Friday, 9 April 2010

Christian faith and modern British politics, a layman’s view

This is the post where I attempt to draw together the lines of thought behind my other posts highlighting the myriad of recent petitions and declarations regarding Christianity in the public sphere in modern Britain.  It has been prompted by watching the programme Are Christians Being Persecuted? on BBC One on Sunday night, and by following some responses to the recent Westminster 2010 Declaration of Christian Conscience, which was the subject of my last post.  I am going to begin by looking at two recent political/legislative controversies concerning matters of Christian conscience, and then step back to see what generalisations can be made.

Hate and other thought crimes
nebehead My own view is that it is extremely puzzling for a government to legislate in such a way as to make ‘incitement to x’ illegal, when ‘x’ itself isn’t illegal.  Take incitement to murder (right).  Murder is illegal, and so for incitement to murder to be illegal makes sense, since it amounts to encouraging someone else to break the law – presumably on your behalf.  However, since ‘hatred’ isn't illegal, how can ‘incitement to hatred’ be illegal?

Our present government takes the view that it can, and hence as part of its Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 created the offence of ‘incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation’.  On the face of it, I personally find this no better or worse motivated and justified than similar legislation that has been introduced to criminalise incitement to hatred on the grounds of race or religious belief.  Anyone hating anyone else is a bad thing (Galatians 5:19-21), and so anyone inciting anyone else to hate anyone else is likewise a bad thing.  But hatred as such is not illegal, and so I don’t see why incitement to hatred should be illegal.

Suppose, however, that I’m wrong about this.  Very well.  What remains as a concern in the minds of many Christians and others is just what is going to count as ‘incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation’ under this law.  For this reason, it seems, the bill had real problems making it through both Houses of Parliament, and only did so after certain amendments were made, a fact about which our Prime Minister is not happy:
I’m proud that thanks to Labour, incitement to homophobic hate will now be a crime. But the law we recently passed was watered down through the so-called Waddington amendment, which provides a ‘freedom of speech’ opt-out from laws designed to stop incitement.
The amendment was defeated by Labour MPs in the Commons four times - but Tory Lords conspired to force it through Parliament. That’s simply not acceptable, so the next Labour manifesto will contain a commitment to reversing Waddington, and we will invoke the Parliament Act to overturn the Tory Lords if we have to.
So, I hear my readers asking, what exactly is the substance of this nefarious-sounding Waddington amendment, painted by Gordon Brown as a licence to incitement?  The answer:
For the avoidance of doubt, the discussion or criticism of sexual conduct or practices or the urging of persons to refrain from or modify such conduct or practices shall not be taken of itself to be threatening or intended to stir up hatred.
That’s it.  Suppose I say, ‘When God calls us into his Kingdom, he also calls all of us to a radically changed way of life.  The Bible teaches that sexual intercourse between people of the same sex is a sin.  If you find that you struggle with this sin, I encourage you to seek out one of the dedicated ministries out there that are designed to help and support you’.  As far as I can tell, that’s the kind of statement someone in a free society should be at liberty to make.  That liberty seems to be  precisely the one that the amendment in question is designed to preserve.  So what’s the problem with the Waddington amendment?  I can only conclude that to oppose the amendment, one has to be in the firm grip of an ideology, one that insists on silencing voices that dissent from it.  And that ideology is insistent: a second attempt was made to repeal the amendment in the Coroners and Justice Bill 2008-09, although thankfully again defeated.

What’s wrong with discrimination?
Suppose I am taking casting auditions for a film I am directing.  The film is a biopic of Devon Malcolm, and Mr. White is auditioning for the main role.  But Mr. White is white.  If I refuse to cast Mr. White as Malcolm, since whoever plays Malcolm has to be black, am I in the right?

Not all discrimination is unjust.  It’s generally taken as a rebuke against a person to tell him that he does something requiring precision ‘indiscriminately’.  Discrimination on the grounds of race, sex, religion, sexual orientation, age or whatever is unjust to the extent that those factors are irrelevant to someone’s ability to do the job in question or entitlement to the benefit in question.  So, while it would not be unjust discrimination to refuse to cast Mr. White as Devon Malcolm merely because he’s white, it would be unjust to refuse to pick Devon Malcolm in your cricket team merely because he is black, since his being black has no bearing on his ability to play cricket well.  That kind of discrimination has no place in a just society.

Interpreted charitably, it was a desire to prevent unjust discrimination so defined that was the motivation behind the government’s consolidation of existing equality legislation in the Equality Bill 2008-09 to 2009-10.  However, there have been legitimate concerns that this bill actually goes beyond those bounds.

To be able to work for a church properly, you have to commit yourself to that church’s vision.  If that church’s vision includes (as it should) a commitment to strive for holiness, defined as adherence to God’s moral law as revealed in Scripture, then someone unapologetically living a life in contravention of that law is not cut out to work there.  It is, therefore, a travesty that a church could be prosecuted for refusing to employ someone engaged in a lifestyle, such as a sexual relationship outside of marriage, that is incompatible with that church’s teaching.  However, this was exactly what was threatened by measures in the bill.  Happily, these were later dropped, but pressure can still be felt from all sides. 

So much for those two examples.  I can’t begin to address the rights and wrongs of all the cases of conflict coming up between orthodox Christians and the power structures that exist in this country.

Where is all this leading?
^The question applies both to the political trends, and this post!
Reading the stream of vitriol directed at the Westminster Declaration and those who support it (as well as the article, check the comments there and here), I was placed in that familiar dilemma of how to respond.  As usual, I see three options:
  1. Ignore.
  2. Argue.
  3. Proclaim.
Most of the post above has been argument, and there’s a fair bit I’m ignoring, too.  It seems to be time for some proclamation.  First,

To my fellow British citizens who sympathise with the stream of vitriol
We love you.  We want to work with you for the common good.  We want to live at peace with everyone as much as we possibly can (Romans 12:18).  Yes, we want you to believe in Jesus, but not as a result of coercion, and not as the precondition for us loving you, working with you and living at peace with you.

I also have a newsflash for you: Biblical Christianity is not secular liberalism.  Bible-believing Christians are not closet secular liberals.  We are not, in your words, waiting to be freed from religion.  We are not, in our words, about to exchange our God for yours, ever.  We are not like this because we lack education or exposure to the real world.  We are like this because we have had an encounter with the living God, and we know that following his plan for our lives is infinitely better than drifting along with what society expects and/or being pushed along by our own instincts and urges.  I submit that, when it comes down to it, that is what you are doing.  Second,

To my brothers and sisters in Christ
Egypt seemed big to the Israelites.  Babylon seemed big to the exiles.  Rome seemed big to the early Church.  Communism seemed big to nearly everyone very recently.  Secular liberalism seems big to me right now.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
                                                              - ‘Ozymandias’ by Percy Bysshe Shelley
Christ is bigger than all of this.  What the effort of writing this mammoth post has made me want to do more than anything is stop arguing about this and get back to the business of witness, serving the community, prayer and worshipping the Lord.


RobHu said...

Excellent post :-)

Anonymous said...

I certainly agree with RobHu! Excellent. And may God richly bless you for being a blessing to your readers.

Paul Wright said...

Campbell's programme was pretty awful, as Ekklesia pointed out: there was little subtlety to it, it was a briefing on behalf of the CLC and the Daily Mail, more or less.

I think the cases should be judged on their merits. If councils really are avoiding using the word "Christmas" for fear of offending people, they are silly. If Christian nurses expect the safety rules on jewellery to be suspended for their benefit, they should wear a cross on a lapel pin instead. If BA decides they don't like crosses but are fine with other jewellery, they seem to have it in for Christians, and that seems unfair. A teacher should not upset a seriously ill child with talk of religion when the parents have told her not to. And so on.

Instead, there's an attempt by Christians to regain their former place in society by framing all these cases as persecution (and, I don't doubt, an attempt by some atheists to frame reasonable treatment of Christians as special privileges).

I agree with you on the Waddington amendment. On the subject of discrimination, I've previously said that I support freedom of association in this matter, but that organisations which discriminate in this way should not be the recipients of public money in a country where public attitudes to homosexuality do not match those of these organisations. That seems to be a reasonable compromise: you may have your proclamations (indeed, I would encourage evangelicals to be as loud as possible about their attitudes to gays) and whatnot, but you may not have my money.

RobHu said...

