Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Christianophobia

I am slightly bemused but not really surprised that there has been a debate in Parliament on the subject of Christianophobia. Apparently the word exists. It's no surprise to find that it was an invention of right wing American Christians in books with titles like "Is Europe Dying? Notes on a Crisis of Civilizational Morale". Check this summary, read the comments, and be angered/scared in equal proportions. But enough of America's starey eyed over articulate fundamentalists. I wonder what Christianophobia means in Britain. And I wonder what the LibDem response was in the debate - haven't had a chance to look it up yet.

I am a Christian, though not a model one. I rarely go to church because I do not find God there; I preach occasionally, on behalf of Christian Aid. I must be in a minority as far as Mark Pritchard is concerned because I do not feel discriminated against in the slightest. I do wonder what people mean when they talk about the UK's (or is it "England's" - that's another debate entirely) Christian traditions, heritage, culture, all that stuff. The current fact is that I am in a minority as far as being a practising Christian is concerned, and I do not see that I have any more right than any other religionist to determine the social and legal mores of the country I live in. As a Christian I find it laughable that people call this country "Christian". It isn't any more, and hasn't been for a long time. OK, fellow Christians, get over it. There's nothing to prevent Christmas being Christ-mas if we want it to be so for ourselves, but we need to face the fact that for the vast majority of the country, it's a retail festival. People are free to make of Christmas what they will, and what the majority choose to make of it is a credit card debt. Let them.

If we want to be taken seriously, then maybe we should take ourselves more seriously. The main choices I have at the moment are:
- an international brand many of whose adherents worship Mary more than Jesus, and whose hierarchy has only just given up (if in fact it has given up) protecting for life any priest that has been found abusing children, and has still to come clean about its role in the persecution of Jews during the Nazi era
- my own brand, also international, who seem to believe that the three desirable qualities are faith, hope and niceness, and the greatest of these is niceness, except when it comes to either gay priests or women as bishops, depending on which flavour you're with at the time, but who in fact seem to spend far too much of their time wringing their hands over the cost of running their huge cathedrals. But we're led by a man with a nice beard.
- the silliest lot by far who indulge in the most extraordinary intellectual gymnastics to insist that every word of the bible is literally true, and that all the bits about homosexuals have to be obeyed, while all the bits about living simply are to be interpreted. (Short pause while I wait for a thunderbolt to strike.... Nope. Still hasn't.)

Don't get me wrong. I know, as well as anyone, that a lot of good work is done by Christians, and a lot of valid prayer is prayed by Christians. But we don't half spend a lot of time messing about as well.

There is a paradox or two at the heart of this, which I'm not sure I have the capacity to explain, but I'll try. One part of it is that any rational observer looking at this country would say that Christianity is by far the most powerful religion in it (with the possible exception of shopping). Yet there are Christians who genuinely feel put upon. It's not a majority, as Mr Pritchard would like to claim. Mr Pritchard said apparently that we should claim "full minority rights". It would be helpful if first we admitted that we *are* a minority, and stopped expecting to be treated differently just because the majority of the country "used to be" Christians. Perhaps some individual Christians do have a hard time if they try to put their faith into practice, but, despite all the press about political correctness, I doubt if it's any harder than it is for the average Muslim, Hindu, Jainist, etc.

I'm not sure if this is good blog etiquette but I'm going to end this post here in this unfinished form. I have more thoughts coming, but they're in too complex a form to express yet, and I'd like to see what reactions this post gets while it's still fresh.

16 comments:

mhuntbach said...

I've been debating this with James Graham on his blog, and, yes, I do feel put upon.

As someone with a background in your first mentioned "international brand" I do get fed up with the way it is generally portrayed in liberal circles almost exclusively in terms of the most negative interpretation of the most negative aspects of it. Your comments illustrate my point nicely. Actually in the Nazi era there were Catholics who went along with it, and Catholics who stood up against it and died in the concentration camps for it. But the RC Church is generally portrayed as if it gave uncritical support to the Nazis.

