Beware the frumious bandersnatch

Polly Toynbee thinks secularism is not such a terrible idea. She’s not completely persuaded by claims that secularism is ruining all the things.

…the faiths are glad to circle their wagons round [the queen] against the unbelievers. Each has their own divinely revealed unique truth, often provoking mortal conflict, Muslim v Copt, Catholic v Protestant, Hindu v Muslim or Sunni v Shia. But suddenly the believers are united in defence against the secular, willing to suspend the supremacy of their own prophets to agree that any religion, however alien, from elephant god to son of God, is better than none.

They can all feel their victimhood now, facing what Baroness Warsi called a rising tide of “militant secularisation” reminiscent of “totalitarian regimes”. Warsi on the warpath headed a delegation to the Vatican of six ministers, all agreeing the common enemy was not just the secularists but the “liberal elite”, too. How the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph loved wallowing in the CofE as victim against the rise of christianophobia, as if the waspish Prof Richard Dawkins had thrown them all to the lions.

And as if the Daily Mail and the Telegraph were powerless penniless orphans living in a gutter on crusts.

The prefix “aggressive” or “militant” is now super-glued to the word “secularist”, but as president of the British Humanist Association and honorary associate of the National Secular Society, I find nothing extreme about trying to keep religion separate from the state. Aggressive? You should see this week’s “burn in hell” messages to the BHA attacking “that spastic Hawking who denies God”, and many more obscene unprintables.

Or you could check out the stuff that gets thrown at Jessica Ahlquist, or Barbara J King’s standard-issue insults directed at Richard Dawkins, or any of a number of daily verbal attacks on secularists and atheists.

Rev Giles Fraser wielded a deft stiletto, accusing secularists of closet racism. “Attacking religious belief in general neatly fits alongside a hostility to Islam.” I am hostile to any religion if it ever cuts across civic freedoms, for its own people or for anyone who challenges it. Without causing gratuitous offence for the sake of it, there is a duty to stand by brave free-speech campaigners, such as Maryam Namazie, organiser for One Law for All. An anti-Sharia meeting was broken up last month at Queen Mary College. Police were called after a man came in, filmed the audience and said he’d hunt down anyone who insulted the prophet. They campaign against Muslim arbitration tribunals, whose judgments can be applied in civil courts, nobody knowing if women suffered religious intimidation to sign away rights.

I like that “neatly fits alongside” – it avoids the drawbacks of just coming right out and saying that dislike of Islam is hatred of Muslims. It’s deniable and subtle and imprecise; just the ticket for a smear that won’t get your hands dirty.

Julian Baggini, writing in the Guardian yesterday took a swipe at secularism, wondering why bother with trivia like prayers at council meetings. He omits the heart of the matter, such as the right to die. Or the third of state schools run by religions, mainly CofE, oversubscribed as their results are burnished by admissions policies that consign an unfair share of poor or chaotic families to neighbouring schools.

And as for the trivial matter of prayers at council meetings, well, the “Communities secretary” is fixing that.

The government is activating a power it says will allow councils in England to hold prayers at meetings.

Communities secretary Eric Pickles says he is “effectively reversing” the High Court’s “illiberal ruling” that a Devon council’s prayers were unlawful.

Illiberal? The separation of church and state is illiberal? So it’s liberal to impose Christian prayers on everyone, including people of other religions and people of no religion (not to mention Christians who don’t want to do their praying in the workplace)?

Militant secularists just can’t catch a break.


  1. Adam says

    And courtesy of Jerry Coyne @ WEIT:

    This is the work of a particularly nauseating specimen of Journalistus Britannicus (not a highly-regarded species at the moment,certain honourable exceptions aside (Nick Cohen anyone?),and anyone who can come up with a neat tag for such cretins wins a pint…)

    I daresay you’ll have something to say OB, but the level of dissonance required by them to say all this cretinous crap is remarkable.

    Read about Pickles’ comments and plans this morning – it’s not a new observation: that people of faith will ‘argue’ between themselves, but unite against perceived ‘blasphemy’ and ‘offence’ from us.

    The Hitch always said it best – his comments on the Satanic Verses and the Danish Cartoons episodes will stay with me; all the religious leaders condemning the book/cartoons… never, NEVER the violence and threats. That alone loses them any claims to morality.

  2. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    Beware the frumious bandersnatch

    This is incorrect. In the immortal poem the admonishment is:

    “Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
    The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
    Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
    The frumious Bandersnatch!”

  3. says

    Yes. The religious of the world unite when it suits them to, and divide likewise. It is as if they model themselves on a colony of bees, each individual member going off separately by day in search of food, but all returning to the hive at night for security. By the tenets of the speakers for each faith, only their own faith can be right. But this is put away and out of sight when it comes time to confront the common enemy.

    What you believe is not so important as the fact that you are a believer. In something.

    The main importance of the belief is that it is the means to belonging. Sceptics of the supernatural thus become a threat to the group-solidarity of all faiths, and so the wagons get circled.

  4. Stewart says

    I was beaten to the Jabberwocky correction (I have a five-year-old at home; I have to know it off by heart); was going to ask whether there was some obscure theological reason for the switch.

    More seriously, I want to strengthen the line that Toynbee quite correctly takes here. Anything but rigid separation of church and state is unreasonable, aggressive, militant, extreme and a bunch of similar adjectives. We do need to keep hammering that, because it’s so easily forgotten. David Silverman made the excellent point, which I am paraphrasing very roughly, that removing an “under god” or an “in god we trust” from a pledge or from currency is not atheistic in the slightest. It is neutral, as secularity dictates. The presence of those phrases is blatantly religious; the complaint that atheism is being promoted could only be validly made if the phrases in question were not simply removed, but replaced by an explicitly anti-religious sentiment, such as a proclamation that there is no god.

  5. says

    Stewart, quite so. It’s like the difference (as I think I said the other day; repeating self; mumble mumble) between secular schools and atheist schools. Even I don’t want schools to be atheist; just secular.

  6. Egbert says

    Both secularism and atheism are negatives, i.e., without belief and without religion in state matters, they’re not positive ideologies on the attack, being imposed on others, they’re constantly being attacked by religious lobbyists who want to positively impose their beliefs by force.

    That’s why religious lobbyists and their doublespeak have tried to reverse everything, pretending they’re under attack and they’re the good liberals. It’s also why secularism and atheism are constantly on the defensive, having to run to the law constantly to protect them.

    Religion just went from ignorance to absurdity to evil, because they have a great new scapegoat to embolden them.

    They’re not the inheritors of the Enlightenment, we are. They’re not the liberals, we are.

  7. HaggisForBrains says

    These theists just don’t get it, do they? Secularism should protect them from each other, by removing any chance that one religion will get preference over the others.

    So, they unite to get rid of secularism. Then what happens?

  8. Stewart says

    “So, they unite to get rid of secularism. Then what happens?”

    Why, then they can resume settling scores with each other. Right now they’re the equivalent of Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany in 1939. We, of course, are Poland. Though we pose a greater danger to them than Poland ever did to those two. And without the need ever to fire a single shot.

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