Archive for the ‘discrimination’ Category

Who am I to talk?

2013/12/01

Who am I to talk about this stuff?

What does a lifelong atheist have to offer when many of the key problems we as a secular community face (antagonism, discrimination, psychological scars from childhood indoctrination, etc) are completely alien to me? This post is partly a bit of fretting about my relevance as a blogger, and partly an exploration of what I might have to constructively offer. It begins with a brief summary of my life so far …

I grew up in rural Alberta, one of the more socially and politically conservative regions of Canada. (The ruling party in Alberta’s legislature for the past 42 years has been the Conservative party.) I was extremely lucky. My parents are both much less tradition-bound than the general population. My mother grew up on a farm in England; they met when my dad (a farmer) was on exchange working for her dad. It’s all very romantic. More than that, I’ve always imagined it gives them a slightly wider view of the world than many rural Albertans. Some of whom have never been outside the province, let alone the country.

Anyway, I never had religion pushed on me as a kid. My grandparents were all religious – we would go to the local Anglican church on Christmas Eve every year. We did Christmas, but it was only ever for me a family-gathering, gift-sharing, feasting holiday. Religion’s only hold on it was that relatively indoctrination-free church service. Same for Easter – a secular holiday involving chocolate eggs, a fun bunny myth, and a family gathering. I have even less memory of token church attendance for Easter than for Christmas.

So I grew up without any religious belief. I had friends in school who were religious – mainstream Christians and one or two Mormons – but it was never a point of conflict. Just one of those things. I had a really tall father and a mom who was from England; my friend I.S. was Mormon; S.M. was really good at running; and so on. That sort of thing.

It’s not that I was sheltered from it. I had (perhaps my parents still have) a “Children’s Story Bible”, which I read from once in a while.

I do remember wondering a little about it – this thing that was part of other people’s lives but not mine. But what did religion offer that I really lacked? My parents were very clear about social and ethical precepts – we knew right from wrong, so obviously that didn’t depend on religion (or any sort of deep philosophy). Our extended family and the local community were very supportive and close-knit, so the community-building function of religion wasn’t needed. The story-making role of religion, giving us a sense of where we fit in things, was a no-go: I had way better facts, from being a science nerd, and more enjoyable myths, from consuming science-fiction.

(Not that I believed the sci-fi myths to be true, of course. Just that they were more engaging stories than anything of the religious stories that filtered through to me. Literature, even when one doesn’t believe the stories literally, is a great source of narratives to use for wrapping meaning around the events in our lives.)

I did go through a phase in my early university career where I actively explored religion. Partly, I just wanted to see what the fuss was about. Although I hadn’t been actively shielded from religious information, neither had I been taught the details as kids from more religious households had been. (Deena still laughs at my ignorance about some passages; I’m still amazed at her capacity to cite scripture, even if it’s largely confined to the headline verses such as John 3:16.) Partly, my exploration was driven by the same curiosity that made me a scientist: “Here’s a popular hypothesis, maybe I should examine it and see if it has some merit.”

I spent a little time identifying as a neopagan. They have some fun symbols, neat rituals, and a generally non-dogmatic approach to what you have to actually *believe* about the whole affair. It was also titillatingly controversial, at least if you read the conservative Christians’ tirades. Admit it: there’s something exciting about being a persecuted minority.

But basically, my background is a very vanilla secular-living-well story with no conversions or de-conversions, no ostracism or recognizable oppression of any kind, no religion-based trauma or excitement. Not even any great teen rebellion.

And here I am, a self-identified humanist, skeptic, and atheist. And it often feels like the people who share these labels – especially the last one – seem overwhelmingly to have come from religious backgrounds. Former-Baptist (eg, Matt Dillahunty). Former-Pentecostal (eg, Jerry DeWitt). Former-Muslim (eg, Ayaan Hirsi Ali). Former-Jain (eg, Hemant Mehta). Former-Something. People have been harassed, parents have kicked kids out of their homes, people live under death threats, while others are outright killed. All perpetrated by religious people against atheists. Even Richard Dawkins has a story about molestation by a religious figure (though he seems to have suffered more from reactions to how he told the story than from the event itself). There are whole communities dedicated to those who are struggling with their newfound atheism: the Living After Faith blog and podcast, Recovering From Religion, the Clergy Project, and probably loads others that I haven’t even heard of because that’s not my story. (If you know of any, please feel free to list them in the comments.)