The problem is that even trying to protest about this negative portrayal and suggesting more balance tends to get one dismissed with snide comments and the assumption that one is some sort of blinkered fool who is just toeing the party line.

It's a bit like owning up to being a Liberal in Conservative or Labour circles, even a sort of dissident one who is frequently unhappy with the party line. Once you've opened your big fat mouth and said "Heh, come on, be fair chaps, it isn't all like you've painted it", that's it - you're typecast as a party puppet, and you have to endure endless rounds of every anti-Liberal joke going.

So sometimes it's easiest just to keep that big fat mouth shut. And let the lunatic fringe (and, yes, there's certainly a Catholic lunatic fringe) do all the talking, which just causes the stereotypes and negativity to get dug in deeper.

Rob said...

I'm a bit mystified because I've looked at James Graham's blog and the only person I can see there replying to him on the Pritchard post is Rob Knight. Are you the same person or amI missing something?

First of all, I respect your faith and your views. but I'm curious about where your feeling of being put upon comes from. The point I'm making in my post is that Christianity is in fact very powerful in this country. Pritchard in fact is using the very familiar tactic of claiming to be victimised in order to maintain a position of power. Are you feeling put upon ebcause other religionists are given a better deal than you are - which is a large part of the platform on which Pritchard stands. I genuinely want to know.

Please note that I do not criticise any of the churches in a blanket fashion. I criticise the Catholic church for one highly publicised failing in the field of paedophilia, which deserves to be highly publicised. Given their track record which is now known to have lasted over several decades, I think it is legitimate to ask whether the Catholic church has actually reformed its practice in thsi area or is just hoping that it won't be found out again. And I did not portray the Catholic church as being entirely collaborationist. I made the point that many Catholics are good Christians, but I made the specific point that the Catholic church has still not comeclean about its role in the Holocaust. Is that true or is it not?

The point I'm making is mostly about the institutions in these churches rather than the people. I do think that someof the practices of the worshipers in these churches are a bit silly too, but I respect their right to do them if they so choose. What I still don't see is how a Christian in this country has any basis for saying that they feel more put upon than people of any other religion. I'm still puzzled about this, and if you can enlighten me, I'll be grateful.

mhuntbach said...

My comments were attached to an article a little earlier by James on Christian Odone, though I was prompted to write there by the Mr Pritchard article.

You suggest that Christianity is "very powerful" in this country, but I don't think it is. Very few people are active adherents to Christianity in this country, most people have only the haziest idea about what it is. I'm not complaining about this, it's just a fact. Most people's idea of Catholciism in particular seem to be based only on newspaper headlines about condoms and paedophiles etc, together with the historical origin of British nationalism in anti-Catholicism.

I'm not feeling put upon because other religions get a better deal than I am, I am feeling put upon because you and many others (particularly in liberal circles), when you mention my religion do so in unremittingly negative terms. You pick out only negative aspects of it, you jump to the worst possible conclusions about them, you assume the worst possible motivations of those involved in it.

I enjoy the ritual, the tradition, the quiet meditation, and the companionship that is involved in my religion. Whether or not there is some supernatural "truth" out there it links in to, or it can all be regarded as just allegory is not so important to me, which is why I prefer to put it in terms of religious practices rather than religious beliefs. It's a big and historical organisation, so of course it has plenty of skeletons in its cupboard, and attitudes taken in the past which we find astonishing today. But that's also a sign it's an organisation of human beings who are "sinners" to use the technical term.

One could argue with the things you have written: there has actually been a massive program of child protection work in the Catholic Church in England in recent years, as I already said there were Catholics who stood bravely against the Nazis and there were Catholics who didn't - but why should I have to keep on doing this? So, yes, I do feel as if I am being picked on when I see how my religion is covered in public commentary, as the bad things are picked out, mentioned again and again, twisted and made worst, lied about and made even worse, none of things I like about it are even mentioned or they are just dismissed as hypocrisy, and if I complain about the one-sided negativity in which I'm facing, I just accused of having a "martyr complex" or "claiming to be victimised in order to maintain a position of power".

