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

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

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.