Faith Watch is a monthly round-up of the errors, disasters and absurdities following in the wake of religions around the world, by our assistant editor, Daniel James Sharp.
Fanatics in all the wrong places
On 26 January, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) announced that it had received allegations from Israel that twelve of its employees were directly involved in Hamas’ attack on Israel last October. These employees, some of whom are alleged to have participated in massacres of Israelis, have now been sacked, are dead, or are under investigation by UNRWA. Israel has also accused 190 of the UNRWA’s Gaza employees of being operatives of Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
This is not the first time that the UNRWA, founded in 1949 to aid the 700,000 Palestinian refugees created by the first Arab-Israeli War, has been accused of lax hiring practices. Last November, one of the released Israeli hostages claimed he had been held in an attic by a UNRWA teacher.
Now, a slew of countries, including the UK and the US, have stopped their funding for the UNRWA. Combined, these countries contributed over 60 per cent of the UNRWA’s budget in 2022. Whether this is a fair response or not (after all, the UNRWA is now more than ever a lifeline for besieged Palestinians), the allegations are worrying. What hope can there be of a just and stable settlement to this interminable conflict if even the aid agencies of the UN are harbouring violent extremists?
Speaking of fanatics popping up in unwelcome places, Dr Wahid Shaida was suspended by NHS England last month for being the head of Hizb ut-Tahrir in the UK. Hizb ut-Tahrir was itself proscribed as a terrorist organisation shortly before Shaida’s suspension. But just why the head of a woman-hating, homophobic, Islamist outfit, who had openly celebrated the stabbing of Salman Rushdie and the 7 October Hamas attack on Israel, was allowed to practise medicine in the first place is puzzling. One ought not to persecute others for their private beliefs, however distasteful, but it strikes me that such bigotry and fanaticism might have an adverse effect on a doctor’s ability to treat his or her patients fairly – particularly the female, gay, and Jewish ones. In any case, with the proscription of Hizb ut-Tahrir, Shaida’s suspension is certainly justified; though he is still, for some reason, registered with the General Medical Council.
And then there is Mike Johnson, Speaker of the US House of Representatives and second in line to the presidency since last October. Johnson seems to be an avowed Christian nationalist and his pre-Speaker career highlights include advocating for the criminalisation of gay sex and helping Donald Trump’s demented and spurious legal attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 US presidential election. Read about all this and more in a white paper released by the Congressional Freethought Caucus on 11 January.
It is a sad, sad irony that the very nation founded upon Enlightenment ideals by a group of secularists and freethinkers, including the two great Toms (Paine and Jefferson), is home to some of the world’s most backward and most powerful Christian fundamentalists.
Modi’s triumph and the decay of subcontinental secularism
Meanwhile, India’s great secularist tradition continues to decay under Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist rule. On 22 January, Modi officially opened a new temple to the Hindu god Ram in Ayodhya, proclaiming that ‘After years of struggle and countless sacrifices, Lord Ram has arrived [home]. I want to congratulate every citizen of the country on this historic occasion.’
With elections on the horizon, Modi’s fulfilment of a long-standing Hindu nationalist dream was obviously a vote-getting ploy. Little, of course, was made of the fact that the temple’s site was once home to a centuries-old mosque destroyed by a Hindu mob in 1992. The mob were convinced that the mosque had originally been erected by Muslim invaders over an earlier temple where Ram had been born. (Leave it to the religious to desecrate the sacred sites of their rivals.) Riots provoked by the destruction of the mosque killed thousands.
So: communal strife, destruction of ancient buildings, the death of thousands—and all thanks to religious fantasy. And now the vandalism and horror of 1992 are being erased because Narendra Modi wishes to stir up his supporters. In doing so, his assault on India’s rich secularist history reaches new heights. Here is the triumph of Modi.
And this prompts a further reflection: from Israel and Gaza to the US and India—not to mention the bloodstained steppes of Ukraine, where Orthodox-inspired and supported Russian troops are trying to destroy a young democracy—religion, in various forms, remains one of the world’s greatest threats to democratic and secular ideals, and to the ideals of peace and freedom. How far we secularists still have to go! And perhaps it really is not too much to say that ‘religion poisons everything.’
