This week, the New Generation Network launched itself with a manifesto in the Guardian’s Comment is Free, along with an article by one of its founders, Pickled Politics’ Sunny Hundal. All very good stuff, or so it seems to me, particularly their dislike of communal politics –
As Britons we want to be treated not as homogenous blocks but as free-thinking citizens with diverse views.
So-called community leaders and race-relations experts should be seen as lobbyists not representatives. They do not have a democratic mandate to represent anyone.
– and their recognition of everyone’s multiple cultural identities. They speak of
The right to combine mixed identities, which include culture, faith, ethnicity, religion and more [which] is the essence of an open society. These rights must be underpinned by a common citizenship which protects our rights.
I very much dislike the reductive rhetoric that seeks to define everyone by their membership of some monolithic ‘community’; that seems badly misguided for two reasons. First, there’s no such thing as an homogenous cultural group in the first place; if you think of any religious or political group — the Catholic Church or Labour supporters, for example — it’s obvious that such groups contain a whole swathe of different and sometimes hostile opinions. Second, people aren’t defined solely by their membership of any one group, since, again, people members of loads of groups which help to define their experience of life and attitudes towards it. You might be a Muslim, but you’re also male or female, straight or gay, from a particular age group, living in a particular part of the UK and part of a particular economic group, and your family comes from a particular part of the world. All of these are perfectly real ‘communities’ and you live in their various intersections, while neither any one of them, nor all of them in combination, fully define who you are.
Apologies… this goes on at quite some length; you’ve been warned…
That, at least, is my experience of being a middle-aged, straight man from an upper-middle class family of Irish Catholic extraction (the Republic rather than the North, which certainly makes a difference), primarily brought up in England and the product of an English public school and one of the old universities. They’re all undoubtedly factors in who I am but none of them define me; that’s in great part down to the various scrapes and calamities into which these elements in my makeup have managed to propel me and have equipped me to deal with various degrees of native wit and ingenuity. I imagine it’s much the same for anyone else.
not averse to debates, any debate, even one likely to be as circular and, ultimately, unproductive as a fresh examination of race and faith politics in the UK, but does it really make good sense to take not one, but two, contentious and divisive issues, and bundle them as if they were one?
Mr Fisher writes,
Ethnicity, if you believe in ethnicity, and most people seem to, is fixed at the moment of conception. Religious conversion tends to the other end of the spectrum. No one is born with a religion – this simple truth seems to escape those who place it in a litany of attributes that 1) cannot be chosen and so 2) cannot be criticised.
This it seems to me, to go off at a tangent in pursuit of a red herring, as it were. It becomes clear during the course of his argument that one of Frank Fisher’s main concerns — certainly the main concern of many of the posters — is to head off what they see as the threat of laws against incitement to religious hatred. This seems to me a red herring since, at least by my reading of the proposed laws, no one was suggesting that they wanted to criminalise criticism, challenge or derision of religious views or the lack of them. What was proposed was criminalising inciting others to hatred of other people because they hold views with which you disagree.
Seems a simple enough distinction and a simple enough test. If we take Rowan Atkinson’s fear that the proposed legislation would have stopped him from poking fun at religion, all I can say is that I’m at a loss as to what jokes Frank Fisher thinks he’d be prevented from making; if he’d have thought for a moment, he’d have realised he could — since the proposed legislation (defeated in that form, of course) in effect extended the existing law on incitement to racial hatred to cover religious groups as well — pinch all the jokes about Micks and Pakis that folks like Bernard Manning and Jim Davidson have been telling for decades, substitute Catholics and Muslims as appropriate, and tell them appreciative audiences of Guardian readers with impunity.
If he wants to give his more considered views on religious issues, he need look no further than Belfast, where Dr Paisley not infrequently gives his views on what he sees as the errors of Catholicism, in his typically robust manner, from the pulpit of the Martyrs Memorial Free Presbyterian Church without apparently feeling much inhibited by the Prevention of Incitement to Hatred Act (Northern Ireland) 1970. What does he want to say about adherents of any particular religion that Dr Paisley hasn’t already said about Papists, for heaven’s sake?
In any case, let’s dismiss worries about the possible consequences. It is, after all, a bad method to say, in effect, ‘I don’t like the possible implications of a factual proposition so I’ll dismiss it’; I don’t like it a method when New Earth Creationists do that with archaeological or geological discoveries, and I don’t like it in this instance, either. Let’s instead examine the proposition.
