This post appeared previously at The Heresy Club.
One perk of blogging is that when you’ve done it for so long, it’s common to have developed useful contacts in high places. Last night I was contacted by a concerned supporter of secularism in the Conservative Party, who’s managed to gain access to a letter David Cameron will now be sending church leaders in Britain – specifically, the attendees of his Easter function at Downing Street this week, where he announced his support for a ‘Christian fightback’ in a speech. (A transcript is here.)
This hasn’t, as far as I can tell, been leaked elsewhere, so we’re thrilled to bring it you as a THC exclusive. The letter reads as follows:
Happy Easter, once again. I’m writing personally to thank all of you for visiting Downing St. this week, and to reaffirm this government’s support for celebrating faith as a key part of our society in Britain.
There will always be differences in what we, as Christians, think and say. I know that some of you were very keen afterwards, for example, to discuss my idea of the resurrection as a ‘detail’ in Christianity. But the media’s reception of what I said about the role of faith in all our lives should come as an encouraging signal that the fightback against a bullying, intolerant kind of secularism is really happening.
Because of this, I’m excited to let you know that as part of our plan to build the values of the Bible – values that today, we need so badly – back into our society, the Government will soon be announcing a raft of new measures. These are policies which draw on our nation’s great Christian heritage, and are intended to reflect the morals that we find when, as believers, we read the Bible.
I put two challenges to you at Number 10, and the first was about foreign aid. That area – the way Britain interacts with the wider world, and how we engage other cultures – is the starting point for our new, biblical society. I spent some time with the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, thinking how we should bring our foreign policy more into line with the Bible’s values, and we believe there do need to be changes.
Our troops, who risk life and limb to protect our safety, have been deployed all over the world in the past few years. They’ve done brave, important work to keep us safe in Afghanistan and in Iraq, in Libya. But having read the Bible more closely, it’s clear to us now that invading these countries isn’t enough. Its values give us a different and a very real sense of how to treat enemy forces: ‘utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.’ From now on, we’re prepared to be much more robust about military action, and ask our soldiers to annhiliate the general population where we send them. This will be a tough fight, with the bullying, intolerant secularists of the anti-genocide movement in our way, but we’re determined to put the Bible back at the centre of our action in the world.
There are points where the message is different, of course, so in case this seems draconian we’ll be making some exceptions. It’s Moses who stands right at the core of our faith traditions, and in some countries we do want to take our cues from what he said, so we’ll make sure to take virginal girls as sex slaves instead of killing them. This might seem like a difficult goal, with slavery of all kinds having been illegal so long – but since we’ve planned for several years now to scrap the Human Rights Act, reinstating it as an important Christian tradition won’t take too much extra work, and we’re confident we can achieve it. There are two great Christian traditions in this country which have followed Saint Peter and Saint Paul, and we know you haven’t always been on good terms – but both of them get behind slavery in an important way, so this is an incredible opportunity for different denominations to work together. And since we said when we first entered government that we’d slash through red tape and health and safety bureaucracy, we’re committed to saying if you want to drive nails through your slave’s ear, you should be allowed to do that.
We know in politics there’s often a price to pay, so it’s true this new, more biblical foreign policy won’t come free. Times are hard for everyone already, and we’ll all have to make sacrifices – literally. The story of Jephthah is still one of the most inspiring the Bible offers us, so each time we embark on a new genocide invasion humanitarian intervention, we’ll be making sure our Ofsted inspectors have at least one schoolgirl burnt alive. (Don’t worry, we’ll make sure she’s from a state school.) In case the feminists on the opposition front bench try to fight us on this, we’ll also be honouring the more liberal story of Abraham and Isaac, by ordering randomly selected fathers to burn their sons to death – though this may mean announcing U-turns at the last moment.