The Navajo Nation vs NASA
On 6 January, one of the great crises of our time arose. The White House hastily convoked a meeting, attended by officials from NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration among others, to meet the crisis head-on. For a commercial lunar mission, Peregrine Mission One, was due to launch in a couple of days—and its payload contained human remains which were to be buried on the Moon.
What, you might ask, was the problem with that? It has been done before, and the Moon is quite a beautiful final resting place. Many people, myself included, would feel honoured to be fired out into space to rest forever on the Earth’s closest fellow orb. Allow the Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren to explain:
‘The moon holds a sacred place in Navajo cosmology… The suggestion of transforming it into a resting place for human remains is deeply disturbing and unacceptable to our people and many other tribal nations.’
Yes, really! This is no different from Catholics or Muslims imposing their religious beliefs on others. The only surprising thing is that it was paid such heed. The only proper response to this sort of thing is: Who cares? Or, perhaps, Too bad!
Of course, the reason no such firmly secularist response was given in this case is because the Navajo are a minority and they have faced terrible oppression. Guilt-ridden liberals who would happily scoff at, say, Catholic calls to ban homosexuality, are unable to do the same when it comes to indigenous people staking their own arrogant claims to religious privilege. This is an act of unintentional bigotry. It suggests that indigenous people cannot be held to the same standards as others and that their superstitions, which they are clearly incapable of throwing off, must be indulged.
But as citizens of democratic nations, nobody has the right to make special claims for themselves based on religion, let alone impose their beliefs on others. That is the essence of secularism. It does not matter whether the demand for privilege comes from a powerful bishop or an oppressed minority.
The Navajo case is representative of a more general trend: the indulgence of indigenous superstition in the name of inclusivity. Other instances include the adoption of such superstitions in American museums and the credence given to ‘indigenous science’ or ‘indigenous ways of knowing’ even in such august journals as Science. In New Zealand, meanwhile, where the embrace of ‘indigenous ways of knowing’ (in this case, Māori ways of knowing) has gone the furthest, a Māori local district councillor defied the secularist mayor during a meeting and recited a prayer.
If Narendra Modi and Mike Johnson are examples of the religious right flaunting its power, are the claims of the Navajo and the Māori examples of the religious ‘woke’ left in action? At least, the ‘woke’ left tends to support these claims. As ever, the only solution is the secularist one of fairness: nobody, however powerful or oppressed, gets a special pass for their beliefs, nor do they have the right to impose those beliefs on others.
Muslims v Michaela
The legal case currently being pursued against Katharine Birbalsingh’s Michaela Community School by fundamentalist Muslims angry at the school’s restriction of Muslim prayer has stirred up something quite unusual, but also very heartening: an outpouring from across the political spectrum of sympathy for secularism. But, as Megan Manson of the National Secular Society notes, this sympathy is somewhat shallow, given its ignorance (or ignoring) of the UK’s deeply anti-secular education system – never mind its overtly religious political system. Still, who knows? Perhaps the intimidation meted out to Michaela by aggrieved fundamentalists and the wave of public sympathy for the school will inspire the country to finally cast off all the vestiges of theocracy.
Postscript: the Conservative MP Mike Freer has just announced that he will stand down at the next election. Why? He is scared of the Islamists who have been intimidating him for years. He is, in fact, lucky to be alive given that he was in the line of sight of the Islamist who murdered Sir David Amess in 2021. As Rakib Ehsan writes in The Telegraph, ‘Freer’s decision to walk away from British politics for fear of his personal safety is yet another example of the Islamist-inspired erosion of British parliamentary democracy.’
An irreligious king?
On a related note, talk of Prince William’s irreligiousness compared to his father and grandmother caused some speculation that he might cut ties with the Church of England upon becoming King. Alas, such rumours were quickly dispelled, but not before they provoked some amusing grumbling from Peter Hitchens in The Mail on Sunday.
Alongside some thin guff in place of any serious reasoning about the truth of Christianity (never Hitchens’ strong point, and something he usually and wisely avoids), there was one point with which I found myself agreeing: ‘If this stuff is not true, or is marginal, or if we do not really believe it, then there is no purpose in having a King, or a Prince of Wales. We might as well have a President in a nice suit.’ Indeed—and huzzah!
