you think it divisive to start Council meetings with Christian prayers. The counter, that anyone advocating for secularism must be an illiberal dogmatist operating with raging certainty, is equally bizarre.

That is not an idea applied to campaigners for any other cause, yet it is routinely trotted out against atheist and secularists. It is, quite simply, a way of dismissing their concerns and telling them to be silent. Atheists are quite used to it. The feeling that religion should be privileged and protected from the critical scrutiny that all other ideas get is still strong.

Thus reasonable and fair atheist voices get labelled “strident”, “militant” and “dogmatic”. Those arguing that the UK government should treat non-religious citizens as fully equal to religious citizens are called “aggressive secularists” and get compared with “violent extremists”.

My personal response is that I’m withholding my vote from any politician or party that talks like this, even if I broadly agree with them on other matters, and even if this does leave me with no-one to vote for in the coming election.

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Are a quarter of British Muslims really extremists?

I hope not to write again about Islam for a while, having already written three pieces since the Charlie Hebdo killings. I aim that this will be the last for a while.

But, suppose that, in a poll of British UKIP voters, a quarter had shown support for violence to achieve their ends. You can bet that the BBC would broadcast that statistic with the highest condemnation, painting the whole UKIP party as extremist.

Well, in the BBC’s poll published today, out of 1000 British Muslims who were asked, two hundred and forty four disagreed with the statement that “acts of violence against those who publish images of the Prophet Mohammed can never be justified”. Scaled to the British population that is 800,000 Islamic believers who think that violence against those who merely draw cartoons can indeed be justified.

How did the BBC present this finding? Its headline was “Most British Muslims ‘oppose Muhammad cartoons reprisals’.”. Is the idea that most Muslims are not violent now sufficiently remarkable that it becomes the headline? Are we so used to the idea that Muslims are violent that saying that they are not so is now news? Or is this spin, aimed at avoiding emphasis on the fact that a whole quarter of the British Muslims are sufficiently extreme that they do indeed accept violence against what is mere speech?

Note the BBC’s word “reprisals”, which didn’t feature in the actual wording of the poll. “Reprisal” means the “act of returning an attack”, and its use implies that violence is somehow an equivalent retaliation to drawing a cartoon. Continue reading

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The Chapel Hill shooting, Craig Hicks’s anti-theism, and The Guardian’s biases

In the heightened tension of multiple shootings related to religion and free-speech there is sometimes a tendency to claim that vocal atheists can be just as “extreme” as the Islamists. In Craig Hicks, murderer of three innocent people who were Muslims, perhaps there is the proof?

The Guardian certainly thinks so. In an editorial published yesterday, The Guardian says that the Chapel Hill shooting was an “act of terrorism” and that Hicks’s target was “freedom itself”, in this case the freedom to be a Muslim.

We should and do unreservedly condemn the murders of Deah Barakat, of Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and of Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, the youngest only 19. If the act was in any way related to the atheistic views of Craig Hicks then we unreservedly condemn it. If the motive was unrelated to religion we again condemn it.

The Guardian thinks it knows Craig Hicks’s motives, but does it? Hicks has been described as “an angry, confrontational man who constantly harangued residents about where they parked their car and the noise level at the condominium complex where they lived”. Hicks was also an advocate of the right to carry guns, which on occasion he brandished to neighbours.

The families of those murdered regard this as a hate crime, directed at the victims because they were Muslim. They may be right. Hicks’s wife, though, has denied that the motive was religious. Mental health issues have been suggested. Many people are gunned down in gun-toting America each year. The fact that the victims were religious is not sufficient for concluding that the motive was religious. Continue reading

Posted in Human Rights, Religion, Secularism | Tagged , , , , , | 12 Comments

Mainstream Islam is not moderate

As I write this thousands of Muslims are marching through London to “Defend the Honour of the Holy Prophet” and denounce the “insulting depictions of our Holy Prophet” by Charlie Hebdo.

They have every right to do so, of course. They have every right to voice their views, even though they would deny that right to others, if they could. It is also entirely within their rights to regard this issue as a more urgent reason for taking to the streets than, for example, the activities of ISIS. Does burning people to death, beheading children, and selling girls as sex slaves — when done in the name of Islam by the Islamic State — not demean the honour of the Prophet of Islam?

