Over the summer, I was approached by Isaac Alderman of Sinai & Synapses and asked if I would participate in an interview on the interaction between ‘science’ and ‘religion’ from my perspective within critical Religious Studies, as co-founder of the Religious Studies Project, and from a UK perspective. Although I pointed out that this is not my area, I was happy to have the conversation and I am quite pleased with the results. The conversation flows through my impression of the UK context, to what I see as my approach to this ‘debate’, i.e. to view it as a social phenomenon, and to ask critical questions of context, power, definition, ideology, and so on…
You can have a watch of the video below or on the S&S website, where you can also read a full transcription. I hadn’t quite realised that there would be video recording as well as audio, so please excuse my attire, summer beard (blame the Edinburgh Festival Fringe), location, and inattention to the camera. Furthermore, as Yvonne Aburrow pointed out on Twitter, throughout this conversation I have a tendency to lazily conflate ‘religion’ with ‘Christianity’ in the main. This is an important point, as it demonstrates that being consistently ‘critical’ is not easy, and serves as a further example of the points I make in the interview about context. My discourse is often affected by the hegemonic norm of my context, despite best intentions. This is why scholarship is best as a collaborative enterprise. Enjoy!
On September 10 2014, I wrote a post titled “Why I am voting YES to Scottish Independence.” You can read it for yourself if you like, but I am always encouraged when I look back on it to see that I completely agree with everything I wrote back then. That vote didn’t go the way I wanted it to go and now, 21 months or so later, I find myself much busier (my Ph.D. thesis is due in on 30 September), a paid up member of the Scottish Green Party (I joined the day after the Scottish Independence referendum, on 19 September 2014), with another referendum coming up – this time on whether the UK should remain in the European Union.In the post below, I use some of my tweets over recent months to articulate my views on the matter.
My reasons for wanting to the UK to remain in the EU are broadly similar to my reasons for wanting Scotland to leave the UK. #noparadox
— Chris Cotter (@the_cotter_man) May 16, 2016
Some people might think it is an oxymoron for someone to want Scotland to leave the United Kingdom, but yet want the United Kingdom to remain in the European Union. However, I think that this view comes from the stereotypical assumption that anyone who wanted Scotland to leave the UK must be in some way a nasty flag-waving bigot who loves destroying cherished institutions that have existed from centuries – if this was the case, why wouldn’t the same uncritically (and this word is important) nationalistic people want to break away from another larger body?
First off, let’s get it out there – I do not like what the UK as an institution stands for. I don’t know that I ever really have since I have been ‘politically conscious’. This is not to say I don’t like the people who make up the UK. Or ‘other’ nations in the UK. But, as an institution, the UK is not something I am proud of. The chance to reform the UK as a whole, starting from the ground up, was a large part of my wanting to leave the UK. Similarly, the prevalent attitude in the UK towards the EU as I perceive it is not something I like.
I don’t understand why the EU put up with the belligerent, uncooperative, self-important, “dreams of Empire”-driven parasite that is the UK
— Chris Cotter (@the_cotter_man) June 3, 2016
Personally, I am of the opinion that many of the ‘problems’ that UK citizens perceive with the EU are in no small part due to the regnant exceptionalist attitude, epitomized by the EU rebate negotiated by Thatcher, and David Cameron’s recent attempts at gaining ‘concessions’. The relationship that the UK currently has with the EU is not the one I want… but it’s better than the prospect of leaving. As Maggie Chapman, co-convener of the Scottish Green Party has recently much more eloquently put it:
Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, we must consider our current political context. In Scotland, and in the UK, a vote to leave will be a victory for the right. The momentum in this campaign comes from and sits with a right wing leave case that says we must shut our borders, that we must reinvigorate the Empire, that we must make Britain great again. That sends shivers down my spine.
It means going back to the days of the Raj, and a colonial project in Africa that was profoundly racist. And in the 100th anniversary year of the Easter Rising, which had everything to do with challenging imperial and anti-democratic monarchical power, we need to reclaim some of the collective solidarity of that century-old republican movement.
The right wing case to leave is the dominant narrative, presented by people who think that imperialism is the highest form of capitalism, and that that is a good thing. However much we might wish it not to be the case, siding with these people means siding with those who do not not believe that the world has changed since the 19th century. As an immigrant from post-colonial Southern Africa, that horrifies me.