It does seem to me that in liberal circles, if anyone is unremittingly negative about Islam, portrays it only in terms of bad things some of its adherents have done, jumps to the worst possible assumptions about its beliefs and practices, picks out and emphasises times in its history when bad things have been done in its name, and suggests present day Islam wants to do all the same, such a person is condemned as "Islamophobic".

I would say they are entitled to their view and to express it, just as anyone who has an unremittingly negative view of my religion is entitled to that view and to express it. But I will note it as a phenomenon - that there seem to be a significant nukber of people who get very worked up about my religion and who seem to take a particular delight in kicking it and jumping to the worst possible conclusions about it. It is hypocritical when people like this seem to be considered fine liberals but they'd be considered a bit dubious if the religion they expresed such hatred for and displayed such ignorance in real understanding of it was Islam rather than Catholicism.

Rob said...

MH "an article a little earlier by James on Christian Odone"

Ah. I see it now.

MH: "You suggest that Christianity is "very powerful" in this country, but I don't think it is. Very few people are active adherents to Christianity in this country, most people have only the haziest idea about what it is. I'm not complaining about this, it's just a fact."

I didn't actually say "very powerful", I said it was more powerful than all the other religions. I might argue that it is in fact very powerful. The fact that very few people are actually Christians doesn't mean it's not powerful when it has an institutionalised place in our constitution, and is the only religion protected by blasphemy laws - unless they've been repealed lately, which I have to admit I'm confused about.

MH: "You pick out only negative aspects of it, you jump to the worst possible conclusions about them, you assume the worst possible motivations of those involved in it."

But I didn't do that. I gave two factual examples of bad things about the Catholic church. They were not factually incorrect were they? And they were balanced by examples of bad things about my own denomination. I wasn't just having a go at Catholics.

I went on to say that I know, as well as anyone, that a lot of good work is done by Christians, and a lot of valid prayer is prayed by Christians. If you want me to pick out Catholics specifically, I'm happy to do so.

MH: "It does seem to me that in liberal circles, if anyone is unremittingly negative about Islam, ... and suggests present day Islam wants to do all the same, such a person is condemned as "Islamophobic"."

I agree; and if that was happening to Christians, I would call it Christianophobic. But that doesn't happen, and neither did I do it in my blog. I was factual. If you want me to agree that many Catholics stood up against Nazism, then, OK, fine, I say it now. And I will assert it vigorously against anyone who tries to say that the Catrholic church is evil. And I did not say that the church in general gave uncritical support to the Nazis. But will you agree with me that the hierarchy of the church is still keeping secrets about what it did do?

All of this does not detract from my basic position taht Christianity is more powerful than any other religion in this country today, and Mr Pritchard, in stirring the canard of Christianophobia was merely trying to maintain a privileged position.

mhuntbach said...

Your argument that "Christianity is in fact very powerful in this country" seems to boil down to the blasphemy law. In practice one can only find one rather contrived prosecution under that law in recent years. Articles condemning Christianity and making fun of it can and are written freely. To suggest that a law which in practice seems to mean almost nothing somehow makes Christianity "very powerful" is nutty. I would suggest that far, far more powerful these days is the manufactured religion of "celebrity" worship. This year's popstars may well have more influence on what people do and think than all the mainstream Christian denomination put together.

You claim to have given two "factual examples" about the Catholic Church - well, they were more opinion than factual, "when did you stop beating your wife?" type questions. The intention seemd to be to suggest that the Catholic Church played an active part in the Nazi holocaust and that it had done nothing to tackle tha paedophile problem - neither of which is true, or is at best a very skewed opinion. And why did you choose to identify the Catholic Church by two very negative supposed aspects of it? If this were just an isolated example, fine, I'd leave it as just your opinion and suppose you are just someone who doesn't like Catholics and likes to think the worst of them. But when I find, for example, almost every LibDem blogger who has made a comment on the topic recently making similar points - and similar points coming almost every time there's comment on my religion in the liberal newspaper I read, I do get a bit fed up and think there's a bit of prejudice going on, but when I say so I get personal accusation thrown at me about "martyr complex" and the like.

I do believe that "Christianophobia" is a real thing in Britain today, and it comes about because most people in this country have no connections with Christianity, and so tend to assume the worst of it, or judge it by its unfortunately vocal extreme fringe. Those of us who aren't part of that extreme fringe are forced into the position of either remaining silent for the sake of a quiet life and because we really don't want to get categorised as "that guy who is always banging in about Christianity", and getting dragged into arguments where the underlying assumption is that we're evil and we're having to defend ourselves against what seems to be trumped up charges.

Sadly, one of the consequences I am seeing of this rise of Christianophobia in liberal circles is a shift to conservatism in Church circles. That is what I was getting at in my comment on James's comment on Christina Odone. If someone like Odone is being wound up to write intemperate stuff like that, it suggests something is going wrong, and that should be considered seriously, rather than Odone kicked down.

I would also recommend looking at Melania McDonagh's article in this week's New Statesman, where she notes a rising tode of anti-Catholicism in popular entertainment.

Let is consider an example which McDonagh did't - the "Da Vinci Code". A silly pot-boiler, yes? Yes, I think so. But imagine such a silly pot-boiler being written about Islam. It would involve a story line where the Quran was a contrived lie which covered up the real life of Mohamed, and that senior Muslims knew this to be the truth, but were organised into assassinating people who tried to reveaal it. Now just how long would anyone associated with producing such a silly pot boiler last?

Look, I don't mind silly pot boilers, I don't mind negative comment. All I am asking is WHY THE FUCK IS IT ALWAYS US CATHOLICS THAT GET IT?

Rob said...

Once again, you're exaggerating my view in order to oppose it. I did not say that the Catholic church does nothing about paedophile priests. I said it did nothing for several decades: that is a fact, provable, undeniable.

You have again ignored the fact, as I have pointed out now twice, that I did not criticise the Catholic church solely, but included in my critiques my own church and others.

I did not rest my case for the power of Christianity just on the blasphemy laws, but on the factual, provable, undeniable fact of Christianity's unique role in our constitution.

You have ignored once again my basic point that Mr Pritchard in sitrring up a debate about Christianophobia was speaking from a position of great power relative to representatives of other religions, and indeed relative to most secular institutions too.

As for the New statesman article, that strikes me as a typical piece of chatterati chatter, people who think they're intellectuals talking to other people who think they're intellectuals. "Every group needs its bogeymen to reinforce a collective identity and, for British liberalism, that function is usefully fulfilled by the Church."???? Please. I will not be corralled by that generalisation. That's just a hack journalist jumping on the Pullman bandwagon in order to get paid this week's £500.

Yes, Christianity suffers from the secularism of daily life; yes, there are - a few - Christianophobes around. Just don't take them so seriously. Laugh at them, for they know not what they do. Every time Richard Dawkins comes on the screen I have a good giggle, because his obsession with religion has made him leave scientific method and manners of debate completely behind.

I respect your views, Matt. I understand that you feel put upon, and I respect your feelings too. But I suspect we're going to have to agree to differ on the place the church as a whole currently occupies in British society.

mhuntbach said...

Your comments about your own Church were mostly positive, your comments about my Church were wholely negative. While your caricature of the Anglican Church was that it was nice and well-meaning but sometimes a bit daffy, and had a few bad types at the fringe, you chose to caricature the Catholic Church by three things, one of which is a standard piece of Protestant prejudice, and the others linking it to paedophilia and Nazism, as if these are the principal aspects of the Catholic Church. This would not matter so much if it were not for the fact that I find this same sort of negative bashing of my Church repeated time and time again in liberal circles.

