The forces of militant obscurantism, bigotry, intolerance, and social regression, are on the march in Britain! Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor has implicitly advised Catholics to vote for Michael Howard’s Conservative party in the General Election, on the grounds that the Tories support a lower limit for legal abortion — 20 weeks of pregnancy instead of 24.
“Abortion, for Catholics, is a very key issue”, declared the cardinal. “We are totally opposed to it. The policy supported by Mr Howard is one that we would also commend, on the way to a full abandonment of abortion… There has been a notion in the past that Catholics would be more in support of the Labour party because they were working-class people. Now I’m not so sure that will be quite so true today…”
This open intervention into party politics by the chief Catholic priest in the UK is an extraordinary development. It comes after a series of muscle-flexing exercises by Sikhs, Muslims, and Protestant Christians.
Sikhs forced the closure of a play — about Sikhs, by a Sikh — in Birmingham. The demonstrations and the storming of the theatre by Sikhs had the vocal support of both the Anglican and the Catholic bishops of Birmingham.
Christians raised a tremendous outcry against the screening on BBC TV of the satirical stage production, “Jerry Springer the Opera”. They didn’t succeed in stopping it being screened, but by their campaign they have told anyone who might offend and defy them again to expect ructions. A cancer charity decided to refuse to accept a donation from a special performance of the show after it received threats from a Christian group.
Some Christians are trying to organise a “direct action” campaign against abortion, modelled on the campaign in the USA, whose supporters have burned clinics and killed medicos who offended them.
Tony Blair, concerned that Muslims had been alienated from the Labour Party by the war in Iraq, bowed to Muslim pressure to bring in, on top of the existing laws that, rightly, outlaw racist incitement, legislation outlawing incitement to religious hatred.
What do all these things have in common? They are all attempts by religious groups and their leaders to control and regulate what other people do and what society tolerates; to impose their standards on those who do not accept them — to use political pressure, sustained campaigns, and, in Birmingham, physical coercion and the threat of it, to impose the standards of religions and their churches on the affairs of what is very largely a secular society.
The sum total of all the actively religious people of all denominations in Britain is a minority of the population. But they are organised and increasingly vocal minorities prepared, despite their differences, to support and encourage each other against the secularists, and that gives them a disproportionate weight.
In recent months we have seen a series of religious minorities sparking off and encouraging each other towards greater assertiveness. The “established” Anglican Church has over decades seen its congregations, influence, and respect shrink like the proverbial snowball in Hell. But even Anglicanism has been raising its long-muffled voice of assertive bigotry. If Sikhs and Muslims can do it, why not the Church of England? Why not the Catholic cardinal?
Both Protestants and Catholics are inspired also by the power organised religion has built up in the USA, which in the recent presidential election it deployed for Bush. John Kerry’s attitude to abortion — his commitment to a woman’s right to choose, though he himself is a Catholic — became an issue in the presidential election.
Murphy-O’Connor, who is Irish, comes from a world in which for decades the Catholic bishops told the politicians what to do and not do. They grew so accustomed to power and unquestioning obedience that, as rebel Dublin government minister Dr Noel Browne — who fell foul of the bishops when he tried to bring in basic state health care for mothers and their small children — reported in his memoirs, they resented not only being given an argument by a government minister, but being asked for an explanation of their stand!
The power of the Catholic Church in Ireland has taken a sustained battering for a decade or more, as it has in the USA and other countries, from a seemingly endless series of sex scandals. The fact that so many of the professionally holy ones, where they had the power to do it, sexually and physically abused vast numbers of children and young people, has destroyed much of their authority.
But that does not dent Murphy-O’Connor’s certainty that he knows what is right. He thinks he has a right and, as he believes, a duty to his God, to impose his views on as many people as possible.
This man — who is, according to the vows he took on ordination as a priest, either a life-long celibate or a hypocrite — and his church oppose not only abortion but also the birth control, and education and practical help for young people, which would lessen the number of abortions.
Murphy-O’Connor’s chosen issue, abortion, illustrates what is at stake in the march of obscurantists back to the central place they used to have in social policy-making. There is indeed a line between abortion and infanticide. The development of medical science may shift that line by changing the age of effective viability. But that should be discussed rationally and decided democratically, and not by political priests whose policies on birth control increase the need for abortion while their policy of restricting and, if they can, banning, legal and safe abortion would return us to the days of back-street abortion and the butchering of unwillingly pregnant women.
The price of freedom is eternal vigilance. The secular majority in Britain is diffuse. It is militant only episodically. It is complacent about the widespread adherence of large numbers of people who no longer have any serious belief in religion to such primitive sub-religious nonsense as astrology.
It is sapped in its secularism by the social pessimism and worry about the consequences of the use of technology which is now widespread.
It tends to be tolerant, liberal, and self-disarmingly contemptuous towards religious beliefs, especially where they are the beliefs of ethnic and immigrant minorities. It is afraid to be bigoted in opposing militant bigotry. It tends to confuse religious tolerance under the law, which should be respected and defended, with polite tolerance by secular people towards gross superstition and towards the assertiveness of self-righteous superstition-mongers like Murphy-O’Connor.