Our education system is broken as it stands, and we need to mend it, so our schools reforms are going to be even more radical. The Pope’s visit eighteen months ago had such an amazing reception here that we’re really rethinking sex education. Saint Paul is very clear about gay relationships not being acceptable, so we want to be clear about that on the syllabus now, as well as clamping down on LGBT History Month and all those other initiatives. We do still see bullying as a urgent issue, of course, so we’ve put together an entire new procedure for students who say they’re being ‘bashed’ at school: under proposals we’re putting forward, teachers will now be advised to tell them, as Jesus says, ‘Resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.’ The Bible is clear from the beginning that we shouldn’t have our own ideas about good and evil, so we’re rolling back PSHE as well – and since Theresa May and I are already taking a tough line on protest, it shouldn’t be too difficult to enforce ‘resist not evil’.
In schools, we’ll also introduce some new exemptions to equality law so that women can’t teach or hold authority. This will of course lead to huge numbers of jobs lost in the public sector, so our MPs will get right behind it. On the subject of reforming our broken politics, it’s obvious now that we need to reappraise some current ideas in the light of the Bible’s values, so we’ll also be rethinking women’s right to vote - it seems unavoidable that the book prefers them to submit to their husbands in such matters. This is, of course, a tough decision, but since following the Bible is so clearly in the national interest, we believe it’s the right one for Britain. Since we’re not as keen to promote the less traditional faith groups, we’ll also be executing witches. It says so in Exodus, after all, and I sometimes think witch burnings are a part of our national tradition we’re too hard on.
This government’s always said we should celebrate marital commitment, so as Jesus tells us it leads to adultery we’ll be scrapping divorce. He also tells us we’re committing if we look at women lustfully, of course, so we’ll be funding new scientific research into policing thoughtcrime and using our new powers to monitor internet use to investigate the issue. (Sam tells me I’ll have to sell my Thatcher memorabilia too. We’re all in this together.)
But the real jewel in the crown for our reforms is the justice system. It’s no secret that in my party, there are those who take a tougher stance on crime and punishment than I do, but respect for the Bible’s values really brings us together. So in the next few years, our prisons service will be scrapped – as will all fines, court orders and other legal punishments. I’ve often found myself talking about personal responsibility, and so have many in my party, but having studied Jesus it’s clear that this is really just a fashionable, secular idea. From now on, instead of punishing guilty individuals for their actions, we’ll now be holding a public selection process every few years to (perhaps via a light entertainment show with Graham Norton) to find an entirely faultless person devoid of moral failings. After this, that person will be gradually and sadistically tortured to death as a punishment for everyone else’s crimes – including ones we don’t realise we’ve committed. All that will be required for the acquittal of rapists’, murderers’ and child molesters’ crimes is belief in this event, though it will be staged in private to avoid any evidence it took place.
In case it’s not obvious how this maps to the teachings of the Bible, we’ll also be developing a failsafe system based on Jesus’s teachings. The London Underground network will be gutted and refitted as a gigantic underground torture chamber, replete with the best innovations of British industry: fire, gnashing teeth and high-quality audio productions of agonised crying. Any latent unbelievers who fail to accept the execution of the innocent person for them will be sent her, and never let out. Once this system, the pinnacle of reform for the Big Society on Bible-based values, is in place, I think we can all feel we’ve won the argument over faith’s place in modern Britain.
Recently, some shocking truths about Richard Dawkins have come to light. Not only is he sometimes unable to recall at will 21-word extended title of The Origin of Species - he is, on top of that, distantly related to some unpleasant people! Honestly, a man who so often claims moral high ground over slavery-endorsing Christianity. How dare he be related to slave owners!
Never mind that a large percentage of the UK population, including most of its black populace, have ancestors who owned slaves. Never mind any subtle distinction between oneself and one’s relatives last millennium, or that the Church of England surely has a great deal more to answer for with respect to slavery than the House of Dawkins.
Last night, I coincidentally went to see Richard speak at an event some friends of mine hosted. There is one thing he said there, and which he’s said before, which I think deserves sincere criticism. (What follows is my best account from memory, 12 sleep-filled hours later, so I can’t promise it’s it’s a precise account - a recording will be on YouTube soon enough, though, so I’ll post it here once I can.)
