Hurrah for Dominic Grieve. We almost went a month with no word of “aggressive secularists”

Yesterday being a slow news day, the Daily Telegraph wrote to a right wing politician so they’d have something to print.

Britain is at risk of being ‘sanitised’ of faith because an ‘aggressive form of secularism’ in workplaces and public bodies is forcing Christians to hide their beliefs, a former attorney general has warned.

Dominic Grieve said he found it ‘quite extraordinary’ that people were being sacked or disciplined for expressing their beliefs at work.

He described Christianity as a ‘powerful force for good’ in modern Britain and warned that Christians should not be ‘intimidated’ and ‘excluded’ for their beliefs.

He said that politicians and public figures should not be afraid of ‘doing God’ and that they have a duty to explain how their beliefs inform their decisions.

The ‘appalling’ scenes in Iraq, which have seen Islamic extremists behead and crucify religious minorities including Christians, showed that it was ‘more important than ever’ for people to express their religious beliefs, he said.

He told The Telegraph: ‘I worry that there are attempts to push faith out of the public space. Clearly it happens at a level of local power.

‘You can watch institutions or organisations do it or watch it happen at a local government level. In my view it’s very undesirable.

‘Some of the cases which have come to light of employers being disciplined or sacked for simply trying to talk about their faith in the workplace I find quite extraordinary.

‘The sanitisation will lead to people of faith excluding themselves from the public space and being excluded.

‘It is in nobody’s interest that groups should find themselves excluded from society.’ Two years ago the Government changed the law to ensure that councils could not face legal challenges for holding prayers before town hall meetings after the High Court backed a controversial campaign to abolish such acts of worship.

There have also been a series of high-profile cases in which people have been banned from wearing crosses at work or sacked for resisting tasks which went against their religious beliefs.

Mr Grieve, a practising Anglican, said that Britain is ‘underpinned’ by Christian ethics and principles.

He criticised the Tony Blair era when Alastair Campbell, the then communications director in Downing Street, famously said ‘we don’t do God’ amid concerns that religion would put off voters.

David Cameron once described his own faith as being like ‘Magic FM in the Chilterns’, meaning it can come and go.

However, earlier this year the Prime Minister said he has found greater strength in religion and suggested that Britain should be unashamedly ‘evangelical’ about its Christian faith.

Mr Grieve said: ‘I think politicians should express their faith. I have never adhered to the Blair view that we don’t do God, indeed I’m not sure that Blair does. I think that people with faith have an entitlement to explain where that places them in approaching problems.

‘I think that those of us who are politicians and Christians should be in the business of doing it.

‘It doesn’t mean that we have the monopoly of wisdom, but I do think Christianity has played an enormous role in shaping this country.

‘It’s a very powerful force in this country [but] I think it’s underrated, and partly because in the past it has failed to express itself as clearly as it might.

‘Recognising people’s right to manifest their faith and express it is very important.’

(The article, which could be used to explain the Telegraph to aliens, also complains about the EU and laws against fox hunting.)

Thank fuck for another headline about aggressive secularism – we very nearly went a month without one. Ann Widdecombe, Eric Pickles, David Cameron, Sayeeda Warsi; Keith O’Brien, George Careythe Pope. It’s exhausting to rebut the same thing again and again, but clearly we still have to: if it wasn’t an effective line, the Christian right would have stopped using it.

Because I’m fed up with this nonsense, I’m going to give my thoughts in list format.

I.

‘We don’t do God’ must be the most misrepresented line in journalistic memory. Campbell said it to stop Blair waxing religious in an interview because Blair did do God: he built record numbers of state-run religious schools, cosied up to the Vatican, passed censorious ‘religious hatred’ laws, justified invading Iraq using religious language and started a global ‘faith foundation’ after he left Downing Street.

II.

How many more times can right wing Christians running the country say Britain must be ‘more evangelical’ (Prime Minister David Cameron), promise religion a greater role in public life (Cameron) and gush about Christianity’s excellence (Cameron et al)… while simultaneously claiming to be marginalised?

III.

More specifically, Dominic Grieve: how excluded from public life are you – how mercilessly have you been forced to hide your beliefs – when a soundbite from you about them is what the Telegraph uses to sell newspapers on quiet days?

IV.

Someone on social media told me last month that ‘Christians are persecuted in this country’. When I asked how, this is what they said:

I do not wish to go into detail. I have knowledge that gives me every right to use the word

It’s argumentum ad Laganja: ‘You’re picking on me, but I’m not going to tell you when, where or how.’