Apparently Oliver Jones (the teacher who was sacked for offering to pray) has returned to work with her former employer, as although the parent had complained that she mentioned her faith in a conversation with the mother, the council had failed to inform Jones of that complaint. As such when she offered to pray for the sick child (which obviously should not be a sackable offence in of itself) she was not aware that the parents did not want her to do so.

In terms of the secularity of the country: according to the Coronation oath this country is an explicitly Christian country, not a secular state. Gordon Brown recently stated himself that we are not a secular state: "In Britain we are not a secular state as France is, or some other countries. It’s true that the role of official institutions changes from time to time, but I would submit that the values that all of us think important – if you held a survey around the country of what people thought was important, what it is they really believed in, these would come back to Judeo-Christian values, and the values that underpin all the faiths that diverse groups in our society feel part of."

mattghg said...

Rob, Anonymous,

Thank you. I really appreciate the encouragement.


I'm glad we agree about something!

I've chosen my examples quite deliberately. For another take on the general questions, there's my post on Michael Jensen on martyrdom from last year, particularly his point 9 and my comments on it. Of course each case should be judged on its merits, although predictably we're going to disagree on the merits of some cases.

Paul Wright said...

[I'm having some trouble getting the captcha stuff to work: apologies if this appears twice.]

Jones also gave her "testimony". I'm not in favour of such evangelism from someone in a power relationship with the evangelised, though I would only say it should be a sacking offence if she was asked to stop and did not.

I should also add that I was wrong about the Shirley Chaplin case: according to the Graun, her employers refused to allow her to wear a visible lapel pin. Unless they also ban other visible lapel pins, this seems similar to the BA case.

I'm not particularly surprised that a politician being interviewed by a Christian radio station said reassuring things about Christianity. I'd agree that in some senses this is a Christian country: about half of the people in the UK identify as Christians (source), there's an established church, and so on.

Nevertheless, you presumably haven't decided to give up on evangelism in the UK because the job's done. More relevantly, it seems that, increasingly, the attitude of people in the country (including some Christians) is that Christianity cannot and should not maintain its claim to special favour from the state. Hence the attempt (by some other Christians) to import US-style culture war rhetoric in an attempt to regain the favour that is being lost. If this trend continues, the formal institutions like establishment and coronation oaths will be the last things to go, if they go at all: they may persist as relics like the Latin grace at Oxbridge college dinners.

Ilíon said...

"So, while it would not be unjust discrimination to refuse to cast Mr. White as Devon Malcolm merely because he’s white, it would be unjust to refuse to pick Devon Malcolm in your cricket team merely because he is black, since his being black has no bearing on his ability to play cricket well. That kind of discrimination has no place in a just society."

This position is not exactly right. This particular discrimination is immoral ... but it is the sort of personal immorality which must be allowed by government precisely because we wish to live in just societies. For, governmental suppression if this particular immorality creates more injustice, and ultimately more immorality, than is solved by the suppression.

Ilíon said...

Even the US is not a secular state (it's a non-sectarian state) ... not that the secularists will ever admit that.

RobHu said...

I find the idea that teachers ought to be barred from sharing important experiences from their own life with pupils a rather odd idea. I assume that's not what you mean, but rather that a special case ought to be made for religious beliefs where teachers ought not share them with pupils.

Obviously it would be wrong for a teacher to try to force a pupil to convert (note: this is quite a different thing to sharing your testimony), but merely sharing one of your life experiences cannot be, I don't think an abuse of a power relationship.

Her employer (North Somerset Council) clearly agrees with this, as "North Somerset Council, acknowledged that it can be appropriate for a teacher to offer to share their faith with a pupil or their family" adding that "a careful professional judgement needs to be made as to whether this is appropriate and indeed acceptable to the person and family concerned".

Evidently in the case of this family they did not want the Jones to talk about her faith, but that doesn't mean it was a bad call on the part of Jones to do so. The family did not make it clear to Jones that they were unhappy about this, and Jones was not informed by her employer that they'd made a complaint.

There was quite a lot of trumpeting in the media and on the blogs of various atheists (such as yourself) when this happened, but oddly enough quite a silence now that after being investigated it's turned out that the council did not think that she'd acted improperly, and indeed have specifically stated that what she did (sharing your faith with a pupil or family) can be an appropriate thing for a teacher to do.

