Christians aren’t being driven out of public life – they’re just losing their unfair advantages

Cristina Odone confuses a loss of advantage with an act of oppression. This is the shock of those who are losing their divine right to dominate.

One of the prickly issues for a society that attempts to be liberal is how tolerant it must be of the intolerant. Writing in the last issue of this magazine, Cristina Odone says that she feels her rights as a taxpayer, a citizen and a Christian have been trampled on. She warns of a world around the corner in which religion will be a secret activity behind closed doors.

So, what is this dystopian vision of the future? A world where if you run a bed and breakfast, you cannot discriminate against gay couples, and you have to abide by the rules of the job you are contracted to do. That’s it, really.

No one in our society has it all their own way: as an atheist, I am just as much of a trampled-on taxpayer and citizen as Odone. I pay for the BBC, yet nobody non-religious is permitted on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day. Humanists are not allowed to lay a wreath during the annual remembrance ceremony at the Cenotaph. (The 14 faith groups that reviewed the ceremony decided this – the same groups that have supposedly been pushed out of the public arena.) There are 26 bishops in the House of Lords, there solely because of their religion.

As for education, schools in England and Wales are mandated to have daily Christian worship. What sort of state schools are forbidden in England and Wales? Despite the presumed anti-religious jackboot ruling over us, it’s not Catholic, Anglican, Muslim or Jewish schools: it is secular schools. You won’t find parents pretending to be atheists to get their children educated: “We had to go to lectures about Bertrand Russell every Saturday to make sure that we could get Cyril into our local atheist school.”

We can all play the victim game if we fancy it. Just as some men bleat that they are the oppressed because of feminism, Odone confuses a loss of advantage with an act of oppression. This is the shock of those who are losing their divine right to dominate.

Religious people are not being pushed out of public life. Instead, the presumed superiority of morality cherry-picked from ancient books is no longer a given, nor is such morality held in the same high regard it may have been a few decades ago. Evolution has supplied human beings with minds that allow us to think for ourselves and rise above the rigid dogma of a few prophets.

In her piece, Odone says that the organisers of a conference on traditional marriage, who were turfed out by both the Law Society and the QEII Conference Centre, were victims of anti-religious prejudice. She fails to mention that one of the organisers’ websites equates homosexuality with pornography and incest.

Meanwhile, the chief executive of its co-organiser, Christian Concern – who wanted to sue the Law Society on the grounds of intolerance – was recently at another conference in Jamaica lobbying against the repeal of the law criminalising gay sex there. It’s a tricky thing, this intolerance.

Whether you agree with diversity policies or not, you can see how Christian Concern’s “sober” discussion of marriage might have made the management a little edgy. I, too, do not have a given right to perform at any venue. A venue can say “no” to me on grounds of my opinions, but not on the grounds of my faith, race or sexuality. The venues’ uncertainty was not about hosting Christians; it was about hosting a political event covered in religious fairy dust.

Later in her piece, Odone writes: “I believe that religious liberty is meaningless if religious subcultures do not have the right to practise and preach according to their beliefs.” But she has not lost the right to preach her beliefs or practise them. She regularly gets to preach her beliefs in the Daily Telegraph and – like many rabbis, imams and pastors – on television and radio, too. Religious leaders frequently appear on the BBC, that broadcasting network of the state oppressor.

As for practising her beliefs, Odone can do that, too. Same-sex marriage is not compulsory; it is very much an opt-in scenario. Cristina Odone will not be forced into a lesbian coupling, nor will she be forced to have an abortion – nor, should it become law, will she be made to embrace assisted dying, even if her death is agonising and the pain impossible to relieve.

She writes that once there was a golden time where churches dominated and tithes were paid. This was also a time when the bubonic plague laid waste to villages, when graveyards were filled with babies and mothers who had died in childbirth, and the marriage of young children to grown men was an accepted part of existence. The past was indeed different. I would debate whether it was better simply because there were so many more churches where you could mourn your losses and marry children.

As an atheist, I do not have any extra rights. I cannot run a bed and breakfast that refuses Catholic couples, nor can Richard Dawkins run a carvery that bans Mormons. If part of the deal for my next stand-up show at Tunbridge Wells includes giving Communion to the audience or saying grace first, and I refuse, I may well lose that job. This is not “one-sided tolerance”, as Odone proclaims. Loss of superiority is not loss of equality. It is true that the right to refuse services based on a person’s race, sexuality or creed has diminished. Yet does that make a more intolerant society? Let the faithful have the right to express their faith but not to impose it. Most religious people I know are more bothered by social justice than who has consensual sex with whom.

Cristina Odone still has the right to live her personal life openly by her own rules, and more people than ever have the legal right to live their personal lives openly, too. That is progress, not oppression.

Robin Ince is a comedian. His website is robinince.com

A tattoo of Jesus. Photo: Getty.

Robin Ince is a writer and comedian. With Brian Cox, he guest edited the 2012 Christmas double issue of the New Statesman. He's on Twitter as @RobinInce.

This article first appeared in the 15 January 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 1914 to 2014

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Richmond is a wake-up call for Labour's Brexit strategy

No one made Labour stand in Richmond Park. 

Oh, Labour Party. There was a way through.

No one made you stand in Richmond Park. You could have "struck a blow against the government", you could have shared the Lib Dem success. Instead, you lost both your dignity and your deposit. And to cap it all (Christian Wolmar, take a bow) you self-nominated for a Nobel Prize for Mansplaining.

It’s like the party strategist is locked in the bowels of HQ, endlessly looping in reverse Olivia Newton John’s "Making a Good Thing Better".

And no one can think that today marks the end of the party’s problems on Brexit.

But the thing is: there’s no need to Labour on. You can fix it.

Set the government some tests. Table some amendments: “The government shall negotiate having regard to…”

  • What would be good for our economy (boost investment, trade and jobs).
  • What would enhance fairness (help individuals and communities who have missed out over the last decades).
  • What would deliver sovereignty (magnify our democratic control over our destiny).
  • What would improve finances (what Brexit makes us better off, individually and collectively). 

And say that, if the government does not meet those tests, the Labour party will not support the Article 50 deal. You’ll take some pain today – but no matter, the general election is not for years. And if the tests are well crafted they will be easy to defend.

Then wait for the negotiations to conclude. If in 2019, Boris Johnson returns bearing cake for all, if the tests are achieved, Labour will, and rightly, support the government’s Brexit deal. There will be no second referendum. And MPs in Leave voting constituencies will bear no Brexit penalty at the polls.

But if he returns with thin gruel? If the economy has tanked, if inflation is rising and living standards have slumped, and the deficit has ballooned – what then? The only winners will be door manufacturers. Across the country they will be hard at work replacing those kicked down at constituency offices by voters demanding a fix. Labour will be joined in rejecting the deal from all across the floor: Labour will have shown the way.

Because the party reads the electorate today as wanting Brexit, it concludes it must deliver it. But, even for those who think a politician’s job is to channel the electorate, this thinking discloses an error in logic. The task is not to read the political dynamic of today. It is to position itself for the dynamic when it matters - at the next general election

And by setting some economic tests for a good Brexit, Labour can buy an option on that for free.

An earlier version of this argument appeared on Jolyon Maugham's blog Waiting For Tax.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues.