A place of politics, culture (!!) & random subjects from Airstrip One. Noel hopes it will be of interest and/or use to all sorts of voyagers in cyberspace!

My Photo
Location: London, England, United Kingdom

The Voice Of 40-Something Cynical Optimism!

Monday, June 13, 2005

God can look after himself you'd think

If ID cards get on my wick, so does current legislation which will make taking the mick out of religion here a criminal offence. Whatever happened to "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me?"

In defence of bigotry

The Religious Hatred Bill will only feed prejudice and lawyers

Henry McDonald
Sunday June 12, 2005
The Observer

Pastor Clifford Peoples is an anti-Catholic sectarian bigot and I will defend his right to continue to be so.
For stating the above, however, I could theoretically be risking seven years in jail; paradoxically, Pastor Peoples could be joining me behind bars if he keeps up his anti-Catholic tirades both from the pulpit and the pages of the ultra-loyalist hate sheet known as Romewatch.

Under New Labour's Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, which was unveiled last week, the abuse of one's religion or belief might lead to prosecutions and, ultimately, a prison sentence for those causing offence. Given the myriad of fundamentalist religious Christian sects in Northern Ireland, the new legislation is in danger here of becoming a cranks' charter for the Most Oppressed Peoples Ever.

Pastor People's anti-Catholicism was laid out all for all to see 48 hours before the new bill was introduced. The Shankill Road preacher and convicted loyalist terrorist agreed to take part in an unintentionally hilarious BBC Northern Ireland Spotlight investigation into a bust-up between him and other parishioners belonging to a born-again Christian micro-church known as 'the Bethel'.

The row centred on People's decision to distribute copies of Romewatch, a newssheet written by his friend, mentor and extreme loyalist, Pastor Alan Campbell. Some members of the church objected to this because it was deemed overtly political and therefore non-biblical. Mirroring the schismatic trend of secular loyalism since the ceasefire, the church then divided into warring factions, with each side seeking to defeat the other through the courts rather than using handguns and rifles.

It was apposite that the shadowy figure of Alan Campbell emerged in the Spotlight film, because it was his old friend, the late, loyalist paedophile John McKeague, who was one of only three people prosecuted under Northern Ireland's unique incitement to hatred laws. Think about it. We had 30 years of incipient civil war accompanied by a constant, nagging soundtrack of sectarian abuse and vituperation and what did our incitement to hatred law produce? One single prosecution that led to an acquittal.

Campbell's protoge, Pastor Peoples, leads a dwindling flock that believes, among other things, that the Ulster Protestants are the lost tribe of Israel. Now anyone who believes in the power of reason and the necessity of historical inquiry knows this is patent nonsense.

Yet to point this out, to ridicule what is blatantly ridiculous, runs the risk of breaching Tony Blair's new legislation. Conversely, Pastor Peoples has the right to counter this critique by alleging his opponents are inciting hatred against his church. Moreover, anyone from the Catholic community who picks up and reads the revolting bigotry of Romewatch has the right to attack Peoples, Campbell and other fundamentalists through the new law. And given the litigious nature of Northern Irish society, it's a safe bet the legal profession will gladly offer their services to the slighted, the offended and the 'concerned'.

It is worth highlighting the extreme example of Peoples, Campbell and the British Israelite wing of Protestant fundamentalism in order to expose the absurdities and dangers inherent in this new law. What they have to say about Catholicism and Catholics is undoubtedly bigoted, sectarian bilge. However, where does society draw the line between the right of free speech for Peoples and his supporters and the free speech of liberal opponents and critics? Those who believe in free, open discourse cannot have one standard for themselves and another for those they disagree with.

On my newly found spiritual home, the sane left, robustly secular, anti-fundamentalist website Harry's Place, there is a legend that reads: 'Liberty, if it means anything at all, is the right to tell people what they don't want to hear.' One of the inherent problems of the north of Ireland is that there are far too many people who shut down all five senses when confronted with truths they want to avoid. After Thursday in the country of the blind, deaf and dumb, hordes will rush to the courts to shut down any questioning of faith and unreason.