According to the 2001 census 71.6% of the UK identified themselves as Christians. 7.3% of the people answering the survey did not answer the question (which is distinct from choosing no religion), so in fact 77.3% of those who answered the question stated that they were Christian.

However I did not make the case that the majority of people identify as Christian, my point was that according to the coronation oath and the understanding of the prime minister the country is Christian. The statement that Brown made cannot be dismissed as a politician saying "reassuring things". There was no need for Brown to make that comment, he knew that it would be (and it was) picked up and commented on quite heavily outside of the Premier radio / church-going community, and it fits with what we already know of the law and the prime ministers understanding of things.

There has been an erosion of the liberty of religious people to exercise freedom of conscience in recent years, and that erosion is continuing. Atheists (who, statistically, represent almost no one in the country) are trying very hard to frame this in terms of special privilege for Christians presumably because they think that's the best angle of attack - but the reality is that it's an attack on the liberty of religious people in general.

The "if the trend continues" comment echoes the underlying belief of the new atheism, that secularisation is an inevitable trend now that we're an enlightened modern scientific society. I don't think this is actually true, it's certainly not true of America and appears not to be true of most of the world. Church attendance in the CofE may be falling, but it'd be extremely foolish to bet that this is a trend that's definitely going to continue, or that CofE attendance is the best benchmark of Christian faith in the UK - for instance, I know that Evangelical churches throughout the country of all denominations are flourishing.

Paul Wright said...

Rob: You know as well as I do that a "testimony" is a Christian jargon word for story about how someone converted, usually told for the purposes of evangelism. I do believe that, given the sensitivity which surrounds religious beliefs, teachers should not attempt to make converts (and that includes atheist teachers).

That said, I do think teachers should be able to say to pupils that they are a Christian or an atheist or whatever. People are going to disagree about where that shades into evangelism, there are going to be complaints of censorship from teachers and of misconduct from parents or pupils. Jones made the rather insensitive mistake of assuming that any reasonable person would welcome what she did, but it sounds like she was then the victim of miscommunication.

The BSA survey is more recent than the census, so unless you can demonstrate it's flawed, I'm happy to take the 50% number. They also showed that churchgoing has undergone overall decline: anecdotes about the success of evangelical churches don't convince me that growth of these churches has been enough to significantly affect this (though I'd be glad to see any actual data you might have).

I'm having a hard time telling what you're trying to argue with the Brown/coronation oath stuff. Brown thinks this is a Christian country. Therefore ... ?

wrt "freedom of conscience", I think some employers have been stupid, and I think they're specifically stupid about Christianity, not "religion": nobody's gone after the Buddhists, as far as I know. On the other hand, some of what we're seeing is Christians complaining that they can no longer get away with discrimination or that they can no longer just assume that everyone they talk to is at least vaguely respectful of Christianity.

Your expert deployment of Christian talking points about "New Atheism" is all very well done, but in fact I don't regard secularisation as inevitable, which is why I wrote "if this trend continues". Nevertheless, there's no point denying that the trend has been there over recent decades.

I agree that explicit atheism is rare: traditionally, most British people just find enthusiasm for religion odd and embarrassing.

RobHu said...

Of course I'm aware of the meaning of the term 'testimony', and it will often be the case that a Christian sharing their reasons for and personal history of how they came to be Christian will hope that this might have some positive effect in persuading the listener to do the same. However that in of itself is no different from me sharing any other piece of information about what I have learned to be (or believe to be true). There's nothing inherently bad or wrong about that.

I get the impression from the way you worded your first sentence that you're implying that I was trying to very sneakily hide the fact that I knew that Jones was "doing evangelism" (which would be a terribly naughty thing for her to do!). Well, maybe she was and maybe she wasn't, depending on what you mean by the word. If one means it in the sense "hoping the person will adopt a similar position" it needn't even include any sort of discussion or persuasive argument (which surely would be reasonable), if it means sharing your experience and attempting to persuade (by back and forth discussion, threat, etc) then that probably wouldn't be appropriate. It's easy to conjure up the image of the street preacher (or the like) with the word evangelism, but many Christians I know (like the toothycats on LJ) "do evangelism" just by sharing their experience very naturally when it's a natural and normal part of the conversation - with no attempt to argue or persuade. Who is to say that what Jones did was any different?