When a discussion on stage with the host had run its course, the audience went on to proffer questions in the usual manner, and at one point a young man raised the microphone to his lips and declared, as if in profound realisation, ‘I get the feeling… [you think] religion is bad.’
He went on, for several minutes and to the consternation of the audience around him, to ramble somewhat incoherently on the notions of good and bad with respect to Christianity, appearing constantly to approach a rhetorical peak before collapsing into further drivel. The entire question, if indeed it was one, was far too nebulous for me even to try and paraphrase it here, and one felt sorry for Richard having to spend energy responding, but his answer made the broad and uncontroversial point that the Bible includes passages both laudable and vile. As an example of the former and a great teaching he thought most people in the room would immediately get behind, he gave the Gospel injunction, ‘he that is without sin, cast the first stone’.
It’s a teaching Richard has praised before, notably in an edition of The Big Questions last year. Am I alone in being perplexed by this?
Of course literal stonings are undesirable, and of course reacting to transgressions overharshly is worth discouraging. But the point of what Jesus says is, he is without sin. Not being subject to paternally transmitted original sin, Jesus is the only completely sinless human being and was (to commandeer a phrase) born that way. This is what gives him moral authority, as the son of God, over the woman; it’s why only he gets to absolve her sins. When he tells the crowd, ‘You are not without sin’, he is telling them they don’t get to judge her.
The trendy, modern day determination not to judge or be judgemental is, I feel, probably one of our cultural inheritances from Christianity, and it only takes a fair amount of discourse with evangelicals before phrases occur like ‘That’s for God to judge, not me’ or ‘I don’t think you should be sent to Hell, that’s just what God thinks’. Here we have the broadest application of the ban on judgmental stonecasting; we mortals who have sinned and will again don’t get the privilege of moral independence.
That’s what the moral is, in the story of Christ and the adulteress. If you’ve ever done anything wrong, if you’re not perfect, if you’re guilty of being born a fallible human, yours is not to judge. Leave that to God. It’s not that casting stones is bad; it’s that only Jesus, perfect in his own terms, gets to cast them. He doesn’t literally do this in the woman’s case, of course, absolving her with a ‘Go and sin no more’ - but the point is that he, and not anyone in the crowd, is qualified to forgive or condemn her..
Isn’t that - the teaching that perfection is a prerequisite for judging people - actually a pretty demeaning, misanthropic principle? It suggests that because at some points in my life previously I’ve behaved with less than total moral credibility, I’m not allowed to look down on anyone else no matter what they’ve done. It ignores that past misdemeanours frequently make one more, not less, qualified to evaluate morals. And it tells us that as long as we’re watched from above by creatures of self-described perfection who do our moral thinking for us, ours is not to judge.
In the absence of gods, ours is always to judge. We just need to do it fairly. Richard, take note.
Oh, Ahmadiyya Muslims of UCL. Oh AMSA, I’m sorry.
Sincerely, I hoped this wouldn’t end up being about you.
When your statement yesterday (about events that started on this blog) appeared in New Humanist – and then on Pharyngula, and then on Maryam Namazie’s blog among others – the atheist society made as clear as it possibly could that you weren’t the problem.
The petition they’ve been using for the last two days addresses UCL Union, who asked them to take down their cartoon of Mohammed. It doesn’t address the Muslims the cartoon offended, or the Muslims who complained to UCLU; it addresses the union officials who thought their offence was grounds for censorship.
I’ve been in student atheism quite a while, now. I’m qualified to say that almost every student union has at some point had religious groups complain about us. A lot will have faced demands to censor atheists. On both counts, that’s fine: religious students can say what they want to say just like atheists can, including calling us offensive and asking for us to be censored.
That is not the problem. Student unions, after all, receive and reject all kinds of requests in an average week. The problem’s not that UCLU were asked to ban the cartoon. It’s that they said yes.
So here I sat an hour ago, about to ask readers to stay focused on the student union.
That request, by the way? It still stands, regardless.
