Liberalism and religious tolerance.

This week began with a court decision removing the right of councils to hold Christian prayers as part of their formal agenda, and ended with the Communities Secretary using a legal loophole to reinstate that right in the name of religious freedom. In between, we had The Telegraph lending support in a Leader to the Christian cause and giving front page space to Baroness Warsi’s hysterical warnings about the rise of ‘militant secularism’, just as Reverends popped up on every broadsheet letter page backing her case. Meanwhile, Richard Dawkins was widely showered with ad hominems (culminating today in a laughable smear noting his ancestors were involved with slavery), and Nadine Dorries MP mocked the Equalities Minister for having the nerve to publicly back the government’s refusal to give legal exemption to Catholic adoption agencies given their practising of homophobia.

I don’t want to dwell on the absurdity of this, because I’ve been covering it closely all week and this morning we now have bigger fish. But one final comment. This is from a brief piece I’ve put together that will be in a student e-magazine soon:

The irony of [Warsi’s] outcry arriving in the week she leads a state visit to the Vatican is seemingly lost on her. What’s more, she seems to be oblivious to how awkwardly her article sits alongside the Queen breaking her norm of silence to insist that the role of Christianity in Britain is ‘under-appreciated’. Further, this comes as Speaker Bercow reassures MPs that formal prayers won’t be disappearing from Parliament on his watch, whilst Bishops by virtue of their religious status remain in the House of Lords. This all being just as recent polling suggests barely half of Britain identifies as Christian, and most of them are not even that serious about it.

And here’s Nick Cohen yesterday, also sharing my inability to lack disbelief that we’re even having this argument, but feeling obliged to keep making it nonetheless:

I won’t labour the obvious point that an established church that uses the force of law to insist on a privileged position, seems slightly more authoritarian, and indeed presumptuous, than those of us who want a level playing field, but look instead at the corruption of language. Militant secularism or atheism certainly existed in the 20th century… British atheists are not killing believers, however, nor are we closing churches or preventing the faithful from practising their faith. We are merely arguing, as full citizens of a democratic society are entitled to do, about the laws that should govern our country. For bishops, chairwomen of the Tory Party, Eric Pickles and Methodist Lib Dems to describe this as ‘militancy,’ reveals nothing except their paranoia, self-pity, ignorance of history and insecurity.

I in fact wish to dispute Cohen here. He is too kind in framing the liberal secular cause as being an argument as part of the democratic process about what the law should be. That concedes too much ground in making it appear like we’re accepting a battle of will in which the majority opinion will rightly succeed. But that’s not how I see beliefs in secularism. This isn’t just one of many beliefs about the way the country should be ran. It’s a meta issue. It’s about the framework within which democratic politics should be done, not part of that process. And the claim is, one final time, this: laws should not be justified with reference to the religious beliefs of a subsection of the population, ever. The demands of the Gospel of John are not to be the organising principle around which we conduct democratic discourse. We must speak in a language that appeals to the reason of all, and I object for eternity to the characterisation of this position, which insists on public neutrality between all faiths by refusing to privilege any of them, as in any way oppressive. If there are any enemies of freedom within this broadly sane country, Baroness Warsi and her anti-secular friends can stand up and collect the badge.

And so, relatedly, on to the bigger fish:

The TUC has accused Gove of failing in his legal duties by insisting that equality laws, which prohibit discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, do not extend to the school curriculum.
Brendan Barber, the TUC’s general secretary, wrote to Gove in December expressing alarm that a booklet containing “homophobic material” had been distributed by a US preacher after talks to pupils at Roman Catholic schools across the Lancashire region in 2010.

The booklet, which claims that “scientifically speaking, safe sex is a joke”, explains that “the homosexual act is disordered, much like contraceptive sex between heterosexuals. Both acts are directed against God’s natural purpose for sex – babies and bonding.”

Gove insists: “The education provisions of the Equality Act 2010 which prohibit discrimination against individuals based on their protected characteristics (including their sexual orientation) do not extend to the content of the curriculum. Any materials used in sex and relationship education lessons, therefore, will not be subject to the discrimination provisions of the act.”

Council prayers were one thing. Utterly wrong, but barely sufficient to bring the house down. But now we are talking about what we teach children. And here we have the Education Secretary, in the name of religious freedom, defending the right of faith schools to do more than discriminate on the grounds of sexuality. He’s defending their right to tell evolving minds that their identity may be fundamentally corrupt, just because on their interpretation of their Holy Book, a practise otherwise unacceptable is legitimate.

This should repulse anyone living in Britain who now knows what our representatives are willing to tolerate, even when it’s perfectly clear what the consequences could be. Religious freedom is still, apparently, after centuries of liberal progress, the ace in blackjack; the trump card that silences all argument and concludes the valid case for any action.

I do not apologise for refusing to accept that religious tolerance extends to the practising of activities that we otherwise judge to be wrong, sometimes even disgusting. Here’s Brian Barry, responding to what was then new legislation exempting Jews and Muslims from the Slaughter of Poultry Act (that is, allowing them to bleed animals to death whilst still conscious, despite new prohibitions for everyone else):

we have cases in which laws and rules that are not discriminatory on their face nevertheless have differential impact on people as a result of their distinctive religious beliefs, culturally rooted practices and norms, and so on. This is the kind of case in which exponents of multiculturalism argue for special exemptions. I have suggested that the examples normally cited in this context are not good ones. If there is a sufficiently compelling reason for having the law in the first place, its inconveniencing some people (for whatever reason) is not a basis on which exemptions should be granted. The fact is that almost all laws are more burdensome to some people than to others. The paradigmatic liberal achievement of freedom of worship manifestly suits those whose religious beliefs are compatible with it better than those whose beliefs commit them to the imposition of a religious orthodoxy. A law prohibiting drink-driving does not bother non-drinkers, a law against paedophilia restrains only those inclined to it, and so on. So long as there are sufficiently good reasons for having uniform laws, their having a differential impact is no reason for making exceptions to them.

He then quotes Henry Louis Gates:

Deference to the autonomy of other beliefs, other values, other cultures has become an all-too-easy alibi for moral isolation. When we need action, we get hand-wringing. When we need forthrightness, we get equivocation. We need a liberalism that has confidence in its own insights, a liberalism possessed of clarity as well as compassion.

Case closed, but a word on the politics of this. David Cameron has worked hard over the past decade to repaint the Tory party. Its gay-bashing days were supposed to be behind it. Not only has he come out in favour of teaching gay equality in schools; he has also backed gay marriage proposals to be heard this year, despite vehement backbench opposition from his party’s religious faction.

I don’t know if this is cheap opportunism, capturing the modern mood. The fact he backed Section 28 as recently as merely ten years ago is worrying, but I’m willing to take his apparent change of heart at face value. When his Education Secretary so repulsively steps out in opposition to the party’s new ethos, however, and for now at least Cameron remains silent (just as he has all week on the secular issue, allowing us only to assume he worryingly backs Warsi and co.), one can see why people doubt his sincerity. Gove must apologise and reverse his position, or resign. Anything less than this ultimatum is sheer cowardice now.

Not that the PM is alone here. I have seen no backbone from Labour over this entire affair, and the Liberal Democrats from what I can tell have been similarly silent. There simply seems to be an absence of due outrage on all sides; a passive acceptance of an illiberal consensus.


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