Writing in The New Statesman, Cristina Odone laments what she sees as liberal intolerance of religion. The article is quite long, but here’s the opening:

I couldn’t believe it. I was trying to discuss traditional marriage – and the state was trying to stop me.

Incredible, in a 21st-century European country, but true. I was invited to speak at a conference on marriage last summer, to be held at the Law Society in London. The government had just launched a public consultation on changing the law to allow same-sex marriage. The conference was a chance for supporters of traditional marriage to contribute to the debate. The participants included a retired philosophy professor, a representative of the Catholic archdiocese of Westminster, the chairman of the Tory party’s oldest pressure group, the Bow Group, Phillip Blond (another Tory adviser) and spokesmen for various Christian organisations. The title, “One Man. One Woman. Making the Case for Marriage for the Good of Society”, could hardly have sounded more sober. I accepted without a second thought.

A few days before the conference, someone from Christian Concern, the group which had organised the event, rang me in a panic: the Law Society had refused to let us meet on their premises. The theme was “contrary to our diversity policy”, the society explained in an email to the organisers, “espousing as it does an ethos which is opposed to same-sex marriage”. In other words, the Law Society regarded support for heterosexual union, still the only legal form of marriage in Britain, as discriminatory.

Just to be clear, it was not support for heterosexual union that got Odone’s friends into trouble. It was their desire to deny homosexuals their fundamental rights that did that.

Much of this sounds like familiar whining, in which being denied a platform to speak at some organization is equated with oppression and a denial of free speech. But even publically funded organizations have some right to say that certain viewpoints are so abhorrent that the organization will not grant them a platform. That’s hardly the same as being oppressed or being denied your right to speak.

Still, had Odone stuck with anecdotes like this she would have had my sympathy. The Law Society, whatever that is, could presumably have made clear that granting space to a conference does not imply support for the viewpoint of the attendees. As loathsome as I find the anti-gay marriage view, I would suggest that something even more extreme than that is necessary before it is appropriate to deny space.

Sadly, Odone did not stop there. Even while decrying the supposed intolerance of liberals, Odone shows herself to be rather intolerant herself. Here’s an example:

Without a change, the work that faith groups have carried out for millennia – charities, hospitals, schools, orphanages – will disappear. Communities will no longer be able to rely on the selfless devotion of evangelists and missionaries who happily shoulder the burden of looking after the unwanted, the aged, the poor. Feeling stigmatised and persecuted by the authorities and the establishment, Christians, Muslims and Jews may well become entrenched in the more fundamental shores of their faith.

We are to believe, apparently, that it is only the faithful who care about charities, hospitals and whatnot. This is sheer madness, as the example of majority atheist countries shows. The Scandinavian countries have plenty of hospitals, for example, and I would note that these hospitals do their work without imposing their own repressive moral opinions on their patients. Moreover, it is hardly the world’s most religious countries that distinguish themselves in their care for the poor and unwanted. Quite the contrary, in fact.

This is coming perilously close to saying that atheists can’t be moral, decent people. Odone comes even closer in writing this:

Erasing God from the public square, and turning religion into a secret activity between two consenting adults in the privacy of their home, leads to what the poet Seamus Heaney calls the hollowing-out of culture. A no-God area can only sustain a fragile and brittle civilisation, a setting worthy of a broken people.

Again, tell it to the Scandinavians. They don’t strike me as a broken people. I am not in favor of squelching free speech, but I have no problem at all with a society that makes people like Odone feel ashamed of their views. It’s hard to believe that atheists might feel threatened by religion, when religious people routinely toss off casual bigotry like this.

And try to believe that in an essay arguing for increased tolerance Odone writes fondly of how it was when religion was the dominant social force:

Once a dominant force in western culture, religion has been demoted to, at best, an irrelevance; at worst, an offence against the prevailing establishment. For millennia, religion has coloured every aspect of the European landscape. Churches were every­where – one for every 200 inhabitants in the High Middle Ages – and oversaw every stage of life: “hatch, match and dispatch”. Philanthropists, religious orders and communities built and ran schools, orphanages and hospitals. Belief was so crucial to ordinary people that the most destitute did not question paying tithes to their church. The Founding Fathers crossed an ocean to be free to practise their faith.

And later:

Religion has long been synonymous with authority. This was no bad thing when, for millennia, traditional hierarchies were respected for ensuring that the few at the top protected, organised, and even ensured the livelihood of, the many at the bottom. Bloodthirsty authoritarians from Hitler to Pol Pot drove a tank through this vision: they turned authority into authoritarianism. Those who survived their brutal regimes and those who witnessed them cherished their individual liberty, once they regained it, all the more.