On another note…
As with the referendum on Scottish Independence, I am so sick and tired of this EU Referendum being made to be about economics.
— Chris Cotter (@the_cotter_man) May 12, 2016
I am fed up hearing from business people about their opinions on the EU. I could not care less what money has to say.
— Chris Cotter (@the_cotter_man) May 19, 2016
No economic argument could sway me to leave the EU… Money comes and goes, but connections and pan-nation politics are worth saving!
— Chris Cotter (@the_cotter_man) May 12, 2016
For me, the EU is about so much more than money. Money comes and goes, and in our post-Empire, G7, G8, G20, G-etc. privileged position, we really don’t need to worry about it. Whatever happens, the financial wizards will magic up some other money, or find someone else to exploit for it. But the EU holds us to account. We put in money – much less than we should, of course – and it comes back with progressive conditions. Protecting the environment. Protecting workers’ rights. Regenerating areas that badly need it. And so on. But even more than that, the EU is an international exercise in co-operation, flying in the face of current ideologies of ‘protecting one’s own’.
Bloomberg says you should vote for what you think is best for you and your family. I disagree. We need to think bigger. About humanity.
— Chris Cotter (@the_cotter_man) May 19, 2016
This altruism, as I see it, should extend to migrants – whether from the EU or not. And rather than picking on those who have left their homes to come to the UK to work, perhaps we should be blaming those in power – politicians, employers etc. – for the lack of jobs, the poor state of the economy, growing inequality, stresses on our welfare system etc. I’ve written before about the need to defend the ‘wrong-type of immigrant‘, so I shan’t retread things here. But, another point to make is that
Maybe helping to address the inequality between EU countries would help address people’s reasons for migrating? UK should give MORE not less
— Chris Cotter (@the_cotter_man) June 3, 2016
Finally, I think the EU is great for Green causes…
I’m #GreenBecause I believe in a politics of optimism, and in making sacrifices now that will benefit people and planet for generations
— Chris Cotter (@the_cotter_man) May 4, 2016
I’m not naive. Much as I know things might not have worked out for the better if Scotland left the UK, so too I know that remaining in the EU doesn’t automatically make things better. But the EU holds the UK to account. It holds the Tories to account. It holds London to account. It allows progressive legislation to be pushed through and then rhetorically blamed on an outside force – “Oh, we’d totally lift fishing quotas, but it’s that EU making us do it” etc.
Don’t leave the UK at the mercy of the Tories, UKIP and their ilk. Don’t turn immigrants into the bad guys. Please… if you have a vote in this referendum… vote for the UK to remain in the EU.
Those of you in the UK might have seen images like this one in your travels around the internet or around London. I don’t know much about the campaign, but you can find out more about it here. Essentially, it is has emerged in the context of a highly toxic public debate in the UK on the issue of immigration, and aims to ‘humanise’ the debate, showing that immigrants are real people who make ‘real contributions’ to the UK.
What follows is a version of some thoughts that I posted to Facebook this morning, and I feel comfortable making them publicly.
First off, this is definitely a good first step. Hurrah! Those of you who know me, and have read my previous posts (particularly on why I voted YES in the Scottish Independence referendum) will know that I am pro-immigration through and through. But two thoughts have crossed my mind upon learning of this campaign, and I say this having only been able to find images of about 2/3 of the posters.
The first is that ‘this type of immigrant’ is exactly the ‘type of immigrant’ that UKIP wants. No political party is saying it doesn’t want ‘hardworking immigrants’ with great cultural capital who will bring ‘economic’ and other benefits to the country. I really worry about turning immigrants into a ‘positive economic investment’. Even my own party, the Scottish Green Party, have had to bow somewhat to this dominant societal discourse and frame their progressive and compassionate views on immigration in their manifesto largely in terms of economic and cultural benefit:
We believe Scotland should be a welcoming country where immigrants are celebrated as an asset to our economy and enriching for our culture. Immigration is a great benefit to Scotland, just as Scots have benefited over the generations through migration to other countries. We will consistently challenge the toxic rhetoric used by too many politicians which turns people against their neighbours. We will reinstate the post-study work visa to allow students who study at UK universities to stay and use their education in Britain. We will reform the dysfunctional approach of the UK Visas and immigration agency to meet Scottish immigration needs. We will create an asylum system which treats people with dignity.
