Can We All Calm Down About the ‘War on Religion’?

Don't worry: he's not going anywhere soon. Photo credit: The Daily Telegraph.
Don’t worry: he’s not going anywhere soon. Photo credit: The Daily Telegraph.

Today, I had the experience of reading a hysterical and hyperbolic article in the right-wing press. It was an experience which I deem unsurprising, but still worthy of exploring, because it highlighted one of the most absurd ideas in circulation amongst the more conservative members of the Western world: the ‘war on religion’.

The article, a piece by Cristina Odone in the Daily Telegraph, chillingly proclaimed that “Europe is becoming a no God zone”, presumably playing on the recent obsession of similarly right-wing pundits with the alleged ‘no-go zones’ of Europe, where Islam has apparently pushed out all forms of liberal civilisation. In the wake of a tragic attack on a Kosher store in Paris, the main argument was that secularist governments would be more at ease with advising the religious to practise in secret, unable to guarantee the safety of adherents of one faith from extremists in another. Then a comment was thrown in about the Trojan Horse affair in Birmingham schools last summer at the end, and how that had convinced teachers that it is better to ignore religion as a subject in its entirety than to educate their classes anything about it. The overall sentiment was that religion would soon be swept off the streets of Europe in an attempt to maintain public order.

I wonder if Cristina Odone, for all her journalistic pretensions, has dared switch the news on in the last couple of days, when the Prime Minister of her own country, and leader of the party her newspaper supports, declared himself publicly to be a Christian who is, understandably, unsettled when Christian images are mocked. She laments that Charlie Hebdo refused to approve of the tolling of the bells of Notre Dame de Paris in memory of its murdered satirists, but what would she expect from a radical-left French publication that is daring to defy its religious assailants in the edition it released today? Sudden deference to the Roman Catholic Church?

In reality, barely anyone is suggesting that the answer to the current problems with religious extremism is to push all religions underground or for the faithful to drop their convictions in a flash. Odone my decry Salman Rushdie’s position on the matter, but you can hardly berate a man who has had a fatwa declared against him for his opinion that religion is a “mediaeval form of reason”. If I woke up tomorrow to find that the Archbishop of Canterbury was assembling a crusade to purge the world of Philip Pullman, then I might wish to reconsider my own Anglican sympathies.

And why would governments fear a crisis of public order if differing religious sects were to continue to worship openly? Nearly everyone of a religious disposition in the West, despite their occasional eccentricity and predilection for somewhat archaic values, is law-abiding and ultimately secular in the sense that they peaceably accept that there are people of other beliefs around them. They may think they’re wrong or all going to suffer eternity in the inferno, but that does not provoke them to go on a criminal rampage with a Kalashnikov. In fact, the reason why anyone did that in the first place may not have much to do with religion at all, but instead with frustration with the socio-economic plight of many Muslims as a cultural group in France, a frustration easily hijacked by radicalism.

Of course, Odone, hailing from the right-wing, cannot bear to face the idea that the answer may be state intervention of a fiscal nature. No, instead she wants to see the police and army posted outside Jewish schools to prevent anti-Semitic attacks. Because that will help to prevent Muslims feeling even more victimised and mistrusted by the state. Perhaps we could ask our American cousins how the widespread employment of firearms has helped to solve their problems with criminal violence? The fact that a large proportion of the Jewish peoples of the Western world feel threatened is an obvious concern and one that should be addressed, but not by something so reactionary and inflammatory as offering them militarised protection. In fairness to Odone, she does also fly the flag for religious education in schools in order to fight ignorance. Not that it is a particularly threatened subject in the UK, especially with a government that sent a copy of the King James Bible to every school in 2011, but I’m neither churlish nor ideological enough to deny her credit for that.

There is no war against religion. Most people who personally have no heavenly inclination accept it as something to be tolerated, even supported in the name of freedom of expression. Furthermore, even governments are intelligent (or electorally aware) enough to understand the ramifications of suppressing religious expression or defending the expression of one particular one with state resources. Of course, where Odone may be getting all confused is the difference between governments which are not as explicitly theocratic as they once were (back when blasphemy was a crime and non-Anglicans were barred from Oxbridge) and governments which see religion as politically unimportant. Or maybe she was just trying to find a useful way to plug her ebook on a similar topic, which she mentioned in her article…

The article can be read here: