Devoutly unbelieving: on a summer’s day, art enthusiasts admire Cosmo Sarson’s mural of a breakdancing Christ in Stokes Croft, Bristol. Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty.
Show Hide image

The new intolerance: will we regret pushing Christians out of public life?

In this provocative challenge to the left, the former New Statesman deputy editor Cristina Odone argues that liberalism has become the new orthodoxy – and there is no room for religious believers to dissent.

I couldn’t believe it. I was trying to discuss traditional marriage – and the state was trying to stop me.

Incredible, in a 21st-century European country, but true. I was invited to speak at a conference on marriage last summer, to be held at the Law Society in London. The government had just launched a public consultation on changing the law to allow same-sex marriage. The conference was a chance for supporters of traditional marriage to contribute to the debate. The participants included a retired philosophy professor, a representative of the Catholic archdiocese of Westminster, the chairman of the Tory party’s oldest pressure group, the Bow Group, Phillip Blond (another Tory adviser) and spokesmen for various Christian organisations. The title, “One Man. One Woman. Making the Case for Marriage for the Good of Society”, could hardly have sounded more sober. I accepted without a second thought.

A few days before the conference, someone from Christian Concern, the group which had organised the event, rang me in a panic: the Law Society had refused to let us meet on their premises. The theme was “contrary to our diversity policy”, the society explained in an email to the organisers, “espousing as it does an ethos which is opposed to same-sex marriage”. In other words, the Law Society regarded support for heterosexual union, still the only legal form of marriage in Britain, as discriminatory.

Hurriedly, another venue was found, the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in the heart of London. This publicly owned modern building is named after the supreme governor of the Established Church, and is situated across the street from Westminster Abbey, for nearly a millennium the symbol of Christian Britain. Who could hope for a better venue, in short, to discuss what the churches still regard as a sacramental union?

But with only 24 hours to go before the conference, managers at the QEII centre told Christian Concern that the subject it planned to discuss was “inappropriate”. The booking was cancelled. When challenged, the QEII centre’s chief executive, Ernest Vincent, cited its diversity policy as reason for the cancellation. A journalist asked for a copy of the diversity policy. The centre refused to provide it.

By the time I took part in the event, (which had been moved to the basement of a hotel in central London), I felt my rights as a taxpayer, citizen and Christian had been trampled. I began to wonder if I had been the unlucky victim of an isolated incident or was in fact encountering a wider problem. I started to research the issue.

My findings were shocking: 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).

Only 50 years ago, liberals supported “alternative culture”; they manned the barricades in protest against the establishment position on war, race and feminism. Today, liberals abhor any alternative to their credo. No one should offer an opinion that runs against the grain on issues that liberals consider “set in stone”, such as sexuality or the sanctity of life.

Intolerance is no longer the prerogative of overt racists and other bigots – it is state-sanctioned. It is no longer the case that the authorities are impartial on matters of belief, and will intervene to protect the interests and heritage of the weak. When it comes to crushing the rights of those who dissent from the new orthodoxy, politicians and bureaucrats alike are in the forefront of the attacks, not the defence.

I believe that religious liberty is mean­ingless if religious subcultures do not have the right to practise and preach according to their beliefs. These views – for example, on abortion, adoption, divorce, marriage, promiscuity and euthanasia – may be unfashionable. They certainly will strike many liberal-minded outsiders as harsh, impractical, outmoded, and irrelevant.

But that is not the point. Adherents of these beliefs should not face life-ruining disadvantages. They should not have to close their businesses, as happened to the Christian couple who said only married heterosexual couples could stay at their bed and breakfast. They should not lose their jobs, which was the case of the registrar who refused to marry gays. When Britain was fighting for its life in the Second World War, it never forced pacifists to bear arms. So why force the closure of a Catholic adoption agency that for almost 150 years has placed some of society’s most vulnerable children with loving parents?

