2012 in review: The New Statesman on... religion

From the challenges facing the new Archbishop of Canterbury to the reaction to the "Innocence of Muslims", it's been a busy year in discussions of religion.

Welcome to the third instalment of the New Statesman's 12 Days of Blog-mas. (Yesterday's round up, of our best writing on sport, is here.)

Today we're looking back at a year in which religion has often dominated debate, whether it was the violence in reaction to the Innocence of Muslims film or the new census data revealing how Britain chooses to describe its faith. Here are a selection of our best pieces - click the headlines to open them in a new window.

Between church and state

George Pitcher, formerly head of public affairs for Rowan Williams, set out the political challenges facing the new Archbishop of Canterbury. A key decision for the new incumbent - Justin Welby - will be whether to take Westminster on, or whether to retreat into the CofE tribe.

Is Christianity essentially socialist? The new archbishop will be enthroned in Augustine’s seat in a failing economy with a hardline, Conservative-led government (and, after this month’s reshuffle, who doubts that that is what we have?). As a Church, we are drawn inexorably towards the question of where today our faith is rooted, economically and politically. In short, the new archbishop will be examined to establish whether he is Labour or Conservative.

 

Leader: The Church needs to change

Something else that Welby is going to have to deal with early on in his tenure is the division in his church over the consecration of women bishops. The Synod narrowly rejected proposals to allow them this year - a grave mistake, as the New Statesman wrote in a leader at the time:

The choice of that arid path is cause for more than passing regret, even to non-believers. The established Church is embedded deeply in our constitution. Its bishops are entitled to sit in the House of Lords and pass judgement on national legislation. It would be morally, socially and politically intolerable for any comparable institution to affirm a blanket refusal of women’s equal right of participation in national life. The Church is not only misguided in this matter, it has a public duty to change.

 

Muhammad survived Dante’s Inferno. He’ll survive a YouTube clip

Mehdi Hasan's open letter to the Muslim protesters against the film Innocence of Muslims argued that "anger is no excuse for extremism", and pointed to the Quranic evidence for peace, tolerance and freedom as being central to Islam.

He argued:

You and I have long complained of the west’s double standards in the Middle East; it is time for us to recognise that Muslims are guilty of equally egregious double standards. Egyptian state television has broadcast a series based on the infamous anti-Semitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Pakistani television channels regularly air programmes demonizing the country’s Ahmadiyya community. Islamic scholars appear in online videos ridiculing the core beliefs of Judaism and Christianity. Yet you and your allies demand special protection for your religion and your prophet. Why? Is your faith so weak, so brittle? Muhammad, lest we forget, survived Dante’s Inferno. Trust me, he’ll survive a 14-minute clip on YouTube.

 

Atheism+: the new New Atheists

This year, a new movement developed in atheism, known as "Atheism+", in response to the so-called New Atheism of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. The "new wave" seeks to prioritise equality when discussing non-belief, and cleanse some of the reputational damage done by allegations of sexism and elitism. As NS blogger Nelson Jones explained:

Atheism+ is, at its most basic, an attempt wrap things together more formally, to create a movement that prioritises issues of equality  and does so from an explicitly non-religious perspective. Some would say that such a philosophy already exists in the form of humanism. Others prefer the label Skeptic. Atheism+, however, seeks to capitalise on the sense of identity that has grown up around the word "atheism" during the past few years. One supporter of the idea, Greta Christina, celebrates the term as "a slap in the face that wakes people up."

 

Is Scientology just a weird cult?

Nelson Jones again (we've had some excellent writing from him this year - check out his NS blog) responding to the news that Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise were divorcing with a nuanced look at Scientology. He discusses whether its beliefs are any stranger than other, more established, belief systems:

To its critics, Scientology looks like both pseudoscience and pseudo-religion. But then most religions require of their adherents belief in concepts or entities that strike outsiders as unlikely or even absurd: Virgin Births, the revelation of scripture by divine dictation, miracles, angels and demons. Is Xenu any more ridiculous an idea than a saviour who could walk on water, or less historical than Abraham? Scientology's credibility problem may partly be a consequence of its youth. It has yet to build up a patina of ancient wisdom, the respectability that comes from age. Nor does it have the ballast provided by a long-standing intellectual tradition.