In my view, ‘we’ have so much and ‘need’ to be welcoming to many other immigrants, including those who may ultimately be a ‘drain’ on ‘our’ economy. ‘We’ have space and money. Let’s give it to those who need it, not just those who can help ‘us’ out.
Secondly… and not specifically related to this campaign…what are the thoughts of those parties who adopt a pro-‘hardworking, highly-skilled immigrant’ stance on the long-term impact of such a stance? For example, what happens in a hypothetical world, 20 years from now, when a ‘visible’ change has happened in the top jobs in UK society, when ‘indigenous’ people feel that ‘the government’ has let them down by targeting folk from overseas, rather than prioritizing training ‘people who are already here’, and when the top performers in ‘our’ schools are increasingly 1.5 and second generation immigrants, the children of these highly-successful and driven people, etc? Personally, I don’t have a problem with that admittedly hypothetical future, and I would hope that others would be able to have the historical consciousness to trace such a situation in part to early-21st century tougher ‘controls on immigration’. Another possibility, is that the current xenophobia towards those who don’t fall in to the ‘highly-skilled’ and/or ‘hardworking’ category will simply be extended or transferred to those who do.
Anyway, as I say I think this campaign is a great first step, and hope to see much more of this kind of positivity in the future. I realise that there are likely a lot of generalizations and over-simplifications in this rant. I also appreciate the need for the country to not simply open its borders, but would always urge policy makers to remember that immigrants are people and not merely a potential economic gain/drain, and that we should perhaps be a bit more generous with the resources at our disposal.
Grace Davie discusses the changing nature of religion, particularly in the UK and Europe following her keynote address to the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in Milwaukee last October.
In this interview (with me… yes, you heard it, me), Professor Davie discusses the place of religion in modern Europe, paying particular attention to the place of the United Kingdom within the European context. In an effort to combat the caricatures that typify media accounts of religion in the contemporary world, Davie discusses the changing nature of religion, in academia and in the public square, and considers the impact of the arrival of new cultures into Europe, whilst reflecting on secular reactions to these.
As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, I have not had time to write about my thoughts concerning David Cameron’s recent comments that Britain is a Christian nation. If you know me, you know I disagree. My colleague David re-blogged a very interesting post by Tom Rees (first published on Epiphenom)… and I shall now do him the same privilege.
It is called Who thinks Britain should be a Christian country? and contains the brilliant conclusion that:
by emphasising the importance of Christianity for British identity, Cameron is appealing to the racists, rather than the religious, in his constituency
I have also read another (American) article today on the growing constituency of those who just don’t care about religion, God, “spirituality” or whatever. Originally published in USA Today, you can access it here on the Huffington Post website. Although I am clearly interested in the social dimensions of religion/nonreligion, and plan to devote my life to studying these, I also couldn’t give a damn about the truth of anyone’s claims… I just don’t see how it is relevant to my life. The arguments of New Atheists or the advocates of various faith positions or spiritualities ultimately have a very hard time penetrating this wall of indifference… and generally the harder people try, the less likely the wall is going to disappear.
This post is pretty behind the times, but I am going to write it anyway. I have just read an article on the Church of England website about Bishops in the House of Lords, and it provoked a couple of points to spew from my fingertips. You can read the full article here: http://www.churchofengland.org/media-centre/news/2011/11/archbishops-question-case-for-elected-house-of-lords.aspx
The first of my comments concerns the following extract:
In their submission the Archbishops express concern that the Government’s proposals do not address the question of what the powers and functions of a reformed Lords should be, focusing instead on questions of composition and election. A wholly or mainly elected House of Lords would, they argue, be more inclined to challenge the decisions of MPs and weaken the conventions that currently guarantee the primacy of the House of Commons. Conflict and gridlock between Houses would, they argue, lead to a decline in the reputation and public trust in Parliament as a whole: “We are concerned that the proposals in the Draft Bill may, by leading inevitably to a more assertive approach to conflict and disagreement with the Commons, make it harder for the institution as a whole to sustain the trust and confidence of the electorate.”
It’s lovely to see the bishops caring so much for the power of the House of Commons. One can’t help but wonder why they don’t advocate disbanding the House of Lords all together?
