Wednesday, October 13, 2010

NSS gets in a tizzy again

The National Secular Society has published its latest outpouring of righteous indignation. The object of wrath this time is the BBC, who have altered their editorial policy, extending a list of controversial subjects that need to be handled with care, to include religion. In practice this seems to mean that editors will not broadcast items that are likely to cause offence to religious groups.

Whether religion needs this sort of protection is an interesting question. But the NSS contributes nothing to this debate by putting out a press statement that can be accurately summarised as follows: "it's not FAAAIIIRRRRRR......" In fact this would accurately summarise most of their communiqu├ęs. When I first became aware of the NSS and similar organisations, I found them quite threatening, imagining them to be a real danger to the freedom of faith and conscience that we enjoy in this country. But the more I hear of them, the less I can take them seriously.

There's a real problem with an organisation that exists with a purely negative purpose. It has nothing positive to aim for, no achievements to celebrate, nothing really to contribute to the greater good. The cause is not really one to stir the passions or change hearts and minds. In the case of the NSS, this is made even more painfully obvious by its own mission, "challenging religious privilege", setting itself up to knock down something that probably doesn't exist anyway (how ironic). Religious privilege? In which country are we talking about? Probably by "privilege", they mean the fact that religions are allowed to exist, which explains why it is so easy to get up their nose simply by mentioning any faith-related issue.

These negative press tactics are not the preserve of the NSS, of course. Christian organisations send out their fair share of sulky press releases. But these are just unfortunate excrescences on the edge of the Christian witness. Strip them away, and underneath is a message of life-changing love and hope, a matter of life, death, and destiny. With the NSS, there is nothing else underneath. It's just a bunch of people being grumpy about the fact that not everybody plays the way they want them to. There's no future in that.

5 comments:

Stuart said...

I have been thru exactly the same process. On discovering the NSS I thought them to be a powerful and dangerous group and now after watching them for some time they just seem like a very tiny, moany, largely insignificant, group.

Simian said...

Er. As a paid up member of NSS it's embarrassing to have to agree with your post, but I think you've nailed the problem Charlie. I've taken the liberty on my blog of linking to this article.

Charlie said...

Thanks Simian, very gracious of you to say so. I'd hazard a guess that what I said here doesn't apply to you personally (although wonder if you agree with everything that I said).

Sophie said...

Actually, although I can only agree with you about the NSS's dire PR, I can't agree with this:

"It has nothing positive to aim for, no achievements to celebrate, nothing really to contribute to the greater good. The cause is not really one to stir the passions or change hearts and minds."

It saddens me, as a Christian, how seldom the mainstream churches have led the way in human rights. The campaigns for racial and sexual equality have not been Christian campaigns, and the issue of women in the church speaks for itself. The major churches have all too readily supported the status quo and the main opponents of LGBT equality are driven by faith. Secularism, otoh, has been behind many movements for good in our society. Amnesty International, for example, stands as a beacon in this world: certainly an achievement to celebrate.

Although I'm a Christian I've asked to be allowed to join the NSS. Apparently I'm not the first Christian to make such a request and have been told the NSS is going to debate changing its rules to allow people with my views to join. I am strongly in support of a secular society - in the sense that the Americans have a separation of church and state. This separation has allowed their courts to prevent religious fanaticism encroaching into public life. Naturally, I don't want religion banned, but I very strongly oppose the idea that theology should be part of government. I think society should be secular - with faith a personal thing. After all, we are too varied to form a political party!

In the past society was a lot more homogenous in terms of faith, and most British people were Christians of one sort or another. This meant there was more relatively greater consensus. These days many religions are active in society and some of them vigorously seek political power. The issue of state-supported faith schools is a good example of the effects of this: because Anglicans and Catholics have their own schools Muslims want theirs too. This seems a reasonable request and it would be hard to refuse without appearing inequitable. However it's becoming clear that some Muslim faith schools are teaching religion in place of science and inculcating children in views of the roles of men and women that are actively antisocial and, if enforced in the wider world, illegal. This is so far from the interests of the wider community that I am reluctantly forced to the conclusion that the day of the C of E primary is over. Thing is, if any faith has special privileges over no faith, then those faiths that non-believers consider downright antisocial can claim the same privileges. Not all religions are as benign as today's C of E.

History shows us that when any religion becomes powerful in a worldly sense its tolerance for dissenters gradually decreases. A church on the back foot in secular England preaches a very different message to one with totalitarian power. The current situation in the US, where Creationists seem to be taking over the Republican party, is a scary example. It is for these reasons that I strongly support a secular society, in which no faith is allowed special rights.

Charlie said...

Thanks Sophie for your very interesting and thoughtful comment. Although I do think you are wrong. As you say, the USA is by law a secular country, but you also admit that this has not prevented creationists from becoming increasingly prominent in political life there.
I will post again on this, watch the RSS feed!