In the 1970s, the British government frequently cited so-called ‘Christian Values’ around Christmas and Easter time. Taking its cue from the Bible, the government knew that belief in an all-powerful authority, whose actions cannot be questioned, is a formidable tool of control.
Over the past week the press has — not surprisingly — been full of the attacks on Paris, the aftermath and where we go from here. Plenty of opinions have been offered and I really don’t have anything to add. So, instead, here are a few links to articles that particularly struck me.
Starting with Charlie Hebdo, whose absolutely brilliant cover can be seen to the left of this post. It turns out that they also have an English translation of their current edition’s Riss Editorial (click quickly as the layout of their website suggests that this will be replaced when the next print edition is published).
After the horror of the attacks, another ordeal is to be expected. The harassment of analyses, explanations, theories. And it started on Friday night, live on television. So-called specialists pretended that the attacks were the consequences of the French bombings of Daesh’s oil facilities. The hostages of the Bataclan had yet to be released and the same guilty speeches were already delivered. We had been attacked because we had done something wrong. As was the case with the Mahomet cartoons that supposedly spurred everything that went on afterwards, the victims were made responsible. The French would be guilty of taking a stand, of being committed. Of simply existing. In reality, for these criminals, there is no beginning and no end to the responsibility of France. Human rights, free speech, secularism, for them, these values are enough to legitimate their crimes. We are being given “explanations” that sound like “reasons” and end up becoming “justifications”. It is too early yet, but in a few days, when the emotion calms down, the professional scavengers, who always find excuses for the killers, will start to roam around the dead. It is always the same process after an attack –– horror, emotion, acceptance, justification.
During these tragic days, lots of words were uttered. Except one, “religion”. Religion has become embarrassing. Nobody dares say the word but everybody knows that religion was what motivated the murderers, not pseudo geopolitical issues. Even if there are thousands ways to believe and worship and even though you can obviously be a believer and a democrat, have faith and still respect the diversity of opinions, we also know that religion can be turned into a weapon. The other word that is so hard to pronounce is “Islam”. For the past twenty years, Islam has turned into a battlefield on which radicals vowed to exterminate non-believers and to submit moderates by force. French Muslims must feel ill at ease when they see killings committed in the name of their religion while suspicion is creeping around them. And since they cannot expect any support from the Muslim religious authorities in France, who have always been useless, French Muslims must fend for themselves. Threatened to be sidelined by the rest of French society or to be swept over by fundamentalism.
The only ones who have an interest in seeing the French people clash are the terrorists. It is what they are craving for, to see hatred take over the French the same way it took over their brains. Terrorists always seek to draw the rest of the world into their own violence because it is their language and in this field, they will always be stronger than we are. But to avoid the trap of division does not mean we should renounce the right to criticise religion simply because this right can sometimes be seen as irritating. Among all the fundamental rights essential to our lives, this freedom is also what the killers attempted to destroy on Friday night.
France and its capital city seem to have been a particular focus of their abomination. Other European cities have been hit – Madrid, London and Brussels, for instance. But the viciousness those terrorists reserve for France is notable. For obvious reasons: France and Paris are the cradle of the Enlightenment, the birthplace of secularism and the separation between the State and the Church, a beacon of freedom of thought, scepticism and powerful satire. It is also an active player in fighting Islamists in the world, for example in Mali.
Many people will ask questions about failures in intelligence gathering and sharing, about prevention of such acts and they will be right. However, when the danger is so diffuse, no democracy that values freedom of speech and movement is completely safe.
There was, in fact, a kind of syllogism of terror at work here: a movement that begins by targeting Jews and writers will end by targeting the West at large. Those who extenuated those earlier attacks by pointing to Israeli policies or cartoonists’ provocations may now realize that terrorism is not a form of critique, but a form of attack. Religious pluralism and free speech are the glories of liberalism, and so they are what the enemies of liberalism attack first.
Sadly, I suspect we will continue to see more cases of the ideologically blinded insisting that everything that happens everywhere can only ever be explained n terms of UK/US/EU foreign policy — as if such a coherent thing actually existed.
But our job is to remain steadfast in the face of terror, to refuse to be terrorized. Our job is to not panic every time two Muslims stand together checking their watches. There are approximately 1 billion Muslims in the world, a large percentage of them not Arab, and about 320 million Arabs in the Middle East, the overwhelming majority of them not terrorists. Our job is to think critically and rationally, and to ignore the cacophony of other interests trying to use terrorism to advance political careers or increase a television show’s viewership.
The surest defense against terrorism is to refuse to be terrorized. Our job is to recognize that terrorism is just one of the risks we face, and not a particularly common one at that. And our job is to fight those politicians who use fear as an excuse to take away our liberties and promote security theater that wastes money and doesn’t make us any safer.
So what can we say about how to respond to terrorism? Before the atrocities in Paris, the West’s general response involved a mix of policing, precaution, and military action. All involved difficult tradeoffs: surveillance versus privacy, protection versus freedom of movement, denying terrorists safe havens versus the costs and dangers of waging war abroad. And it was always obvious that sometimes a terrorist attack would slip through.
Paris may have changed that calculus a bit, especially when it comes to Europe’s handling of refugees, an agonizing issue that has now gotten even more fraught. And there will have to be a post-mortem on why such an elaborate plot wasn’t spotted. But do you remember all the pronouncements that 9/11 would change everything? Well, it didn’t — and neither will this atrocity.
Again, the goal of terrorists is to inspire terror, because that’s all they’re capable of. And the most important thing our societies can do in response is to refuse to give in to fear.
And an article from Cracked which was written after the attack in January in which Islamic militants massacred an office full of comedians.
The final word goes to those comedians. If you don’t speak French (and even if you do), the text on the cover reads “They have the guns. Fuck them, we have the champagne!”
At some point, we need to stand up for the civil liberties and human rights that are fundamental to our values. Those values are not racist; they do not undermine religious freedom and tolerance, and they do not oppress ethnic minorities.
Those values are about every individual holding certain fundamental rights by virtue of them being human. Rights to life, to liberty, to freedom of movement and assembly. Rights to choose who one marries, or whether one even marries at all. Rights to not be tortured or harmed. Rights to express oneself, to determine one’s own religious belief, to freedom of thought and conscience.
Until we remember how central those values are to our society, and how dear we must hold and protect them, these horrific attacks will go on.
Stated very simply, I face reality and admit that not only isn’t there anyone at home upstairs, there isn’t even any upstairs. I have one life and I intend to make the most of it. Therefore it follows naturally that if I firmly believe this, why then I cannot deprive another person of their turn at existence. Only the very self-assured political and religious zealots kill people in order to save them.
I also like this bit (from the same Hutton Delusion post) on the value of life:
Like diamonds, like gold, like principled politicians and non-libertarian hard SF, life is precious because it is an irreplaceable and finite commodity. Those who assert an eternal afterlife do not, as they claim, give our lives more worth and more meaning. They turn them into meaningless, relatively short precursors to the main event.
It is difficult, for example, to conceive of a school more openly rejecting of Britain’s predominantly secular culture than the Cardinal Vaughan comprehensive in Kensington, London, where 99.7% of the pupils are Catholic, the principal activity is “the apostolic mission of the Church” and “the teachings of Christ permeate all areas” – unless it is the Yesodey Hatorah Senior girls’ school, a state-funded institution serving the Orthodox Jewish Charedi community in Stamford Hill in London. An Ofsted inspection in 2006 noted: “The Charedi community do not have access to television, the internet or other media. All members of the community aim to lead modest lives governed by the codes of Torah observance.” It was marked grade one, “an outstandingly effective school”.
It’s certainly true that faith schools promote intolerance and division, yet successive governments have happily stored up problems for themselves, and the rest of us, by not only allowing but actually encouraging these divisive institutions.
It’s not just in schools, though. Society as a whole seems to have lost sight of (or maybe never understood) the value of keeping church and state apart. AC Grayling puts it better than I could in The Secular and the Sacred. The article dates itself slightly by referring to political leaders no longer in power, but the conclusion is worth quoting in full:
This is the chief reason why allowing the major religions to jostle against one another in the public domain is extremely undesirable. The solution is to make the public domain wholly secular, leaving religion to the personal sphere, as a matter of private conviction and practice only. Society should be blind to religion both in the sense that it lets people believe and behave as they wish provided they do no harm to others, and in the sense that it acts as if religions do not exist, with public affairs being straightforwardly secular in character. The constitution of the USA provides exactly this, though the religious lobby is always trying to breach it, for example with prayers in schools. George W. Bush’s granting of public funds for ‘faith-based initiatives’ actually does so.
To secularise society in Britain would would mean that government funding for church schools and ‘faith-based’ organisations and activities would cease, as would religious programming in public broadcasting. And it would mean the disestablisment of the Church of England. All laws relating to blasphemy and sacrilege would be repealed, and protection of private belief and practice would be left to the legal safeguards and remedies which already exist in common law and statute, and are already very adequate.
If society does not secularise the result will be serious trouble; for as science and technology take us even further away from the ancient superstitions on which religions are based (a separation tellingly emphasised by the current cloning controversy), the tensions can only become greater. The science-religion debate of the nineteenth century is a skirmish in comparison to what we are inviting by allowing not just religion but mutually competing religions so much presence in public space. Now therefore is the time to place religion where it belongs – wholly in the private sphere along with other superstitions and foibles, leaving the public domain as neutral territory where all can meet without prejudice as humans and equals.
At it’s core, secularism can be summed up in two very simple statements: No-one should be discriminated against on the basis of their belief or lack of it, and no-one should should gain any special privileges on the basis of their belief or lack of it.
Secularism is an essential prerequisite for an equal and fair society. This is more true now than it ever was.
This is a prime example of the spiteful, selfish approach that so many conservative Christians imagine is piety. Mr Williams seems to forget that many church halls receive large amounts of money from the Big Lottery Fund on the understanding that they would be used as a community resource, not as a religious battleground.
– National Secular Society president, Terry Sanderson responding to a Church of England vicar who wants to ban Girlguides from his Heritage Lottery funded church after they decided to drop references to God from their oath.
[Fear of being wrong is] why the quality of discussion is forever spiraling into the drain. People are afraid to be wrong. Tactical voting exists because people are afraid they won’t have voted for the winner (or a close runner up). It’s why ‘mediums’ and psychics exist and flourish (despite being Bullsh*t), and why people still turn to watercures, or homeopathy and believe in Astrology (again, all bullsh*t) and why Creationism has been a hotly contested topic over the last 15 years in school districts across the US – despite there being zero evidence to support a creationist argument.
I do feel obliged to add a minor disclaimer here. Although I agree with the thrust of Norton’s argument I would dispute his inclusion of tactical voting in the above quote. From a UK perspective, the First Past The Post voting system leads to most votes being wasted – unless you are a floating voter in a Midlands marginal, your vote really doesn’t matter. Under this system, people turn to tactical voting in an effort to keep out the candidate that they find most objectionable because they know that their preferred candidate doesn’t have a hope of being elected.
A more modern electoral system would, of course, remove the need for tactical voting. And this is why it’s so depressing that the UK electorate collectively decided that they were too stupid to count when given the opportunity.