Saturday, 20 November 2010

Intelligence Squared: Stop Bashing Christians

Intelligence Squared events are always fun. They attract prominent and often witty speakers. This one was no exception.

“Stop bashing Christians: Britain is Becoming an Anti-Christian country” took place in Kensington on November 3rd. The event was actually very well attended given that it was a Bob Crow day. That’s like a bank holiday, but with even less public transport ;-)

Anyhow, the motion was supported by Former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord George Carey, columnist Peter Hitchens and writer Howard Jacobson.

And it was opposed by Geoffrey Robertson QC, Matthew Parris and Benedictine Friar Dom Antony Sutch, who has a career in laconic stand-up if the monk thing doesn’t work out.

At the start of the evening, the vote was: for 275; against 183; undecided 181. Given that the swing vote is the one to win at these things, there was a decisive gain to be had by one side or the other.

George Carey was uninspired; Geoffrey Robertson was charismatic and amusing; Howard Jacobson was polished, funny and indulged in unforgivable levels of sophistry; Matthew Parris was clear and lucid; Peter Hitchens was … well you’ve read his Mail columns; Dom Antony Sutch was reasonable and hilarious. For the purposes of dry-cleaning, does a monk’s habit count as a military uniform or a ballgown? The dry-cleaner was as confused as you are at this moment.

George Carey pointed out that the majority of people in this country are self-declared Christian, but he saw “worrying signs that the Christian faith is being pushed to the margins”.

He went on to cite several recent situations which would be familiar to most people who glance at newspapers or the ‘net. Gary McFarlane, a senior Relate counsellor had been dismissed for refusing to offer sexual guidance to homosexual couples; nurse Shirley Chaplain who was asked to remove her cross at work; Islington Registrar Theresa Davies who refused to conduct same-sex civil partnerships; Owen & Eunice Johns who were disallowed from fostering children because of their religious belief that homosexuality is wrong.

“My concern is that the religious rights of individuals are now being trumped by other rights” he summarised.

Geoffrey Robertson QC opened by saying that the Pope had been “fawned upon by politicians”. He continued that “… the protests were all polite and good humoured with the exception of the sour faced Paisley-ite Protestants from Northern Ireland proving … the only people who are bashing Christians in this country are their fellow Christians”.

He characterised the Synod activity regarding women and gays as “puerile debates” and went on to list many ways in which Christianity, far from being bashed, was actually highly privileged in Britain.

As for Gary McFarlane, who had been cited previously by George Carey (the Archbishop had also given evidence on his behalf), Robertson pointed out that the codes of ethics of both ‘Relate’ and ‘The British Association of Therapists’ disallowed discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. And Gary McFarlane belonged to and was thereby required to adhere to these codes.

“These cases are not bashing Christians” Robertson concluded. “They’re making sure that idiosyncratic and bigoted Christians don’t bash gays and other minorities at the public expense.”

Howard Jacobson started with a hyperbolic list of the putative benefits of Christianity.

“When Christianity … found you, you were warring gangs of troglodytic tree-worshippers for whom spirituality meant dancing around a goat in maxi-dresses … whose highest architectural ambition was the arrangement of big stones in small circles … From that, Christianity refined you into the people who built Ely cathedral, who listened to the music of Purcell & Handel, who spoke a language subtle and profound enough to make possible the plays of Shakespeare … without Christianity … the very temper of the English mind … would be less sophisticated”

While I fully appreciate that Mr. Jacobson’s standpoint was artfully designed to ride on a wave of wit – and he is a droll speaker – the conflation of wit and wisdom was too complete to forgive … or even disentangle.

If we assume that even just fifty percent was intended as fact, it was still tosh. Sorry.

But “… it was the French” who rescued the British from Wode, protested Matthew Parris.

As for goats and maxi-dresses, I’ve written about the insufficiency and impartiality of historical records regarding nature of pre-Christian religious practices in the British Isles here.

And the proposed direct causal relationship between Christianity and complex cultural ephemera is too ridulous to bother rebutting. Let’s just ignore the collapse of empires, the progress of epidemics, climate and economy.

Jacobson reminded us of John Dunne’s: “ … infinitely subtle matrix which makes each of us so implicative in the lives of others that damage is impossible to guage”.

On which non-sequitur he finished.

Howard Jacobson had mentioned an incident in which Matthew Parris had leapt into the Thames to save a dog. He had attributed the moral motivation for this to the Christian minset.

Parris opened with a reposte:
“I believe, as Christianity and Judaism do not believe, that dogs have souls”.

Parris started by disputing the Christian perspective as the starting point for morality and law. He rejected the divine authority of any rulebook on at least two levels: firstly, the rules in relation to specific issues such as abortion, homosexuality, birth control and so forth; and secondly, the notion that the Christian god ordains human morality.

Christians and non-Christians alike should have an equal say in political ethics he continued.

