The Silver Ring Thing Ding Dong

Odd case this one – a girl suing her school (which she’s leaving this year having finished her GCSEs) because they banned her from wearing her ‘Silver Ring Thing(tm)’ Ring. The SRT is a movement, not a religion. Check out the main website and its Vision and Business Plan. It is also a very odd idea. I have no problem with the idea of abstinence, although equally I don’t think it’s a big sin to have pre-marital sex. I think that making kids proclaim it with a ring is bizarre. But encouraging pledging kids to meet up and date but not go beyond a certain point, while expecting them to abide by their promise is startlingly naive and a recipe for failure. That’s not just my opinion, as a study from Texas bears out

The school concerned is Millais, in our neighbouring town of Horsham. Millais is an all-girls school, twinned with Forest Boys school. In three months time, most of the able students (and we can assume, I hope, that Lydia Playfoot is able) go on to do their A and AS levels at Collyer’s Sixth Form College.

I happened to go to Collyer’s myself, and the Millais girls were suddenly, at 16, among the testosterone-filled boys from Forest, not to mention the worldly lads from Tandridge (Horsham’s mixed school) and a few chirpy Crawley wide boys. A real test of anyone’s pledge of abstinence that, I think.

But, even so, the idea that a ring (a corporately produced one at that) is a religious symbol on a par with the Sikh kara bracelet is ridiculous. The kara is part of the central core of Sikhism, one of the ‘Five Ks’. While it is disputed, the Islamic practice of hijab has a real history. Millais would allow the wearing of a crucifix, a real Christian symbol, so it’s not like Christians are being persecuted or anything.

The fact that her parents are themselves heavily involved in the Silver Ring Thing in the UK suggests to me that this is not about her rights, as much as it is about their campaign. Now that is a true religious tradition – the use and control of the young to further the ends of the people running it.

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Arise Sir Salman

Not being a great fan of patronage and peerage, I’m not usually enthused by the Honours Lists. They are a way to recognise valuable individuals, particularly the local charity workers who may otherwise be unknown. However, it also means the usual list of old polticians, civil servants, military officers and employees of the Royal family getting a gong simply for having done a job.

This year’s Queen’s birthday list saw the knighthood of Salman Rushdie. It would be unremarkable for an esteemed author (not just a Booker, but the ‘Booker of Bookers’) to be honoured, except of course that there is more to his history.

When The Satanic Verses came out, he was accused of blasphemy (how a non-Muslim can be accused of blasphemy seems odd, surely any member of a religion that denies Allah’s place as the indivisible god of all creation is also a blasphemer). Famously, the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini condemned him to death in a fatwah.

Of course, this sort of thing undermines the idea that Islam is a religion of peace, or that it is robust enough to withstand criticism. Like the Danish cartoons affair of 2005/6, a deliberately provoked overreaction led to violence.

Today the Pakistani parliament did their best to calm tensions – by condemning the knighthood in a debate which included a government minister suggesting that it could justify suicide attacks. The Muslim Council of Britain called it an insult.

The real insult is actually the idea that people of a faith can dictate to everybody else what to read, what to say, or what to think.

While I have no problem with Muslims as people, and regard all religions as equally valid, I think that one’s beliefs are ones own affair, and should not be imposed on other people simply because they stem from a religion. That includes institutional control like a theocratic government and most definitely includes the threat of violence (or the justification of violence).

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Theo Hobson – pretentious and cowardly?

Reminding me why I don’t really intend to submit more pieces to the Guardian’s Comment is Free, along comes Theo Hobson with his: Atheism is pretentious and cowardly

A few choice quotes (as if the title wasn’t enough):

Atheism is pretentious in the sense of claiming to know more than it does. It claims to know what belief in God entails, and what religion, in all its infinite variety, essentially is. And atheism is muddled because it cannot decide on what grounds it ultimately objects to religion. Does it oppose it on the grounds of its alleged falsity? Or does it oppose it on the grounds of its alleged harmfulness?

For someone who thinks that atheism misunderstands what a belief in god entails, Theo seems to miserably miss the point about what atheism entails. The ultimate objection to religion, for most if not all proclaimed atheists, is that we don’t believe in a God or gods. After that comes the point when we notice the harmfulness of religion (and atheists and heretics have often felt that first hand in the dim and distant days of history).

Atheism is the belief that the demise of religion, and the rise of “rationality”, will make the world a better place. Atheism therefore entails an account of history – a story of liberation from a harmful error called “religion”. This narrative is jaw-droppingly naive.

