Category Archives: Religion

Gender, bullying and TRS

This is again worth highlighting from the British Sociological Association Sociology of Religion Study Group: Mathew Guest, Sonya Sharma and Robert Song, ‘Full Report: Gender and Career Progression in Theology and Religious Studies’ (2013).

In talking to women scholars who are at varying stages of their careers about their experiences of academia we have encountered many who speak about being in an environment where they are in the minority among men, in a culture that often affects their confidence, where they observe the difficulties of balancing the demands of academic and family life, and where they have experienced bullying and particular challenges in obtaining promotion. Their experiences demonstrate both the rewards and costs of leaning in and pursuing a career in the academy, and further demonstrate the changes that need to happen if TRS departments are to achieve gender equality.

There came from the respondents plenty of evidence, some of it quite shocking, of bullying of individual women. In some cases this was bullying from Heads of Department or senior members of the university…

Even where there are excellent bullying or harassment policies in place, institutional cultures can emerge that perpetuate a set of behavioural norms that can easily be exposed as unacceptable once highlighted and subjected to critical observation. University-wide networks of women and a strong, confidential mentoring system can make voicing concerns about bullying much easier for female staff, and support groups for female students can serve the same function.



More on Cameron’s Christian Country: Every True Religion and None is Democratic and Tolerant!

David Cameron claim – not unusual for a British politician – that Britain is a Christian country has generated more responses. What is striking about the whole discussion is that on almost every point everyone actually agrees with the same liberal democratic and nationalist values. The main difference is that different interested parties label them differently and have slightly different claims on who was responsible for Good Things. In the Telegraph today, 50 public figures including Jim Al-Khalil, Terry Pratchett, Philip Pullman, Tim Minchin, Joan Smith, Polly Toynbee, A.C. Grayling, and so on wrote:

At a social level, Britain has been shaped for the better by many pre-Christian, non-Christian, and post-Christian forces. We are a plural society with citizens with a range of perspectives, and we are a largely non-religious society.
Constantly to claim otherwise fosters alienation and division in our society. Although it is right to recognise the contribution made by many Christians to social action, it is wrong to try to exceptionalise their contribution when it is equalled by British people of different beliefs. This needlessly fuels enervating sectarian debates that are by and large absent from the lives of most British people, who do not want religions or religious identities to be actively prioritised by their elected government.

Use of labels aside, this is not far removed from what Cameron thinks Christianity is. He had claimed that Christianity reflects a society where other faiths and none are welcome and that they more-or-less share the same values. On the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, he also claimed:

[From] human rights and equality to our constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy…the first forms of welfare provision… language and culture… [T]he Judeo-Christian roots of the Bible also provide the foundations for protest and for the evolution of our freedom and democracy…[They form] the irrepressible foundation for equality and human rights, a foundation that has seen the Bible at the forefront of the emergence of democracy, the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of women… Responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, self-sacrifice, love, pride in working for the common good and honouring the social obligations we have to one another, to our families and our communities these are the values we treasure.

The Bible (despite its contents) and Christianity (despite its pre-Enlightenment history) effectively represent tolerant liberal democracy and yet Cameron finished by adding (because he must be careful in excluding potential voters): ‘Yes, they are Christian values. And we should not be afraid to acknowledge that. But they are also values that speak to us all – to people of every faith and none.’ For all his talk of evangelising, Cameron will only really talk about Christianity and the Bible in terms of tolerance and liberal democracy and he won’t be demanding mass conversions any time soon. Hence, the liberal nationalism of The Fifty is not really that different to the liberal nationalism of Cameron: they just want a little more credit for the non-Christian contribution.

Labour’s Jack Straw weighed in this morning on the Today programme in a debate with the former school teacher and speaker for Muslim Council of Britain, Talha Ahmad (available on iPlayer for the next 7 days, from 2:38:00 onward). Again, despite the rhetoric, there was little sign of any difference. The underpinning assumption was the True Religion is liberal, tolerant, and democratic and that False Religion is not. Against The Fifty, Straw claimed that in the UK ‘there are a set of values some of which I would say to the letter writers of the Daily Telegraph are indeed Christian based whether they like it or not…there are a set of values which permeate our sense of citizenship’. Clearly, then, the only difference is the label. Straw does not mean conversion of non-believers, smashing enemy baby heads against rocks, preaching the imminence of the kingdom of God, or taking a whip to moneychangers, obviously. A similar sort of logic comes through in his comments on what Islam ‘really is’. He drew ‘a real distinction between [Muslim] people who are devout…and those very small minority, who are extremist…verging into militant extremism and to justifying violence.’ He added that what is unacceptable is that ‘those who proselytise Islam in an exclusive way, who claim that those who are not of the Muslim faith are infidel, or have fewer rights, also argue, for example that women are inferior and ought to have fewer chances in society than should men.’ Ahmad’s response shared these assumptions. Of Straw’s response to The Fifty, he claimed, ‘I don’t know of any decent Muslim who would disagree with that’. In response to a question of what it is to be ‘in pursuit of your faith’, Ahmad suggested that is ‘about respecting the space that everybody has’ and that Muslims are ‘obedient’.

So there you have it. Everything you thought you knew about the differences between Christians, Muslims, non-believers and whoever else, mean little as everyone is playing the same liberal democratic and nationalistic game as they defend their own interest groups and constituencies. For reasons why Cameron was actually using the dog-whistle of religion in this otherwise non-debate, see here.

Quote of the Day: ‘vague, that’s very vague, isn’t it?’ (John Humphreys, presenter of Today, Radio 4)

James Crossley

Audios: The Bible in English Politics (Benn, Thatcher, Blair)

The following three audios (mp3) are full length lectures are from the William Temple Association lecture series (Jan./Feb. 2014).

Lecture 1: The Bible in Contemporary English Politics; or, Tony Benn and the decline of the Radical Bible. This looks at the assumptions of what the Bible ‘really means’ in English (and broader) political discourse and the decline of politically radical interpretation of the Bible in English politics with particular reference to Tony Benn.

Lecture 2: Margaret Thatcher’s Religion. This is, incidentally, a bit different from a previous lecture on Thatcher’s Bible, though with some overlap towards the end (on her biblical exegesis). It looks at Thatcher’s Methodist upbringing, her ‘rediscovery’ of Methodism in the 1970s, the Cold War and her understanding of Marxism in to religion, her understanding of Judaism, her conflicts with the CofE, and her biblical exegesis.

Lecture 3: Tony Blair and the End of the Radical Bible. This lecture looks at how Blair developed Thatcher’s Bible and her understanding of religion during the war on terror. It will further look at Blair’s reinterpretation of Labour’s more radical heritage to now concern liberal interventionism. Blair represents the final victory of Thatcher’s Bible in parliamentary politics.

James Crossley

Woolwich and What Politicians Think Religion Is

Contrary to what the Woolwich murderer infamously said to the camera, Boris Johnson suggested that “it is completely wrong to blame this killing on the religion of Islam and it is also equally wrong to link this murder to the actions of British foreign policy.” Others placed the emphasis elsewhere. David Cameron called the murder “a betrayal of Islam…There is nothing in Islam that justifies this truly dreadful act.” Tommy Robinson (formerly of EDL fame) claimed, however, that “This is Islam. That’s what we’ve seen today… Our next generation are being taught through schools that Islam is a religion of peace. It’s not. It never has been. What you saw today is Islam.

These sorts of views are typical of popular views relating to Islam, religion and violence over the past decade. But if we want to understand motivations and causes, they are also of minimal, if any, use. To argue who has the “true” and “false” insight into what religion or Islam is also, presumably unintentionally, to argue using the insider language of the religious believer. If we want to analyse the causes of September 11, July 7, or the murder on the streets of Woolwich, it is not as if we can boil down Islam, Christianity, Judaism, or whatever religion or ideology, to a pure essence that is ‘peaceful’ or ‘violent’. Violence and peace are to be found throughout the history of Islam (or Christianity, Judaism, and so on) in different contexts and different times. This should be no great surprise for the simple reason of the complexity of societies and historical change.

This much should be obvious. Yet it is clear that statements about “true” and “false” religion are regularly invoked, not least by political leaders. But such statements can be useful if we want to understand something about the ideological assumptions of the speaker. Typically, the distinction between “true” and “false” Islam is generally code for compatibility (true) or incompatibility (false) with liberal democracy. But this too is problematic and we can see why when we look at one of the most high profile users of the language of “true” and “false” Islam/Christianity/religion: Tony Blair.

From September 11 onward, Blair’s use of this true-false binary became increasingly pronounced. In his speech to Parliament on the eve of the Iraq war, Blair argued that one of the “two begetters of chaos” is “extreme terrorist groups who profess a perverted and false view of Islam” (the other was “tyrannical regimes with weapons of mass destruction”). According to his political autobiography, Blair understood the “war on terror” to be an ideological battle: “the mores and modus vivendi of religious fanaticism versus those of an enlightened, secular system of government that in the West, at least, incorporated belief in liberty, equality and democracy.” Whether this was a fair assessment or not, it is a binary that sums up Blair’s view of “true” and “false” religion. Describing what he assumed to be the pure origins of Islam, Blair uses particularly modern terms such as “tolerant” and “progressive”. However, he also argues that Islam has since become tainted and that these extremists see the West as invaders of Muslim countries whereas “probably the majority” of Muslims “wish to be in alliance with the West against terrorism.” Clearly, then, “true” and “false” Islam is judged on its compatibility with a Blairite view of the world. With this in mind, is it just coincidence that Blair’s view of a purer original Islam legitimately invaded a dictatorship in a certain part of the Middle East? For Blair claimed that “as Islam expanded far beyond Mecca and Medina, it was often looked upon as a liberator, even by some of the Christian communities such as the Nestorians in Iraq”.

The rhetorical use of what Christianity truly “is” can be seen in a similar way. For instance, in a speech on the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, David Cameron claimed that Britain is a Christian nation. This does not mean, of course, that Britain is a Christian nation in the sense we should all go to church, sing hymns, pray to God, fast, deal with heretics appropriately, convert non-believers, or anything else that the less pious might find worrying. Rather, Cameron’s Christian nation with the King James Bible at its heart is curiously close to liberal democracy and with anything incompatible removed. According to Cameron, the Bible and our Christian heritage have provided everything from “human rights and equality to our constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy”, as well as “the first forms of welfare provision”. They also apparently provide “the foundations for protest and for the evolution of our freedom” and “the irrepressible foundation for equality and human rights, a foundation that has seen the Bible at the forefront of the emergence of democracy, the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of women.” And just for good measure, these are values that speak to us all, “to people of every faith and none”. This anachronistic definition could, of course, equally be a secular definition given of the modern nation state. Put another way, it is unlikely that Cameron  would have included discussion of the book of Joshua, the Psalmist’s interest in smashing babies heads against rocks, Jesus labeling Gentiles ‘dogs’, condemning the rich to Hades, destroying idols, the weeping and gnashing of teeth, or indeed using the King James Bible itself to convert heathens. “True” Christianity is presumably does not involve endorsement of these sorts of things.

Blair and Cameron believe that religion (or “true” religion) is a mysterious force for the liberal democratic good. The flip side of this might be represented by Richard Dawkins who believes that religion is a mysterious malevolent force, not only in relation to liberal democracy but human history more generally. Four days after September 11, Dawkins gave “religion” as his primary explanation for the attacks on the Twin Towers and as “the underlying source of the divisiveness in the Middle East which motivated the use of this deadly weapon in the first place.” While certain views of Islam obviously played a role in September 11 and continue to do so in the Middle East and North Africa, it is not so easy to cite “religion” as effectively the only factor. For a start, what, precisely, is this “religion thing” that causes all sorts of violence? Why have plenty of other Muslims not engaged in violence? Why was this not so much of a widespread problem (say) 50 years ago? And what do we make of Muslims who still do not foreground their religious identity? We might also list some of the standard reasons given for the rise of what is commonly labelled “Islamic fundamentalism” which include: the void created by the decline of secular nationalism in North Africa and the Middle East; American involvement in Saudi Arabia (the homeland of the majority of the September 11 killers); exposure to Wahhabism; sanctions on Iraq; Palestine; the petro-crash; the rise of slums and population growth; and the support given to various dictators. Boiling down what has happened in the Middle East and September 11 to “religion” does not remotely do justice to the complexity of the situation.

We will no doubt hear more about the complex range of reasons behind the Woolwich murder and no doubt we should accept that ideological motivations played an important part. But if or when we hear politicians or analysts use the language of “true” or “false” religion or claim that “religion” causes violence or that “religion” is really all about peace, then know that such statements are not such obvious truisms as speakers and writers would have us believe as they mask much more than they reveal. We will not begin to understand violence, including violence done in association with understandings of what religion is, if we insist that this or that manifestation is “true”, “false”, or that what we call “religion” is the only real cause.