Sunday 21 November 2010

To bash, or not to bash?

Intelligence Squared Debate – 'Stop Bashing Christians! Britain is becoming an anti-Christian country', Royal Geographical Society, London, 3 November 2010

It is interesting that many Christians no longer call upon the moral authority of their faith as their defence against criticisms made by non-believers. They now, instead, tend to resort to the lowly, everyday language of anti-discrimination and tolerance to justify their voices being heard. Part of me mourns this transition. Not because I am a Christian – I am not – but because there is a certain nobility in rooting your demands to be heard in the rightness of what you have to say and not simply your right to be able to say it. The title of the Intelligence Squared debate, ‘Stop Bashing Christians! Britain is becoming an anti-Christian Country’, captures something of the spectacular fall from grace of the Christian faith, and faith more generally. From the pedestal of absolute, objective morality and a claimed monopoly of truth, to the ground-level skirmishes that are associated with promoting sectional interests and agendas in the context of a tolerant, pluralist society.

The title of this debate also reminded me of the need to prepare for the inevitable, and now very predictable, to-and-fro between those who complain that Christianity is now being persecuted – or something close to it – and those who rail against the intolerance and bigotry of Christian dogma, and the anachronistic nature of its privileged place in our secular democracy. The contributions from the first speaker for the motion, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, and the first and second speakers against the motion, Human Rights Barrister Geoffrey Robertson QC, and Times columnist Matthew Parris, respectively, largely conformed to this now very familiar spat.

Lord Carey made reference to the lack of compromise involved in instances of conflict between the demands of conscientious belief and the requirements of the human rights act. Instances such as that of Gary McFarlane, the senior Relate marriage guidance counsellor who was sacked because he refused to give private sex counselling to homosexual couples, and Caroline Petrie, the nurse from Weston-super-Mare who was suspended without pay because she offered to pray for a patient. Lord Carey questioned whether or not we should be concerned by the fact that the passing of the human rights act makes compromise impossible and results in ‘the unedifying spectacle of minority rights pitted against each other’. ‘There is always a winner and a loser in cases like that!’

Lord Carey exclaimed. Indeed, I am deeply concerned by the increasing tendency of different groups to claim as their non-negotiable rights things that cannot be realised alongside the similar claims of others. Nonetheless, the fact that the claim of a religious person in a public office to be free to follow the requirements of her religion is incompatible with the claim of a person who is seeking to use a public service not to be discriminated against on grounds of sexual orientation, suggests, more than anything else, that people should be more cautious about what they claim as their rights. Rights are inherently non-negotiable, thus the excessive use of rights language cranks up the conflict and tension associated with competing claims. This makes the compromise that Lord Carey seeks less (not more) likely. Indeed, Lord Carey appears to have completely misunderstood the point of human rights if he regards them as eligible for compromise in the first place. 

Geoffrey Robertson QC’s and Matthew Parris’s contributions were the other side of this now well-trodden spat. Arguing against the motion, they both emphasised the presence of discrimination in favour of Christianity, not against it. Both speakers cited very plausible examples of this discrimination. These included the 26 Church of England bishops sitting in the House of Lords; the state funding of Christian schools; the exemptions from employment laws for church workers; and the fact that party leaders regularly consult, listen to and give privileged access to church leaders. What was more interesting, however, was the self-assuredness with which they presented their case, and the flashes of contempt and resentment that they directed towards Christianity – exemplified by Parris’s explanation of Christian grievance: ‘They don’t like it up ‘em’. There was a curious appetite for these flashes in the crowd. As a secularist myself, I can see the reasons for their confidence in their case against religious privilege. Moreover, I can also see why a human rights barrister and an openly gay political commentator may be contemptuous and resentful of Christianity and its teachings. That said, it is clear how this combination of supreme confidence in one’s own arguments, and contempt and resentment for the arguments and opinions of one’s opponents – coupled with an atmosphere in which this contempt and resentment is well-received – can be perceived as hostility. For Parris and Robertson not to recognise this is a mistake, and exhibits a degree of insensitivity that needlessly conforms to the caricature of ‘aggressive secularism’ peddled by many religious leaders. 

Although they were on opposite sides of the debate, Sunday Mail columnist Peter Hitchens, and Benedictine monk Dom Antony Sutch, both recognised the hints of an anti-Christian sentiment in the contributions of the two aforementioned speakers against the motion. In fact, the contributions of Peter Hitchens for the motion and Dom Antony Sutch against the motion both fundamentally relied on the – very Christian? – idea of Christianity as an outside, anti-establishment voice. For Dom Antony, this is exactly why Christians should accept the bashing that they are currently receiving (he conceded that Christians were indeed being bashed). ‘I’m not worried about being bashed. Carry on!’ Dom Antony said, reminding the audience of the importance of martyrdom to the Christian faith. ‘All I wish when people bash Christians is that they get a greater accuracy and knowledge of what they are bashing’.

For Hitchens, the Christian faith, which he believes to be the foundation of our civilisation, is being rejected in favour of ‘a secular set of beliefs which are not only quite different from it, but which must must in their nature be hostile to it’. Moreover, Christianity is being rejected, according to Hitchens, because it tells people that there are some things that they cannot rightfully do - because it claims moral authority. It seems that Hitchens is saying two very interesting things here. First, because Britain has been shaped, defined and made great by Christianity, any moves to deny Christianity its privileged and established position within British society, law and culture – to have Christianity ‘forced to queue up along with the Pagans, the Wiccans, the Jains and the Buddhists’, as Hitchens put it – is, in effect, to be anti-Christian. Second, that there is a place for belief systems which claim moral authority, and the replacement of Christianity with a secularism has not been accompanied by an equivalent claim of moral authority.

These are engaging and under-acknowledged arguments. They relate to the extent to which liberal secularism is, or can be, neutral between competing worldviews; the relationship between religion, culture and politics; and the place of moral authority in the context on considerable moral disagreement. Although these point are often very difficult to discern through Hitchens’s often impossibly reactionary social conservatism and wickedly sour prose, they should, nevertheless, be acknowledged and addressed by his opponents.

It was the fact that Howard Jacobson made such an eloquent and enthusiastic case for the indispensability of Christianity to British life that made him the star of the debate for me. The fact that he barely even attempted to address the issue of whether or not Britain was becoming an anti-Christian country did not detract from the force of his contribution. He simply assumed that it was and set out to prove why it shouldn’t be. In this way, he side-stepped the predictable and tiresome to-and-fro, and honed in on the underlying issue of the place of Christianity within British society and the sense in which a non-Christian – let alone anti-Christian - British society was possible or desirable. Jacobson made his challenge to his opponents plain: ‘Without Christianity, the opposition would lack the moral and conceptual vocabulary with which they attack Christianity, since that vocabulary came to them courtesy of a culture steeped in it’. For Jacobson, it is the capacity of the Christian language to express our humanity to ourselves that was so central. And, ‘so far, the mustered forces of atheism, secularism, and particularly liberalism, don’t get anywhere near describing what we are like to ourselves’. Even speaking as someone who perhaps fits Jacobson’s description of a ‘word-deaf atheist’, I think he has a point. And I think that his is a challenge that liberals, humanists, secularists and atheists should take up, and complete.


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