Once a dominant force in western culture, religion has been demoted to, at best, an irrelevance; at worst, an offence against the prevailing establishment. For millennia, religion has coloured every aspect of the European landscape. Churches were every­where – one for every 200 inhabitants in the High Middle Ages – and oversaw every stage of life: “hatch, match and despatch”. Philanthropists, religious orders and communities built and ran schools, orphanages and hospitals. Belief was so crucial to ordinary people that the most destitute did not question paying tithes to their church. The Founding Fathers crossed an ocean to be free to practise their faith.

But, as the British poet Geoffrey Hill has written, the continent is “a place full of memorials but no memory”. Church attendance has slumped to less than 30 per cent. Only in two Greek Orthodox countries, Cyprus and Greece, does the overwhelming majority of the population attend services regularly (98 per cent and 96 per cent respectively). Europeans may walk in the shadow of church spires but biblical literacy is so unusual today that a recent survey found that, of 900 representative respondents, 60 per cent couldn’t name anything about the parable of the Good Samaritan, while only 5 per cent of people could name all the Ten Commandments.

Americans do God in a way that Europeans no longer do: the First Amendment guarantees citizens’ right to the “free exercise of religion” – and they in turn choose to exercise their religion in a host of patriotic rituals. Their currency (“In God we trust”, proclaims the dollar bill), the prayer before the college football game and the national anthem: all invoke God, and pledge faith in His powers. “All-American” is synonymous with church-going, just as “un-American” meant the Godless communists.

The equation – good equals God-fearing, and bad equals atheist – is so much part of the ordinary mindset that when asked in a recent study whether a fictional hit-and-run driver was more likely to be a rapist or an atheist, most Americans chose an atheist. It seems preposterous, given this scenario, to speak of an encroaching atheism. Yet stealthily, behind an advance guard of political correctness, a new secularism is taking shape. As in Europe, it elevates gay rights, women’s rights and pro-choice principles to unassailable values. To question them is to court censure and worse.

Can the decline in the social and intellectual standing of faith be checked, or even reversed? Yes. Ironically, believers can learn from those who have come to see themselves as their biggest enemy: gays.

Think of how successful gay rights activists have been, in both Europe and America. Twenty-five years ago, Britain’s first “gay pride” march took place in London. It was a muted affair, remembers the campaigner Ivan Massow, which “struggled to fill half of Kennington Park and a disco tent”. Today, the Gay Pride march is sponsored by the Mayor of London and draws tens of thousands, filling Hyde Park. Prime Minister David Cameron was on hand last summer to take credit for equal marriage reforms which would allow gay schoolchildren to “stand a little bit taller”. The Royal Bank of Scotland was in evidence to take credit for sponsoring high-profile gay awards. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to be in on the act.

Practising Christians, Jews and Muslims should also step forward into the limelight, dismantling prejudices that they must be suspect, lonely, losers. Believers should present themselves as ordinary people, men and women who worry about the price of the weekly shop and the size of the monthly mortgage. They should not appear to be religious zealots or gay-bashers or rabid pro-lifers. They should reassure critics that religious people are not a race apart – but just happen to cherish a set of ideals that sometimes places them at odds with the rest.

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? Even the most hardbitten secularist and the most intolerant liberal should be offended by the kind of censorship people of faith are facing today. If believers can awaken a sense of justice in those around them, they may have taken a first important step in reclaiming the west as an area where God is welcome.

Without a change, the work that faith groups have carried out for millennia – charities, hospitals, schools, orphanages – will disappear. Communities will no longer be able to rely on the selfless devotion of evangelists and missionaries who happily shoulder the burden of looking after the unwanted, the aged, the poor. Feeling stigmatised and persecuted by the authorities and the establishment, Christians, Muslims and Jews may well become entrenched in the more fundamental shores of their faith.