Paris continued with examples of the way in which religion has not offered the tolerance it now pleads for itself, concluding:
“Their gods care little for your freedom … give them the tolerance they would never give you, but watch them like a hawk and give them not an inch more”

With what may have seemed like whimsy, the chair introduced Peter Hitchens as “a man for whom faith has been a constant feature throughout his life”. Hitchens’ past fervour for international socialism and revolutionary Trotskyism, and his present belief in Anglican Christianity were thus framed as different locations on one continuum.

But I think it was actually an incisive insight.

Several people have developed psychological models of religiosity. They categorise things like whether a person is likely to have transcendental experiences; whether their religious thoughts are likely to permeate other situations in their lives; whether they regard the prime value of religious affiliation as social order.

For Peter Hitchens take a quick look at Extrinsic Religiosity in Allport and Ross’s ‘Religious Orientation Scale’.

Hitchens seems to be, more than a Christian, a believer in belief.
“Many who did not believe in God recognised the social benefits” he said.
“Such people as Matthew [Parris] regard Christianity’s prohibitions too high a price to pay for the great benefits we receive at its hand”, and:
“A nasty new tribal group-think is undermining the faith on which are based a unique ordered liberty of our society: its gentleness, its tolerance, its freedom, its literature, its art, its music … its law and its language”

They are: “those who like to live with its benefits but will not pay its dues”

Dom Antony Sutch is a monk who does not believe that we are becoming a nation of Christian-bashers.
“We’re living in a society that is bashing everybody” he intoned mournfully.

He also made an interesting point not made by others:
“We’re getting to the point where the media have all the headlines and we say “It must be the case”.”

Does the media aggravate these stories? Maybe.

The evening carried a few interesting themes.

The conflation of non-Christian and anti-Christian was addressed. Dom Anthony Sutch pointed out that the new movement:
“… may disagree and argue about certain Christian beliefs, but it is not anti-Christian”

He went onto say: “One of the things that worries me more than anything is Christians getting at other Christians. But if you’re a Christian getting at a Christian, you’re not anti-Christian”.

There was also a certain failure, particularly with George Carey it seemed, to appreciate the degree to which Christianity is already privileged:

The Church of England, said Geoffrey Robertson “.. loves to sit undemocratically at the heart of The Establishment”, enjoying privileges with education and tax laws.
Parliament starts every day with a prayer by an Anglican Chaplain; Church of England courts are paid for by the taxpayer because the Church is established; the monarch is its head and the archbishops are appointed by the Prime Minister; vicars live without paying Council Tax.

There are also twenty-six Lords Spiritual in the House of Lords – all Anglican. Neither did the recent White Paper on Lords reform suggest getting rid of them.

Archbishop Carey defended the Lords Spiritual system to a ripple of laughter. He protested that he had tried to get the RC Bishop of Westminster appointed too but the Vatican had declined.

Matthew Parris was also eloquent on the degree to which Christianity has institutional advantages including exemptions from discriminatory laws in employing staff, and the fact that political party leaders regularly give privileged access to religious believers

“Their real complaint is that they’re not getting their way anymore” he said. “Theirs is the self-pitying whimper of a dog that off its leash in a dominating pack would hound other creatures again without mercy”

Peter Hitchens, on the other hand, believed that the powerful non-Christian movement “seeks itself to be dominant”.

During questions, he went on to offer a chilling warning to us all. They (the new movement):
“… will leave a space … for fundamentalist Islam … where Christianity used to be … that’s where it’s all going”.

This, as though it was indisputable that social ecology has a mandatory niche - the religious niche, which will suck powerfully, destructively & indiscriminately when occupied by a vacuum.

But fervent religiosity is not a mandatory niche, surely – a gap to be plugged with a benign entity to displace a more malignant version?

In fact, Matthew Parris reminded us of what could really lurking in the fringe. And for this, we do not have to turn to our own paranoia but to history:
“Ask Galieo, ask Luther, ask Darwin about intolerance” he said. The Roman Catholic Church was an institution which “… when it could, burnt its critics at the stake, excommunicated intellectual or moral challengers, suppressed or subverted science itself …”

He also quoted John Clare’s ‘Ode to a Fallen Elm’:
‘So thy old shadow must a tyrant be
Bawl freedom loud then oppress the free’

That religion is a secondary construct rather than a primary state was visibly lost on Peter Hitchens and Archbishop Carey. Secularists are not asking for special treatment. They’re asking for a level playing field, without privilege for anyone. Howard Jacobson was inordinately more sophisticated, pleading that, as he put it, “Judeo-Christianity (has) a way of describing us to ourselves”.

Summarising, Geoffrey Robertson said that Britain is becoming a non Christian, but not an anti-Christian society. Dom Anthony Sutch said that society is becoming secular but not intolerant.

And the vote at the end of the evening? The ‘fors’ went from 275 to 216, the 'againsts' went from 183 to 378, and the 'undecideds' were reduced from 181 to 48. That probably means that 133 previously undecided people had swung to the idea that ‘we are not becoming a Christian bashing country’ … and so had 59 voters who had previously thought that we were.

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