Derived from ARIS data

Shifts in religious identity among Americans

By the numbers, the vast majority of atheists in the US come from religious backgrounds. This report seems to support my hunch that, for the UK, the trend is less pronounced, though it looks like a slight majority of current “no-religion” folks still claim some childhood religious identity. (I want to note I was unable to follow through to the original report for the UK link, so I’m interpreting a flashy graphic rather than hard survey numbers.) I suspect that Canadian numbers, if they’re out there, fall somewhere between these two cultural neighbours of ours.

Data from www.brin.ac.uk

Shifts in religious identity among the British

So, having said all that, am I the (metaphorical) white guy lecturing on feminism for minorities? Do I have anything relevant to offer the people in this community, that isn’t already being better provided by someone with more relevant experience?

It’s a question worth asking, and I hope I will always ask it before I condescend to put finger to keyboard. (Linguist’s side-note: Is “put finger to keyboard” an acceptable re-tooling of the old “put pen to paper” idiom? You know what I mean, anyway.) I think there are a couple of answers that can justify this admittedly self-indulgent blogging habit.

First, there are still a few (increasingly many) people like me out there: people who come to humanism/skepticism/atheism not as a reaction to a former state of theirs, but as a recognition of what they have always felt/believed/etc. So, within the wider tent, there is a large contingent of “people who are especially like me”. And perhaps my musings and reflections will seem particularly relevant to them.

Second, for people who continue to work through the fallout of their former beliefs, my story (and the stories of those like me) may be encouraging. This is the end-game that they are working toward: so their children, and future generations, can live lives that are casually and uneventfully religion-free. Lives unscarred by childhood belief in eternal torture, or untenable “moral” commandments.

Third (and most importantly), there is more that unites us than divides us. Whether you come to the humanist community from a nonreligious background or from a lifetime of fervent religious belief, you and I will tend to share values and goals. We want a public space that is free from religious coercion. We want a society that upholds basic secular values (individual rights and liberties, science as a beacon of understanding, etc). We want to promote quality education, discourage bigotry, and enjoy artistic creations that lift the spirit and inspire greatness.

Alright then. My angst is largely assuaged. The fact that I’ve never been a believer doesn’t disqualify me from being able to contribute useful ideas to our community.

Let me know what you think. Are you a formerly-religious person, now identifying as humanist or atheist? Are you a lifelong atheist? What do you think about the content of this blog? Does the material here seem relevant to you? How do you see yourself fitting into the freethinking community in general? What issues are important to you?

Is there anything I haven’t talked about that you would like to read from someone in my position?

Banned! Minority tyrrany! (Perspective?)

2012/02/13

There’s been a ruling in an English High Court that, instead of praying at the start of council meetings (when everyone must be there), the Bideford town council should instead pray just before the start of council meetings (when attendance is optional). The case was introduced by a local councillor, and supported by the National Secular Society (NSS). Michael Langrish, the Bishop of Exeter, tells us in that story that this is an attack on the religious freedom of Christians. “I think it’s a great pity that a tiny minority are seeking to ban the majority, many of whom find prayers very, very helpful, from continuing with a process in which no-one actually has to participate.”

It seems to me that there is a whole lot of wrong wrapped up in the Bishop’s words. I’ll take some time to review the two main bits of wrong: the demographics involved, and the injury done.

For the demographics, I’m drawing on a 2011 poll commissioned by the British Humanist Association (BHA), and a 2007 poll conducted by Why Church, a Christian group. I do not know how biased either of these polls might be, so I will also throw in numbers from the recurring British Social Attitudes Survey. The numbers differ, but the overall story is basically the same.

The BHA study found that 53% of people in England and Wales claim to be Christian (7% claim other religions), but only 29% claimed to be religious. For how many of those is the message of their church important? The Why Church study finds that regular attendance is declining steadily – at the time of the report, it was at 15%. That’s how many in the UK attend at least once a month. In particular, compare this section from the executive summary of their report to the bishop’s statement above (my emphasis):

Two thirds of UK adults (66%) or 32.2 million people have no connection with church at present (nor with another religion). These people are evenly divided between those who have been in the past but have since left (16 million) and those who have never been in their lives (16.2 million). This secular majority presents a major challenge to churches. Most of them – 29.3 million – are unreceptive and closed to attending church; churchgoing is simply not on their agenda.

