Monday, 14 December 2009

On Melanie Phillips and religion

Melanie Phillips normally considers Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams an obnoxious liberal moron, but happily she's found some common ground with him over his recent grumblings about politicians not giving suitable respect to Christianity, which she details in Just for once, the Archbishop is right ... treating Christians as cranks is an act of cultural suicide. As is her style, and as the hilarious 'cultural suicide' bit of the title suggests, Phillips takes his comments and appends to them some staggering hyperbole and myopia.

What Williams said was typically bland, of course:
...the trouble with a lot of government initiatives about faith is that they assume it is a problem, it’s an eccentricity, it’s practised by oddities, foreigners and minorities.

The effect is to de-normalise faith, to intensify the perception that faith is not part of our bloodstream. And, you know, in great swathes of the country that’s how it is.
(As an aside, I quite like how in Phillips' piece the bit about oddballs is immediately followed by a photo of the Archbishop in mandatory ceremonial get-up of pointy hat, giant flapping robe with sleeves that look like wings, and massive ornamental gold staff...nothing odd or eccentric there, of course, it's what all the kids are wearing down the shopping mall these days).

Phillips immediately goes on the offensive, suggesting there's a "war of attrition being waged against Christian beliefs". She cites some recent cases like that of Duke Amachree, a council worker who was sacked for, as Phillips has it, "encourag[ing] a client with an incurable medical condition to believe in God". What happened is that a woman with bowel disease came to see him in his capacity as a housing officer to see if she could be relocated nearer hospital, whereupon he apparently started telling she'd be alright if she believed in god. The full facts of the case don't seem to be public domain, with mostly the conservative newspapers covering it, but ultimately it was a case of a man who had been warned about his conduct before, using his position to do something he wasn't supposed to. I doubt Phillips would be as happy if it were a dogmatic atheist using his council position to talk believers out of their faith.

It's here that Phillips and I really part ways:
Christians are being removed from adoption panels if they refuse to endorse placing children for adoption with samesex couples.

Similarly, a Christian counsellor was sacked by the national counselling service Relate because he refused to give sex therapy sessions to gays.
I read those things and I think 'Good!'. We should be taking action against people who discriminate on the grounds of sexuality in 2009. If the religious want to believe that homosexuality is a grave sin, they can do so, but when they're in public positions they should be treating everyone as equals. It doesn't just apply to Christians, of course, but anyone who discriminates against gays. But amazingly, Phillips turns this on its head; instead of it being a case of the religious denying access to services on the grounds of sexuality and thus infringing their rights, this is somehow an assault on religion:
What this amounts to is that for Christians, the freedom to live according to their religious beliefs - one of the most fundamental precepts of a liberal society - is fast becoming impossible. Indeed, merely professing traditional Christian beliefs can cause such offence that it is treated as a crime.
This would be funny if the equality legislation Labour had introduced didn't strongly protect religion. Phillips then goes way back to 2001 to cite the case of Harry Hammond. This is fun, because she started the piece defending Williams' view that religion wasn't just about eccentric oddballs, and is now throwing her backing behind a man who stood in the street with placards demanding an end to homosexuality. His placards bore the legends 'Stop Immorality', 'Stop Homosexuality' and 'Stop Lesbianism', which Phillips apparently considers 'traditional Christian beliefs'. Are they? If they are, this might explain why Christianity is fast becoming perceived as an 'eccentricity' practiced by 'oddities'. When it comes to parading with placards telling people who they shouldn't be having sex with, based on centuries-old teachings which we're told are the divine words of an invisible, unknowable being, then maybe shit has got a bit strange.

It's enjoyable to watch Phillips attempt to defend this stuff though. She talks endlessly of liberty and freedom, but in doing so is defending people who have actually been intolerant to the liberty and freedom of others. She goes on, first trying to reconcile her belief that Labour hates religion with her other belief that Labour is cosying up to the Muslims, a 'double standard' which she conspicuously provides dick-all evidence for. Hilariously, she goes on to accuse the Left of 'racism':
The root of this double standard is the unpleasant prejudice that minority faiths hail from cultures where people are less well-educated and so cannot be blamed for their beliefs. This, of course, is a deeply racist attitude, and is commonly found on the Left.
Again, she backs this up with nothing, and is surprisingly casual about tossing the racism accusation around, an accusation she finds abhorrent when it's directed at 'her side', as it were, (for example when she says that "those who shriek racism want to destroy British identity").

She's not finished though. She asserts that religion is suppressed in political discourse...

As his former spin doctor Alastair Campbell once famously observed: 'We don't do God.'

This is because among the intelligentsia, the animosity to religion runs even deeper than the upside-down value system of the multicultural agenda. It springs from the fixed view that reason and religion are in diametrically opposite camps.