I think they miss a crucial point here. An elected House of Lords would not have to be made up with party-political candidates… the electorate would not even necessarily have to be the public. I think the key argument for an elected House of Lords is that being a peer does not guarantee lifetime membership. The specifics are something else entirely.
An idea I have just had, so feel free to knock it, would be that members of the Lords could be ‘banned’ from having an affiliation with any political party – much in the way that civil servants (as far as I understand it) are. If people elected to the Lords were individuals who had not affiliation to a political party (and perhaps hadn’t ever had such an affiliation) this would in some way avoid political squabbles etc. It might even be possible to introduce a three-year peerage as part of the New Year’s honours or something… Just a un-thought-through plan… let me know what you think!
Onto my second extract:
Whilst welcoming the Draft Bill’s proposals to provide continued places for bishops of the established Church in a partly appointed House, the Archbishops ask that the appointments process also have regard to increasing the presence of leaders of other denominations and faiths.
The Draft Bill and White Paper proposes a House of Lords of 300 members, with either 80% or 100% elected by proportional representation. If the reformed House were to retain an appointed element, there would be places for Church of England bishops, though reduced to 12 from their current 26. Bishops would not be allowed to remain in a 100% elected House under the Government’s plans.
The Archbishops welcome the proposals in the Draft Bill to continue with places for the Lords Spiritual, and that they should continue to be diocesan bishops of the Church of England: “If, as successive governments have accepted, there is a continuing benefit to this country in having an established Church, the presence of the Lords Spiritual in the House of Lords is one of the most important manifestations of that special relationship between Church and State.”
They also say: “We believe that there is a strong case for placing the Appointments Commission under a duty to ensure, among other things, the presence of those from across the United Kingdom who have or have had senior responsibility in churches and faiths other than the established Church.”
This is rather a long quotation for the short comment that I am going to make, but here we go:
- Ultimately, who would make the decision about which groups constituted other faiths, and which were just random groups. And would this decision be based upon number of supposed adherents, length of time in the UK, or what? And would the number of adherents be based upon the people who actually turn up to meetings, the official figures, provided by the groups themselves, or by the vast inflation that comes from asking people the question “What religion, religious denomination or body do you belong to?” (Scottish 2011 Census)?
- And the very fact that many people feel that there should be religious representation in politics raises many questions about why it is so common to invest religion with this special significance? If the idea is that thousands of people trust these leaders to do a good job and make moral decisions, then why is the argument not made that this should be extended to people who hold positions of trust in companies, charities, sports etc? And if the idea is that religious leaders are in some way fundamentally better at making moral decisions then… I don’t even need to start on all the objections to that!
My apologies for the uncharacteristic political rant.
Toward a Typology of ‘Nonreligion’: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students
It is six weeks until submit my 25,000 word MSc by Research thesis. Thank goodness I now have a title and an abstract…
Here it is, for your enjoyment:
Toward a Typology of ‘Nonreligion’: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students
This thesis details the outcomes of a small-scale research project into a relatively new and under-researched field. The aim was qualitatively to map out the different types of nonreligiosity articulated by some nonreligious students at the University of Edinburgh. Beginning by demarcating the concept of ‘nonreligion’ around which the study revolves, the author outlines: first, why such a study is necessary and worthwhile; second, the specific theoretical questions to which the study is directed; and third, the specific relevance of studying nonreligion within Religious Studies. In approaching the subject in this way, this study calls into question the reified dichotomy between religion and nonreligion, expands what the author calls the ‘nonreligious monolith’ and questions ideas of religious universality. The specifics of this study are detailed at length. Particular focus is given to the suitability of a Scottish university student population as a subject-group, and to the methodology employed, which uses electronic questionnaires and in-depth interviews to elicit unscripted narratives from selected participants. The author demonstrates that current typologies based on internally and/or externally selected and defined nonreligious identity labels, tend to be inadequate and inaccurate. Nonreligious students are shown to be highly aware of the subjectivity of their interpretations of key identity terms, and in many cases they maintain multiple identities simultaneously, in a situational and pragmatic fashion. These identities also vary in terms of concreteness and salience, and are informed by a wide variety of relationship- and education-based subjective experiences. A more nuanced approach is then proposed, based on the questionnaire and interview evidence, categorising individuals according to the overarching narrative through which they claim to interact with (non)religion. The thesis concludes by returning to the initial motivating questions – particularly concerning the reified status given to (non)religion in traditional representations – and calling for future research investment in order to continue fleshing-out the nonreligious field, and for a continued movement away from attempts to explain nonreligion from a perspective of normative religiosity.