Indeed you seem to assume the worst of Jones at every turn. I notice that you were eager to (repeatedly?) condemn her actions on your blog, based on (I thought at the time) a paucity of actual evidence of her wrong doing, and now that she has been exonerated I don't see any corrections in those posts. Similarly you assume bad faith on the part of Jones (which really seems to be quite a biased position given that she has been exonerated now by an investigation from her employer) when you say that she made the "rather insensitive mistake of assuming that any reasonable person would welcome what she did" without actually knowing in any sufficient level of detail "what she did".

The majority of people identify themselves as Christian, and largely outside of a minority of atheists most people do not mind (where the conversation naturally brings up such a topic) having religious beliefs mentioned or discussed. There's no question whatsoever that the council (after many months of carefully considering the issue), who you might think would share your caution if they agreed with your chain of reasoning, agree with the position I have put forward, given that they believe that "it can be appropriate for a teacher to offer to share their faith with a pupil or their family".

RobHu said...

You explain the difference between the two surveys by concluding the prevalence of Christian belief has fallen from 72% (or 76%) to 50% in only 9 years? I'm sure many atheists would be extremely happy if that were the case, but unfortunately the explanation is more mundane, the survey asks different questions. While getting into a detailed discussion of the reliability / actual questions / conclusions of the BSA survey (which polls only 3,600 people), versus the national census might be interesting, I think it'd be a bit of a time sink / diversion. More useful for working out the decline in Christian belief would be the CofE's own more detailed statistics, which show a steady but slow decline. I'm afraid I don't have any statistics to hand about the growth of Evangelical churches, my experience here is a mixture of comments made to me by national leaders, and any my own experience of: a) many churches of which I am aware have problems because their venues are now too small due to all the new converts b) new churches founded (often because of the problem of a).

The point about Britain being a 'Christian country' (in some sense) is that if we are going to work out where we start from in how we should approach the law and default assumptions about how the country operates, we should not start from an assumption of the country being a secular state, this is quite wrong for a number of reasons, some of which I have enumerated. Also, it's not Brown's private opinion that we are not a secular state, it is a fact for at least the reasons given. On some of the atheist blogs I read they are clearly living in a fantasy world where the country is not filled mostly with people who identify with Christianity, where our legal system and moral values are not historically grounded in Judeo-Christian beliefs, and where things like the coronation oath and national church don't really exist.

When you say that Christians are not having actually having their religious liberty eroded, but can "no longer get away with the discrimination" I'm taking that statement to mean that you think that things like the recent 'quality legislation' which would (had the amendment not been defeated) have made it illegal for churches to discriminate on the basis of whether someone like a youth leader (who teaches doctrine to children) actually practised the Christian faith as it has always been understood. You might not agree that it is a necessary thing for a youth leader to actually believe and practice the Christian faith to teach it to children, but this is an essential part of the Christian faith (I'm referring here to the requirements given in the epistles for the deaconate). It saddens me that in their zeal to attack religious belief and religious believers, the atheist organsations that have supported these sorts of laws are actually eroding freedom of expression and conscience. I fully expect you to push the gay angle as hard as you can, as you have posted on your blog several times that when doing (the equivalent of atheist evangelism / counter-evangelism) this is a good button to keep pressing.

RobHu said...

Is your use of the term 'respect' referring to the normal humdrum meaning, or the atheist code word? Is this an allusion to Dawkin's assertion that religion (by which (at least in the UK) he really means Christianity) has a sort of 'assumption of respect' whereby it won't be questioned or criticised? If you meant respect in the humdrum ordinary way, then well, no, I don't think Christians have assumed or do assume that everyone they talk to will be vaguely respectful of Christianity. I've not encountered a Christian who thought that. What Christians (like everyone else) does, is they try to work out based on what they know of the person and how the conversation goes, whether it is reasonable to mention certain things like their religious convictions.