The resurrected exorcist
The Daily Star, citing ‘a recently unearthed interview with [an] obscure Spanish magazine’, says that the Pope’s former exorcist Gabriele Amorth (who left this vale of tears in 2016) believed that the Devil is responsible for political evil and corruption. Even Hitler and Stalin, according to Father Amorth, are to be explained by old Nick’s seductive whisperings. Spooky!
But come now. Aside from its obvious foolishness, this is an abdication of moral and intellectual responsibility. Never mind the hard and necessary work of bothering to explain the evil of a Hitler or a Stalin in rational terms, so that we might understand and stop such men from gaining power ever again. No, no: it was the Devil! Just pray and obey our ancient and constipated moral teachings and all manner of thing shall be well.
Remember: this was the Pope’s exorcist. So, quite apart from the fact that the Pope still believes in exorcism like some medieval peasant, until quite recently his exorcist was a plain idiot. But what do you expect from the Catholic Church? And millions, if not billions, take the Pope’s pronouncements very seriously. The human species is still, clearly, very immature.
Some more wisdom from Father Amorth:
‘I tell those who come to see me to first go to a doctor or a psychologist… Most of the time there is a physical or psychological basis for explaining their suffering… The psychiatrists send me the incurable cases. There is no rivalry. The psychiatrist determines if it is an illness, the exorcist if it is a curse.’
‘I work seven days a week, from morning until night, including Christmas Eve and Holy Week. Everyone is vulnerable. The Devil is very intelligent. He retains the intelligence of the angel that he was.
‘Suppose, for example, that someone you work with is envious of you and casts a spell on you. You would get sick. Ninety per cent of the cases that I deal with are precisely spells. The rest are due to membership in satanic sects or participation in séances or magic.
‘If you live in harmony with God, it is much more difficult for the devil to possess you.’
Well, there you go: harmonise your aura with the Lord above, then that rascal Lucifer won’t be able to get you, and there’ll be no evil in the world! Because, of course, no evil has ever been committed by godly men…
Enter Russell Crowe
Apparently, Father Amorth was the subject of a (highly dramatised) movie starring Russell Crowe last year. According to the summary on Wikipedia, ‘[Amorth] learns that a founder of the Spanish Inquisition, an exorcist, was possessed, which let him infiltrate the Church and do many evils. Amorth also finds the Church covered this up…’ This does not, so far as I know, represent anything done or claimed by the real Amorth, but it does chime with his comments given above—and what an easy escape for the Church! All its many crimes throughout history were just a satanic aberration. It was the Devil all along! Thank the Lord for that. Let us never trouble ourselves again about the Inquisition, or Galileo, or Giordano Bruno, or the Crusades, or child sex abuse, or…
So much for mea culpa, never mind mea maxima culpa, then.
The Israel-Palestine conflict
Bloodshed in Gaza: Islamists, leftist ideologues, and the prospects of a two-state solution, by Kunwar Khuldune Shahid
Religion and the Arab-Israeli conflict, by Kunwar Khuldune Shahid
Christian nationalism in the US
Reproductive freedom is religious freedom, by Andrew Seidel and Rachel Laser
Secular conservatives? If only… by Jacques Berlinerblau
Indian secularism and Hindu nationalism
Religion and the decline of freethought in South Asia, by Kunwar Khuldune Shahid
‘We need to move from identity politics to a politics of solidarity’ – interview with Pragna Patel
Campaign ‘to unite India and save its secular soul’, by Puja Bhattacharjee
British Islam, secularism, and free speech
Free speech in Britain: a losing battle? by Porcus Sapiens
Secularism and the struggle for free speech, by Stephen Evans
British Islam and the crisis of ‘wokeism’ in universities – interview with Steven Greer
Monarchy, religion, and republicanism
Bring on the British republic – Graham Smith’s ‘Abolish the Monarchy’, reviewed, by Daniel James Sharp
‘I do not think you are going to get a secular state without getting rid of the monarchy’ –interview with Graham Smith