In Europe there are now sizeable ethnic minority and immigrant groups whose intensity of religious feeling is in stark contrast to the general draining away of religious commitment over many decades in Europe. Such communities can be a force for social regression, in the way that in the UK the mass migration of Catholics from Ireland, and the sizeable influx of Polish and Ukrainian Catholics after World War Two, has made the once miniscule Catholic Church a social power whose leader now dares openly interfere in party politics.
“Respect” for “cultural differences” has contributed to such things as eight-year-old Victoria Climbié being beaten and starved to death. Victoria’s great-aunt and her partner slowly murdered the helpless little girl because they believed she was possessed by demons.
A recent Newsnight investigation established that the belief is widespread among some African communities in London that children and others can be possessed by demons, and that beating and starving them and the ministrations of high-priced “specialist” witch-doctors are the ways to expel those demons. Large numbers of children are beaten and ill-treated because some adults, parents or “specialists”, have pronounced them “possessed”.
In “mainstream” culture, very popular films about demonic possession and the exorcism of the demons cannot but buttress such beliefs, which are akin to the beliefs which led to the mass murder of women in Christian Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries on suspicion that they were witches.
The ideas and practices of other, more “mainstream”, religions, like the one over which Murphy-O’Connor presides, are often as grotesque in their consequences. Catholic opposition to birth control extends to opposition to the use of condoms for “safe sex” in the battle against AIDS. The systematic oppression of women, including the killing of rebellious daughters by fathers and brothers, is a well-known fact of life among some Muslims and Sikhs. The virulent animosity of many Muslims to “infidels” and non-believers — and especially to people in their own communities who abandon “their religion” — is also well known.
The difficulty for socialists and other secularists and humanists in adopting a properly hard-nosed hostility to the beliefs of people who as ethnic minorities receive racist hostility and ill-treatment is the difficulty of combining that hostility with defence of them against racism. The difficulty is real and inhibiting. It is very important that it be overcome.
If the left cannot manage to do both things — if it allows militant defence and propagation of its own secularist and humanist world outlook to be drowned in opposition to the racism that some religious communities face — then the left is committing cultural, political, and moral suicide. It is sacrificing its own identity on the altar of “anti-racism” and multiculturalism.
Yet we see in the Respect organisation, headed by a professional pseudo-Islamist, the political self-merger of a large part of the left with political Islam.
The supposedly left-wing Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, has ostentatiously played host to a clerical fascist, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who in 1988 issued a fatwa against communists now being used by Islamists in India against the local Communist Party.
As Solidarity has repeatedly argued, this patronising of Islamic reaction by the pseudo-left is a gross betrayal of the culturally and religiously heterodox, and especially of the young people, in the mainly Muslim communities.
The sight of militant action by bigots of ethnic minority communities like the Sikhs in Birmingham sparking new life into the long-cowed bigots of the “native” reactionary churches should sound the alarm for those who do not want our society to slip back to the days when Christian bigotry ruled and the law banned anything but a respectful and reverent depiction of Jesus Christ.
The Blair Labour government has presided over an increase in the power of religion in British society. It promotes and increases the role of religious-sectarian institutions in education. It is bringing in legislation that cannot but inhibit — if it does not prohibit: what it actually means will have to be decided in court — vehement anti-religious propaganda*. Blair sees nothing odd in appointing as minister of education a woman who is an associate of an ultra-reactionary semi-secret Catholic cult, Opus Dei, which originated in fascist Spain. (She would probably be a member of the cult, except that it admits only men).
Socialists above all others will want to draw a clear line between criticism of and hostility to the religious beliefs of Muslims, Catholics, and others, and hostility to the people who subscribe to those beliefs. Our attitude has to be that expressed in the old Catholic tag: Hate the sin, love the sinner. Loathe the superstition and the anti-humanist outlook; defend the people who now subscribe to them against racism, including chauvinism and racism disguised as religious and cultural criticism.
It is true that, for Marxists, immersion in and experience of class struggle is the way that the masses of still-religious incomers and children of incomers will shed their delusory religious world outlooks. It is a truth misused if the Marxists conclude that therefore we are excused expounding and defending our secular, humanist, world outlook, or relieved of our responsibility to defend the areas of secular, atheistic, and humanist culture already won in our society from contamination and destruction by militant God-botherers.
Socialists who do not defend, promote, and fight for a secular outlook betray the entire culture on which a serious socialist working-class world is built and on which a serious left must stand.
In the USA the “separation of Church and State”, which the enlightened founding fathers of the late 18th century enshrined in the US constitution, and which was consolidated by the 1962–3 Supreme Court decisions banning school-sponsored Bible reading and recitation of Christian prayers in public schools, is under severe attack.
In Britain we have never managed to achieve the separation of church and state. The Head of State is also the head of a state religion that is now the religion of only a small minority of the population. One-third of the schools in the state system, financed by the state, are run by religious authorities, mostly Anglican or Catholic. The Government has approved a plan to build two hundred more Anglican secondary schools. In Northern Ireland, one of the social props of the murderous estrangement of Catholics and Protestants was the fact of religious-denominational schools, which the Catholic hierarchy most militantly insisted upon in the Six Counties as elsewhere.
Secular-minded people need to fight back against the threatened march of the religious bigots to trample on the rights of the non-religious majority. We need to fight for the separation of church and state; for an end to the financing by the state of schools run by religious associations; for the disestablishment of the Church of England. We need to defend the right of atheistic propaganda.