On Tim Stanley and Giles Fraser

I was less interested in what Tim Stanley had to say about Englishness and class in his article for yesterday’s Telegraph, than what he said, or implied, about secularism and atheism.

A lot of the fear shown towards Islam comes from the death of the Christian soul – we see a people who actually believe in something and we are intimidated.

Christianity, or Christians, have in fact had a few issues with Islam, surely?  The Crusades and the Siege of Vienna spring to mind, as well as the inclusion of Muhammad in Dante’s Inferno.  One of the best known critics of Islam, Robert Spencer, is a Catholic deacon.

Also, it is extremely insulting to atheists to assume that we don’t believe in anything, just because we don’t believe in God.  Another well known critic of Islam (and other religions) is Richard Dawkins.  I’m in agreement with Alex Gabriel over him in fact, but he is clearly driven by passionately held views, as are other atheist critics of Islam such as Maryam Namazie.

By contrast, most Muslims cling on to values that were once definitively English and that we could do with rediscovering. Islam instructs its followers to cherish their families, to venerate women, to treat strangers kindly, to obey the law of any country they are in (yes, yes, it really does), and to give generously … I hope they retain as much of their religious identity as possible – it is vastly superior to the materialist, secular mess that they’re being compelled to become a part of.

I have no objection to positive strands in Islam being pointed out as a response to bigoted critics – but I don’t think either Islam or religion in general can lay claim so easily to the moral high ground. It has certainly been used to oppress women – who would probably settle for being treated as equals, not venerated. I really object, also, to ‘secular’ being used as an insult.  If he is actually criticising atheists, then he is being a bigot.  If he is criticising secularism, which is quite different, then it doesn’t make much sense to invoke the idea of compulsion when the essence of secularism is to avoid compulsion, which is why I argued yesterday that any ban on the hijab in French universities would be atheocratic, not secular.

Stanley’s use of the word ‘materialist’ was interestingly ambiguous. Did he mean ‘materialist’ in the sense of excessively preoccupied with material possessions (materialistic) or more in the sense of someone who only believes in physical, empirical phenomena? I was reminded by this of another recent article, also on the subject of religion, by Giles Fraser, in which he argues that faith has a place in politics. Towards the end he says:

Yet this is what some people mean when they say that religion ought to be a private matter and that the God-squad should stick to matters spiritual. If the “spiritual” here is being used in opposition to the material, then the spiritual is the one thing the church ought to have nothing whatsoever to do with. The incarnation makes Christianity the most materialistic of the world’s great religious traditions. And the opposition of the spiritual and the material was one of the earliest heresies – Gnosticism – that the church condemned. No self-respecting Christian can ever accept this opposition.

Fraser asserts an emphatic secularism, saying that Bishops should have no place, ex officio, in the House of Lords. But he also insists that religion and politics cannot be kept separate.  He argues – not unreasonably – that those who say church spokespeople shouldn’t speak up about political issues are in a sense discriminating against religion, as so many people, journalists for example, have their say without being told to butt out.

He opens with a reference to a recent statement from the Pope.

Getting involved in politics is a Christian duty,” Pope Francis told a gathering of students in Rome in June. “We Christians cannot be like Pilate and wash our hands clean of things.” But, according to one strand of opinion, politics is precisely what church leaders should not be doing.

When I first read Fraser’s article a few days ago I thought about the points sometimes raised about the relationship between politics and Islam/Muslims.  The term ‘Islamist’ often seems to me to be completely misused – as a synonym for ‘a Muslim I don’t agree with’, ‘a Muslim who linked to a Glenn Greenwald article’, or just ‘a Muslim’.  By contrast, it seems used in a meaningful way within the context of political Islam by Maajid Nawaz in Radical.  There is an interesting grey area between these two usages, and the word ‘Christianist’ is rarely used, so I wonder whether there is sometimes more resistance to Muslims articulating a sense that their politics is in some way shaped by their faith than there is to Christians, like Fraser, doing the same.