I have just been alerted to this report on a conference I attended last month. I even make it into the associated picture… fame at last :)
Over 130 people, including academics, members of groups such as the Salvation Army, the Church of Scotland and the Pagan Federation, staff from charities like The Children’s Society and Lokahi Foundation, a representative from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and journalists, gathered to hear about new research and debate the issues.
Thanks to the Religion and Society Programme we’re now learning more about young people and religion in the UK than ever before. As part of a £12 million strategic research programme, two of the British government funded research councils (the Arts and Humanities and Economic and Social Research Councils) invested £4 million in research on youth and religion specifically. This led to the funding of 21 original research projects across UK universities. These are now starting to have findings: we heard from 8 of these on the day. The event was hosted at King’s College London by theologians Pete Ward and Alister McGrath. This is a summary of the presentations and discussion (see the bottom of this page for the conference programme and to download this report).
The main theme which arose from the research was ‘authenticity’, with that of ‘transitions’ also emerging. Young people from a range of religious and class backgrounds, many of whom live with uncertainty and change, seem to be placing a particularly high value on close, trusting relationships. Family remains a strong influence, though parents’, and religious leaders’, religiosity may be questioned – the question is always whether people can be trusted, whether they are ‘authentic’. The inadequacy of a clichéd view of religion as church-like institutional practice for capturing the sheer variety of their experiences was apparent, as were tensions with the secular mainstream. It was clear that we need to be sensitive to young people’s religious identities, really listening to them rather than making assumptions. And in the religiously plural environment of contemporary Britain no one trend can be taken for granted as universal.
Continue reading here.
I have just read the article “Longer life expectancy ‘puts people off religion’” on the BBC Website, and had a few comments to make…
The first point I would make is about is ‘fear of death’ thing. According to Dr Elissaios Papyrakis, of the University of East Anglia:
“We show that higher life expectancy discounts expected benefits in the afterlife and is therefore likely to lead to postponement of religiosity, without necessarily jeopardising benefits in the afterlife.
I would direct readers particularly to the work of Phil Zuckerman in Scandinavia. It is a well documented fact that the ‘religious’ fear death more than the nonreligous (although I suppose for religious here one should read ‘Abrahamic faiths’). I guess it stems from the fact that a definite conception of an afterlife entails the possibility of eternal punishment, or at least some sort of judgement, and no matter how sure one is that one has led a good life (by whatever standard this is being judged) there is going to be a certain amount of fear there. So maybe this correlation is correct… but it might just mean that those who fear death because they already hold to some sort of ‘religious’ conception of an afterlife will be the ones who turn to religion as they become older…
The article continues:
Dr Papyrakis said religious organisations should be prepared to accept and attract a “greying church”, with membership skewed towards the older generation, particularly in countries like the UK where life expectancy is high.
To this I would add that according to Samuel Bagg and David Voas
“religious parents in Britain have an approximately 50 percent chance of transmitting their affiliation, belief, and practice on to their children, giving religion [Christianity] a “half-life” of one generation”
From Samuel Bagg and David Voas, “The Triumph of Indifference: Irreligion in British Society,” in Atheism and Secularity – Volume 2: Global Expressions, ed. Phil Zuckerman (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2010), p. 101.
This is a well-documented fact, and were I to have more sources to hand in the office I would provide them. My point is that although we may be tempted to say that the reason churches appear to be ‘ageing’ is that the population is ageing, and although I do not deny that religion is vibrant amongst some of the ‘young’, the main reason that churches are seeing their congregations getting older is because that is just what they are doing…
The article then closes with the following passage:
However, a spokesman for the Church of England disputed the idea that people became part of an organised religion after assessing potential “benefits”.
“People go to church because they believe in something and wish to join in with a community of people who think they same way.”
He added: “The theory doesn’t fit with the US, which has the highest church-going figures in the world.