A new rule, I think: if you’re going to say Christians are a marginalised group in modern Britain, I want specific examples – not bald assertions or, as in Grieve’s case, vague innuendo about workplaces and councils.

V.

Grieve doesn’t specify because he can’t: the moment it’s confronted with factual detail, the Christian persecution case evaporates.

While it’s true that in 2012 the National Secular Society won a court case against prayers being said at Bideford town council’s meetings (the government swiftly overturned this), the ruling prohibited them only as an agenda item. There was nothing to prevent Christian councillors praying together informally prior to meetings: it was simply deemed exclusionary for Christian rituals to be an official part of council business.

Shirley Chaplin, a hospital nurse, was asked in accordance with the NHS dress code to wear an ostentatious cross pinned inside her uniform instead of dangling hazardously on a chain. She refused to compromise, insisting it be visible to everyone, and was disciplined, losing a string of tribunals and court cases when she complained.

Nadia Eweida, a British Airways worker who continually harassed non-Christian colleagues with evangelistic tracts and homophobic comments, claimed BA was persecuting her when asked to wear her cross beneath instead of on top of her uniform. (After numerous court losses, the EHCR eventually found for her last January, but only because BA’s dress code was judged too restrictive.)

Lesley Pilkington, a registered psychotherapist operating highly unethical ‘gay cure’ treatment programmes was struck off the membership roll of Britain’s governing body for counsellors after journalist Patrick Strudwick wrote an exposé on her and others.

Lilian Ladele, the civil registrar who refused to perform civil partnership ceremonies, was disciplined because her job required she do this.

VI.

I’m a secularist because I want a mature democracy, not one based on a lie. Whoever pretends Britain is still a Christian nation knows deep down they’re being silly, and that doesn’t just demean non-Christians: it demeans our democracy by telling us to lie to one another.

I’m a secularist because I believe in sectarian disarmament. I think carving up public life into religious territories, each with its own schools, courts, bank holidays and seats in parliament, creates an arms race of religiosity and social tension, and sharing a secular country is a kind of truce.

I’m a secularist because I believe social support – welfare, education, housing, care – should be unconditional, tax-funded and available to all, not handed to religious groups where not everyone can access them.

Secularism is kind. Secularism is responsible. If you think it’s aggressive, you should hear my other opinions.

VII.

The Islamic State is driving Christian populations from their homes in Iraq; some are being forcibly converted, others killed. Dominic Grieve and the Daily Telegraph see this as a handy rhetorical jab against secular council meetings in north Devon.

VIII.

But really: who looks at the middle east today and thinks bloody hell, that’s what too much secularism does?

Sunnis and Shias are killing each other in Iraq; Muslims are killing Christians in Iraq, atheists in Iran, Jews in Israel. Jews are killing Muslims in Palestine. Religious nationalism is at the core of all these atrocities. Secularism is the opposite: it is nonaggression as a political and national identity.

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Secularism is not PC. Britain’s government should know

Gordon Brown never managed to live down his tongue-tied boast he’d saved the world. If that came to be his defining gaffe, David Cameron’s claim last week to be continuing God’s work surely has similar potential. ‘Jesus invented the Big Society’, he told Christian authorities at Downing Street a week ago. ‘I just want to see more of it.’

Mockery, lasting several days, broke out on social media. Brown at least had the excuse of a verbal slip-up; his successor’s remarks, in a speech shared on the government’s website, were surely drafted by advisers who thought them a good idea.

More followed. ‘I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country,’ Cameron writes in this week’s Church Times, ‘more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical’. In a YouTube video, he says much of the same.

One can’t fault the PM for being on-message. Easter provides an annual basketful of reactionary religious soundbites: in 2011, as Cardinal Keith O’Brien attacked ‘aggressive secularism’, Cameron lauded ‘the enormous contribution Christianity has made to our country’; the next year, after Sayeeda Warsi’s ‘militant secularisation’ speech, his Easter message praised an alleged ‘Christian fightback’. ‘This government does care about faith’, he told church leaders in 2013, ‘and it does want to stand up and oppose aggressive secularisation’. (George Carey, ex-Archbishop of Canterbury, accused him of just such aggression the same week, calling Christians a persecuted minority.)

