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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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue