Independent | The New Jersey governor who supports child marriage knows exactly what religious freedom means – an end to female liberty

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New Jersey almost banned child marriage this week. But then Governor Chris Christie had a think about it and decided to veto the bill – on the grounds that it “does not comport with the sensibilities and, in some cases, the religious customs, of the people of this state”. To which the only sensible response it to say “duh”, given that, according to the organisation Unchained At Last which campaigned for a change in the law, most marriages involving at least one minor are indeed religious arranged marriages.

This law was not supposed to comport with religious customs; the entire point of it is that religious customs such as these are very bad indeed.

While the median age of marriage in the US has crept up into the late twenties and early thirties, the laws that allow children to be married have stayed on the books and, sickeningly, in use. In New Jersey, 16- and 17-year-olds need parental consent to get married, but with the approval of a judge, it’s possible to be contractually locked into a lifelong sexual relationship at even younger ages.

Read the full column at the Independent

A death in Bideford

Christianity is over. Finished. Done for. Born in Bethlehem, died in Bideford. It seems strange that a belief system can survive the shocks of knowledge and philosophy over several centuries, only to choke at a small harbour town’s county council, but that is the awesome power of local government for you. Turns out, it’s not legal to formally summon councilors to prayer – and a faith that can’t be forced on someone else is no faith at all.

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Teaching God

It’s not easy being the national religion of a mostly secular nation. Christianity is priveleged in lots of ways in the UK. The presence of the Lords Spiritual in the House Of Lords gives a legislative voice to the C of E; the BBC offers Songs Of Praise and the Daily Service, making Christianity a consistent part of our cultural output; and state schools are required to provide “broadly Christian” acts of collective worship, meaning that the religion is an unavoidable part of most children’s education.

But if you feel that Christianity deserves even more prominence, then all this might seem dignified rather than efficient. After all, only 50% of Britons describe themselves as Christian, while 43% say they have no religion (according to the British Social Attitudes Survey). Some people wonder if there shouldn’t be a way of making this ostensibly Christian country a bit more, well, Christian.

And so, when Ofsted releases a report criticising the provision of religious education in UK schools, traditionalist voices like the Telegraph are ready to jump all over it and blame “misplaced enthusiasm for multiculturalism” and the “ignorance” of teachers for the limited treatment of Christianity. Ofsted’s report highlights several areas of genuine concern in the way Christianity is taught, and most educators would accept that a stunted understanding of religion will affect children’s ability to learn about (say) history and literature – studying the Renaissance or the Reformation without a rough grasp on Christian beliefs is pretty much going to be a bust.

That doesn’t mean the same as this claim from the Telegraph, though:

Our youngsters have no chance of understanding the history of Britain, or its fundamental values of equality, toleration, and freedom of conscience, unless they also understand where those values came from.

If it even makes sense to talk about instilling “freedom of conscience” through compulsory religious instruction, it’s patently excessive to ascribe all those liberal values to Christianity. Many Christians have done great work for social causes – but then, so have people of every other faith and no faith at all. Christianity hasn’t got a monopoly on the nation’s morals.

The problem for the Telegraph is that, if it wants Christianity to be taught like very other religion, then it has to accept that Christianity is like every other religion. Not an unchallenged part of the national life, and not an inevitable object of worship, but a system of belief that can be studied as an outside phenomenon. And the scrutiny of religious beliefs (although the Telegraph doesn’t mention this) is another area where the Ofsted report noted that religious education was failing:

There were significant inconsistencies in the way humanism and other non-religious beliefs were taught, and some uncertainties about the relationship between fostering respect for pupils’ beliefs and encouraging open, critical, investigative learning in RE.

So while the right is presenting Ofsted’s report as another warning from the death of Western civilisation (snore), the report itself is arguing that agnostic and atheist arguments need to be better presented in schools. And that’s not all: while the Telegraph is getting all hot for the “self-starting schools [that will] spring up as the state contracts”, Ofsted is clear that the problems with religious education could be down to too little centralised control.

“There is still very significant variability in the quantity and quality of support for RE provided to schools by local authorities and Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education,” states the report. “A review is needed to determine whether the statutory arrangements for the local determination of the RE curriculum which underpin the subject should be revised or whether ways can be found to improve their effectiveness.”

The ill-fitted union of classical liberals and social conservatives that makes up the Tory party (and, by extension, the coalition) is going to founder on issues like this. At the moment, both tendencies have reason to believe they can get what they want from education reforms (as well as the policy on academies and free schools, Gove has already said that he wants neocon historian Niall Fergusson to advise on the history curriculum). But the ideological tension between the desires for a small state and a homogenous culture suggests that they’ll soon find themselves in opposition to each other.