Equality is already becoming the one civic virtue universally endorsed; equality legislation, the overriding principle of law. In this new scenario, yesterday’s victims are today’s victors. Gays and women, among other scapegoats from the past, now triumph over their former persecutors. But they have learned no lesson from their plight. As they promote a one-sided tolerance, they act as if their rights now include this: to have no one disagree with them.

This is not the sign of a healthy society. Ordinary citizens should not live in fear of saying or doing “the wrong thing”. Diversity means respecting conscientious objections and making reasonable accommodation to let subcultures survive. Erasing God from the public square, and turning religion into a secret activity between two consenting adults in the privacy of their home, leads to what the poet Seamus Heaney calls the hollowing-out of culture. A no-God area can only sustain a fragile and brittle civilisation, a setting worthy of a broken people.

The roots of today’s intolerance, however, run deep. Decades of totalitarian regimes instilled suspicion of authority; while the birth of ethical relativism taught that everything goes – just not judging others. Religion took no account of these historical developments. It was authoritarian, judgemental, and hypocritical to boot. The Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie and the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001 showed Islam was guilty certainly of the first two accusations; the abysmal cover-up by the Catholic Church of its priests’ paedophile abuse exposed it as guilty of the third.

Given the precedents of the past century, westerners today should be hard-wired to resist the persecution of religious people. Of course, it would be blasphemous to compare the hardships of Christians, Muslims and Jews in the west today to the plight of their forebears in totalitarian regimes or to their co-religionists elsewhere, who live in fear for their lives and are being systematically abused and driven from their homes. To be a Christian in Iraq, Egypt or Pakistan, or a Muslim Uighur in Xinjiang, western China, or a Buddhist in occupied Tibet, means routine persecution. A law suit, a disciplinary hearing at work, or even hate speech online or in person can seem insignificant by comparison. But that is no reason not to mind.

Religion has long been synonymous with authority. This was no bad thing when, for millennia, traditional hierarchies were respected for ensuring that the few at the top protected, organised, and even ensured the livelihood of, the many at the bottom. Bloodthirsty authoritarians from Hitler to Pol Pot drove a tank through this vision: they turned authority into authoritarianism. Those who survived their brutal regimes and those who witnessed them cherished their individual liberty, once they regained it, all the more.

Personal choice became a new morality. Those institutions that stood in its way –the class system, the army, the Church – sparked fierce hostility. Hippies, rock stars, comedians, university students and their professors, draft evaders and military deserters took up arms against the old order. Christians, too, cheered the triumph of liberty but they held back when “liberty” bred the celebration of the “I”. Christian churches, especially the Roman Catholic, insisted that individuals were not free to do as they wished, but bound by divine laws to obey an invisible God. Birth, marriage, speech, sexuality: the Church had rules and regulations for every area of everyday life.

By the 1960s Vatican insiders felt they must modernise their ancient world to retain some of its inhabitants. Vatican II (1962-65) allowed Pope John XXIII, the pontiff said, to throw open the windows of the Church to let in some fresh air.

But while he allowed for the translation of Latin prayers and said priests could face their congregation during Mass, his encyclical Humanae Vitae quashed talk of a new sexual ethics. Self-denial remained a core message. The Church would continue to oppose divorce, homosexuality and the Pill as grievous sins.

The Church saw itself as a rock in the shifting sands of public mores; critics saw it as implacable and unbending – and let the world know what they thought. “Catholic baiting is the anti-Semitism of the liberals,” the priest and author Andrew Greeley wrote then. These critics drew their own inspiration from a Harvard professor. Joseph Fletcher’s Situation Ethics, published in 1966, argued for a new morality where nothing was universally right or wrong; context, or situation, was everything. Truth itself became subjective – or truth-for-me, as Fletcher’s critics dubbed it.

Fletcher’s tabula rasa was exciting. It ushered in a “permissive society” whose members felt thoroughly emancipated from Judaeo-Christian ethics. In this way, secularism became allied to a newfangled “liberalism”. Yet even its staunchest opponents could not completely reject the Church. In occupied countries such as Poland and Ireland, the Catholic Church had supported the underground opposition against the occupying regime and won, in the process, every patriot’s heart.