 

Malala Yousafzai: The girl who played with fire

 

The shooting of the brave child activist Malala Yousafzai by a Taliban hitman shocked Pakistan. Reporting from the region, Samira Shackle examined politicians' reluctance to confront the state’s own role in sustaining extremists.

There is no mass support for the Taliban but it would be naive to suggest that they have no appeal at all. The extremists have successfully appropriated an anti-imperialist and anti-American discourse that resonates with the wider public mood. The Taliban were not a problem in Pakistan until the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. American drone strikes and the associated civilian deaths as well as the assault on sovereignty have further complicated public sympathies. And conspiracy theories proliferate. Over dinner, a top lawyer very seriously told me that Malala was a “puppet of the west”. A businessman said that her shooting had “obviously” been orchestrated by the government as an excuse to delay the next election, which is scheduled for early next year.

 

Is God an Englishman?

In an excoriating review of Roger Scruton's latest book, Our Church: a Personal History of the Church of England, Terry Eagleton lambasts the author's nostaligic fondness to High Anglicanism, and reveals the weaknesses in his assocation between religion and a version of Englishness:

Whatever his political views, this son of a socialist republican has produced, in his time, some extraordinarily perceptive work in philosophy, aesthetics and political theory. In the end, however, ideology tends to addle your brain. For many years, Scruton was far smarter than his own extravagant Romantic prejudices. Now he has succumbed to them wholesale. At least he has discovered some kind of community in the process, as he rides to hounds and plays the organ in his local church. It’s just that one suspects this maverick intellectual is as fervent as he is about belonging because he will never really be able to.

 

The "Muslim Schindler"

Mehdi Hasan again, writing in praise of Abdol-Hossein Sardari, who risked his life to save Iranian Jews in Paris during the Second World War, and who died, poor and alone, in Croydon in 1981.

Abdol-Hossein Sardari unexpectedly found himself in charge of Iran’s diplomatic mission in Paris during the German occupation of France. A lawyer by training, he used his negotiating skills to try to persuade the Nazis’ experts on racial purity that the 150 or so Iranian Jews living in the city in 1940 were assimilated to non-Jewish – and “Aryan” – Persians through history, culture and intermarriage. At the same time, the dapper diplomat quietly began to issue new-style Iranian passports to Jews, making it easier for them to flee France.

 

Who speaks for British Jews?

Writing in a special issue of the magazine on British Judaism, David Cesarani argued that British Jews are not, and never have been, "clannish", and that only an arrogant few can presume to speak "for Jews":

Today, mainstream Jewish leaders still place a premium on unity, but they know that in a voluntary community they have no power to enforce unanimity. They can only appeal to the humility of idealists and busybodies alike who arrogate the right to speak “as Jews” and “for Jews”. They can point to the harm wreaked by individuals acting without the sense of responsibility that comes from being integrated into a people, knowing its history, understanding and sharing its hopes and fears.

 

Devoted dissent

Marking the 350th anniversary of the Book of Common Prayer, Daniel Swift explored the political past and future of this most radical of texts:

The Church of England’s social conservatism has perhaps masked the liturgy’s potential for political or economic radicalism. Yet in this anniversary year an alternative reading of liturgy has emerged from an unlikely source. Last year, preaching his Christmas sermon, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said: “Before we draw the easy and cynical conclusion that the prayer book is about social control by the ruling classes, we need to ponder the uncompromising way in which those same ruling classes are reminded of what their power is for, from the monarch downward,” he said, and he cited the Communion rite as a warning against an economic order that accumulates “assets of land and property in the hands of a smaller and smaller elite”.

 

Who needs God, when you have the Muppet Christmas Carol?

 

Finally, writing in the Christmas double issue of the New Statesman, Natalie Haynes makes an atheist bid to reappropriate the joys of Christmas, wondering why the qualities of generosity and thoughtfulness should be the preserve of the God-fearing:

It’s because of this that I see A Christmas Carol as a humanist text, in essence. Scrooge does go to church on Christmas Day after his night-time conversion from misanthrope to good man, but it takes up less than a sentence of the book. (And none of the film. Perhaps it’s for the best – the church might not approve of the marriage between pig and frog.)

 

Photograph: Getty Images

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

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Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.