Ministers show no sign of changing the hymn sheet. Eric Pickles, secretary in all but name for tabloid-baiting, attacked yet more ‘militant atheists’ at this month’s Conservative Spring Forum, insisting ‘We’re a Christian nation. We have an established church. Get over it, and don’t impose your politically correct intolerant on others.’ This was the same man who in 2010, during the annual war-on-Christmas panic, complained about ‘politically correct Grinches.

The question lurks: if separating church and state is PC orthodoxy, why haven’t we done it?

It’s hard to be a pariah when national leaders heap praise on you. The test of political correctness is establishment support, which means at least the government’s. You’d think the cabinet could only fawn so much before calling Christianity marginalised became untenable. Seemingly, you’d be wrong. The Cameron government, besotted with the church, claims both to be a rebel force besieged by secularist powers-that-be and to run Britain as it’s always been run. Both can’t be true. Its ministers are the powers-that-be, their view the prevailing one by definition.

Not that they will admit it. Pickles, according to the Guardian, ‘accused the last Labour government of “diminishing Christianity” by suggesting that religion and politics could not mix’. To those of us who regularly say the same, this comes as a surprise. Likely, he has in mind Alistair Campbell’s interjection, ‘We don’t do God’, when a journalist sought details of Tony Blair’s beliefs; the sentence was a guideline in an interview and means of ending it, not a policy statement, but is trotted out ad nauseam by Tories keen to prove themselves more faith-obsessed than Labour was.

Their thirst to do so is an achievement of Blair’s governments, whose ministers fell over themselves as Cameron’s do today to say nice-sounding things involving ‘faith’. Religion, a much plainer-sounding thing, is rarely mentioned. Its followers are now ‘people of faith’, as in ‘of colour’; its hierarchs, especially the established church’s which Pickles admires, have been rebranded ‘faith leaders’. With seats in parliament, legal exemptions and a stranglehold on British education, but barely one percent of the populace in its pews, the C of E is a sick dog spoilt by owners all too aware its time is short.

If saying so is politically correct, it doesn’t feel it. Indeed, ‘faith schools’, the media-friendly name for where governments have herded record numbers of children according to parents’ beliefs, is a very PC term for segregation.

A year from now, we’ll no doubt hear again of an intolerant, aggressive secularism with a grip on Britain. Once they’ve warned us, organised religion’s friends will stretch in their seats of power, pour millions more in public funds toward it and go back to work. Secularists like me will ask ourselves, meanwhile: if we never had it so good, why didn’t we notice?

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In defence of the War on Christmas

As 2011’s royal wedding happened, the Guardian hit on a stroke of genius. Perched in easily missed white type atop its sprawling coverage, a tiny button read “Republicans click here”, which when activated hid all related stories. The button, which proved popular enough to reappear this year when the couple’s child was born, made the paper’s site a refuge for the unenthused, the only place online or otherwise where bunting and bootlicking could be escaped. As Advent commences, I often wish such a filter hid reminders of Christmastime from view.

As Russell Glasser of The Atheist Experience notes on the programme’s blog, arguments for the validity of godless Christmas celebrations have done well in recent years. These are the “Axial tilt is the reason for the season” shirts, the “Keep the merry, dump the myth!” placards of American Atheists, the selection of cards sold by the British Humanist Association, the Digital Cuttlefish’s books of festive (and fun) poems; they’re various chapters in Ariane Sherine’s Atheist’s Guide to Christmas, and by implication part of Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, the Rationalist Association’s annual benefit; they fill countless column inches by Robin Ince (its host), Richard Dawkins, Elisabeth Cornwell, Myra Zepf, Alain de Botton, Alom Shaha and Jim Al-Khalili among others.

The case, summed up in AA’s slogan, is no doubt as familiar to atheists today as are the faults of Pascal’s Wager, both being discussions with believers one comes across too frequently for comfort. Many of our Christmas customs if not most – gift-giving, good will, feasts, festooned fir trees and Father Christmas – aren’t of a necessarily religious character, the argument goes. If superstitions bequeath us an excuse to have at them, why look a gift horse in the mouth?

The logic’s sound, but commonplace enough that it risks seeming both reflexive and received. I decided to give up Christmas last year, for no more grand a reason than that personally, I don’t enjoy it. With such passionately vocal thirst to reclaim it in the secular community, it’s hard not to feel at least mildly rebuked, as if my absence from the bandwagon endangers a key atheist PR objective, stopping images of secularist grinches waging war on Christmas being properly cast off.