First, Frank Fisher attempts, it seems to me, to stack the cards by posing a distinction between that which is fixed at conception and religious conversion. Quite so, but the vast majority of religious adherents aren’t converts, are they? As I think Richard Dawkins points out somewhere, people don’t generally chose their religion on the basis of which one makes the most sense to them, or who offers the most attractive after-life or who has the most impressive cathedrals or inspires the best sacred art and music. By far and away the best predictor of someone’s religion is what religion his parents were. If you’re putting things on a continuum, then religion is somewhere around language on the scale, or so I would have thought.
Most readers of this will have grown up speaking English rather than some other language not because there’s an English-language gene in the family, true, but because that’s what our parents spoke at home and what people spoke around us. Similarly, I’m a Catholic because that’s what I was brought up as. I’m not a particularly good one, admittedly, nor am I always sure in how much of it I believe, and I know that there are parts of it that I think are nonsensical and just ignore, For example, I doubt I am the only Catholic ever to have enjoyed sex before marriage and to have used a condom while so doing, and to have seen nothing particularly wrong about it. Had my parents been Sikhs or Muslims then doubtless I’d be a not particularly committed Sikh or Muslim. But it’s part of who I am, and even when I go through phases of disbelief it’s still the God of the Roman Catholics in whom I have difficulty believing.
It’s around this point in such discussions that someone usually introduces the subject of ‘brainwashing children’; it’s an interesting idea, since it carries with it the related assumptions that humans could ever be tabulae rasae, unaffected by cultural influences, and, if they were, they’d grow up as atheists. Clearly, things don’t work that way. A moment’s thought about human society history would tell a visiting Martian that some form of religious belief is the usual, and thus, possibly, natural state of affairs for humanity. That doesn’t, of course, make it right — by the same token, slavery and various forms of despotic government are ‘natural’, too, but it does rather undermine, at least to my mind, the idea that we somehow ‘naturally’ don’t believe in anything and are then ‘brainwashed’ into believing things.
This idea of brainwashing, it seems to me, unwittingly demonstrates something of the truth of Michael Oakeshott’s critique of Rationalism in Politics. I won’t try to rehearse his whole argument here, except to say that, taken together with his essay On Being Conservative, it’s a very powerful anticipation — by several decades — and elegant skewering of Tony Blair’s obsession with modernising and with managerial solutions to perceived social problems. However, he’s here discussing the political style of the rationalist, who
stands (he always stands) for independence of mind on all occasions, for thought free from obligation to any authority save the authority of reason’. His circumstances in the modern world have made him contentious: he is the enemy of authority, of prejudice, of the merely traditional, customary or habitual. His mental attitude is at once sceptical and optimistic: sceptical, because there is no opinion, no habit, no belief, nothing so firmly rooted or so widely held that he hesitates to question it and to judge it by what he calls his ‘reason’; optimistic, because the Rationalist never doubts the power of his ‘reason (when properly applied) to determine the worth of a thing, the truth of an opinion or the propriety of an action. Moreover, he is fortified by a belief in a reason’ common to all mankind, a common power of rational consideration, which is the ground and inspiration of argument: set up on his door is the precept of Parmenides–judge by rational argument. But besides this, which gives the Rationalist a touch of intellectual equalitarianism, he is something also of an individualist, finding it difficult to believe that anyone who can think honestly and clearly will think differently from himself.
But it is an error to attribute to him an excessive concern with a priori argument. He does not neglect experience, but he often appears to do so because he insists always upon it being his own experience (wanting to begin everything de novo), and because of the rapidity with which he reduces the tangle and variety of experience to a set of principles which he will then attack or defend only upon rational grounds. He has no sense of the cumulation of experience, only of the readiness of experience when it has been converted into a formula: the past is significant to him only as an encumbrance.
“The heart of the matter”, as he says several paragraphs later,
is the pre-occupation of the Rationalist with certainty. Technique and certainty are, for him, inseparably joined because certain knowledge is, for him, knowledge which does not require to look beyond itself for its certainty; knowledge, that is, which not only ends with certainty but begins with certainty and is certain throughout. And this is precisely what technical knowledge appears to be. It seems to be a self-complete sort of knowledge because it seems to range between an identifiable initial point (where it breaks in upon sheer ignorance) and an identifiable terminal point, where it is complete, as in learning the rules of a new game. It has the aspect of knowledge that can be contained wholly between the two covers of a book, whose application is, as nearly as possible, purely mechanical, and which does not assume a knowledge not itself provided in the technique. For example, the superiority of an ideology over a tradition of thought lies in its appearance of being self-contained. It can be taught best to those whose minds are empty; and if it is to be taught to one who already believes something, the first step of the teacher must be to administer a purge, to make certain that all prejudices and preconceptions are removed, to lay his foundation upon the unshakable rock of absolute ignorance. In short, technical knowledge appears to be the only kind of knowledge which satisfies the standard of certainty which the Rationalist has chosen.
