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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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.