The media are quick to label ISIS and their fellow Jihadi Islamists as extremists, which they certainly are. But the implication is that mainstream Islam is moderate. Let’s consider some basic principles of any “moderate” worldview in the West nowadays. Continue reading

Posted in Human Rights, Religion, Secularism | Tagged , , , , , | 17 Comments

Dear Muslims, about Muhammed cartoons

Islam star and crescentI am the sort of person who would draw a Mohammed cartoon, if I could draw, which I can’t, and if I was good at satirical cartoons, which I’m not. Yes, we do understand that you find cartoons depicting Muhammed offensive. We understand that you value the reputation of Muhammed more than that of your own family, and that Western cartoons about your prophet are, to you, utterly disrespectful and blasphemous. We are not drawing cartoons just for the sake of being insulting, nor because we hate you. We draw cartoons because we regard doing so as important for a free society.

Over human history many ideologies have been totalitarian. The Christian religion used to burn people at the stake for heresy. The Soviet Communists sent people to the Gulag for any dissent from communist ideology. The Nazis murdered millions to further their fascist ideology.

All totalitarian regimes control what people can say, and in particular they repress any questioning of themselves and their control of society. The right to question authority is among the most fundamental rights in a free society. Even the right to vote is predicated on the right to discuss and argue about the merits and demerits of the government. Where people cannot question their rulers, society is not free. And that means, overwhelmingly, that economic prosperity is lower, technological advance is hampered, cultural flourishing is restricted, and quality of life is lower. Across the world these things correlate with political freedom and thus with freedom of speech.

The Islamic world, sadly, is different. Political freedom is not accepted. Rather, the greatest good is held to be unquestioning acceptance of Islam. Where Islam dominates, Islam is totalitarian, controlling what people can do and say. Continue reading

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Je Suis Charlie: the moral duty to draw Mohammed

Je_suis_CharlieLike many people over the last few days I’ve been pondering whether free speech really should extend to insulting people’s deeply held beliefs. Would it be possible to achieve all the benefits of free speech while stopping short of being offensive? If it were, self-censorship might be the moral choice.

Free speech is not an end in itself, we value it because we use it to examine and criticize influential ideas. There are many good ideas: democracy and human rights, for example, and plenty of bad ones, such as fascism and totalitarian communism. We can only sort the good from the bad if we can debate their merits and we can only overthrow the bad if we can advocate against it. That’s why all totalitarian regimes control and repress speech. Satirical cartoons are a time-honoured and effective means of challenging ideas and prompting people to think.

The Islamic ban on drawing Mohammed is a theological taboo. The whole idea is to place Mohammed, and thus Islam, above human criticism. Drawing Mohammed is seen as disrespectful because it involves the drawer thinking for themselves about Mohammed and possibly coming to un-Islamic conclusions. Islam, which means “submission”, is a matter of accepting the Koran and Mohammed’s words and example as perfect and unquestionable. Continue reading

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Secularism in the UK, a year-end round-up

sec_signAmericans are used to politicians openly mixing their faith with their politics, but British politicians usually “don’t do God”, to quote the advice offered by Tony Blair’s spin doctor. This convention, though, is breaking down, with David Cameron’s Conservative-led government increasingly being proud to “do God”. Such religiosity is meeting a mixed reception in a nation that is increasingly secular and which is no longer in tune with the traditional privilege afforded to religion by the British establishment.

It is said that Prime Minister David Cameron found consolation in his Christian faith after the death of his disabled son, leading to a much more overt Christianity. Further, the Conservative Party fears that the anti-EU, anti-immigrant UKIP will siphon off votes at the forthcoming election, letting Labour in. It is thus pitching its appeal at older, more-Christian, UKIP-leaning voters, and perhaps it is calculating that there are not enough secularist Tory voters to worry about losing any.

Cameron has declared the UK to be a “Christian country” while his Christmas message says that “giving, sharing and taking care of others” are “very Christian values”, adding that “we [the nation?] celebrate the birth of Christ”, despite the fact that only 13% regard Jesus as an important aspect of their own Christmas.

Continue reading

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