There are topics I don't talk about around certain friends, not because I fear they don't have 'respect' for that (non-religious) topic, but because I know they get easily upset or overreact about certain topics, and so because I generally want to get on with people and want people to be happy, I don't bring up that topic. Christians like everyone else do exactly the same thing with respect to their faith. Out of the hundreds of thousands of times per day that Christians in the UK must evaluate a situation/conversation/person and work out if it's helpful or not to mention their faith at that point, sometimes (like everyone else) they'll make a bad call and the person will get upset. Occasionally (if they're at work) this will percolate up to some manager and in rare cases they'll unfairly get in trouble for it, then it might even get picked up by the media, leading to some atheists trumpeting it and running with it again and again in discussions online.

I'm sorry that mentioning something I thought relevant was seen by you as "expert deployment" of Christian talking points, in fact I thought it was something relevant to the debate - which I think it is.

Explicit atheism is extremely rare, at least we can agree on something. We can agree to disagree about 'enthusiasm' for religion, but most people in this country identify with the Christian religion, that is an undeniable fact, and idea that we are or should be some sort of a secular state (which you've not stated here) simply does not reflect the majority view.

Paul Wright said...

Jones: in my blog posting, I took my description of "what she did" from her account in the Daily Mail. Though I think in many cases the Mail is usefully anti-correct (i.e. you can read it and give more evidential weight to positions opposite to what they say), I assumed in this case that they had not misquoted or misrepresented her, as they were on her side. If someone disagrees with any of my postings, they are welcome to comment: unlike your own blog, all my postings have open comments, and I only delete spam. I'd note that the parents' account, as mentioned by Tabloid Watch, makes Jones sound worse, but I only added that as later edit (and in a link blog entry). I have mentioned the case a grand total of twice.

Clearly there are some personal life experiences teachers should not share (for example, the story of how they lost their virginity, say), so I reject your framing of the argument that way. On the whole, teachers are paid to teach, Jones is a maths teacher not an RE teacher, so unsolicited testimonials are inappropriate.

As I stand by my position that Jones was insensitive (though I accept that she was also the victim of miscommunication from her employers), I see no particular reason to blog about her reinstatement.

I don't think the BSA survey should be directly compared to the census, no: if you compare like with like, total Christian affiliations (not just CofE) on the BSA survey fell 16 percentage points (66% to 50%) between 1983 and 2008, though the loss was mostly down to C of E leavers. The trend is clear enough, though I don't assume that in another 60 years there will be no Christians left. I don't know why the census data gives different numbers: as you say, it may be because they ask different questions.

On discrimination, I have said that I support free association for religious groups, but that groups which discriminate against gays, say, should not receive public funding or charitable status. This seems a reasonable compromise to me: society then can be liberal in allowing, but make clear its disapproval of, such discrimination.

But I was actually thinking of cases like the Christian registrar who refused to perform civil partnerships. In that case, it seems to me that, if your employer enters a business which you regard as immoral but which is not illegal, you have the choice of trying to change your employer's stance, putting up with it, or leaving: the same would apply if a Buddhist worked somewhere which began to supply weapons, for example, or also if a secular pacifist worked in the same place. I see no reason for Christian convictions to be privileged over, say, secular pacifism, in these sorts of cases.

You correctly anticipate my future behaviour with regard to evangelical pronouncements on homosexuality. Carry on with those proclamations, do ;-)

Atheism is not "extremely rare": 18% do not believe in God (BSA, again). Outspoken atheism is rare, because most people just don't care about religion that much (the old "enthusiasm is embarrassing" thing also applies to atheism).

RobHu said...

I have little time today, and am about to go away on holiday for the week, so in brief:

With respect to your reference to the 'closedness' of my blog. Yes, out of several hundred people who comment or have commented on my blog (I'd guess over 400 people) I've only ever had cause to ban two people, one of which was you (which is what you're alluding to here I imagine). IIRC you immediately made a post commenting on how I was censoring well informed atheists, but in fact there are equally or indeed more informed atheists who continue to make a positive contribution there.

I disagree with your implication about teachers restricting the things they talk about only to their subject, and not any personal matters. This is a misleading comment, the question is not over whether they should talk about personal experiences unrelated to the syllabus when teaching, but whether they should be allowed to share personal experiences with pupils and staff in the ordinary way that people communicate about all sorts of things. You state that how they lost their virginity is something they ought not share, and I think you're probably right about that, but is there a good reason to think that her faith should also be in some special taboo category? I can see why a very active atheist might think so. I don't think so, I suspect that most people would agree with me, and most importantly her employer (who is going to err on the side of caution) disagreed with your position as stated above.

