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 assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.