You have to read that several times to appreciate all the ways in which it is stupid. Can Odone possibly believe that religious institutions were just the innocent victims of the damage Hitler and Pol Pot did to the concept of authority? Does she not think that the Church’s relentless hypocrisy and political maneuvering over the centuries might have played a role? After lamenting the intolerance of certain liberal institutions, an intolerance that manifested itself in denying her friends the use of some meeting space, she longs for the millennia of religious rule, whose institutions were in the habit of torturing, imprisoning and murdering those with whom they disagreed.

Christopher Hitchens used to point out that while nowadays religious institutions come on bended knee and go on about tolerance and acceptance of differing viewpoints, we should never forget how they behaved when they were strong. When religion was the dominant force, freedom of speech and freedom of conscience were simply unheard of. The Church happily took on the responsibility of distinguishing acceptable from unacceptable thought, and of dealing very sternly indeed with anyone who demurred. Modern liberal societies, whatever their faults and inability to live fully up to their ideals, have nothing to apologize for when compared to that.

In the end, while Odone frames things melodramatically in terms of freedom and oppression, she’s really just sore that society has left people like her behind. By all means get together with your coreligionists and lament the good old days when the Church could tell everyone how to behave. The rest of us have moved on. It was inevitable that we would, once everyone noticed that there was no reason at all why the Church deserved the authority it claimed for itself. The weakening of religion is a mandatory first step for any society that cares about freedom of conscience. It is a great triumph that a handful of countries have managed it, the occasional unfairnesses over meeting space notwithstanding.

Odone’s piece is quite long, and there are plenty of other passages that are worthy of a good eye-roll. So go have a look for yourself.

Comments

  1. #1 KeithB
    January 22, 2014

    George Washington crossed an ocean? Who knew?

    And those “Founding Fathers” were perfectly happy to persecute those who did not think like them. Ask Roger Smith.

  2. #2 Michael Fugate
    January 22, 2014

    Would that be the traditional marriage that included multiple wives, widows captured in battle, would it include women as property without any rights, wives submissive to husbands, would it include a husband, a wife and many mistresses? So many options for traditional marriage – I am just not sure which tradition is meant.

  3. #3 ProgJohn
    UK
    January 23, 2014

    “…for millennia, traditional hierarchies were respected for ensuring that the few at the top protected, organised, and even ensured the livelihood of, the many at the bottom”
    Has Odone read any history? Ever? Most of those traditional hierarchies she is lauding spent their time working towards one goal only, enhancing their own power. The many at the bottom were little better than slaves and were regularly forced to fight in wars who’s only purpose was to settle who got to be king (the English civil war is a prime example). Throughout this period, with a few notable exceptions, the christian churches resolutely stood up for the oppressors over the oppressed.

  4. #4 MNb
    January 23, 2014

    “For millennia, religion has coloured every aspect of the European landscape.”
    Yeah, the Thirty Years War was the happiest period in German history.

  5. #5 Steven Carr
    January 23, 2014

    Why do Christians have oprhanages?

    While they mouth the words that children have a Heavenly Father, their actions belie their words.

    They know full well that children do not have a Heavenly Father, and if they lose their Earthly Father, they need help.

  6. #6 eric
    January 23, 2014

    Without a change, the work that faith groups have carried out for millennia – charities, hospitals, schools, orphanages – will disappear

    Jason focuses on the implied slap at nonreligious humanitarians in this statement. But let’s focus on the blackmail for a moment. She’s basically saying that if states legalize gay marriage, her allied faith groups will stop helping the poor and injured. That’s disgusting and abhorrent.

    Religion has long been synonymous with authority. This was no bad thing when, for millennia, traditional hierarchies were respected for ensuring that the few at the top protected, organised, and even ensured the livelihood of, the many at the bottom.

    Ho-lee cow, did she just defend European monarchies circa 600-1600? I must second ProgJohn’s post.

    Last and least, here is the Law Society’s description of themselves from their web page:

    The Law Society represents solicitors in England and Wales. From negotiating with and lobbying the profession’s regulators, government and others, to offering training and advice, we’re here to help, protect and promote solicitors across England and Wales.

    Now I don’t know about you, but that sounds to me like a private organization, not an arm of the government. After all,government offices do not generaly have the mission statement of ‘we lobby the government’ because they are the government.

    So it looks to me that her very first sentence and entire raison d’etre for complaining is a falsehood: “the state” did not try to stop her speaking at all. There is no repression of speech here at all, just a free market customer deciding they don’t want to buy what she’s selling.