The BHA study supports this, reporting that 63% of respondents had not been to church in more than a year.

It looks like the good bishop’s claim to speak for the majority is, at best, barely true and soon to be outdated. More likely, he’s thinking about a Britain that is several decades in the past.

The BHA poll reports that while 53% claim to be Christian, 65% of people in England and Wales claim to be non-religious. Clearly, some see themselves as “non-religious Christians” – a category which reminds me of “secular Jews”. A Scottish poll gave similar results: 58% claiming some religious affiliation, and 56% saying they were not religious. Even the Why Church survey shows agnostics and atheists at 33% of the population. Langrish’s claim that it is a “tiny minority” imposing these onerous restrictions is therefore ridiculous. It is no stretch to say that, if they don’t already, non-believers are likely to soon outnumber believers in the UK.

The British Social Attitudes Survey shows a drop in Church of England affiliation from 22.50% in 2008 to 19.98% in 2009. Christians overall went from 49.70% to 43.83%, and total religious affiliations from 56.38% to 48.86%. The “no religion” category grew over the same period from 43.19% to 50.67%. Call me crazy, but it looks to me like the bishop’s C of E flock is less than half the size of those whose interests the NSS seeks to protect – Langrish’s “tiny minority”. Probably, he meant all religious people when referring to the “majority” – but even so the numbers are close, and moving in favour of the non-religious.

I’ll let you sift through the statistics yourselves for further insight – there is obviously a lot of scope for picking different numbers, depending what aspect of the issue is important to you. The British Social Attitudes Survey releases their data to registered users; the Why Church people have a number of informative graphics on their website, as well as an in-depth report (PDF). The BHA provides downloadable statistical summaries of their poll on their website.

What wiggle room do we have in interpreting the demographics for this issue?

On the bishop’s side, we could include only regular attenders of the Church of England? That would be somewhere well south of 15%. It’s tempting, but of course other Christians and religious people more generally may also claim an interest in making prayers part of the official council business. That would put the number up as high as 61% – but only, mark you, if the prayers are inclusive of all religious perspectives. And what about people who only attend services rarely or not at all? Is it reasonable to think that they would be upset by a law that allows councillors to opt out of pre-meeting prayers? Counting regular (monthly or more) attenders from all religions, we get something closer to the 15%.

On the secular side, should we only look at members of the NSS, the BHA, and other organizations promoting non-belief? If so, we’ll have a very low number – perhaps appearing to justify Langrish’s “tiny minority”. The BHA has 28000 paying members and supporters; the HSS (Humanist Society of Scotland) has around 6500 members; and the NSS is estimated to have fewer than 10000 paying members. Some individuals will be members of more than one of these groups, and there are many smaller groups that I have left off of this list, but this indicates that something like 40000 people – a fraction of a percent of the UK population, are card-carrying, dues-paying secularists. Should we also include the “de-churched” – the 33% of UK adults who used to attend church, but no longer do? They seem to have made a pretty solid vote for reducing the influence of church in their daily lives. Should we include everyone who claims to be non-religious? Again, it’s tempting, but not all of this group (depending on the survey, somewhere from 33% to 65%) will agree with the secularization of Britain (just as not all religious people agree with the establishment of church power and rituals in government institutions).

Regarding the specific issue at hand – religious prayers before council meetings – a couple of questions about politics on the British Social Attitudes Survey are also relevant. A growing number of people think that churches have too much power in the country (10.58% in 1991, 29.76% in 2008), and people increasingly object to religious leaders influencing government (56.64% in 1991, 67.26% in 2008).

Goodness, what a mess of numbers! Over all, the bishop’s appeal to democratic sensibilities seems to backfire. If the will of the people is important, then the British people seem to be saying that the church should back off. (Of course, an obvious rejoinder from Langrish’s camp would be to bemoan the fact that people are turning their backs on religion – but that becomes more paternalistic and less democratic. Besides, I wouldn’t want to put words in the good reverend’s mouth.)

But let’s back up a little. What did the court rule, exactly? It ruled that prayers are okay in a pre-meeting context, but not as part of the minuted, mandatory-attendance part of council meetings.

So when we hear people complain that their voices are being silenced, their rights trampled on, bear that in mind. They are being pushed perhaps a few minutes earlier, so that people who object to the practice of prayer in council meetings have more freedom to absent themselves while the religious folks carry on thanking and invoking and praising as they always have. That is the great secular imposition which Langrish and others are wailing about.

This is the point where I would typically want to extract some broader lesson. Perhaps about people’s tendency to inflate perceived injuries against them. Or I would congratulate myself on my humility by noticing that we also tend to minimize perceived injuries against others when we identify – by creed or otherwise – with those accused of the attack. (It’s true that I think the Bishop is being alarmist. On the other hand, he is right in his statement in the Guardian that ” the agenda of the National Secular Society is inch by inch to drive religion out of the public sphere.”)

But I think I’ll leave it there, and see what you think. Is there an obvious demographic perspective that makes this all clear? Should we be worried about how many of us there are and how many of them, or is secularization about something more than just one side beating another side with brute numbers? What is the significance of the (apparently overlooked) fact that it was the High Court, attempting to interpret the laws of the land, that handed down this ruling (and not the NSS or one disgruntled atheist councillor)?

Positively unjust?

2009/09/18

The latest issue of Humanitie magazine just arrived in the mail. In this issue, Mike and I discuss our (somewhat different) thoughts on positive discrimination. Make sure to read his thoughts here.

I was all ready to deliver a column arguing against “positive discrimination”.

I was going to argue that the solution to discrimination is not counter-discrimination. Two wrongs don’t make a right. I would point out that even the people supposedly helped by it are, really, just being patronised: “You can’t get this job on merit, so we’ll give you a hand up because of your sex/race/etc.”

I’d have pointed out that the statistics you run across in the media about pay gaps and hiring biases are probably rife with holes. For example, the workers at my daughter’s nursery are almost all women. Does this imply discrimination against male nursery workers? More likely, it’s simply a consequence of free choice: more women than men choose to be nursery workers (for whatever reason). Trying to “equalize” this with quotas would devalue the choices those women and men are freely making.

I was even ready to loftily concede that there are situations of extreme, institutional discrimination where positive discrimination as a temporary counterbalance – as part of a wider program promoting education and social change – might be justifiable as a lesser evil.

And of course, I would have generously acknowledged my potential conflict of interest on this issue: I am a white man. I hate the idea of being passed over for a job in favour of a less-qualified candidate because of my sex or race (what “positive discrimination” means to many people).

But then, at Deena’s suggestion, I started looking into what programs actually exist here, and my righteous indignation vanished.

Because, you see, so-called “positive discrimination” is illegal in Britain. Existing human rights legislation, and the proposed new Equality Bill, specifically prohibit the hiring or promoting of one job candidate over another on the basis of sex or race – or any other protected category, such as sexual orientation, religion, and age.

What is promoted is “positive action”. An employer can encourage under-represented categories of people to apply for a job or promotion; an agency can target disadvantaged groups in promoting training courses. This means things like advertising in media that target these segments of the population, or using language in job adverts that encourages them to apply. (“Women and minorities welcome!”, for example.)

While people might argue about the effectiveness of such measures, it seems clear that positive action hardly constitutes inappropriate discrimination against “dispreferred groups” (such as white male columnists). In fact, it seems to be just the level at which opponents of “positive discrimination” (like me) suggest we should be channelling our efforts.

I think we probably do still have low-level discrimination (both conscious and unconscious) in our society, and it needs combating. Even accounting for self-selection and shortcomings of popular statistics, some unfairness does exist. I have plenty of loved ones in “disadvantaged” groups – women, older people, people with mental health problems, etc. So, in addition to my above-mentioned interest, I have a strong personal interest in trying to make our employment landscape fair.

So I say, keep positive discrimination illegal, and keep positive action around.

Turing apology

2009/09/11

A few days ago, I pointed out a petition calling for a posthumous apology to Alan Turing for his disgraceful treatment by the British government when it became known that he was gay.