I won’t try here to explain what he means by technical knowledge (as opposed to practical knowledge, gained by experience); he’s just explained it very clearly in the essay, and it would take too long to rehearse it here. My reason for quoting the section is that it seems to capture the way the rationalist wants people to wash their brains, as in clean the mind of ‘all prejudices and preconceptions,’ and this is because — as the rationalist sees it — their brains have been filled with all manner of tradition, preconceptions and so forth. I realise that Oakeshott’s characterisation of ‘the Rationalist’ can be criticised as a caricature, but he does, I think, hit upon the reason some people have great difficulty with the idea of religion — or religious background — as part of your identity; I see it as part of who you are, in the sense of one of the influences, sometimes an important influence and sometimes not, that shape you as a person.
It’s also, in many cases, a social fact. Certainly one of the reasons Catholicism is so important to both the Irish and the Poles is that, for historical reasons, it’s been part of their way of defining themselves against powerful and, at time, somewhat oppressive neighbours. Your religious commitment, if any, is irrelevant to the matter; historically, at least, Catholic is something that you were, and the Russians and the English weren’t, and would much prefer you not to be. Apostasy, apart from being the one of the worst possible sins — arguably it’s that mysterious ‘sin against the Holy Ghost’ (Matthew 12:31-32) that can’t be forgiven, since if you die an apostate, you die resisting the known truth in a state of final impenitence; it’s not that God can’t or won’t forgive you but you die knowingly refusing to accept His forgiveness — was, for a long time, an act of political betrayal. I’m not saying, of course, that that’s the case now, but it’s there in the background, certainly, along with all sorts of the cultural and historic clutter that make people who they are.
This obviously doesn’t mean that religion, or any other cultural practice, is immune from criticism; it does, though, mean that, on a practical political level, it’s important from whom this criticism comes. Ill-informed criticism is always annoying, I find, and I suspect that many enlightened criticisms of other people’s religion is often based on a caricature; Richard Dawkins’ recent book had me in stitches in places because — as a short conversation with his university Catholic chaplain, or, if he can’t bring himself to speak to a priest, a bit of basic research would have told him — many of his objections to what he calls ‘Christianity’ are, in fact, perfectly valid Catholic criticisms of Evangelical Protestantism.
Even well-informed criticism with which you might, at one level, agree can be a tad annoying; I’m willing to bet that most Brits — among whom I, of course, include myself — will, whatever their views on the monarchy, rather resent being told what a stupid and pointless institution it is, which they should do away with forthwith, if the person telling them this is either American or French. When I lived in the USA for a couple of years back in the 1980s I not infrequently found myself — I shudder to write it — defending aspects of Margaret Thatcher’s Northern Ireland policy, not out contrariness but partly because so much the criticism was spectacularly ill-informed (e.g. the widespread assumption that Catholics are in a majority in NI) and, even when it wasn’t, I was buggered if I was going to hear my country traduced by Americans.
I don’t know, but I would suspect that, whatever their views on their religion, many British Muslims feel much the same way, only more so, about lectures on the shortcomings of their faith from the editors of tabloid newspapers (passim) or those charming folks over at Little Green Wingnuts or whatever they’re called. Certainly, or so I am given to understand, domestic critics of Soviet Communism often found the voluble support of Western anti-communists less than helpful, since it all went prove, at least as far as a lot of folks back there were concerned, that Pravda was right and they were all stooges of the enemy. And I can well imagine that either Iranians or Arabs wanting to spread democracy in their part of the world have not found Mr Bush’s and Mr Blair’s recent stab at promoting this desirable end particularly advantageous to their cause.
Clearly, as NGN manifesto says,
In calling for a dismantlement of the old order, we must build a new movement on the values of tolerance, freedom of expression and a clear commitment to anti-racism. Prejudice in the form of anti-semitism, homophobia and sexism must be rejected, as should any demonisation of Muslims. And it should be rejected from all corners.
In my experience — and this is aimed not at the manifesto’s authors but at some of the progressive secularists who contributed to the CiF discussion of Mr Fisher’s article — pragmatic politics, to say nothing of good manners, suggests that help is most often welcomed when it’s asked for, and in the form for which it is asked, rather than when it’s offered by some well-meaning but officious outsider who, all too often, seeks to impose it. For their own good, of course.
Leave that sort of thing to Tony Blair.
tags: New Generation Network, UK, Community Politics, Religion