An exploration through the turd-strewn swamp that is the “Ground Zero Mosque” Debate

August 26, 2010

There have been two stories floating around the news agenda recently that I have wanted to write about. It’s taken this long because I only got round to watching Richard Dawkins’s documentary on Tuesday. The two incidents are useful to illustrate the boundaries that religion ought, and is entitled, to have in a liberal society. On the one hand, we have the ongoing saga of the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque”. Balancing that, we have the increasing presence in Britain of Faith Schools, criticised by Dawkins in the documentary. Both these illustrate the need for the state not to interfere in religious matters. To approach the issues correctly, you need to appreciate the fact that Church and State must be separated.

Why is this separation so fundamental? It is because religious persecution stems from the desire to correct error. This, in turn, arises from a desire to save souls. It’s hard for different religious groups to shrug and sigh “Live and let live”, when the consequences of being wrong are potentially disastrous – you could end up in hell. All this makes it harder for a religious group to tolerate another group setting up next door and proclaiming that they are the true path, not the other lot.

If there is an official state religion, this institutionalises one particular religion, or one particular branch of a religion, as the officially-sanctioned “chosen path”. This could give the state a legitimate right to convert, even forcibly, people who do not follow this official faith. Remember Weber’s definition of a state: that it has a “monopoly of the legitimate use of violence in the enforcement of its order”. See, for instance, the horrendous treatment of the Jews and also of heretics in Catholic Western Europe during the Middle Ages. Blurring the boundary between church and state does not inevitably lead to pogroms, but does make it easier to discriminate on religious grounds. It’s no accident that the most repressive type of state is a theocracy.

The state must ensure that there is freedom for people to practise whatever religious faith they wish to. Most of the time this can be done by doing nothing. A great case in point is that the government should not intervene to stop the building of what everyone should not be calling the Ground Zero Mosque. The fact that it’s being called the Ground Zero Mosque at all shows that the media narrative of the right is winning. There are two key reasons why the “Ground Zero Mosque” should not be described as such:

1) It’s not actually a Mosque. It’s an Islamic community centre, and will be open to the public. This centre will also have a basketball court. And yes, it will have a mosque, but before any idiot says, “See – it’s got a MOSQUE inside it”, just consider this. The Guild of Students at Birmingham University has an Islamic prayer room, and a Chaplaincy. Airports and hospitals also have spaces to pray. This does not make them religious buildings. I hope you understand this stonkingly simple argument.

2) It’s not actually at Ground Zero. It’s two blocks away. In a building that used to be a coat factory. Hardly “hallowed ground”.

Henceforth, I will refer to the Ground Zero Mosque as the “Lower Manhattan Community Centre”.

The debate about whether the Lower Manhattan Community Centre should be built seems so stupid, even by the standards of political debate in America. Let me direct you to the First Amendment of the US Constitution. The text is all constitution; the italics are all mine:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Barack Obama and Michael Bloomberg have both made eloquent speeches defending the right of the Lower Manhattan Community Centre to be built. Both emphasised the fact that neither could intervene, even if they wanted to, to stop this centre being built. The courts would immediately overturn such a block as unconstitutional.

The right are, therefore, trying to make this not a matter of religious freedom (which is obviously is) but instead are trying to paint the approval of the Lower Manhattan Community Centre as a victory for Islamism; just one more step towards a global caliphate. See, for instance, these two tweets by Newt Gingrich:

And this one:

The fact is, an establishment of a Manhattan Community Centre; open to all, with spaces to commemorate the victims of September 11th, would actually be a triumph for moderate Islam. It would be a sign that Islam is compatible with “The West”, as Fareed Zakaria argues. Above all, it would send a message that not all Muslims are crazy Jihadists who fantasise about blowing up McDonald’s.

Also, Gingrich is wrong to play down the fact that the outcry is not about freedom of religion, specifically the freedom of Muslims. These protests against the Manhattan Community Centre should be put into the context of other protests against the establishment of Mosques in Wisconsin, Tennessee and California. There is a vocal section in American against the building of other mosques, fuelled by the same sentiments that drive on the English Defence League here: hatred of Muslims and Islam. The Lower Manhattan Community centre must be built. We must  ensure that all religions can practise freely and fairly, without discrimination. We cannot give in to the racists on this point.

Thankfully the controversy over faith schools is conducted in a more sedate fashion. This was reflected by Dawkins in “Faith Schools Menace”, which is an excellent documentary. There was none of his shrill polemic that tends to put many people, including a great deal of atheists, off his work. He talked to almost everyone connected with faith schools; from teachers, pupils and parents to Charles Clarke and the British Humanist Association.

I had no idea, until Dawkins mentioned it in his programme, that one-third of all state schools were actually faith schools. This expansion is thanks to New Labour. It was Charles Clarke as Education Secretary, who wrote against faith schools in a 1978 pamphlet, who authorised the creation of 42 academies run by Christian groups, as well as one hundred schools run by other faith organisations (such as Islam, Judaism or Hinduism). Previously, in return for some special powers over their curriculum, religious groups could fund and run schools. Labour gave these schools millions of pounds, but the schools retained their exclusive controls.