Well, Gordon Brown has delivered. He has issued what seems to me to be a very frank apology, acknowledging not only Turing’s significant contributions to computing and to the outcome of the Second World War, but also the injustice of his treatment at the hands of the country he had served so well.

As of this moment, there are 31070 signatures on the online petition. (I assume the petition is closed, now that its aim is achieved, but cannot find a clear statement to that effect.)

Here is the full text of the Prime Minister’s statement:

2009 has been a year of deep reflection – a chance for Britain, as a nation, to commemorate the profound debts we owe to those who came before. A unique combination of anniversaries and events have stirred in us that sense of pride and gratitude which characterise the British experience. Earlier this year I stood with Presidents Sarkozy and Obama to honour the service and the sacrifice of the heroes who stormed the beaches of Normandy 65 years ago. And just last week, we marked the 70 years which have passed since the British government declared its willingness to take up arms against Fascism and declared the outbreak of World War Two. So I am both pleased and proud that, thanks to a coalition of computer scientists, historians and LGBT activists, we have this year a chance to mark and celebrate another contribution to Britain’s fight against the darkness of dictatorship; that of code-breaker Alan Turing.

Turing was a quite brilliant mathematician, most famous for his work on breaking the German Enigma codes. It is no exaggeration to say that, without his outstanding contribution, the history of World War Two could well have been very different. He truly was one of those individuals we can point to whose unique contribution helped to turn the tide of war. The debt of gratitude he is owed makes it all the more horrifying, therefore, that he was treated so inhumanely. In 1952, he was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ – in effect, tried for being gay. His sentence – and he was faced with the miserable choice of this or prison – was chemical castration by a series of injections of female hormones. He took his own life just two years later.

Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him. Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly. Over the years millions more lived in fear of conviction.

I am proud that those days are gone and that in the last 12 years this government has done so much to make life fairer and more equal for our LGBT community. This recognition of Alan’s status as one of Britain’s most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue.

But even more than that, Alan deserves recognition for his contribution to humankind. For those of us born after 1945, into a Europe which is united, democratic and at peace, it is hard to imagine that our continent was once the theatre of mankind’s darkest hour. It is difficult to believe that in living memory, people could become so consumed by hate – by anti-Semitism, by homophobia, by xenophobia and other murderous prejudices – that the gas chambers and crematoria became a piece of the European landscape as surely as the galleries and universities and concert halls which had marked out the European civilisation for hundreds of years. It is thanks to men and women who were totally committed to fighting fascism, people like Alan Turing, that the horrors of the Holocaust and of total war are part of Europe’s history and not Europe’s present.

So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work I am very proud to say: we’re sorry, you deserved so much better.

Gordon Brown

Well done, Mr Brown.

Call for apology to Turing

2009/09/01

This is a story of a national hero who was censured by his country and died alone on account of love.

Alan Turing was a key figure in the early years of computer development, before the Second World War. During the war, he was a key figure in the British team that decrypted the German Enigma cipher. Their contributions gave the Allies a pivotal advantage over their adversaries.

He was prosecuted for “gross indecency” because he’d had consensual sex with another man in the privacy of his own home. His work with the British intelligence service was over, and he was given the choice between chemical castration or prison. He chose the hormone treatment. Two years later, he committed suicide. He was 41 years old.

The last word the British government had to say about him was that his private actions, harming nobody, merited ruining his life.

Turing was a very prominent individual; I am sure that many other lives, both prominent and not, were needlessly ruined by this shameful law (happily repealed across Britain by the late 1970s).

There is now a call for the British government to apologise for its treatment of Turing. Given that an apology would be very easy to issue, would cost little and harm nobody, I think it is worth doing.

If you are a British resident and think this is worth two minutes of your time, please go sign the petition.

Also, let me know what you think of this sort of apology. Is it worthwhile? Is it a waste of time? Is is otherwise inappropriate? What consequences do you think such an apology would have, in terms of people’s actions and their attitudes?

Photo credit:

Alan Turing photo, author unknown. Photo was found at Ally Action, among a list of prominent individuals and events in the history of gay rights.

Religious rights: free speech and hate speech

2009/08/27

A couple of news items flagged up by Hemant, the Friendly Atheist, the other day have me thinking about “religious freedom”. What should the relationship be between laws protecting freedom of religion and the rest of the laws in a society?

