By Tobias Jones, the author of The Dark Heart of Italy (THE GUARDIAN, 06/01/07):
There’s an aspiring totalitarianism in Britain which is brilliantly disguised. It’s disguised because the would-be dictators – and there are many of them – all pretend to be more tolerant than thou. They hide alongside the anti-racists, the anti-homophobes and anti-sexists. But what they are really against is something very different. They – call them secular fundamentalists – are anti-God, and what they really want is the eradication of religion, and all believers, from the face of the earth.
In recent years these unpleasant people have had a strategy of exploiting Britain’s innate politeness. They realised that for a decade overly sensitive souls (normally called the PC brigade) had bent over backwards to avoid giving offence. Trying not to give offence was, despite the excesses, a noble courtesy.
But the fundamentalists saw an opening. Because we live in a multiconfessional society, they fostered the falsehood that wearing a crucifix or a veil or a turban was deeply offensive to other faiths. They pretended to be protecting religious sensibilities as a pretext to strip us of all religious expressions. In 2006 Jack Straw and BA fell into the fundamentalists’ trap.
But Britons are actually laissez-faire about such things. And so the fundamentalists deployed an opposite tactic. Instead of pretending to protect religious sensibilities, they went on the offensive and sought to give offence. The subsequent reactions to the play Behzti in Birmingham, to Jerry Springer the Opera and to the Danish cartoons were wheeled out as examples of why religious groups are unable to live with our cherished freedom and tolerance.
In recent years the nastier side of this totalitarianism has become blatantly apparent. It emerged with the hijab issue in France. With the hijab ban in French schools, a state was banishing religion not only from its corridors, but also from its citizens.
It was an assertion that after centuries of the naked public square (denuded of religion referents) the public now too had to go naked. The former had been true tolerance, something exceptional and laudable. It allowed everyone to bring their own cosmic testimony to the square. But this new form of “tolerance” changed things. From everyone being welcome, it had become everyone but.
There’s a background to all this. Since 2001, lazy intellectuals have been allowed to get away with repeating the nonsense that terrorism and war are the consequences of belief in God. Believers are ridiculed for being, in contrast to the stupendously brainy atheists, very dim. Listen to Richard Dawkins’ comment on Nadia Eweida (the BA employee who refused to take off her cross): “she had one of the most stupid faces I’ve ever seen.” Nice.
There’s also the fact that we live in a cultural milieu dominated by postmodernism. Broadly speaking, it attempts to deconstruct power and its narratives. It tries to rescue the marginalised. A noble intent, but because it doesn’t believe in truth, anything goes. The tyranny of orthodoxy has been replaced by the tyranny of relativism. You’re supposed to believe in nothing, and hence nihilists and atheists are suddenly rather chic. Postmodernism has taken tolerance to the extremes, where extremists thrive. It’s a dangerous form of appeasement.
The greatest appeasers, however, have been the believers. Until recently many hid their religion in the closet. They conceded that it was something private. Until a few years ago religion was similar to soft drugs: a blind eye was turned to private use but woe betide you if you were caught dealing. Only recently have believers realised that religion is certainly personal, but it can never be private.
The reasons for that “outing” of believers are complex. But what is certain is that wise agnostics pleaded with believers to take a public lead again, because the point about believers is that they are obeying (and disobeying) all sorts of commandments that the state doesn’t see or understand. Because they are able to differentiate sin from crime, they have a moral register more nuanced than most. Even a wise atheist (and I’ve met a few of them in church, as they desperately try to get their kids into the local C of E school) knows that believers can deal with social anarchy much better than the state ever can.
That is why these fundamentalists are so in evidence. They’re not only needled by their own hypocrisy; they are also furious that believers have broken the old pact to stay out of public debate. Witness, for example, Mary Riddell’s astonishing sentence in the Observer last month (try replacing “religion” with “homosexuality” to get the point): “secularists do not wish to harm religion or deny its great cultural influence. They simply want it to know its place.” In other words: get back in the closet.
Christians feel particularly aggrieved because we believe that Jesus invented secularism. Jesus’s teachings desacralised the state: no authority, not even Caesar’s, was comparable to God’s. As Nick Spencer writes in Doing God, “the secular was Christianity’s gift to the world, denoting a public space in which authorities should be respected, but could be legitimately challenged and could never accord to themselves absolute or ultimate significance”. Christianity, far from creating an absolutist state, initiated dissent from state absolutism.
And so for centuries a combination of British agnosticism and pragmatism meant that believers were judged not by the causes of their belief, but by its consequences. Everyone could taste the fruits, even those who couldn’t believe in a sustaining, invisible root. These new militants, however, believe themselves to be the only arbiters of taste; they want to eradicate the root and cause. They will dictate what you can wear and what you can say. That, after all, is what totalitarians do.