There's a kernel of truth here in that politicians in Britain don't talk loudly and strongly about their belief in god. This is not a conspiracy, it's just because we, the people, no longer react well to it. We don't really want our politicians to be acting on the word of god; they should be acting for those of us unfortunate enough to be constrained to the physical realm. By the same token though, there's very little outspoken atheism in politics either, to the point where Nick Clegg's declaration that he didn't believe in a god was actual news, despite being what I would consider the default position. Amusingly, his admission of atheism was seen as so politically dangerous he was moved to issue a statement that his wife was a Roman Catholic, that he raises his kids as Catholics and that he fully respected religion and so on and so forth. And that, my friends, is about the closest a mainstream party leader has come to being an outspoken atheist. This is not suggestive of a country where the political discourse is dominating by raving religion-bashers of the kind people imagine Richard Dawkins to be. Politicians are so desperate to be all things to all men that they don't want to 'do god' or do atheism.

Hold onto your seats though, because she's got more to say, and this one is fucking awesome:
Anyone who prays to God must therefore be anti-reason, anti- science and antifreedom - in other words, an objectionable, obscurantist nutcase.

But this is the very opposite of the truth. Rationality is actually underpinned by Judeo-Christian beliefs.

Without the Biblical narrative, which gave the world the revolutionary idea of an orderly universe that could therefore be investigated by the use of reason, science would never have developed in the first place.
Unfortunately all that investigatin' never found much evidence for many of the wilder things that happened in the Bible, but somehow for Phillips, science still legitimises Christianity because Christianity preceded it, and if we hadn't had Christianity, then of course we couldn't possibly have had science. She goes on to yearn for a Britian where politicians and the public were as religious as those in the US, but this is always a stance I've never quite understood from traditionalists. British history and culture has led us to the point where most of us aren't strongly religious; that's now, broadly speaking, the British way. Why try and reimpose something that is no longer natural to us? She ends with a warning to Williams:
But unless he starts promoting the Church as the transcendental custodian of a civilisation rather than the Guardian newspaper at prayer, the society to which it gave rise will continue to sleepwalk off the edge of a religious and cultural cliff.
This whole 'sleepwalking' thing is a recurring theme in Phillips' pieces; her Spectator blog in particular is littered with dire warnings that we're sleepwalking into something or other. It always seems like a strangely arrogant thing to say, in this case with its implication that the decline of religion is something we shouldn't want or should be protected from having, because only visionaries like Phillips are awake enough to see the dire consequences of a potentially godless UK. Imagine, a nation whose beliefs aren't derived from ancient scripture and as a consequence don't openly discriminate against homosexuals in the provision of public services. What a terrifying world!

1 comment:

  1. Only anonymous because I don't have any (my name's Darren) and a bit late because I've only just found your blog.
    An excellent article here, and that's coming from an "oddity" as you may say. If there's one thing which, as a Christian, makes my blood boil it's right-wing "traditionalists" jumping on the Christian bandwagon to push forward their outdated views and political agenda (okay, bandwagon may be pushing it, but you get the gist).
    Contrary to the views of many on both sides of the political spectrum, most Christians do not sit writing furious letters about gay rights all day while waiting for a divine message from God before deciding what to have for breakfast. Sure, a belief in God seems irrational nonsense to an atheist (much as supporting Manchester United seems irrational nonsense to me), but a lot of those of us who have this belief don't go into it blindly. We are told to love God with all our hearts, souls and minds and to test our faith regularly. However, there is a lot of ridicule of us as mindless sheep following the herd, an interesting concept for a group who are now in a small minority within the UK.
    My real point here is this, don't take Melanie Phillips, or certain Christians who won't allow same sex couples in their B&B's or who attack the beliefs of others before running straight to the papers when told to hide a necklace at work, as the picture of a typical Christian. This is no more true than painting all followers of Islam as suicide bombers (an extreme example, but hopefully you see the point). Most of us believe strongly in equality, love and social justice for all, regardless of race colour or creed, not a line exclusive to Christians I admit, but still the central message of Christianity for 2000 years. Yes, mistakes are made, wrongs are done and stupid comments are made in the name of Christ; that's because we are all human and just as prone to human fallibilities as anyone. All we are trying to do is improve ourselves in the eyes of the God we believe to be real, but accept that we are very imperfect. Unfortunately there is the vocal minority (AKA the silent majority, in an act of wonderful irony) who give the totally opposite impression.
    I hope readers can see my point, even if it's a bit sketchy and, no doubt, full of holes. I just want people to see that we're not all mindless right-wing bigots, some of us actually use our brains and can be quite decent people, if you get to know us!