Ordinarily I’m a great supporter of dear old Auntie Beeb and not one to be overly concerned by the near routine complaints of bias that it faces from all directions. As I see it, if the Beeb succeeds in drawing such complaints from all directions in roughly equal measure then its getting things about right, as by far the majority of complaints of BBC bias seem, to me at least, to be about the Beeb’s failure to unthinkingly buy into the personal biases and prejuduces of the complaintant than evidence of any genuine bias on the Beeb’s part.
This morning, however, I felt compelled to shoot off a quick e-mail to the BBC Breakfast studio – don’t know if it got a mention as this was just before leaving for work – regarding a puff-piece segment about the Archbishop of York’s weekend whinge that ‘illiberal atheists were undermining Britain’s religious heritage’, to which the Beeb chose to respond by conducting a staged discussion between a Christian minister, on one side, and perfectly aimable but otherwise wholly uninteresting representation of the Federation of Islamic Student Societies on the other.
Not unsurprisingly the entire discussion went something along the lines of:
Christian: Blah, blah, blah… agree with everything the Archbish said (of course)…
Muslim: Blah, blah, blah… Actually I quite like Christmas… Blah, blah, agree with the Christian.
And all topped off with Dermot Murnaghan wittering on about Christianity being the ‘dominant’ religion in Britain and how the Queen is the head of the church.
If we strip away some of outright rubbish from Sentamu’s comments – the Royal Mail, for example, aren’t trying to purge Christmas of its Christian message by using non-religious imagery on this year’s Christmas stamps, it is, in fact, standard practice for them to do a religious inspired collection one year and a Santa and Christmas trees type one the next; this year just happens to be the Santa year – then it doesn’t take much careful thought to figure out exactly what his real problem is.
To borrow a line from Corporal Jones of Dad’s Army, the issue here is nothing more that the fact that ‘they don’t like it up ’em’.
What’s getting up the collective noses of church leaders is not that the value of religious faith has been challenged by ‘public intellectuals’ like Richard Dawkins and AC Grayling but that the challenge has been conducted in a broadly polemical fashion that fails to treat the church (and religion) with the deference to which it believes itself to be entitled and by means of which it clings on to a largely unmerited and unjutifiable position of privilege in public life.
What both Dawkins and Grayling, in particular, have done is not simply challenge religion, itself – but, more importantly, challenge its privileges by seeking to redefine the parameters of the debate surrounding religious ‘tolerance’.
In the opinion of the church, religious tolerance means not just that society should respect the right of believers to profess a particular set of beliefs but that we should also respect those beliefs in their own right; in fact the church seems to consider this almost a societal obligation. It is no such thing.
It is perfectly possible to tolerate the rights of an individual or group to profess a particular set of beliefs, even if one considers those beliefs to be ill-founded and irrational or even odious and reprehensible, and all without, in turn, being illiberal in ones views. Such is the position of many if not most people, already, in relation to the presence of far-right political parties, such as the BNP. Their existence is tolerated (i.e. they are neither banned nor prohibited from participating freely in the democratic process) and their right to freely express their views is upheld, provided they comport themselves within the law.
However, few but their own supporters would suggest that they are also entitled to respect for the values they espouse, or that such values should not be subject to attack by those who despise such vlaues; and this is all considered perfectly permissible and passes largely without comment. Indeed who, but the BNP and their supporters, would ever think it illiberal to attack, verbally or in print, the values of the far-right or demand that such values should be respected.
And yet respect for their beliefs – irrespective of whether one accepts or agrees with them – and not just their right to hold such beliefs is precisely what the Anglican and other churches (and, indeed, religion generally) expects, if not demands, of wider society. And not just respect but deference; unquestioning and uncritical acceptance that the supposed supernatural origins of such beliefs affords religion, and religious insititutions, the right to occupy a privileged position in society whether one accepts those beliefs or not. When church leaders, such as John Sentamu, begin to talk in terms of Britain’s ‘religious heritage’ being ‘undermined’, what they are actually referring to is nothing more than their own privileged status in society; a status that they do not wish to see questioned or subjected to open public debate for the simple reason that few of those privileges would stand up to scrutiny the in face of such a debate.
One of the things that Sentamu bemoans, for example, is the fact of government officials issuing Christmas cards that carry the legend ‘season greetings’. This he sees as completely ignoring the Christian message of Christmas. Nowhere does he suggest, however, why it is that we should expect government officials, as representatives of a secular organisation – the state – to actively promote Christianity and a Christian ‘message’ irrespective of whether, as individuals, they either believe in that message or wish to promote it, personally. He merely assumes that this is a privilege to which the Church is entitled by virtue of historical privilege, regardless of whether such privileges are in any way merited in modern society. Christianty, and the Church, is in no way entitled to such privileges, nor, indeed is it entitled to expect the Royal Mail to produce religious-themed stamps at Christmas or even produce a special set of stamps (religious or otherwise) to mark Christmas at all. That the Royal Mail does so is due, no doubt in part, to its having established a popular tradition in which it does produce ‘Christmas stamps’, but the real value to the Royal Mail of such an issue lies not in the message it conveys, if any, but in its popularity and, therefore, profitability. If the production of such stamps were not profitable then commerical considerations would take over and the practice would come to an end, its as simple as that.
If there is a lesson to drawn from the relatively recent shift in the tone of the public debate surrounding the position and status of religion in society toward a more querulous and, in the case of the contribution of Richard Dawkins, polemical direction it is only that the Church can dish it out but not take it in return. The Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches, in particular, have been quite content to sit on the sidelines while fundamentalist Christians have launched wave after wave of polemical assaults on secular society, liberalism and atheism for at least the last twenty years and more; and yet no soon as secularist and atheists begin to answer back with a few uncomfortable truths of their own, they immediate cry foul and claim that we’re the ones behaving in an illiberal fashion.
This is simple hypocrisy.
When polemical attacks are launched, which take the form of evangelical believers blaming liberalism and liberal values for all the ills of society and when those same believers go one to seek to undermine the teaching of science by the active promotion of unscientific nonsense, such as the so-called ‘theory of intelligent design’, the Church and its established hierarchy is quite content to sit back and watch the action from the sidelines, if not join in the fun.
Put the shoe on the other foot, however, and their attitude is entirely different. Such ‘attacks’ are unfair and, all of sudden, the Church is, its own opinion, being victimised by the malign forces of secularism, liberalism and atheism. The reality, is however, very different from that which the Church would have you believe; it is no victim in this, rather it is the schoolyard bully who turns tail and runs crying to mummy (well, daddy, actually) no soon as its one time victim plucks up the courage to stand up to it have give back as it gets.
Getting back to the Beeb, which is where I started out, what bothered me about this morning’s puff piece was not so much that it was biased but that given the opportunity for an interesting and lively debate around Sentamu’s comment about ‘illiberal atheists’ it chose, instead, to retreat into full ‘pillar of the establishment’ mode and make the whole piece as unthreatening and uncontroversial as humanly possible, right down to the inclusion of the nice, moderate, Muslim woman who likes Christmas.
The result was a ‘discussion’ segment that not only lacked balance but which afforded the Church (and religion, generally) precisely the kind of undeserved deferential (in fact rather obsequious) treatment it is actively seeking to defend – all of which misses, entirely, the whole point of this debate.