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.
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.