The trouble, and I’ve only realised it in recent years, is that I’m not gladdened by the merry or the myth – the non-religious elements, plenty as they are, grate as much as does the sermonising.

Yes, I’m turned off by the BBC broadcasting Bible readings, church services and carols about blood and gall – but I’m just as turned off by their annoying, repetitive melodies. I’m angered by Operation Christmas Child, and by millions of children being made to sing said carols in their schools or act out narratives from religions whose ideas they may not share and aren’t yet well placed to assess – but I’m just as angry parents lie to their children about who provides their presents, often objecting to them being told the truth, for no clear reason except finding the deception somehow sweet. I don’t enjoy the smell of tangerines, the putting up of decorations, the taste of mince pies or the expectation I gorge myself on food I’d never otherwise eat, enduring sit-down meals and light dinner conversation (no swear words allowed) with relatives I’d rather not encounter. In the end, I struggle mostly to be cheerier than usual for contrived and arbitrary reasons.

If you are a Christmas person, and clearly many of us are, I’m all for your enjoying the rituals of your choice – we’d do well to be cautious, though, of insisting “Of course atheists love Christmas”, implying as a chorus of this insistence does that we not only can but should. One perk of non-religious life, it’s been argued in New Humanist before, is the right to pick and choose our festivals. A status quo where atheists feel bad for not being Christmassy enough has something very wrong with it.

Atheism’s collective urgency to show festive credentials is understandable. As Glasser writes, “[p]opular culture is full of rotten characters who hate Christmas. Ebenezer Scrooge. The Grinch. Narnia’s White Witch.” Alone among calendar dates, failing to love it ostentatiously provokes a barrage of reproach: I’ve been called a killjoy, a spoilsport and an Eeyore for disliking it, but never for finding Valentine’s Day crass or New Year underwhelming.

One wonders if the keenness to affirm secular love for Christmas stems in part from a desire to placate religious critics, assuring them our boat-rocking plans are limited. Certainly, Eric Pickles’ call three years ago for councils “not [to] allow politically correct Grinches to marginalise Christianity” drew valid fire for recycling myths about “the likes of Winterval, Winter Lights and Luminous” as evidence for a so-called war on Christmas, but Pickles also demanded councils fund “carol services and nativity scenes” – a valid target, surely, for secularist pressure?

Baulk as we might at the “war on Christmas” narrative, parts of how Britain marks it belong in godless people’s crosshairs, from government-backed proselytising of this kind to evangelism in state schools, religious programming at licence payers’ expense and the pollution at large of the public sphere’s secularity. However excised of religion Christmas exhibits might be in marketplaces and the media, they’ve undoubtedly opened the door to public religious displays more widely in the name of inclusivity – Oxford’s giant street-mounted menorah, say, lit each Hanukkah by the town mayor and a local Rabbi, or Channel 4’s broadcasting the adhān for Ramadan this year.

The object of a so-called war on Christmas (and on all these articles of faith as establishments of public life) is really a profoundly diplomatic settlement, an understanding of the public sphere as neutral, unclaimed territory rather than land divided among orthodox religious groups. This is why I can’t support the ‘multifaith’ approach above, espoused on Bill O’Reilly’s programme by Chris Stedman recently: a multifaith public square is as bad as a single faith one, in some ways worse, because it still gives public authority to clergy; still makes people outsiders who won’t participate; still pollutes the peaceful neutrality of a marketplace which asks no one to demonstrate their piety.

However secular or holy we think the festive season is, that détente matters. Those in atheism who sit happily with unwrapped gifts and hangovers on Boxing Day should think twice before they lapse into unravelling it themselves, keen to ‘destigmatise’ secularists by showing us as Christmas-lovers. A culture of pressure to participate fostered by atheists is as bad as one produced by theocrats like Pickles – neither tolerates dissent, and both perpetuate the notion those who don’t join in are spite-filled Scrooges.

If we care for people’s conscientious freedom or right to live by the calendar they choose, we shouldn’t let fears of seeming grinchish silence us when religion encroaches on public life at Christmastime; equally, we should support those in our ranks who don’t do Christmas, and oppose the spectre of the Grinch being used to guilt or smear them. Call this scaling back of peer pressure a war on Christmas if you must, and Bill O’Reilly is correct that it exists; to me, it seems like giving peace on Earth a chance.