The new bill exposes the hollowness at the centre of the New Labour project. For in order to win back Muslim support, the Blair government has bowed to Islamic activist pressure and risked curbing one of the key liberties in a free society. In the first verse of that global hymn to the socialist movement, 'The Internationale', the words of the fifth line urge workers 'away with all your superstitions'. Under the new legislation, to denounce theistic theocracy as a 'superstition' runs the risk of being accused, in turn, of inciting hatred against Islam, Christianity or Judaism or, for that matter, Satanism or Jedi.

In theory, 'The Internationale' could be deemed an anthem to incite hatred against the religiously devout. It is the politics of ethnic rage gone mad and, given the Northern Ireland experience, the only certain result will be some lawyers getting a whole lot richer than they already are.

Nick Cohen is one of those Liberal Imperialists who supported the invasion of Iraq (bringing civilisation to the barbarians). However, I think his defences of secularism on the Home Front are well worth reading.

A freedom to oppress

Far from eradicating illiberalism, anti-blasphemy laws actually encourage it

Nick Cohen
Sunday May 29, 2005
The Observer

Anyone who has seen the films of Michael Moore or read the vaguely leftish books which pour out of America might imagine that they don't need to be told the background to the Workplace Religious Freedom Act currently before the US Congress.
After the loud campaigns to allow prayers and creationism into US schools, a working assumption would be that Republicans, probably in the pocket of Halliburton or Exxon, were once again playing on the ineradicable paranoia of the religious by claiming that Christians were being persecuted by employers. With the votes of the credulous sewn-up, they would be free to concentrate on destroying rainforests and dining on seals. But not a bit of it. The act is sponsored by those great liberals, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, who maintain that it is the logical extension of the movement to uphold the rights of women, blacks and homosexuals.

The same pattern is being repeated across the democratic world. In Italy, a journalist, Oriana Fallaci, faces trial for writing a book which is 'unequivocally offensive to Islam'. The alleged crime of The Rage and the Pride is to insist there is an unbridgeable divide between the Islamic world and the West. What she says may not be true, although it certainly is true of Islamism and the West, which have armies at war to prove it. It's also the case that even by the standards of Italian journalism, Fallaci is a raging prima donna. Still, since when has it been a criminal offence for prima donnas to sing, however tunelessly?

If Tony Blair has his way, his government will soon be censoring critics of each and every religion for the crime of inciting religious hatred. As I write, the radio reports that the Sunni Muslims of al-Qaeda are slaughtering Shia Muslims in Iraq. As true believers, they kill because they necessarily believe that every other religion incites hatred against them. In these circumstances, a universal blasphemy law is an oxymoron as well as an assault on the victories of the Enlightenment, but the government either doesn't know or doesn't care. The wise course for a centre-left party is to prosecute ideas.

In the Queen's Speech, the government went further and announced it would create a new Commission for Equality and Human Rights, which sounds liberal and cuddly. It's only when you get to the detail you find that the commission will fight all those who have prejudices about 'gender, race, disability, sexual orientation, age, religion and belief'.

Belief? What beliefs? Are the censors planning to take their ideas to the conclusion and prohibit the incitement of hatred against all other beliefs. It makes as much sense (or as much nonsense) to have a law preventing offensive attacks on Blairism or romanticism or Europeanism as Judaism and Hinduism and satanism. Unless, that is, you somehow imagine that religious beliefs - all of them and all at the same time - are truer than the ideas of mortal men.

Corporate Britain is mooing along with the political herd. Human resources managers from BT, Accenture, Barclays, the Royal Bank of Scotland, B&Q, Shell, the Co-operative Group and the BBC came together last month to form the Employers' Forum on Belief. It will 'recognise the religious needs of employees and promote good business practice toward religious belief'. Allowing Sikhs to wear turbans at work or the devout to celebrate religious holidays sounds innocuous, although the National Secular Society has asked whether irreligious employees will have to cover for them during prayer breaks and festivals. To date, it hasn't had a reply.