One is this report of a bus driver in Iowa refusing to drive a bus with an ad on it promoting a local atheist group. The message on the ad is: “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone.”, and includes the group’s name (Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers) and their URL (iowaatheists.org). The bus driver was suspended for refusing to do her job. She’s now back at work, but the issue is probably not over. Her employers said she can keep her job so long as she doesn’t do it again; she says that if she’s given another bus with the ad, she will again refuse to drive it.

The other is this story (which I could only find reported at the Telegraph) of street preachers John and Miguel Hayworth being told off by police for allegedly reading homophobic and racist passages from the Bible to passersby. They feel that their right to religious practice is being infringed. Others feel that their actions amount to hate speech.

In the case of the bus driver, I really don’t think there’s much room for reasonable dissent. The ad is in no way inflammatory. It doesn’t say anything that could reasonably be considered offensive. It is even milder than the surprisingly controversial UK bus ads, which go so far as to say that “There’s probably no god”. I can’t see how the driver could argue that driving the bus would violate any sensible ethic. Her reaction reflects a general tendency among humans to exaggerate the offensiveness of statements they disagree with.

The case of the street preachers raises a more interesting and difficult issue to resolve. On the one hand, free speech is a fundamentally important right. It supersedes people’s desire not to be offended (for example, by inflammatory passages of scripture). On the other hand, incitement to violence is dangerous and should be prevented – if someone is actively promoting hatred and violence against a group, then society (through the police and the courts) is right to stop them.

So the question is, where is the line between protected free speech and prohibited hate speech? As Hemant points out, there are several passages in the Bible that simply and straightforwardly promote death for certain acts. Here are a couple of examples:

Exodus 22:18 “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”
Leviticus 20:13 “If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.”

(For more examples, see this essay at Religious Tolerance.)

I’m not saying these verses in particular were used by the Hayworths – they are not among those mentioned in the Telegraph article. But they are from the Bible, and thus might be claimed as protected by religious evangelists.

If someone were to stand on the Royal Mile in the centre of Edinburgh and start saying we should kill all the Wiccans, or all the practicing homosexual men, that person would (I hope) be arrested. Nobody has a right to encourage violence like that.

And yet, the passages I mention above say exactly that: kill witches; kill men who have sex with men.

So here are the crucial questions:

Would it ameliorate the crime at all if the exhortation to violence is based on (or directly read from) a religious text? Should religious expression trump hate speech laws?

On both counts, my answer is a firm no. No idea deserves any special protection just because someone claims it as a religious idea, no matter how old or widespread the idea is.

Despite occasional cries to the contrary, applying the same rules to everyone regardless of their religious beliefs is not discrimination. It is the opposite. Discrimination would be applying different rules (extending either privilege or persecution) based solely on religious belief (or lack of it).

So, if the Hayworths were reciting passages that promote hatred and violence against others, then police interference was justified. If they were just reciting passages that are offensive to others’ feelings (and there are plenty to choose from), then they should have been allowed to continue.

(A point of curiosity: I wonder if the Hayworths would defend the atheist bus ads? After all, they are at least as innocuous a form of expression as reciting scripture to passersby. Conservative religious people seem often to be not only the ones crying foul when they don’t have all the religious privileges they would like; they also seem to be the most vocal critics of atheists who try to share their worldview with others.)

Discrimination or hysteria?

2009/02/27

There have been more developments since my recent post about nurse Caroline Petrie. Cath and I have exchanged some discussion on our respective blogs, but I feel that there is enough new material to merit a separate post – largely to clear things up a little.

So here’s where we stand:

There is the case of the nurse, Caroline Petrie, who offered to pray for a patient and, as a result, faced disciplinary action. And more recently, there is the case of a school receptionist, Jennie Cain, whose daughter was told off for discussing her religion with a classmate. (There are other incidents mentioned alongside these, but it is these two news items that seem central to the current discussion, so I’ll limit myself to them.)

On the fact of it – with just those claims – Cath is right that these seem to be outrageous cases of religious discrimination.

But then you dig deeper.