What’s guaranteed is that, whichever side gets the ascendancy here, it’s going to be the thoughtful, critical parts of the curriculum that suffer – and, inevitably, the children who are dependent on the state for their education. The Telegraph likes to promote the idea that Christians are under cultural siege. But the coalition’s contradictory impulses are going to ensure it’s the pupils who get thrown to the lions.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010; photo by Paul Johnston, used under Creative Commons.

Past Papers: A frothy-lipped Cerberus of godlessness

For some reason, I didn’t bring this with me when I moved from Blogger to WordPress. But after reading Richard Seymour‘s dismantling of the Hitchens position in The Liberal Defense Murder, I’ve decided it deserves another run out.

The problem with atheists, according to one line, is that they’re just so pleased with themselves. John Gray, in an essay for the Guardian review, lumped Dawkins, Hitchens, Pullman and Amis together as “atheist fundamentalists” and accused them of “never [doubting] that human life can be transformed if everyone accepts their view of things,” and being “certain that one way of living – their own, suitably embellished – is right for everybody.”

To me, anyway, Pullman and Dawkins are in awkward company with Hitchens and Amis. The former are pugnacious but gracious, and conduct intelligent dialogues with critical theologians: Dawkins converses with the Bishop of Oxford in a spirit of friendly intellectual competition, Pullman disputes atheism on stage with the Archbishop of Canterbury, and these exchanges model good relations between the theist and atheist worlds.

Dawkins and Pullman evangelise their atheism with sound arguments and vigorous example, and they are persuasive: the case they both make is that beliefs do not earn respect on account of being religious, and the fact that a stricture is supposed to derive from some specious deity does not exempt it from analysis. Decision-making is always done best on a rational assessment of the evidence, and teaching children to espouse irrationality as part of their education is a very bad thing.

This is pretty moderate stuff, but Dawkin’s commitment to it is enough to get him labelled Darwin’s pitbull; in that case, Hitchens’ approach makes him a frothy-lipped Cerberus of godlessness. He is not exactly out to make converts. Compare his cover with Dawkins’: yes, they both go with declamatory capitals, but Dawkins’ cover has an elegant font in thoughtful white space, whereas Hitchens’ chooses something with all the aesthetic sensitivity of a John Grisham cover.

The embossed lettering in the style of cast-bronze on bloody-red marble is a study in aggressive ugliness; so is the “case against religion” made within. (Although, just in case the hideous front had somehow tricked you into thinking Hitchens was some sort of lowbrow pamphleteer, the front matter of the book is a barrage of high culture: a Goya engraving! some underlining in the style of a nineteenth-century title page! a dedication to Ian McEwan! three, yes three, epigraphs from Oxford World’s Classics!)

So now we know that Hitchens is an educated man, we can all get on with agreeing with him or despising him. That’s how the opening sentences of the book envisages the reader-response, anyway:

If the intended reader of this book wants to go beyond disagreement with the author and try to identify the sins and deformities that animated him to write it (and I have certainly noticed that those who publicly affirm charity and compassion and forgiveness are often inclined to take this course) then he or she will not just be quarrelling with the unknowable and ineffable creator who – presumably – opted to make me this way. They will be defiling the memory of a good, sincere, simple woman, of stable and decent faith, named Miss Jean Watts.

Already, Hitchens has riled himself up into an orgy of self-importance and pretentious diction. Deformities! Animated! Affirm! Ineffable! Defiling! (If anybody on Vanity Fair is looking for a synonym, I suggest that they check Hitchens’ belly, because he has apparently swallowed the thesaurus.) If you believe in God, knocking Hitchens would be like knocking God – a rhetorical flourish which I’m sure Hitchens thought would be cutely contentious, but comes off as supremely cocky. (What if the affronted believer holds with some form of deity who operates obscurely rather than creating directly? Hitchens didn’t think of that. Oh well.)

And then he wraps it all up with a tender pat on the head for his first RE teacher, which I think is meant to tell us that Hitchens is in fact a decent person beneath the bluster, but actually comes off more as the big man being patronising to one of the many, many people-less-brilliant-and-rich than himself.
The digression into the world of Little Christopher is for a bigger purpose than a cheap smirk at his “pious old trout” of a teacher, however. It is actually another opportunity to show everyone how terribly clever the author is:

At the age of nine I had not even a conception of the argument from design, or of Darwinian evolution as its rival, or of the relationship between photosynthesis and chlorophyll. The secrets of the genome were as hidden from me as they were, at that time, to everyone else. I had not then visited scenes of nature where almost everything was hideously indifferent or hostile to human life, if not life itself. I simply knew, almost as if I had privileged access to a higher authority, that my teacher had managed to get everything wrong in just two sentences. The eyes were adjusted to nature, and not the other way around.

Oh young Hitchens, how wise you were to simply know – and while there is an almost-witty parody here at the moment of divine inspiration from which spiritual biographies tend to embark, I suspect that the lack of humility is absolutely genuine. Here are some other things a nine-year-old child might “simply know”: bogies are good to eat and a joy to flick, Ben 10 is brilliant, and nobody else in the world is as important as you are. Perhaps the intellectual health of the nation could be ensured by encouraging small children to horde up their first intuitions, and then at a later date, splurge out whole reams of experience which has confirmed them. Even if Hitchens is correct (and given that adaptation has been resoundingly proven, he is), this is a pretty tawdry way of making his point.

So Hitchens has already shown the force of his intelligence: there’s an ad-hom attack on potential disagree-ers in the first paragraph, and a vigorous assertion his authority as an Extremely Clever Man. It is from these two fine forms of reasoning that Hitchens will argue the rest of his case…

Edited to change title (see comments for explanation).

Oh, must we?

Blair portrait by Jonathan YeoOur ex-prime minister thinks we must all do God. This comes up in a column for an edition of the New Statesman guest edited by Tony Blair’s former chief apparatchik Alastair Campbell, so maybe the commissioning of this is part of the new cuddly Campbell routine. He used to bully and swear, now he’s all smiley-smiley and did-I-mention-my-nervous-breakdown. And the man who announced that “We don’t do God” now gives Blair a platform to tell us all why we should, in fact, be doing God.

I suppose that’s because religion is such an undeniably sympathetic thing. If Campbell’s open to doing God now, he really must be reformed. And God is a nice salve for the damage that the Iraq war should properly have done to both Campbell and Blair. After all, how can a man who prayed to God to do the right thing really be ill-intentioned – even if he ignored the evidence, then misrepresented the case for war, and caused the deaths of thousands of people, at least he can say he’s got it all squared off with a highly implausible Judeo-Christian deity. At least he meant well.

There’s a very thin glaze of usefulness to Blair’s observations. Diplomacy – and basic courtesy – requires that governments be sensitive to the beliefs of the states they deal with. But that doesn’t mean that religion needs to become ever more important. And Blair sounds depressingly enthusiastic when he talks about what he perceives to be the growth of faith in politics – like a man who thinks he’s picked the winning team:

Religious faith and how it develops could be of the same significance to the 21st century as political ideology was to the 20th.

Or religious faith had in the middle ages? That worked out well, didn’t it? Anyway (and you’ll have to get the full version from the print edition to find this out), all this is leading up to a description of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, set up “with the aim of promoting greater respect and understanding between the greater religions, to make the case for religion as a force for good, and to show this in action by encouraging interfaith initiatives to tackle global poverty and conflict.”

I’m all for prompting greater tolerance and respect. I’m super keen on tackling global poverty and conflict. I think “making the case for religion as a force for good” is massively self-serving and indulgent. If religion generally is generally good, then it can go right on and show that by acts instead of words – or it can carry on demonstrating its capacity to damage lives with unsubstantiated dogma. Blair, though, seems terrifyingly positive about religion’s influence:

The 21st century will be poorer in spirit and ambition, less focussed on social justice, less sensitive to conscience and the common good, without a full and proper recognition of the role that the great faiths can and do play.

I don’t think this is slightly true. Even without getting all choked about receiving instruction on conscience and social justice from (well, you know), I’d say that nothing anyone does is done better for believing in hugely unlikely things. And the more we let scripture and liturgy divert us from humane and rational considerations, the worse our decisions and actions are likely to be. Which, interestingly, is something that Tony Blair is qualified to lecture people on.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009

Good news, Africa!

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The Pope is coming to see you! And he’s very, very concerned that so many Africans are dying from a preventable, treatable disease, so he’s taking extra powerful steps to help. Will it be money? Will it be pragmatic sexual education?

HIV/Aids was, he [the Pope] argued, “a tragedy that cannot be overcome by money alone, that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which can even increase the problem”

So no money, then, and no pragmatic sexual education. What is the Pope’s godly plan?

Pope Benedict said on the eve of his trip that he wanted to wrap his arms around the entire continent, with “its painful wounds, its enormous potential and hopes”.

Oh. Turns out Africa is getting a big, Papal hug. Any other vague and empty gestures in your bag of tricks, Pope Benedict?

The solution lay, he said, in a “spiritual and human awakening” and “friendship for those who suffer”.

But try not to feel too short-changed by this, people of Africa. Because a metaphorical hug is all the physical affection the Pope plans on you having:

While in Africa, the pontiff is expected to talk to young people about the Aids epidemic and explain to them why the Catholic Church recommends sexual abstinence as the best way to prevent the spread of the disease.

So that’s ok, then. Just as long as everyone can avoid having sex indefinitely, the Aids crisis can be eliminated! This is exactly the kind of radical thinking we need God’s representative on Earth to come out with! I would have just gone for the rusty old ‘save lives, ameliorate suffering’ angle, but Benedict’s got bigger things in mind: he’s looking out for your immortal, implausible soul. Wait, why can I hear singing?