The idea behind the upsurge in demand for benefit of the clergy is that the religious are the victims of injustice in developed countries rather than of a long, slow intellectual defeat in the free exchange of ideas. The cries from the persecuted are hard to square with the following story.

A condom used by the boyfriend of Kerrie Gooch, a respectable woman from Swindon, broke while they were making love. She went to the local Lloyds Pharmacy, where the Catholic chemist refused to sell her the morning-after pill. After six hours of searching, she managed to find a chemist who would help her. 'I don't want someone else making a decision like this for me,' she protested.

Women have complained about chemists at Asda stores in Stockport and Sheffield which refuse to sell the morning-after pill and a Muslim chemist at a Boots in the East End of London who refused to sell contraceptives. At least he had the virtue of consistency. You don't have to be happy about the number of abortions to know the difference between taking the morning-after pill and killing a 20-week-old foetus. If you don't, you may as well believe that every sperm is sacred and ban contraception.

Ms Gooch asked: 'What gives the pharmacist the right to play God?' As good a question is: who else is playing God? We don't know how many women slink off after a public scene and have an unwanted child or an abortion.

My guess is that not very many in our secular country. In the US by contrast, chemists who refuse contraception are so commonplace that Governor Rod R Blagojevich of Illinois has introduced an emergency order to make it illegal for pharmacists to turn away women with a prescription for birth control. 'No delays. No hassles. No lectures,' he demanded. His law may not survive because chemists in Britain and America can refuse to act against their consciences and big businesses have the right not to offend religious pressure groups, which is why Wal-Mart refuses to stock the morning-after pill.

Clinton and Kerry are not therefore proposing to give rights to people who must presently go naked into a godless world. Since 1977, American employers have had to make 'reasonable accommodation' for the religious beliefs of employees and allow them to follow religious fashions and observe festivals. The American Civil Liberties Union made a good guess at what would happen if Clinton and Kerry got there way by looking at the claims which have failed under the existing law but may have a chance of success if privileges were extended.

Many were from police officers who wouldn't protect abortion clinics. But the majority were from devotees who complained about their employers' refusal to allow them to express their religious beliefs: a nurse from Connecticut who was reprimanded for telling an Aids victim and his boyfriend that their homosexuality was contrary to God's will, for instance; a social worker who was disciplined for treating a captive audience of prisoners to exorcisms.

They complained their freedom of conscience had been infringed. In a sense, they were right. A truly fundamentalist theory has to hold that a believer can no more accept the separation of private and public than the separation of church and state. Their life and faith must be one and no compromises can be made. In the past, most people who lived outside theocracies either compromised or withdrew into communities where they found sanctuary from the profane by living and working with co-believers.

Now, in the name of tolerance, the institutions of the profane are agreeing to compromise with fundamentalism and, in the process, multiculturalism is manufacturing culture. American civil libertarians fear that nurses who want to denounce gays or social workers who want to cast out prisoners' demons but don't because of the restraints of the rest of society will be emboldened by their new rights. What was a private conviction would become a public act.

It's not necessarily a hysterical fear. We saw the multicultural production line at work in the protests against Jerry Springer: the Opera. The show had run at the National Theatre without any trouble, but after a religious rabble silenced a young Sikh playwright in Birmingham and Blair promised a universal blasphemy law, they thought it was worth attacking the BBC. A British religious right was created. Its members were always there, but our strange liberalism made them a visible force in public life.

Everyone knows that the contradiction of liberalism is that its commitments to tolerance and freedom conflict when the intolerant demand the freedom to be illiberal. It's also the case that liberals can become ugly and intolerant when they use force to make others become liberal. None the less, you might have expected that the governments of the countries which send young men and women to fight fanaticism on foreign fields wouldn't be using the majesty of their laws to nurture fanaticism at home.

For more info, check the National Secular Society's website at


Post a Comment

<< Home