According to the Telegraph, Caroline Petrie has a history of promoting her religion at work. Before a previous reprimand, she used to leave prayer cards with patients. Now, a clear case of overstepping the line would be pushing religious tracts on patients. Do prayer cards count as religious tracts? I’d say yes, but that may be a matter of taste. Also, as I mentioned in my previous post, she is not being asked to check her religion at the door. She is just being given guidelines – which seem reasonable to me – about when it’s appropriate to bring religion into her role as a medical carer. For example, wait for the patient to ask for prayer, rather than pro-actively offering it.

I understand that prayer is important to Mrs. Petrie (and Cath and other Christians who identify with her). And I’m willing to concede that perhaps the employer’s rule is more restrictive than it really needs to be to protect the patients. But calling it religious discrimination – particularly, saying that Christianity is being singled out – is unsupported by the available facts. The course of the case is nicely summed up in a sequence of clips from BBC here, where it is made clear that the trust has also acknowledged the need to respect the spiritual needs of patients. Mrs. Petrie has been fully reinstated with no further disciplinary action.

The Jennie Cain case also takes on a different tone when we look deeper. The Telegraph, the Daily Mail, and the Christian Institute all claim that the catalyst in the case was a young girl “talking about Jesus”. Innocuous enough, but the Express and Echo paper points out that the girl was threatening her classmate with hell if she didn’t believe in God. Now, there are a lot of ways that even that topic might have come across, but you have to acknowledge that eternal suffering is a pretty horrible idea to be sharing with a young child – particularly one who hasn’t been exposed to all the Christian background that is said to soften and justify it. Furthermore, those crying discrimination are deciding to ignore head teacher Gary Read’s take on things – both that he felt the girl’s claim was hurtful to the other child, and that his response was gentle and proportionate. The Express and Echo also reports that parents are supporting Mr. Read on this issue. Check out this BBC video, presenting both sides:

Mr. Read says, “Whether it’s considered to be private or not, the fact … that a member of our staff was making quite serious allegations about the way the school was dealing with things which weren’t true.” Weren’t true. Could it be that Mrs. Cain is actually in trouble because she was slandering the school? That certainly changes the tone of things. And here’s what he says he told the girl: “What you said has upset another child and frightened her, so I don’t want you to say that.” Which seems reasonable, and in no way anti-Christian (or even generally anti-religious). Cath points out that belief in hell is pretty basic to most Christians’ belief. Fair enough – but one’s beliefs do not give one licence to threaten or upset other children. It’s okay for a teacher to ask a child not to frighten other children. To say that religious statements should have a special exemption from this – that would be religious discrimination.

Of course, there is more to this case. Mrs. Cain sent a personal e-mail to friends at her church, not from a school computer, which was apparently obtained by the head teacher and is being used as justification for disciplinary action. The head teacher says that Mrs. Cain was making inappropriate allegations against the school in the e-mail, but the Christian commenters claim (or, in some cases, simply insinuate) that it was obtained inappropriately; if so, they are right in saying that its content is irrelevant.

So, in sum, we have what may be an innocent comment from a child that was mercilessly suppressed, or may be an insensitive comment from a child that was dealt with gently. We have a private e-mail that may have been obtained through shady means (though we aren’t given enough details to know this), which may have been a simple plea for help and prayers, and may have been a slanderous diatribe. Out of this mess (which I have spent a reasonable amount of time sorting through), I do not think we can confidently assert persecution.

I am trying very hard to avoid the dismissive and completely unsympathetic tone set by another non-religious commentator. I take very seriously my “Friendly Humanist” name. But the balance of evidence in these two cases – Caroline Petrie and Jennie Cain – does not seem to justify the claims of systematic anti-Christian prejudice that are being made.

It may be that, as more facts emerge, the current uncertainties in these cases will be resolved in the direction of discrimination. It may be, but I doubt it.

Why?

Because the UK is a Christian country.

Demographically, more people identify as Christian than anything else. Politically, we have a parliament that privileges Christian beliefs and practices above others. Socially, we have a landscape dominated by Christian holidays, Christian landmarks, and Christian language.

I’m not trying to claim here that I’m being discriminated against. (Except for the political bit – but that’s a topic for another time.) I’m just trying to let my Christian colleagues out there in the ether see why these cases are less than compelling as evidence that the world, or particular instances of British bureaucracy, are against them.


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