I'm not saying these aren't valid opinions, I'm just saying I'm fed up of being caught in a dilemma of knowing they're one sided and based to a large extent on prejudice rather than real facts, but knowing also there's a huge pressure on me to "keep quiet and laugh it off".

I don't get your point about Christianity having some huge power in the constitution. There are Church of England bishops in the House of Lords, yes, but that's largely powerless. Apart from that, it's a bit of ceremonial that doesn't mean any real power. Kicking Christianity on the basis one imagines it's some huge power in this country which needs to be curtailed strikes me as fighting a battle that's long been won.

I don't think the New Stateman article is just "Chatterati", it was making the point that recently there's been a whole slew of popular entertainment, in which the Catholic Church, fictionalised to some extent, has been held up as the evil bogeyman. What other group in our society gets treated like this? Suppose someone wrote a book and a film was made like the Da Vinci code, only the religion attacked was Judaism rather than Catholicism - a film in which there was supposedly some huge Jewish conspiracy to control the world, tell lies, and kill people who interfered? Would you advise Jews just to "laugh it off?".

All the point I'm making is that if we get our fair share of criticism, fine, and if we get one-sided attacks from time-to-time, fine, that sort of thing happens when you have freedom of speech. But just why is it ALWAYS us that gets the attacks and the negativity? After a while one gets fed up and says "enough is enough - give us a break". That's all I'm doing.

Rob said...

MH "What other group in our society gets treated like this?"

Jews get beaten up for being Jewish. Muslims get beaten up for being Muslims. When was the last time a Catholic got beaten up for being a Catholic (except in Northern Ireland - and there I concede you have a point)?

mhuntbach said...

I am told that many Catholic priests now prefer not to wear clerical outfit when travelling on public transport or walking the streets for fear of physical attack.

My point is not that one can pick one published comment or one fictionalised portrayal and say "that's unfair, that should not be allowed", or that we are (yet) subject to gross physical bullying. It's the context of constant one-sided negativity in the public portrayal of our religion that is wearying. As I've suggested, I think we act as a safety-valve - liberals can kick us and know we won't fight back and they won't be accused of racism.

One consequence of this one-sided attack on us is that it seems to be encouraging a growth of an inward-looking conservatism within Catholic circles. It is getting harder to stand up in Catholic circles and say you're a liberal just as it is vice-versa.

Rob said...

MH: "I am told that many Catholic priests now prefer not to wear clerical outfit when travelling on public transport or walking the streets for fear of physical attack."

I had not heard that myself, and that is a very sad thing. I wonder if it is more true of Catholics than of other priests.

MH: "One consequence of this one-sided attack on us is that it seems to be encouraging a growth of an inward-looking conservatism within Catholic circles. It is getting harder to stand up in Catholic circles and say you're a liberal just as it is vice-versa"

This is one of the issues I am interested in, and which led me to post, though the first focus of my post was the attempt by Mr Pritchard to speak from power rather than to power. The other thoughts which I said were coming are still nascent. I don't find it difficult to espouse a liberal position within the Anglican church. I expect to get done over occasionally by evangelicals and by the more Catholic than the Catholics Anglo wing, but I don't take either of them very seriously. The only reason that I have difficulty as an Anglican getting taken seriously by liberals is because of people like Mr Pritchard messing around with my church. If the situation is significantly different in the Catholic church, then I was unaware of that. Still thinking. I'm about to be away for a couple of days, so if you respond to this, please don't take silence as a snub.

mhuntbach said...

The stream of bile aimed at the Catholic Church from liberal circles in the UK means that conservatives within the Church can turn round to liberals and say "Hah, you try to make friends with these people, but look how they treat us".

I wouldn't say this has yet hit ordinary members in the pews, but it's a big thing amongst the opinion formers and those close to the leadership in the Church.