Government money should not be going to schools run by religious institutions. It’s as simple as that. Faith schools ghettoise children at a very early age, when they should be mixing with kids from all backgrounds.

Also, despite the now cliched stories of parents faking a religious conviction and attending church to get their child into a faith school – and Dawkins finds a lot of evidence of that – there’s no real evidence that faith schools are better at teaching than other comprehensives. Steve Gibbons of the LSE, who Dawkins interviewed, compared the results of thousands of pupils. When comparing pupils with the same postcode, when one child had attended a faith school and one had not, Gibbons found that their academic record was very similar, regardless of the school they went to. What really matters, in his view, is the child’s social background and motivation of their parents.

Furthermore, as Johann Hari has written:

On average, [faith schools] get higher grades. But look again. A number of studies, including by the conservative think thank Civitas, have blown a hole in this claim. They have proven that faith schools systematically screen out children who will be harder to teach: children from poor families, and less bright children. Once you look at how much a school improves the pupils it actually admits, the only real measure of a school’s success, it turns out faith schools do less well than other schools – which isn’t surprising given they waste so much time teaching them crazy nonsense like Virgin births and Noah’s Ark. 

Perhaps the worst aspect about faith schools is that their RE curriculum is not monitored at all by the independent OFSTED, but is instead by religious authorities. This fact seems to be abused by certain faith schools: in “Faith Schools Menace” the British Humanist Association  provided examples of a Jewish school that had eight hours of timetabled RE lessons a week, compared to six for science. Some Catholic schools taught their sex education lessons in RE, so that what was being said could not be monitored by government regulators. Combined with what can euphemistically be described as a “lacklustre” teaching of evolution in the faith schools that Dawkins finds, it’s worrying that these schools continue to by funded by the taxpayer.

The argument over faith schools hinges of the issue of parental choice. You need to balance the right of a parent to choose how to educate their child with the right of the child not to be brainwashed. It feels that at the moment the balance is tilted too far in favour of the parent. If the parent wants to instil their child with religious values, there are other ways of going about it – Sunday Schools for instance – without it being funded by the taxpayer.

Britain and America are supposed to be secular, liberal democracies. This means that we can have mosques should be built without an outpouring of bile from the usual suspects, and the state shouldn’t fund faith schools.


Breaking the Stained Glass Ceiling (guest post)

August 4, 2010

by Hannah

Earlier this month, the General Synod of the Church of England passed a motion to allow for the appointment of female bishops for the first time.  This move has been a long time coming: as far back as 1988 the global Anglican church agreed at the Lambeth Conference that, in principle, its provinces could, if they chose, appoint women as bishops; and women have been ordained as priests in the Church of England since 1994.  This move hasn’t been universally accepted within the church, and the degree of opposition coming from some quarters must appear bizarre and archaic to outsiders.  I’ve meant to write about this for some time, in order to explain this controversy to those unfamiliar with the internal politics and theology of the Church, being delayed only by my inability to get down to it!  Hopefully, this will make clearer the history behind this move, and its significance for the future of the church.

 In order to understand the politics of the Church of England, it’s necessary to know its history as an organisation.  The C of E sees itself as part of the one historic church that was instituted by the first apostles of Jesus after his death and resurrection.  The unity and continuity of the church is hugely important within Christian theology, being enshrined in the creeds that form the basic declaration of faith for all, orthodox, Christians:

 We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church

 with “catholic” meaning universal and apostolic meaning, as instituted by the apostles.  The Church of England, along with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, sees its hierarchy as being a continuation of that of the early Church.  It was also heavily influenced by the theology of the Reformation, which sort to move away from the authority of tradition, and a centralised hierarchy, and towards authority directly from a correct understanding of the Bible.  The Church of England could be described as a halfway-house between Protestantism and Catholicism.  The Reformers find their intellectual descendents in the Evangelical – or low church – wing of the Church (for an excellent summation of its constitution and internal groupings see this article from “Fulcrum” a website that represents “Open Evangelical” Anglicans). Since the Oxford Movement of the 19th century there has been an increased emphasis on more traditionally Catholic styles of liturgy and theology from a certain section of the Church- called as the Anglo-Catholic or “high” Church.  There is also a growing Liberal section, sometimes known as the “broad” Church.  It is in this hodge-podge of different ideas and interests that some kind of agreement has to be found.