For this, look at any number of works on ‘existential security’ – particularly the work of Norris & Inglehart. Scholars of religion have been trying for many years to fir he ‘secularisation thesis’ – which works for the ‘rest’ of the Western world, with the fact that religion seems to be alive and well in the United States. Although Grace Davie would argue that Europe is ‘the exceptional case’, personally I am most convinced by the fact that in the United States the vast majority of the population live with next-to-no existential security. If you cannot afford health insurance, you literally cannot afford to get ill… parents face crippling debts and punishing hours to push their kids through college… and what about state care for the unemployed, the homeless, the elderly? Contrast this with the Scandinavian countries where levels of ‘nonreligiosity’ are amongst the highest in the world, and levels of existential security… government provision of vital services… are incredibly high. People may not join churches through ‘assessing benefits’ – as Rodney Stark and Roger Finke would suggest with their ‘Rational Choice Theory’ – but it certainly seems that the ‘need’ for religion is much greater where our ‘earthly’ needs are not being met…
These are just some thoughts off the top of my head… but I would be very interested in reading the actual text of the study.
Yesterday, Baroness Warsi, co-chairman of the Tory Party and the first Muslim woman to serve in the cabinet, warned that anti-Muslim prejudice is becoming normal in the UK. According to a BBC report on a speech she was to deliver later that day, the baroness warned “against dividing Muslims into moderates and extremist” saying that “such labels fuel misunderstanding”.
Baroness Warsi will say anti-Muslim prejudice is now seen by many Britons as normal and uncontroversial, and she will use her position to fight an “ongoing battle against bigotry”. In extracts of the speech, published in the Daily Telegraph, the peer blames “the patronising, superficial way faith is discussed in certain quarters, including the media”, for making Britain a less tolerant place for believers. […]
[…] Baroness Warsi is to say publicly what many Muslims privately complain about – that prejudice against them does not attract the social stigma attached to prejudice against other religious and ethnic groups.
[… In the past, Baroness Warsi] told the 2009 Conservative Party conference that anti-Muslim hatred had become Britain’s last socially acceptable form of bigotry, and claimed in a magazine article last October that taking a pop at the Muslim community in the media sold papers and didn’t really matter.”
In her speech, she is expected to say the description of Muslims as either moderate or extremist encourages false assumptions.
“It’s not a big leap of imagination to predict where the talk of ‘moderate’ Muslims leads; in the factory, where they’ve just hired a Muslim worker, the boss says to his employees: ‘Not to worry, he’s only fairly Muslim’,” she will say.
“In the school, the kids say: ‘The family next door are Muslim but they’re not too bad’.
“And in the road, as a woman walks past wearing a burka, the passers-by think: ‘That woman’s either oppressed or is making a political statement’.”
Baroness Warsi will say terror offences committed by a small number of Muslims should not be used to condemn all who follow Islam. But she will also urge Muslim communities to be clearer about their rejection of those who resort to violent acts.
“Those who commit criminal acts of terrorism in our country need to be dealt with not just by the full force of the law,” she will say.
“They also should face social rejection and alienation across society and their acts must not be used as an opportunity to tar all Muslims.””
It’s bizarre to find myself saying this (in that Baroness Warsi is a Conservative), but I totally agree with her on this. I certainly find myself having conversations with I would say the vast majority of my friends, about Muslims, which we would never dream of having about other faith groups. I was talking to friends at the weekend, and I started to digress on my own personal thoughts about when this started to happen. When I did so, the traditional beacon of 9/11 appeared to be the turning point. However, for me at least, this was not a moment where conversations on Islam started to take an overall negative turn, but it was the first time that I can remember EVER having conversations about Islam at all.
Now there are perhaps two keys reasons for this: firstly, I went to school in Northern Ireland, where until recently, ‘Religious Education’, even up to GCSE Level, consisted of studying Christianity. You didn’t have to agree with it (although I do remember a certain lad getting into heated arguments with teachers about whether God existed or not, etc), but the subject matter was simply Christianity, in a few of its locally-represented forms; secondly, again, this was Northern Ireland… which a decade ago was certainly not the most ethnically diverse country on the planet. I remember there was a black kid in one of the years above me… and one of my best friends had an an Arabic-sounding surname, but that was about it as far as diversity went. Even when I was a committed Christian, I don’t think I ever really stopped to consider what ‘other’ people believed… just that they didn’t ‘believe in God’. It seems that my trips to Egypt and Tunisia, and pop-cultural references (such as the many “By Allah’s” in Aladdin) just went completely over my head. And it wasn’t just Islam… I can remember the topic of another good friend’s father’s religious beliefs coming up in conversation at one point, and the response came ‘He’s a Buddhist… they don’t believe in God’, and I never thought about it any further.
