Secularism2012 – a take

This year’s National Secular Society conference relocated from cosy Conway Hall to the higher capacity provided by the nearby Royal National Hotel. Additional to the attraction of the listed speakers, I’d got my eye on the second of the scheduled, place-limited Breakout sessions – ‘The monarchy and multi-faithism’ – which I had in mind as I walked by Buckingham Palace en route between Victoria Coach Station and the venue. However, preferring this saunter to the rush-hour Tube, this one Breakout session I particularly wanted to be in on was, by the time I registered, already full to limited capacity. Bugger! I half-heartedly put my name on the list for the first (‘Media 101′), but not 3 or 4, as these clashed with speakers Nick Cohen and Maryam Namazie, whom I particularly wanted to hear.

As last year, proceedings were ably MC-ed by vice-President and Chair of Council, Gerard Phillips. Executive Director Keith Porteous Wood’s welcome stressed that secularism is about equality. Which linked well to the first talk from Ted Cantle of the iCoCo, who addressed on ‘Multiculturalism to Interculturalism,’ arguing that segregated schooling and privileging community leaders actually takes people out of mainstream politics, and can condemn children to a very limited view of the world. I didn’t know that, “The mixed race community is the fastest growing community in the country.”

Having signed up for the first Breakout session (as part of my hatching plan), I missed Nia Griffith, instead strolling across to listen to Paul Blanchard  talking on how to go about soap-boxing your particular cause. I had two motivations here: I kind of missed his point late in the day at last year’s conference; and I wanted to suss the room and likelihood of gate-crashing the aforementioned filled Breakout session 2. Blanchard gave useful pointers to anybody interested in attempting to get publicity for an article, or a protest, etc. However, I’m not quite sure how “Don’t rant” marries with the suggestion to write letters to editors, as such letters do tend to be… rants.

After noting that a register of names was not being taken, I got back in quick for Norman Bonney‘s session on the monarchy and faith. And, as a Republican (in the UK, not the US sense) was well pleased I did, because this was very interesting; plus a tad disturbing. Bonney pointed out, in case it was needed, that our monarchy is a profoundly religious institution. According to the 1910 Accession Declaration, the new monarch has to make anti-Papal affirmations of the rights and privileges of the Church of England. Despite this, QEII, before her coronation, requested prayers from all faiths. And it is evident that, in recent decades, our monarchy has been moving towards a multi-faith position. It was advanced that the Queen, for example in making a statement to a meeting of eight faith representatives at the commencement of her Diamond Jubilee celebrations, is deviating from her constitutional responsibilities. And then we have Charles, the wannabe ‘Defender of Faith’ (not the faith), who recently emphasised ‘the importance of the sacred’. This is a festering problem, to which parliament will need to attend before the next accession, considering Charles’s declared greater sympathy for his religious subjects.

Back into main hall, where Pragna Patel (who I was sorry to miss) was finishing off, before Nick Cohen was introduced. And from thereon, I was riveted. Cohen discussed ‘How Modern Blasphemy Works in Practice.’ Examples (discussed at length in his recent You Can’t Read This Book) included the fatwā against Salman Rushdie, and the hostile reactions to Sherry Jones’s The Jewel of Medina, a work of fiction, which, despite its respectful treatment of its subject matter, was repeatedly rejected by fearful publishers. Unlike, say Pakistan’s, or Ireland’s de jure blasphemy laws, we have, in effect, “…a de facto blasphemy law… based on the threat of violence.” The problem for the case against censorship, however, is that it “… breaks down because it fails to understand, fails to face up to the fact it exists.” Rather, we need to “emphasise the importance of at least acknowledging…” that we are being cowered into self-censorship; and that we “… must communicate to the public that this is going on.”

I was somewhat amused by the long communion-like queue that formed during lunch across the front and down the side of the hall, as people lined up, not for wine and crackers, but for autographs, handshakes and photographs with Richard Dawkins. Quite how he might feel about this, I can only imagine (and think it would be an irritating question to be asked). Before he was due to speak, however, we were treated to another couple of ‘stars’. First up was the well-received Maryam Namazie, who discussed Sharia Law, and its abusive limitations of women’s rights. Rather than excerpt from this, I can simply direct you to the full text of her talk here. She ended with a Q&A discussion, commenting on the violent reactions to a certain tawdry little internet film trailer. She argues that these are not about religion, “… it’s about politics.”

A point subsequently expounded upon by Peter Tatchell, this year’s recipient of the Irwin Prize for Secularist of the Year. Tatchell, an experienced human rights campaigner, has the presence of a fine orator and commands attention. After a prolonged attack on the inequities of the political system that brought on the current economic crises, he argued for dissension, not towards the vast majority of religious people, but against organised religion, which he considers “… the greatest global threat to human rights.” He was, however, interestingly – and validly – challenged by a questioner: are the majority of the religious entirely beyond criticism, as they do uphold the system that keeps those who derive authority and (abusive) power from organised religion in their privileged positions?

This point of respecting the individual was reiterated by Richard Dawkins, before an eviscerating critique of faith. In particular, he questions whether we should respect the privacy of a politician’s faith; and should journalists address this? Guess where he goes. On this theme, he considered at length the ludicrous beliefs subscribed to by Mitt Romney, currently running for the position that would place his finger on the nuclear button. And he argues emphatically that it is entirely right that Romney be questioned on his daft beliefs. Wholly serious, yet very funny, he also ridiculed at length the faith of Tony Blair. Referring to when he was in office and his administration’s famous declaration that it did not ‘do God’ (and taking a swipe at those of the current government who ‘do’, such as stupidly ventured by Baroness Warsi, now Minister for Faith and Communities – “Whatever that means; where ‘Communities’ is a euphemism for ‘Islam’.”), he attacked Blair’s subsequent obsequious conversion and establishment of his Faith Foundation, reading at length from a recent article. Dawkins does have a gift for the comedic.

But is it fair to ridicule ridiculosity? On BBC1’s Sunday Morning Live the next day, one of the topical questions debated was ‘Are Muslims too easily offended?’ It was argued that free speech has limitations: be critical, but don’t ridicule. But this is such a slippery template on which to draw a line. It doesn’t matter how ‘(dis)respectfully’, how (in)sensitively you address certain issues, someone, somewhere will find reason to perceive (or invent) insult and take (or provoke) offence, whether it’s a stupid little internet trailer, or Tom Holland’s recent genuine investigation, which has resulted in another instance of censorship.

Nick Cohen’s honest perspicaciousness is the key take home message.

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