In terms of the registrar who refused to perform civil partnerships -- I can see both sides of the argument here. It's important that people employed for a job will actually do that job, but on the other hand it is illegal for an employer to change someone's employment contract without their consent (changing the nature of the job), and so similarly it seems wrong to change the registrar's job in this way.

RobHu said...

What I find frustrating in that case was that the registrar could have been accommodated easily as other registrars could have dealt with the civil partnerships in a way that would not have affected those wanting civil partnerships at all. We all have to live together in society, and we do have views which conflict, so my view is that where possible we should adopt a middle way that maximises what both groups of people want. In this case for instance you could change the rules so that all existing registrars would perform civil partnerships unless they had a serious moral objection (as is the case say with doctors performing abortions) but ensure that all new registrars would not have such an opt-out. This middle way would AFAICT allowed those who have serious principled moral objections to continue under the same employment terms as before, and allow those who want civil partnerships to have them.

The results from the BSA are a little odd I think, they don't seem to match terribly well with the results from the census. The BSA AFAICT asks more questions and applies analysis to the results, so you end up with quite different figures (depending on who you ask and which bit of the BSA they look at) for these sorts of questions, so generally I think the census which is simpler is a more reliable source. In the census 15% of people said that they had "No religion", but of course "no religion" is quite different from being an atheist -- I know many pagans who would say that they have no religion, but you certainly wouldn't consider them to be an atheist.

Even having no belief in God does not make one an atheist according to how the term is usually used. In common usage people draw a distinction between three categories, theist, agnostic, and atheist. I think most people in the country would identify as being theist or agnostic, and it is in that context that I say that atheism itself is very rare. Following on from Flew we can use the terms strong and weak (or negative and positive) atheism, where a strong atheist believes the claim "There is at least one God" is false, and a weak atheist merely refers to non-theism. Atheists in debates tend to use the more technical definition of "non-theism" because (I think) it makes their case sound more impressive if you can count everyone who is not a theist, but I think this is quite misleading. When I've used the term atheist above I mean the ordinary way that everyday people use the term with respect to the three categories.

mattghg said...

Out of interest, Paul/Rob, what did you/Paul do to get your/himself banned from Rob's/your blog?

Ilíon said...

I haven't been following this back and forth. Nevertheless, the very idea that there might be multiple atheists posting on a single blog ... civilly ... is almost mind-bending.

Paul Wright said...

Matt: Thread here. I mistakenly attempted to use humour, and later, as part of an argument that Christian complementarianism is sexist, I said in all seriousness that, if we substitute "black people" for "women" and "white people" for "men", we would probably find similar sentiments about loving sacrificial leadership to be racist. I linked to Kipling's "White Man's Burden" as an example of people who believed they were acting for the good of those they discriminated against. I did try to stress that this was an analogy rather than an accusation of racism as well as sexism: the question is whether such sentiments are in fact discriminatory when they are directed against a group that has historically been victimised (as women have in fact been, as John Lennon famously put it). Still, Rob wasn't amused.

As far as I can tell from my record of postings and comments at the time, I did not then claim that Rob was censoring well-informed atheists, so I think Rob has misrepresented me there. I did make a post where I said that banning people from commenting on your blog was certainly a innovative debating tactic (I love Yes, Prime Minister), which may be what he was thinking of.

Ilíon: Gareth McCaughan, who posts to Rob's blog as gjm11, is probably one of the people who Rob is thinking of. Like me, he is an ex-Christian. He certainly knows his stuff (he also co-moderates the uk.religion.christian newsgroup, I believe).

I'll let Rob have the last word on the rest of the debate, as I doubt you want your blog comments filled with me vs Rob :-)

Steve Hayes said...

Incitement to hatred can, and sometimes does, lead to murder in the same way as incitement to lust (by publishing porn) can, and sometimes does, lead to fornication and adultery.

mattghg said...


Fair point, but is that reason enough to criminalise it (incitement to hatred, I mean)?

Ilíon said...

... especially when "incitement to hatred" almost always means "I hate it that you are saying that?"