In 1989, however, Ayatollah Khomeini declared a fatwa against Salman Rushdie for his “blasphemous” novel The Satanic Verses. The world recoiled at the extraordinary curse from an exotic corner of the world. Then, in quick succession, Rushdie had to go into hiding; his Japanese translator was killed; and his Italian and Norwegian publishers were knifed. The west understood a terrifying new force had been unleashed: here, in black cloaks and long beards, stood the enemies of free speech.

It didn’t matter that a long list of leading Muslim writers rushed to declare their support for Rushdie and free speech. For the liberal intelligentsia, the Rushdie affair marked a turning point. They were witnessing one of their own persecuted by a sinister authoritarian regime that, in God’s name, opposed everything they believed in. To tolerate this faith was to repudiate hard-won rights of free speech and, above all, equality.

Atheists seized their chance: shrewdly, they pointed to the ayatollah’s quashing of free expression as representative of a religious mindset: blasphemy laws were part of the Judaeo-Christian legacy, too. They went on to elide Islamism with all religions; Muslim practices mirrored Christian and Jewish tenets, Islam was just another attempt to deal with the great fairy in the sky.

The 11 September 2001 attacks gave the secularist campaign to discredit religion a whole new impetus. The tragedy reawakened fears of Islam. The commentary surrounding the 19 terrorists wove elements of fanaticism and A Thousand and One Nights into the inspiration for these gruesome acts. In fact, most of the hijackers and their accomplices could not be considered model Muslims; they were alcohol-swigging middle-class youngsters who had hung out in Las Vegas (some with prostitutes there).

Muslim leaders around the world should have stood as one to condemn the acts of terrorism and distance themselves from the fanatical spirit that had sparked them. More recently, the leaders of the Catholic Church (and to a lesser extent the Anglican one) also failed to condemn the horrific crimes committed by co-religionists. The horror of paedophilia among priests was magnified by the Church’s attempt to cover up the scandal. The hierarchy’s reluctance to expose and punish their clergy discredited the institution – among its faithful as well as its foes.

For some new foes, such as the late Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, the Church was not accommodating child abuse, it was child abuse. As Dawkins told an audience in Dublin, “horrible as sexual abuse no doubt was, the damage was arguably less than the long-term psychological damage inflicted by bringing the child up as Catholic in the first place”.

Dawkins hailed the words of a psychologist, Nicholas Humphrey: “Children have a human right not to have their minds crippled by exposure to other people’s bad ideas.” Humphrey, like Dawkins and Hitchens, caricatured religion as superstition and dogma, and its followers as stupid. The new atheists, mainly scientists and authors, saw themselves as truth-seekers. They touted their own false equation without pause – science and religion are locked in inevitable and perennial conflict. They rewrote history to present the Enlightenment as a battle between two mortal enemies: reason v religion.

The faithful, according to this manipulation of history, stood on the side of obscurantism and ignorance. Believers turned their back on progress, rejected Darwin and hated women. Ranged against them were the forces of good – the new atheists, who shed light on the dark and sinister workings of religions.

With these clever and rational men (they were all men) as guides, ordinary folk would find their way to the sunny plateaus of a rational existence. Here men and women, emancipated from the old superstitions, would breathe the pure oxygen of equality and learn that nothing lurked beyond matter. “Transcendence”, “spirituality” and “salvation”: atheists would expose these concepts as empty talk, with no bearing on real life.

In this way the stage was set for a new intolerant agenda.

Cristina Odone’s ebook “No God Zone” is out now (Kindle Single, 99p)

Now read a response to this piece by the comedian and secularist campaigner Robin Ince

Correction: this article referred to the fatwa on Salman Rushie occurring in 1979. It has been amended to 1989.

Show Hide image

The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood