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A response to Cristina Odone

This is a guest post by Sarka

This week’s Staggers carries a blast against the monstrous regiment of atheists and secularists by former editor and well-known Catholic Cristina Odone. It’s not a one-off piece but part and précis of her new Kindle book….Lengthy and impassioned, it doesn’t actually add any new arguments to what is now a well-worn debate, but in my view it is a telling example of where many Christians are going wrong: instead of trying to defend their own views, they are bizarrely trying to defend something called Religion in general.

Odone starts well, describing her surprise and anger at an episode in the run-up to the passing of the gay marriage legislation. She and Catholic colleagues were scheduled to speak on the subject at a meeting at the Law Society, but the event was suddenly cancelled by the venue, and a hastily found new public venue also suddenly cancelled. Both organisations cited worries about a possible breach of their “diversity policies”. The meeting finally went ahead in a hotel.

I don’t think I can be the only pro-gay-marriage agnostic to have sympathy with Odone here. It is troubling that people on one side of a major public debate, conducted openly in the media and about to be discussed in parliament, should be treated in this way, as if their views were a public danger. It is particularly troubling that the cancellations were justified by “diversity policies” that neither organization would produce for scrutiny.

Where Odone lost my sympathy was in how she continued. She claims that this incident led her to go and ask other religionists about their experience and she had come to the “shocking” conclusion that:

“..not only Christians, but also Muslims and Jews, increasingly feel they are no longer free to express any belief, no matter how deeply felt, that runs counter to the prevailing fashions for superficial “tolerance” and “equality” (terms which no longer bear their dictionary meaning but are part of a political jargon in which only certain views, and certain groups, count as legitimate).”

She followed this up with an analysis of the problem that was wholly based on the idea of the need to defend Religion as such from this threat posed by Secularism/Atheism as such.  This is misguided.

First, it is not at all clear that the threat to freedom of expression posed by the over-zealous or over-anxious application of “tolerance” or “diversity” policies is always directed at the religious! Odone writes as if completely unaware that while “diversity” policies may have been used to get in the way of her freedom to express her mainstream Catholic beliefs about the undesirability of gay marriage, they have also been used to give a free pass to the expression of “religious” ideas, e.g. on gays, of a far more extreme kind.

Second, the reason why I and many others would defend the rights of British Catholics (and others) to express their views on marriage in respectable public forums has very little to do with my respect for the religiousness of their convictions on the matter. Instead, it is simply because, while disagreeing with them,  as I also disagree with objections to gay marriage that have been put to me by non-religious persons, I don’t find their views objectionable enough to warrant any kind of “no platform” approach.  I recognize – indeed I’m confident in Odone’s case – that her opposition to gay marriage is not accompanied by demands for criminalisation of homosexuality, or severe punishments for it, incitement to hatred of gays and so forth.

So Odone would be well advised, if she wants to argue for tolerance of her own religiously conservative but not beyond-the-pale opinions, to stress their basic acceptability in a liberal plural society.   But instead, so losing herself moderate secular liberal support, she prefers to nail her colours to the mast of the Rights of Religion as such, and even to issue a clarion call for the “religious” (she keeps mentioning only Christians, Jews and Muslims), to organize to show themselves the innocent victims of monstrous injustice, and so garner public sympathy.

To mix metaphors horridly, this nailing of colours opens the usual can of worms that is argument from the claims of religion as such. Some big ones are much in evidence wriggling in her piece.

One is the pathos-filled appeal to the “deeply held” nature of religious beliefs: but it cannot be pointed out enough that the depth or superficiality with which a view is held has nothing to do with its comparative acceptability, or legality. An anti-Semite who is truly madly deeply anti-Semitic has no greater claim to our tolerance than an anti-Semite whose negative views on Jews are a bit more superficial or tangential to his other views (if anything, it’s rather the reverse!)

Another is that by defending “religion” as such, Odone is compelled to make extravagant claims about the benevolence and harmlessness of most religionists most of the time…To be honest, if I were trying to argue that Christians should not face obstacles in putting across views on sensitive subjects in the UK [and I’m not even sure how many obstacles they face], I wouldn’t stake part of my case on such propositions as that the 9/11 bombers were not good Muslims because they  drank and womanized…This seems unnecessarily rash. In short, unwillingness to address the distinction between religious views that are acceptable on more than the completely private level in liberal societies, and those that are not, simply plays to the most religion-intolerant atheist opposition.

To be fair to Odone, she has the grace and sense to emphasise that when complaining about the “persecution” of the religious in the UK she does not mean that their problems are at all comparable with those of religious minorities (and she might, but does not, add atheists) in various other states in the world. On the other hand, a few paragraphs later she certainly lays it on with a trowel:

“Let outsiders see the faithful as a vulnerable group persecuted by right-on and politically correct fanatics who don’t believe in free speech. Let them see believers pushed to the margins of society, in need of protection to survive. Banned, misrepresented, excluded – and all because of their religion?”

Excuse me if I don’t get out my violin, Cristina! I can understand what individual religious groups mean by the “faithful”, but the idea that all religious groups could or should together constitute a solidarity group, even a victimhood category, a religion of religions (perhaps to be headed by Prince Charles as Defender of Faith), is not only bizarre and actually unintelligible to most of the world’s religious people, but makes sane discussion of any clash between specific religious beliefs and liberal consensus more or less impossible.

I’m agnostic. I’m pro gay marriage rights. But I am quite shocked that the Law Society and the other venue actually cancelled events because they would involve Catholics publicising and debating their traditional concept of marriage and defending it. In fact I think it’s quite outrageous.

Why? Because while I strongly disagree with eg. Ms. Odone’s concept of marriage, I don’t think her opinions and those of her colleagues are so extreme, dangerous and unpleasant as to warrant public exclusion of this kind.

Now, if they were arguing by contrast for the criminalisation or even execution of homosexuals I would regard the exclusion as entirely legitimate – but they are not arguing that, nor is it the position of Catholics generally, or the Pope.

Odone should have kept her eye on that ball, not launched into an intemperate defence of “religion” as such against “atheism/secularism” as such.

To do so just plays to the most intemperate doctrinaire atheists (most atheists are neither intemperate nor doctrinaire!) in their idiotic lumping of e.g. some Christian objections to gay marriage with some exotic (Uganda anyone?) vicious “Christian” positions on persecution of gays, not to mention the really rather widespread Muslim positions on same…And even worse, it plays to the religious extremists who have the most…sorry…god-awful views and who Odone, amazingly, seems to welcome into her general “religion” camp.

C’mon, Cristina, what allies do you want against the Law Society etc..? All those liberal atheists/agnostics, even some liberal religionists who don’t share your views on marriage but would like to defend your right to talk about them in public, or swivel-eyed gits who actually think your Catholic views are pansy liberal and say stuff you as a Christian should HATE, yet for some reason you wish to make common cause with them.

Please don’t. You are doing your own cause a total disservice.