  7. #7 G
    January 23, 2014

    Ahh, the High Middle Ages! A time when wine flowed like water because drinking the water could kill you. A time before sanitation and vaccination, when you bathed twice a year and endured the “bugges” that infested your clothing and bed, and four of six children died from bacterial infections. A time when sewage ran in the streets and perfumes served the utilitarian function of camouflaging the stench.

    Somehow the plaintive medievalist nostalgia of the Cristina Odones of the world, always seems to miss the parts about dirt and disease, and crud and filth and feces. Perhaps someone should challenge them to lead a real medievalist lifestyle, starting with not bathing for a few months.

    As for “…one man and one woman…,” whenever you see that phrase, be sure to append to it the ending it truly deserves: “….of the same race.”

  8. #8 Eric Lund
    January 23, 2014

    Once a dominant force in western culture, religion has been demoted to, at best, an irrelevance; at worst, an offence against the prevailing establishment.

    This from an author who lives in a country with an official state church. It’s hard to be more “prevailing establishment” than that.

  9. #9 GregH
    January 23, 2014

    Christians, Muslims and Jews may well become entrenched in the more fundamental shores of their faith.

    Hmmm. I wonder what that would look like?

  10. #10 Science Avenger
    January 23, 2014

    She may be one of the broken hollow people without her religion. The rest of us get along just fine without it. In the words of the Great Carlin:

    “Religion is like a lift in your shoes. If it helps you walk straight, great. Just don’t try to make me wear your shoes if I don’t want to, and we certainly don’t need to go nail lifts onto the natives’ feet.”

  11. #11 Lenoxus
    January 23, 2014

    Hm, let’s try this on for size…

    Odone didn’t write:

    I couldn’t believe it. I was trying to discuss traditional marriage get married – and the state was trying to stop me.

    Incredible, in a 21st-century European country, but true.

    I’ll take false equivalence for $500, Alex. A really tiresome one, too. “I thought you liberals were supposed to be tolllllerant!” No, we simply possess a moral code which fails to exhibit the same stupid prejudices, that’s all.

    If I randomly decided to hate tall people, I can’t logically conclude that some fundie Christian ought to abide my loudly using my cell phone in a theater (to use a mild example), “because after all, he’s morally-relativist enough to tolerate tall people, isn’t he? Why, it’s like he doesn’t have a moral compass at all! What a hypocrite!”

    Odone wrote (emphasis added):

    Feeling stigmatised and persecuted by the authorities and the establishment, Christians, Muslims and Jews may well become entrenched in the more fundamental shores of their faith.

    It’s a funny thing — my very first thought on reading the opening sentence was, “Is there any religion for which mainstream liberalism has an intolerance-bordering-on-xenophobia matching that of mainstream conservatism for Islam?”

    (No, opposition to some church’s politics doesn’t count; I’m talking about an equivalent to “Obama is a secret Muslim” (and therefore somehow ineligible for office) and “no Mosque near ground zero” stuff.)

    And one reason that it was my first thought is that (as much as the Gnu Atheist in me might prefer it otherwise) liberalism has absolutely nothing against “religion”, period. Religious conservatives have merely claimed themselves to be the “truer Christians”, that’s all. The Christian Right is exactly as “intolerant” of liberal religious views as liberals may be of theirs, and never give a hoot when a church feels that it has a religious right to marry same-sex couples, for instance; they simply redefine them as not properly religious. (Which is a mild bigotry itself.)

  12. #12 mandas
    January 24, 2014

    “…and turning religion into a secret activity between two consenting adults in the privacy of their home…..”

    So, what the religious want to do to homosexuals?

  13. #13 Foghorn The IKonoclast
    Isle of Infinity
    January 25, 2014

    I cannot remember the times I have made this point but liberals use PC as a hedge against an opposite point of view. I feel this is their undoing.

    As it is I am probably socially liberal and as a veteran I believe in what is called the ‘ Military Industrial Environment”.
    I think the framing of individuals is a very insecure attempt at stifling differences. Though I may not agree with absurdities like abortion clinic violence, I find the vitriol directed at conservatives as incompatible with an open mind.

    Liberals (vastly naïve) are supportive of the Climate Change Dogma and sadly you are part of this. The arrogance is being dismissive of what you call ‘deniers’ is patently close-minded.

    Please do not add dogma to science and as a scientist you should know better, As for the many studies you cite on climate those are barely comprehensible to liberals because they are marching in lockstep.

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