Thursday, 22 May 2008

Jeremy Paxman by candlelight

Did anyone else see the Newsnight coverage of the first day's Parliamentary debates on human embryology? Presumably in order to portray the fact that there are deep underlying issues to do with the 'Meaning of Life' (the headline projected on the backdrop) the reporter was filmed sitting under statues of the Virgin Mary in the gloom of an old church behind flickering candles.

Er, what? It was difficult to tell whether the tell-tale Paxman raised eyebrow flickered when they cut back to studio.

As far as I recall, there was no specific reference to the Catholic moral position, or 'playing God' or anything - the incongruity just kind of hung there. What to make of it?

Friday, 16 May 2008

Creating little anti-religious martyrs?

The British Humanist Association has recently called for the law to allow children of 'sufficient maturity, intelligence and understanding' to be given the right to absent themselves from 'compulsory' acts of worship in schools regardless of their parents wishes :

The implication is that people can be made to worship against their will, which is an infringement of their human rights. At first sight this is a ludicrous suggestion. No one can be 'forced' to think or feel (or not think and feel) things — what goes on in the private thoughts of people is inaccessible to outsiders and immutable. The suggestion that sitting passively in a school assembly whilst someone else says a prayer is tantamount to being 'forced to worship' is daft. At the most extreme it is 'forcing' the passive attender to tolerate other people saying prayers — or praying them. (A very good reason, I would have thought, for insisting that they attend, since toleration is in itself a valuable lesson.) Mere attendance at an act of worship implies no personal belief. If I attend (as I have done) gatherings sponsored by the British Humanist Association, should I absent myself if I want to have a prayerful thought? Should I avoid going into a mosque because I am not a Muslim? The BHA, not normally known for intolerance and divisiveness, has lost the plot, hasn't it, and needs to rethink?

On the other hand, I'm reminded that the early Christians were thrown to the lions — as 'atheists' — for refusing to burn a pinch of incense to the Roman Emperor as a god once a year. In all other respects they were model citizens (or so I like to believe) but this was the 'thin end of the wedge'. Other Christians, on the other hand — the so-called 'Gnostics' — took the view that what mattered was not external practice but deep inner knowledge. To the one who 'knows God', the pinch of incense to the emperor was meaningless, and therefore harmless. Needless to say, there was no love lost between the different Christian camps.

It seems to me that the dividing line comes somewhere where inner private thoughts are translated into outward actions — a pinch of incense, genuflection, a spoken prayer or sung hymn or whatever — the failure to perform which brings sanctions from those with power. (That equally includes the opposite situations in which atheist authority oppresses overt religious practice).

But if that is the case, the safest option is to insist on passive attendance in school assembly — attendance that doesn't require active statements of belief or whatever on the part of those present.

To refuse to attend such a gathering would an overt non-religious act. I'm far from convinced that many 'mature, intelligent and understanding' *Christian adults* really have much understanding the full *breadth* of what Christianity is, and most of the things many atheists tell me I believe in are often crude and simplistic cariacatures of what it's about, with a heavy emphasis on philosophical propositions (which are rarely the concern of religious believers anyway). Whenever you read a statement "(all) Christians believe x" you can be fairly sure the writer doesn't know many Christians.

There's an assumption here that the purpose of RE lessons is to help students decide whether henceforth they will have anything to do with the whole world/language that is Christianity, or whether they will boycott any activity with a religious dimension. The idea that a few exam-oriented lessons on all the world faiths, taught by someone who may well not be a practising member of any religious community, can begin to express the holistic breadth that constitutes a 'world faith' is completely laughable! No world faith can be described in a few propositional statements or peeks at the 'exotic' behaviour of religious people, as the BHA are implying here. I find it hard to accept that anyone, let alone under-15s who have had no opportunity, independently of their parents, to really explore religious worlds in any depth — let alone breadth — could be violated by sitting passively in an act of worship.

'Doing God' in school assemblies is, anyway, a risky enterprise for the would-be evangelist. Richard Dawkins learned what he learned about religion that way!

I'm not even convinced that inviting someone to (for instance) say the Lord's prayer out loud is 'making them express faith' — provided it is not coercive and failure to do it brings no sanctions. To recite traditional formulae doesn't imply personal faith, any more than me singing along with Jimi Hendrix makes me a 'Voodoo Chile'. On the other hand, for authority to insist on the 'pinch of incense' or the saying of a prayer on pain of sanctions is to have already passed from the realm of personal faith (or lack of it) and into the political realm. It's at that point that religion has become an instrument of political power, so it's at that point that the language of 'rights' starts making sense.

But which secular school is going to punish a child that keeps quiet when the Lord's Prayer is said? Perhaps the BHA demand is a back door way of undermining faith schools, where presumably the performing of religious ritual in various ways is supposedly part of the ethos. I disagree with state 'faith schools' as strongly as the BHA, albeit for different reasons. But there are much more direct and effective ways of secularising state schooling without trying to create little anti-religious martyrs.