Traditionally, the Catholic Church in England, with its roots largely amongst poor Irish immigrants has been left-inclined politically, though Labour rather than Liberal. The tiny upper class English element in it has an influence beyond its size, but was never a major element. In recent years the Irish have been joined by many others of immigrant background.

At one time there was quite a big movement towards the Liberal Democrats (it may have been in the Liberal/SDP times) amongst Catholics, but I fear this may be ended when so many liberals have a kneejerk "Catholics - all they are is paedophiles, Nazi-protectors, people with an obsession with condoms and homosexuals, and people who spend all their time praying to Mary" reaction.

Part of the reason I remain attached to the Catholic tradition is seeing how the Protestant evangelical tradition has become the core of the USA religious right, and I can see how this might be linked with some aspects of their theology. Even now in many parts of the third world (and in UK inner cities) there's something of a battle between Catholics who still have a fairly leftish political agenda, and evangelicals/pentecostalists who are often anti-political or right-wing. However, a recent development has been Catholics - traditionally leftish in the USA as well, being welcomed into the religious right, and this is assisted by the nastiness towards them of many liberals.

mhuntbach said...

The stream of bile aimed at the Catholic Church from liberal circles in the UK means that conservatives within the Church can turn round to liberals and say "Hah, you try to make friends with these people, but look how they treat us".

I wouldn't say this has yet hit ordinary members in the pews, but it's a big thing amongst the opinion formers and those close to the leadership in the Church.

Traditionally, the Catholic Church in England, with its roots largely amongst poor Irish immigrants has been left-inclined politically, though Labour rather than Liberal. The tiny upper class English element in it has an influence beyond its size, but was never a major element. In recent years the Irish have been joined by many others of immigrant background.

At one time there was quite a big movement towards the Liberal Democrats (it may have been in the Liberal/SDP times) amongst Catholics, but I fear this may be ended when so many liberals have a kneejerk "Catholics - all they are is paedophiles, Nazi-protectors, people with an obsession with condoms and homosexuals, and people who spend all their time praying to Mary" reaction.

Part of the reason I remain attached to the Catholic tradition is seeing how the Protestant evangelical tradition has become the core of the USA religious right, and I can see how this might be linked with some aspects of their theology. Even now in many parts of the third world (and in UK inner cities) there's something of a battle between Catholics who still have a fairly leftish political agenda, and evangelicals/pentecostalists who are often anti-political or right-wing. However, a recent development has been Catholics - traditionally leftish in the USA as well, being welcomed into the religious right, and this is assisted by the nastiness towards them of many liberals.

Rob said...

MH: “The stream of bile aimed at the Catholic Church from liberal circles in the UK”

I just don't recognise that. The Catholic church gets its fair share of criticism – and it deserves it. So do the other Christian churches, which was my point of departure.

Anyway I think I need to move on from this. I'm still absorbing the impact of Dawkins being a cultural Christian and trying to think how I can sensibly blog it.

mhuntbach said...

Just look at the sort of comments that are coming out from so-called "liberals" at Clegg's announcement that he is "bringing up his children as Catholics".

"Stream of bile" is quite an appropriate description.

Rob said...

I have to agree with you (though I might, when I've caught up with today's postings, have something to say on the identity of the posters). In fact I feel a blog coming on on the topic. I also have to eat some humble pie. In the course of our exchange I have viewed your position as unnecessarily defensive. But I have asked Catholic friends who I have known for some years about this topic, and they are closer to your view than to mine. Please forgive me- I just don't know you, and wasn't prepared to accommodate myself to your view. I am surprised - genuinely surprised - and I have had to modify my views.

mhuntbach said...

Thanks, I am glad you can now see my point. As your conversations have shown, this IS something which is increasingly worrying Catholics. That your Catholic friends were thinking about it but didn't mention it to you illustrates the dilemma - we don't want to be like those big-mouths who are always shouting out about their religion, and we don't want to be accused of having a "martyr complex", but we do feel that something is happening on our society which means we're increasingly becoming a safe punch-bag.