In fact, there is a growing consensus, from all wings of the Church, that the authorisation of women is both appropriate and necessary.  The remaining controversy is about how best to accommodate objectors, who mostly come from a conservative Evangelical and traditionalist Anglo-Catholic background.  The conservative Evangelical objections – as represented by the Reform network – centre around the concept of “headship”; in other words, that the divine order is that men should be the “head” of women and that women holding authority over men is completely forbidden by scripture and therefore inappropriate.  They justify this by appealing to such proof-texts as Ephesians 5, 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2.  They would like a system put in place whereby objecting churches would not be under the authority of a female bishop, but an alternative appointed bishop.  Naturally, I wouldn’t agree with this conclusion and support the position put forward here in an article by Tom Wright, a respected Evangelical scholar and, up until recently, the Bishop of Durham, that these passages have been significantly misinterpreted, and that women serving in the Church at all levels is not as unprecedented as many think.  This demonstrates the pitfall of a literalist interpretation of scripture – that divorcing it from the human context in which it was written and first received leads to interpretations that are incomplete and often anachronistic. 

Even stronger objections come from the most traditionalist Anglo- Catholics – represented by the network Forward in Faith. Indeed some of them have threatened to leave the Church.  In addition to many arguments shared with conservative Evangelicals, their objections arise from the emphasis they place on the “orders” of the Church (deacons, priests and bishops) as being both representative of Christ and succeeding from the, supposedly all male, apostles; and the Eucharist as, as FiF describes it, “really and substantially, the Lord’s Body and Blood”; gaining its authenticity from that of the administering Priest, who in turn has been ordained by an authentic bishop, and so on.  The importance placed on this, by both Roman and Anglo-Catholics, explains, in part, the recent decision by the Vatican to put the ordination of women, along with other “crimes against the sacraments” amongst its most grave offences, including child abuse.  This places traditional Anglo-Catholics in a quandary, as, if there are dubious innovations, as they see it, with any of the Church’s orders then they cannot know for sure if the sacraments are truly authentic.  They would like to be shielded completely from this decision, with their own Dioceses, ministered by male bishops.  FiF even argues for an additional Province, with complete autonomy, for traditionalists.  Another Anglo-Catholic objection is that this move would completely alienate the Church of England from the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, irreparably damaging ecumenical relationships.  I believe – perhaps betraying my own low church viewpoint – that while the Church’s traditions are important in maintaining a continuous witness to its founding events, to place such emphasis on the substance of its rituals is to detract from the spirit of what they represent and the sovereignty of God over saving events.  Also to elevate the institutional Church, ecumenical relationships and male “headship,” as the conservatives would have it, to such a level is to place weight on all three, that none of them can bare.  This is, amply, demonstrated by the Catholic Church’s present woes, as well as the fact that, as pointed out by Bishops Tom Wright and David Stancliffe, ecumenical relationships have long been fraught, with the Roman Catholic Church refusing to recognise any of the Church of England’s orders – women bishops or no women bishops – and the Eastern and Western Churches having a long and checkered history.

With the appointment of women to all orders of the Church, now widely accepted the question remains as to how to provide for dissenters.  On what should we model this dispute?  Firstly, it is emphatically not the place of the Church to follow blindly the mood of the times as suggested by a recent Guardian editorial, nor is this one of those stand or fall issues where the Church must contend over its basic principles.  How then should  we deal with those who want to place restrictions beyond what is demanded by scripture or principle.  The model for this is ironically a dispute that doesn’t involve women at all.  In the early days of the Church, as it was just growing beyond a small sub-sect of Judaism, there was a dispute over whether non-Jewish converts to Christianity were required to follow all the ritual laws of Judaism, including circumcision.  St Paul, who was central to the spread of the Gospel to Gentiles, was not shy about condemning those who hypocritically insisted on applying the most exacting standards on the new converts, just as Jesus had opposed the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of his day in the strongest possible terms.  However as St Paul would go on to say in his letter to the Romans we must also have respect who genuinely feel they cannot, in good conscience, go along with this move.  Clearly, there are many, within the Church, who object to these changes, in good faith.  This is not to let opponents off the hook, entirely.  It is clear from reading the objections detailed in the Bishop of Rochester’s report (Chapter 5) on the theological issues raised by appointing women bishops, that many of the arguments are highly patriarchal and this cannot be divorced from a desire – conscious or otherwise – to maintain men’s privileges, both individually and institutionally.  This doesn’t imply that women’s involvement is unimportant, only a need to be patient with others’ weaknesses, even when it matters.

The current draft of the legislation instructs female bishops to delegate some of their responsibilities to a male colleague.  Many of those who object to the proposals feel that this does not go far enough to deal with their concerns.  The Archbishops of Canterbury and York proposed an amendment to make this delegation of responsibility a function of the legislation rather than the authority of the main bishop, but it was rejected as it was felt to undermine the authority of the office of the bishop and construe female bishops as in some way second class.  Perhaps a better option would be to give objecting parishes a one time opportunity to opt out of the current hierarchy and into a new diocese or dioceses led by bishops of their choosing.  In this way female bishops would maintain authority over all parts of their dioceses at the time of their consecration and objectors would be free to maintain their own standards.


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