Well, the last sentence is true, applied to Hobson’s text itself. Atheism is simply the lack of belief in a God(s), or the belief in a lack of God(s). While many atheists may wish that everybody else believed the same as they do, what most of us really only want is for the religious to stick to their own affairs and stop telling us what to do, based on their own beliefs. We don’t want to ‘impose’ atheism on people, or even necessarily ‘liberate’ them from religion, we just don’t agree with Christians and the other theists who believe in a variety of gods, some of whom seem to have determined that people who don’t worship them in a particular way are doomed to Hell, and should be repressed here on earth in the meantime.

Some will quibble with the above definition. Atheism is just the rejection of God, of any supernatural power, they will say, it entails no necessary belief in historical progress. This is disingenuous. The militant atheists have a moral mission: to improve the world by working towards the eradication of religion.

Quibble? No, it’s plain wrong. Atheism has no moral basis, it has a logical one. ‘Humanism’ has a moral basis, but that’s not what Hobson is attacking. As for the word ‘militant’? My goodness! While we are talking about R Dawkins, C Hitchens and AC Grayling, all they do is write and talk. Real militants use violence. That’s what ‘militant’ means – warlike, aggressive.

Let me take a step back, and ask a rather basic question. What is this thing that the atheists hate so much? What is religion? Believe it or not, I don’t know the answer. Indeed it seems to me that anyone who does claim to know is underestimating the complexity of the topic considerably. If the atheist deigns to define religion at all, he is likely to do so briskly and conventionally, as belief in and worship of some species of supernatural power. It’s a terribly inadequate definition. Dictionaries would do better to leave a blank, to admit ignorance.

Well, if a theologian doesn’t know what religion is, then who does? I despair…

In reality, “religion” is far wider than a belief in a supernatural power. This is only one aspect of what we mean by “religion”. For example there is surely something religious in the communal ecstasy of a rave, or a pop concert, or a play, or a sporting event, or a political rally. Some would say that these events are quasi-religious, that they echo religious worship, but are distinct from it. But how on earth is one to make the distinction? Is a yoga class “religious”?

What a load of piffle! A political rally as a religious experience? I suppose that makes the Communists and any other political movement you care to mention religious then? If a sporting event leads to violence, is it religiously motivated? The communal ecstasy of a rave may well be due to very real ecstasy, the drug MDMD, rather than some religious feeling.

What about a performance of a requiem? What about Hitchens’ own belief in the saving power of literature? In practice, “religion” cannot really be separated from “culture”.

Yes, it can. For example, street culture is rarely about religion.

The fact is that the relationship between religion, morality and politics is infinitely various and complex. The critic of religious abuses must be specific, particular. He must focus on particular practices, particular institutions, and explain why they have a detrimental effect on society. But the militant atheist cannot humbly limit himself to the realm of the particular; he necessarily lapses into sloppy generalisation.

‘sloppy generalisation’? Of course Hobson doesn’t dare do that, not even in the same sentence as criticising the fictional ‘militant athiest’ of it. Oh, he does.

I consider the atheist’s desire to generalise about religion to be a case of intellectual cowardice. The intellectual coward is one who chooses simplicity over complexity and difficulty. The militant atheist chooses to uphold a worldview of Animal Farm crudity: atheist good, believer bad.

Nope. If anything, it’s ‘atheism correct, theism incorrect’. But there is not really a moral imperative there. For Christians, it certainly is ‘Christianity good, everything else bad’, for Muslims it’s ‘Islam good, everything else bad’.

Is it intellectual cowardice to accept that we do not go to an afterlife, that this is all we have, the life we see? I think not. When you think about it, it’s a scary thought. The less brave prefer to cosset themselves in myths and dream of an infinite life of happiness, and the religious creeds promise such a life – if you just follow our rules…

There’s more – such as ad hominem attacks on Christopher Hitchens (at least one of which didn’t get into print as an editor snipped it out). But essentially Theo Hobson accuses the atheist (not always being careful to distinguish between the ‘militant’ variety and the general common-or-garden unbeliever) of pretentiousness while waffling on about how all culture is essentially religious, because some of the feelings in a big group of people are like the same feelings as we get in a church. He accuses them of intellectual cowardice when he hasn’t even got the courage to tell us what religion actually is. He attacks generalisations while concocting a picture of rampaging atheists in jackboots, stomping all over the poor fluffy religions and tarring all who choose not to believe in a God with the same brush.

Unsurprisingly, the comments below the article are heated and reactionary.

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