All 2 entries tagged Secularism

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February 20, 2008

On the Archbishop of Canterbury and sharia law: We need less religious privilege not more

The Church of England is commonly regarded as one of the most mild-mannered and innocuous of modern religious institutions. But its representatives seem to be making something of a habit of betraying this reputation. The latest wave of absurdity began with the Bishop of Carlisle, who following last summer’s floods explained that, “We are reaping the consequences of our moral degradation.” Elaborating further, the bishop cited the recent ban on businesses discriminating against homosexuals. If so, one rather wonders why the divine being aimed the deluge at gruff Yorkshire. Why not fabulous Brighton? Why not mincing Soho?

But it was the present Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who ultimately severed the Church’s already tenuous relationship with liberalism and reason. The incorporation of aspects of sharia law into British law was, he declared last week, “unavoidable”. Dispelling the possibility that this might have been a slip of the tongue, he declared that the idea that “there’s one law for everybody” was dangerous. Inevitably, Williams balked at “the kind of inhumanity” that sees women and homosexuals stoned in theocratic Iran and Saudi Arabia. But effectively he maintained that Muslims, and implicitly other religious groups, should be privileged with separate laws in areas such as financial and family matters. It was the fatalistic tone as much as the content that grated, and the short shrift that the major parties have given to Williams’ proposal reminds us that separate laws are by all means avoidable. Wrong in principle and unworkable in practice, this proposal deserves to be greeted with contempt.

The social cohesion that Williams apparently aspires to would be best served not by segregated laws but by a fully secular state. He is right to point out that English law allows individuals to reach their own settlement in front of an agreed third party, as existing sharia and Jewish rabbinical courts do, but he is wrong to argue that any formalisation of this is either possible or desirable. Islamic scholarship contains no fewer than five major interpretations of sharia law. Which is to be adopted? And on whose authority? Williams conspicuously ducked this issue. A secular state, which privileges no religion and protects all, is the most reliable means to integration. Believers who wish to change the law should democratically campaign to do so, as all free citizens can.

Secularists have long dreaded the persecution and bloodletting that the religious have historically inflicted on each other. But juxtaposed with this is a lingering fear that the faithful, notably those who regard Abraham as a common father, will eventually pool their resources in a common front against the secular. It is in this context that the Archbishop’s favourable attitude to what is, after all, a rival faith must be understood. One is reminded of Prince Charles, who upon his mother’s death will become Supreme Governor of the Church, and his professed wish once King to be known as ‘Defender of Faith’ not ‘Defender of the Faith’. Watch as House of Lords reform comes round once more and the Church, desperate to hold on to its coterie of unelected bishops, proposes that each faith should be awarded a quota of ‘representatives’.

At a time when a few courageous individuals have been brave enough to publicly form the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, (the Hadith prescribes death for apostates), Williams has given succour to Islamist patriarchs who may well cherish state legitimation for the right, maintained under all interpretations, to remarry while refusing their first wife a divorce. He has simultaneously pandered to the essentialist doctrine of the nationalist far right, who think British law only fit for white Anglo-Saxons, and that of the Islamist right, who seek outright sharia law. He should be removed from office as a prelude to the removal of his Church from the state.

Published in the Warwick Boar, 12/02/08

July 03, 2007

No Silver Lining: Lydia Playfoot's Chastity Ring

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Lydia Playfoot (an unfortunately amorous surname some would say) recently took her secondary school to the High Court after it banned her from wearing a “purity ring”. The banning of the ring, worn to symbolise a vow of pre-marital chastity, is claimed to have breached her right to religious freedom under Article Nine of the Human Rights Act. The school insists it is acting in line with existing restrictions on jewellery.

Her case rests on the premise that the ring can be taken as an integral part of Christianity and therefore as a direct religious symbol. However, this isn’t all together clear in the first place. The significance of the Biblical Reference engraved on the ring- “1 Thes 434” that is, “God wants you to be holy and completely free from sexual immorality. Each of you men should know how to live with his wife in a holy and honourable way”, is disputed amongst scholars. Some have argued that it is merely a prohibition on sexual congress with the local prostitutes. The Bible certainly says nothing about wearing a ring in either case. Indeed, the essence of the school’s defence is that the ring cannot be thought of as a central component of Christianity. But let’s, for the sake of argument, grant Lydia her premise.

Her argument then proposes that the school, since it allows Muslim children to wear headscarfs and Sikh children to wear religious bangles, is unfairly discriminating against Christians. For good measure, her father adds that “secular fundamentalism is coming to the fore”. The literal, religious mind rarely concedes much to irony (remember those ‘Death to Those Who Say Islam is a Violent Religion’ post-cartoon banners?) and Mr Playfoot has failed to notice that the problem here is not a surplus of secularism but a deficiency.

A secular state would cut through this guff in minutes. The school’s current policy privileges the religious by allowing them to stand outside the standard policy in a way that say pentagram-wearing goths cannot. The simple way to resolve these recurring debates, and the perpetual stretching of the definition ‘religious symbol’, is to set religion before the conventional regulations and avoid all subjective superiority.

The Silver Ring Thing, a replica of the American group founded in 1996, fails to even succeed on its own terms. Miss Playfoot points to the proliferation of pregnancies and STDs and beckons her school mates to the ring. Yet the unremitting focus on vaginal intercourse (everything else is kosher) has unintended consequences. The widest US survey of teenage sexuality the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, looked at 20,000 young people from the age of 12 to 18, of which 4,000 had that ring. The main Professor involved with the study concluded that the movement unwittingly encouraged alternative sexual activity- such as oral and anal sex- more likely to result in STDs. Seven per cent of fully active teenagers had contracted an STD, but so had 4.6 per cent of the ring crew.

Moreover, previous studies have long found that ring-wearers who discard the ring prematurely are far less likely to use contraception and thus put themselves at greater risk of the pregnancy and STDs all hoped to avoid in the first place.

One only feels the need to add why all the rings in the first place? Surely meek and mild Christians can make do with a modest ‘no thanks’? Yet once again those who preach modesty must nevertheless make sure everyone is aware of just how modest they are. And once more those who insist that all they seek is the right to practice in peace, will not grant the reciprocal condition- and leave everyone else alone. Instead, the ring-wearers must admonish those ‘unclean’ and ‘impure’ school girls amongst them.

The Silver Ring Thing has long become self-discrediting and this absurd court case marks not an ascension but a wayward dash for the oxygen of publicity.

Postscript: For a witty expose of the whole affair, including Mr and Mrs Playfoot’s central role in the Silver Ring Thing organisation and their possible financial motives, click here (Includes hypocritical use of suggestive lingerie by Silver Ring Thing staff member!)

Also see a superb piece by George Monbiot on how ostensibly religious virtues are best fulfilled in more secular countries here

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