Faith should not dictate political affiliation

When Rowan Williams and AC Grayling made headlines recently, one aspect of the God Debate was turned

Ask most people what it is from Jesus's teachings that they remember and they'll probably say something about loving your neighbour and looking after the poor. It's a little disconcerting, then, that the Christian movements both here and in the USA clearly feel most at home on the right of the political spectrum.

A handful of opinion polls paints the picture of what is going on in America: in 2004, 70 per cent of traditional evangelicals were Republican as opposed to only 20 per cent who were Democrats (Pew Forum poll); the majority of members of the Tea Party support the social agenda of the religious conservatives with heavy opposition to same-sex marriages and abortion (2011, Pew); non-believers are one and a half times more likely to believe that the earth is subject to global warming than are Christians (2010, Pew).

For the religious right, the Land of the Free will never become the Land of the Free Hand-outs. The Christian movement is a powerful constituency represented by various lobby groups which push for a low-tax agenda. And in parts of the country the movement is dominated by the mega-churches which preach the "Prosperity Gospel", that God wants us to be rich.

In Britain the position is less extreme, but still pronounced. The Church of England's label as the Conservative Party at prayer is admittedly tongue-in-cheek. Even so, the agendas of the Christian church and the political right-wing make comfortable bed-fellows. You know the kind of thing: anti-abortion, anti-unions, opposed to same-sex marriage and tough on crime. If, at this very moment, there is a church minister recruited straight from Central Casting pouring tea in a quaint village vicarage somewhere in the south west of England, his china cup and saucer are more likely to be delicately balanced on a copy of the Spectator than the New Statesman.

As for the New Atheists, when they warn of the social ills of religion, it is clear that their own humanist heaven on earth would be headed up by the kind of socially-progressive Guardian-reader to whom your typical tabloid editor would hardly give the time of day. (Even Christopher Hitchens with his famed views on foreign interventions claims to remain a Marxist at heart.) And it should be no surprise that the Liberal Democrats are the only mainstream party whose leader is openly an atheist. It was presumably for these reasons that before last year's general election Richard Dawkins took the surprising step of publicly endorsing the party.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. After all, when a country has an official religion (such as the UK) or an unofficial one (as in the case of the USA), one cannot be surprised that those who adopt it are more likely to be the small-C conservatives who are willing to toe the line drawn by the state. But last year controversial evolutionary psychologist Satosha Kanazawa offered another explanation. In a study published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Social Psychology Quarterly, Kanazawa reported a link between atheism and social liberalism. Contentiously he suggested that they are the traits spawned by higher intelligence. His explanation was that to look after our own kin and to believe in God carried evolutionary survival benefits which today's more intelligent people are willing to reject.

No doubt Kanazawa would be among the first to admit that the list of the Christian intelligentsia is both long and impressive. Even so, there is much to be said for his theory. Religion is grounded in faith. According to Luke 18:17, Jesus urged us to receive the Kingdom of God, not by persuading ourselves with clever arguments, but rather as a little child would do. To be religious can be either passive (such as by continuing the religion handed down by one's parents or unthinkingly adopting the one foisted on us by society) or it can involve taking an active step such as that associated with born-again fundamentalism. Either way, it is more likely to be based on faith as opposed to argument. Some atheists reject God for the flimsiest of reasons, but their decision is nevertheless generally dictated by reason rather than faith. At a minimum, they can be expected to be more questioning than their religious counterparts. After all it is the atheist movement which has deep-rooted connections with free-thinking and critical thinking philosophies.

And so the events of the last fortnight must come as a surprise. Take AC Grayling. The human rights philosopher and atheist is now on the receiving end of criticism unimaginable a few weeks ago. He is to be the Master of the privately-funded educational institution New College of the Humanities, London. Whatever the rights or wrongs, it's a move which hardly smacks of the leftist leanings of those who share his theology. What's more, the most celebrated member to his professoriate is Richard Dawkins.

And to complete the volte face of the God Debate, the Archbishop of Canterbury warned on these very pages that the coalition government is committing the country to "radical, long-term policies for which no-one voted". This led to one of the Telegraph's most bizarre headlines a couple of days later: "David Cameron: I profoundly disagree with the Archbishop of Canterbury." I bet he does.

Maybe AC Grayling and the Archbishop are unintentionally teaching their supporters a lesson. It can hardly be in the interests of anyone involved in the God Debate if those who have yet to place a cross on the giant voting slip in the sky assume that a belief in various metaphysical matters carries with it a mandatory political affiliation.

If it did, perhaps most of us would choose agnosticism.

Andrew Zak Williams has written for the Independent and the Humanist and is a contributor to Skeptic Magazine. His email address is: andrewbelief@gmail.com

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.