Seriously, pains have been taken to stress that you’re not UCL’s main Islamic group. The atheist society was expressly clear: it doesn’t see you as the source of the conflict, despite your misguided reaction, and the student union’s biased conduct is where its gripe is.
They didn’t have to do this, but because in the past your societies got on well enough, they wanted to draw the crosshairs of the atheist blogosphere away from you. (God only knows your first written response got torn to pieces.)
Despite all their efforts to keep you out of the heat, you’re weighing in with your own petition. Fair enough – once again, it’s up to you how you respond. But please understand that, if this post is read half as widely as my last one was, angry atheists around the world will now consider you fair game.
Unlike the other bloggers who’ve followed this, I spent most of last night talking to your members. It’s possible I understand your position best of all. (Distinguishing your actual arguments did, after all, take several hours of clinical online dissection.)
So before the atheist blogosphere lights up again, here’s what I’ve concluded.
When you talk about freedom of expression versus freedom to offend, it’s a red herring. You several times acknowledge that UCL’s atheists shouldn’t have faced union censorship. Your petition doesn’t call for specific action, so I don’t know – but I get the impression all you want is for them to acknowledge reposting the cartoon was hurtful to Muslims or inconsiderate, remove it voluntarily, and perhaps apologise for their profanity. (If I’m wrong to think that’s your position, let me know and I’ll amend this.)
Assuming all the above, you’re wholly right.
Yes, it was hurtful to repost Jesus and Mo all over Facebook. Yes, it was profane. Everyone who reposted it knew it would offend a lot of Muslims when they did so. Crucially, this doesn’t mean that was the intention – it only means it was considered a price worth paying.
Here are some things which happened during the last few years:
Have you heard about any of this? If not, it’s because until now atheist students facing censorship have stayed pretty quiet.
Do you see now, AMSA, why noises were made at UCL? Why Jesus and Mo got reposted again and again? If you really support free expression, as you say, then consider what’s been gained for it in the last day.
The next atheist society to whom this happens will have ammunition. They’ll tell their student union what happened at UCL, and show them how thousands rallied on the society’s side all around the world; how they’ll be backed up by RDFRS, the NSS and the AHS; how New Humanist, the BBC and Australian radio will cover it; how Richard Dawkins, Paula Kirby, Greta Christina, PZ Myers, Ophelia Benson and Maryam Namazie will drum up support.
They’re going to fight unions who want to censor them. And they’re going to win.
Yes, everybody knew you’d be offended, and I sympathise. But I won’t apologise for thinking your flouted principles were less important.
Further update: in under 24 hours, the above petition has gained over 1000 signatories from around the world. This blog post was reproduced on richarddawkins.net, prompting Richard to add his name as well as numerous other significant figures, and RDFRS UK gave us their support via the incomparable Paula Kirby. The National Secular Society stood behind us, as did the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies and numerous other atheist student groups in Britain. New Humanist reported on the day’s events; PZ Myers blogged about them at Pharyngula, and society members from UCL were contacted by the BBC and by radio broadcasters all the way from Australia.
Thank you to everyone who’s joined with us to stand up for free expression.
The society have asked me to add here that tomorrow, they plan to meet with UCL Union and bring these events to a close. In line with the petition’s wording, I can only hope this translates into a full, public withdrawal of its attempt at censorship and a meaningful apology to UCL’s atheists.
I’ll keep you all posted, but it looks as if we’ve made our point pretty well. A huge thank you again if you came to our aid.
Update: the atheist society mentioned here has now set up this petition to defend free expression at UCL. Please add your signature to it, and share it online.
If you want to be of further help, consider writing to the UCLU reps mentioned on the petition site or using the cartoon below as an avatar on social networks - or, if you’re in London, attend the pub social tonight!
Today, they were sent a message by a student union offical. The message, I’m told, is confidential and so can’t be reproduced here, but stated that ‘a number of complaints’ had been made about the use of the image – partly because contrary to Islamic teachings it depicts the Prophet Mohammad, and partly because it depicts him around alcohol. The union then told the atheist society to remove the image immediately and inform them once this had been done.
Having heard about this from the society’s president, I’d be interested to know precisely how many complaints UCL Union have received; despite the unusually high number of Muslims in the society’s Facebook group, only one has contacted them with a serious request of the image’s withdrawal, who then threatened to involve the student union and presumably has done so. (Their entire correspondence with the society appears unedited beneath this blog post, save for the removal of personal details.) Who are the ‘many Muslim students’ offended by this? Why, if they feel so strongly, have they not spoken up as strongly?
Well, perhaps the one person who complained at length was speaking for all of them. But wait! Their final message to the society began as follows:
I don’t represent anyone. I speak on my own behalf.
[…] I am asking you not to misrepresent my faith as one which in any way condones the act of drinking, since it is an immoral act in Islam.
That’s right: what atheists have obviously missed about Jesus and Mo is that, far from an absurdly extreme removal of two religious figures from their appopriate contexts for comic effect, its clear aim is actually to provide historical commentary on the Prophet Mohammad’s beliefs.
Of course this image suggests he condoned the consumption of alcohol! And how could we have overlooked so easily its explicit historical assertion that he and Jesus of Nazareth were casually acquainted, despite the several centuries between their lifetimes?
Not only, in fact, does the author of J&M believe these heresies about the Prophet. The same cartoon shows him either to have been capable of time travel, or to have been a drinker so innovative that his watering holes resembled those of the 21st century!
Should you want for more proof of this comic strip’s venomous heresy, look only to the other panels in the series.
These atheists are spreading the word that Mohammad used Apple computers!
That he backed Jesus up on guitar at open mic nights!
That they slept in the same bed! (Fully clothed, mind. No risky business here.)
Muslims, try not to be too hard on us silly atheists. When that lot at UCL used Jesus and Mo to promote their socials, they weren’t to know that a web series depicting the two as flatmates in 2012 would be read as an apocryphal account of Islamic morality. (The simpletons.)
I must ask, though: what makes you think – and what makes you think, UCL Union – that individuals’ negative reaction to this image is a good reason for its forced removal? There are, after all, plenty of images I find offensive which are used at universities by religious societies. To give some examples from the UCL Islamic Society’s website, for example…
…I’m offended as an anarchist and as a humanist when I see children dressed for prayer, who rarely have a chance to question their religions’ claims and who lack the life experience to understand what kneeling in front of a dictator really means.
I’m equally offended as a feminist when I see women dress according to men’s instructions from centuries past.
And by the way, these images aren’t part of a satirical and obviously absurdist web comic. These images are real.
But if, supposing I were studying at UCL, I e-mailed the student union and asked for these photographs’ removal from the website, what kind of reply should I expect?
A refusal, fairly obviously. Because being offended by something doesn’t mean you get to ban it.
I don’t care if Muslims are offended, or if they have cause to be. Hell, I wouldn’t care if the society had posted an enormous ‘FUCK G*D’ sign on its page. The right to free expression includes the right to mock religion. Yes, including offensively.
So, UCL Union: if you are able to force your university’s atheists to censor their web presence – I’m not sure you will be able to, by the way – what will you do in future, when complaints are lodged about these pictures, and comparable ones from other societies? Because if you do nothing, we’ll be forced to conclude not only that you don’t understand the above, but that you see offence taken by Muslims as a somehow more severe problem than the moral concern of non-Islamic students.
That, at England’s first secular university, would be a backward step of 200 years.
* * *
The full correspondence between the president of UCL’s atheist society and the one Muslim student who complained to them follows. As mentioned above, only names and personal information have been omitted.
I messaged you because I came across your pub social to Athiest Soc. I respect the fact that people have different views on things, and you’re welcome to have a social whenever and wherever you want, but I have to say I was really quite saddened when I saw the picture of the social.
As a Muslim, I find it highly inappropriate for there to be a depiction of Muhammad. As a human, I think it’s really quite insensitive and outright rude to have a picture of Muhammad holding a beer, when alcohol is strictly forbidden in Islam.
I really hope you will a) respond to my message with an acknowledgement of how that picture is not appropriate, b) remove that picture and c) Not use that or other such pictures in future.
I look forward to hearing from you.
I appreciate the kindly worded message. Others who feel the same way as you may have taken a different tone in communicating their feelings to me.
This said however, I will not remove the image.
Nobody has the right not to be offended. If you feel saddened by the image, then you do have the right to ignore it, or refrain from viewing it. However you do not have the right not to be offended.
There is no actual indication that Mohammed is drinking beer. Perhaps he is enjoying a glass of Coke.
Our society are great opponents of censorship, particularly on the grounds of “offence”. I will not indulge in any form of self-censorship because my words/actions/posts may offend an individual or group.
I am sorry that we had to communicate as the result of such a situation. I do hope that we can meet under less confrontational circumstances in the future.
I hope you had an enjoyable holiday.
Yes thank you, I did. It is unfortunate that others have expressed themselves in inappropriate ways, but it is also unfortunate that you will not remove the image.
Just so you know, the picture clearly indicates that he is sitting in a pub (by the big handle in the centre) and that in itself, even if no drink is consumed is forbidden in Islam (since the main purpose of pubs is the sale of alcohol).
It does not matter, therefore, whether the glass he holds depicts coke or not. The picture you have uploaded is not only offensive as a byproduct of what it depicts, it is directly insulting by portraying our Prophet as doing one the most fundamental things he was opposed to.
Moreover, this is an event conducted by a society which is affiliated with the UCL Union. I would not be having this conversation with you if you drew this in your diary in your room, but I do think that in such a public capacity, this directly reflects on the Union. I genuinely do not want to make this a big issue Robbie but it is quite hurtful to a lot of people.
Please understand and remove it. If not, then with genuine regret, we will have to bring this up with the union.
Before we proceed, would you mind clarifying on whose behalf you are speaking and in what capacity?
If you feel it necessary to bring this matter to the Union, then we will discuss it with them. That said I fail to identify the exact arguments you will make in-front of the Union with the belief that they will censor us. As far as I understand, you find it profane of us to use an image which violates the laws of Islam and as such, we should be prevented from using it.
It is your right to be offended when someone violates the commandments of your faith. As an explicitly non-Islamic entity, it is hardly fair to ask us to abide by those rules simply because you do. There are numerous aspects of the Islamic belief that many of our members find offensive, however we cannot force you to behave like secular humanists, nor would we want to.
If our advertisement offends you and the Union is persuaded to censor us, where do you expect a line to be drawn? On the same basis, all other religious and atheistic societies would presumably have to be banned, since they all make claims deemed heretical from an Islamic perspective. Societies which involve food or its preparation will have to adhere to the culinary code of Muslims; copies of the Qur’an handled by union officials will have to be kept on top shelves, and touched only after rituals of self-cleansing.
I cannot see a difference between these unlikely scenarios and us having to use advertisements which don’t offend any Muslims by breaking their religious rules. If the union was in anyway consistent following such a successful complaint, then the scenarios I have just mentioned would logically follow.
The alternative is that your society and the ASHS both acknowledge, in the name of basic freedom of expression, the other’s right to violate their own ethical principles (within the limits of law) even if they find it personally distasteful, since it would be unfair to impose our moral impulses on each other otherwise. This is the argument we can happily make to the union, if you still want to seek their involvement, although we’d still prefer not to be combative.
I don’t represent anyone. I speak on my own behalf. Your logic is very flawed: If I was asking you to abide by Islamic rules, I would be asking YOU not to drink. Instead, I am asking you not to misrepresent my faith as one which in any way condones the act of drinking, since it is an immoral act in Islam.
I have tried to reason with you but I see no hope in you changing your stance. I do think that your actions are actually completely intentioned to cause hurt to a lot of people and as such are utterly devoid of any humanity.
In any case, I have no personal qualms with you. Good luck making your case to the Union.