I wonder how similar this is to the experiences of other 20-somethings in the UK? Probably not… given that most other parts of the UK probably had ‘actual’ Religious Education… and because most places aren’t quite as boringly homogeneous as Northern Ireland was at the end of the 90s (although, in the Northern Irish case, maybe a little less ‘religious diversity’ might have been a good thing? In fact, with the influx of immigration from various parts of the EU and further afield, we have actually seen some groups of ‘Protestants’ and ‘Catholics’ putting aside their differences to do physical harm to these new arrivals… ‘delightful’, isn’t it?). However, I have no doubt that had I not decided to embark upon Religious Studies at University, purely out of curiosity, I would be buying into the contemporary pervasive attitudes towards Islam even more than I already (hopefully unconsciously) do.
This pervasive attitude has emerged in the wake of 9/11, other terror attacks, and other sensationalised statements and actions of small minorities. The only ‘Islam’ which the vast majority of the British population are presented with, and indeed the only Islam that they are remotely interested in, is a media-distorted version propagated by a small minority of extremists/fundamentalists. In a way, this pervasive Islamaphobia is exactly what the perpetrators of various terror attacks, and the preachers of extreme interpretations of Islam would have wished to create. How could things have turned out better for them? The ‘common man’ in the ‘West’ didn’t have any major attitudes towards Islam before terrorist atrocities, combined with biased and un-educated, deadline-driven media coverage (a charge from which the BBC is not exempt), and instant internet-based publicity platforms for extremists on all sides, started to form this negative opinion.
I am not going to start talking about religious toleration… or pluralism… or where we draw the line between ‘dinner-table’ conversations and ‘bigotry’. Firstly, this is because I have almost completed another post about everyone’s favourite pastor -Mr Terry Jones – but I left my laptop at home with the document on it… boo! And secondly, because I have a very inherently negative attitude towards most forms of inter-faith dialogue etc, where the ‘religious’ are seen as having something which the ‘nonreligious’ don’t… and therefore they should all band together and try to protect this very important thing which ‘unites’ them… when really the whole idea of a religious faith essentially precludes this unity. But… before I get drawn into this.. I will echo the sentiments I stated in my very first blog post, 18 months ago, that EDUCATION about religion is ‘absolutely necessary for the future co-operation, integration and progress of the human race as the world becomes smaller, and the stakes grow higher and higher.’
On this note, I am becoming more and more swayed by the idea that certain outspoken atheists are doing a pretty good job in educating the wider public about ‘religion’ in general. Obviously, they have their own agenda which may or may not be helpful, but the simple fact is that many, many ‘religious’ people know very little about the specific tenets and narratives of the ‘faith’ that they claim to belong to, and the information provided by atheistic texts etc (if accurate, which isn’t always the case) might at least spur them to read more widely into their faith, and the faith of others. It’s one way of getting people ‘interested’ in religion again, I guess.
But, back to Baroness Warsi. Dichotomising tendencies are an inherent human problem… we all do it, and we always will. But even if people are not educated in the idiosyncrasies of individual religions, political views etc we can try and espouse an ethos where we repeatedly and continuously question the reason why we hold the opinions that we do. Religion is not a monolith. Neither is Islam. Neither is Islam a dichotomy between ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists’. If you ever hear someone trying to apply ‘common sense’ dichotomies like ‘black and white’ or ‘male and female’ to complex, human situations, you need to be suspicious. People are not either ‘religious’ or ‘nonreligious’… they are not either ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’… they are not either ‘moderate’ or ‘extreme’… the list goes on and on. Each person is an individual… whilst they may choose in certain circumstances to identify with certain groups or ideals, and whilst ‘we’ may categorise them , on occasion, dependent upon contextual variables, we tend to be much more ‘fuzzy’ than these rigid, contextualised categories allow.
Does anyone else remember Tufty the squirrel? I definitely have one of these badges kicking about in my parents’ house somewhere. Tufty advised on road safety… and his motto was, of course – “Stop! Look! and Listen!” Maybe we need to instigate a similar motto for people to use in situations where people with verbal diarrhea come out with dichotomising statements? Perhaps Baroness Warsi would like to design the mascot for this campaign?
Feel free to send in suggestions :P