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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Realistic Religion

Friday, January 12, 2007

In relation to religion, I tend to get riled very easily, partly because of the effect of fundamentalism exercised in the name of democracy, and partly because of the abuse and misunderstanding of science perpetrated by proponents of Intelligent Design. So the short fuse of my indignation was lit quite quickly by a couple of issues in the news last week.

Firstly, there was the case of Exeter Students' Guild being taken to court because it had suspended Exeter University Evangelical Christian Union from the student body. The guild decided on the measures because the religious group asked members to sign a statement of religious belief; the union argued that"as students fund our societies and as our Equal Opportunities Policy states, all activities should be open to all students. The Evangelical Christian Union is the only society identified that has barriers to entry - both for membership of the society and to be on the committee of the society." As barrister Schona Jolly analysed, this is a tricky case now being tested under the Human Rights Act, and "is about a clash of competing equalities." On the one hand is the right to have the freedom to maintain and assert a religious faith, and on the other is the right of all minorities to have equal access to any publically funded group. I hope that the courts find for the Students' Union, since they represent the majority of non-evangelical students at the university: there are probably more people of other faiths, or of unorthodox sexual orientations who might potentially be excluded from joining the single Christian group, than there are fervent Christians who are going to be excluded from the rights and funding other societies receive from the University.

Nevertheless, the case is a difficult one to judge, and I await the outcome with interest. Less ambiguous is the moral issue surrounding Christian protests against the new Gay Rights bill. This piece of legislation would prevent discrimination in the provision of goods, services and employment on the basis of sexual orientation; it thus provides similar legal protection as the sexual, racial and disability discrimination acts afford. At the rally, however, Michael Reid, the leader of a pentecostal church in Essex complained that:
I believe in freedom of conscience, and when anyone starts imposing views that are against freedom of religion, then we are moving into a state that I think is evil
But is it not equally possible to substitute "sexuality" where "religion" appears in the quote? Because there is no finite scale against which "evil" can be measured, then one can equally well say that to impose views against freedom of sexuality is wrong. The United Kingdom is not a theocracy but a democracy, and if religious people feel against this bill - and I can understand why under some interpretations of the Bible they might well do - then they are more than welcome to exercise the freedom of conscience they enjoy in such a state, and vote against the government. But, as it is, we have a government which, in accordance with the Human Rights Act, has decided to protect a sexual minority, just as it protects the minority of Christians (and it is now a minority, according to one pre-Christmas poll) from abuse and prejudice. Can you imagine the headlines if a gay rights group decided to exclude all Christians?

Tobias Jones, who has written a new book exploring religious communes, notes that, "religion is like a swimming pool: all the noise is at the shallow end, and that is the only end people see." I agree. To me, the great failure of religion in the modern age has been its failure to separate its ethics from its theology. As I said before in my comments on the Eagleton vs. Dawkins debate, a religion does not last for two thousand years without having something of moral value to assert, and our culture, secular though it may be in a popular and political sense, is still saturated with the morality of Christian faith. However, too often the Biblical position is taken as a absolute prescription for resolving contemporary issues, rather than the Biblical text being taken as a general foundation for ethics; thus for an atheist, with the Bible and ethics remaining closely tied, it becomes hard to acknowledge the reason of the Christian speaker, because that reason is so inextricably linked to a text I simply don't believe, except as an historical narrative.

However, just as I start to get cynical and sarcastic about these shallow religious voices at their end of the swimming pool, I hear a more considered voice as I munch on my cornflakes one morning, a voice which reminds me (even chastises me) that I risk becoming prejudiced against a Christian stereotype I construct for myself. Speaking on Radio 4's "Thought for the Day," the Bishop of Putney, Reverend Dr. Giles Fraser, explains why he thinks the law on sexual discrimination should be accepted by the Christian community as a whole. Judging by the comments on the BBC message board, he caused many non-liberal Christians to splutter into their breakfast bowls. He caused this atheist, however, to pause, and to take a more objective stance on what threatened to become, for me, two more pieces of black-and-white evidence of the dangers of religion.

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Posted by Alistair at 10:21 pm

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