Faith Watch is an idiosyncratically compiled 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.

1885 Engraving of A woman in a scold’s bridle. Public domain.

Know your place, woman!

In February, the National Secular Society (NSS) complained to the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator about a sermon given to the good folks of Rosyth Baptist Church, a registered charity, in which the ‘reverend’ Chris Demetriou clamped down on any uppity women who might be among his flock. As the NSS reported: ‘[In the sermon, Demetriou] explains a wife “should submit to her husband’s leadership” because “that’s the Lord’s pattern for us”. She submits to him “out of obedience to Christ”.’ (It should be noted that Demetriou has belatedly—and rather lamely—responded to the NSS’s complaints.)

So, there you have it. From now on, should any women disagree with anything I write in the Freethinker or elsewhere, I shall simply employ Demetriou’s Defence: know your place, woman! [Praise the Lord! – Ed.]

Know your place, infidel!

In a new report for the UK Commission for Countering Extremism, Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens warns that ‘Anti-blasphemy activism in the UK is gaining momentum and showing signs of becoming increasingly radicalised.’ Meleagrou-Hitchens has provided a valuable summary and analysis of the threats posed by Islamists to free thought in the UK. It is eye-opening even for those of us who pay close attention to this sort of thing. And, as he astutely notes, it is not just non-Muslims like the Batley schoolteacher who face Islamist intimidation, but ‘heretical’ Muslims too—Ahmadi Muslims in particular, one of whom was murdered in Glasgow in 2016 for his beliefs. At a time when gay MPs have been scared by Islamists into giving up their seats, and when even the Speaker of the House of Commons is more or less openly expressing his fear of Islamist violence against MPs, Meleagrou-Hitchens’s analysis is essential, if also alarming, reading.

From Pakistan with terror

Meleagrou-Hitchens reports that much of this ‘anti-blasphemy activism’ is linked to ‘the emergence of a UK wing of the extremist Pakistani anti-blasphemy political party, Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP).’ This is unsurprising, given the long and ignoble tradition of Pakistani Islamists’ interference in other countries (the Pakistani government’s support for the Taliban in Afghanistan being the most disgraceful example)—not to mention the equally ignoble tradition of persecuting infidels within Pakistan itself.

Just this month, the BBC reported that a young man has been sentenced to death by a Pakistani court for the crime of sharing images and videos offensive to Muslims. Despite all this, Pakistan remains a ‘major non-NATO ally’, thus sullying the name of an organisation that, for all its past and present crimes and follies, is now one of the world’s great bulwarks of liberal democracy. So it goes.

A note on ‘extremism’

Michael Gove has produced a new official definition of ‘extremism’ that is both broad and vague, and therefore a threat to free speech. There are many problems with having the state define what constitutes ‘extremism’ in the first place—it is a contested word and concept, one liable to misuse by governments wishing to muzzle the opposition. What business is it of the state to define the limits of acceptable political discourse? What business is it of anyone to do so, unless they want to shut their critics up?

But the Gove definition is particularly dubious. As the NSS put it, it could include ‘those who seek to “undermine” the country’s institutions or values’, a group which would include opponents of the established Church of England and the monarchy (the NSS spoke before the definition was made public on 14 March, but its concerns still apply). On the one hand, then, the UK Commission for Countering Extremism (!) is rightly concerned about Islamic ‘anti-blasphemy activism’; on the other, the government seems to want to erode free speech in this country even further.

By the way, would blasphemy not be considered ‘extremist’ by the votaries of the various faiths? Indeed, it was not so long ago that we had an official blasphemy ban on the law books. The government’s attempts to counter the phenomenon nebulously described as ‘extremism’ is a little too close for my liking to a ban on blasphemy—even on free speech tout court.

The Scottish Hate Monster

Meanwhile, Scotland’s long-delayed and authoritarian Hate Crime Act will come into force on (appropriately) 1 April, with ‘non-crime hate incidents’ also being recorded. Thankfully, a Police Scotland video has resurfaced to put us all in our places. The narrator, in condescending faux chummy Scots, informs us that the ‘Hate Monster’ will grow within us every time we commit a hate crime. The criminal urge can just creep up on you, it seems: one moment you’re a bit peeved and ‘then, before ye know it, ye’ve committed a hate crime.’ A sound basis for prosecution…

Being Scottish, I have long had concerns about the Hate Crime Act. In 2022, I went so far as to say how shameful—and terrifying—it was. And this in one of the heartlands of the Enlightenment, no less! I can easily see how things I have written (including in this very Faith Watch), and things which have appeared in the Freethinker generally, might fall afoul of the Act or be seized upon by some offence-seeking enemy of free thought.

With Michael Gove and Humza Yousaf fighting for our freedoms, who needs tyrants? All I can say is that we at the Freethinker have no intention of being silenced.

The government’s attempts to counter the phenomenon nebulously described as ‘extremism’ is a little too close for my liking to a ban on blasphemy or free speech tout court.

Of rum and Ramadan

The month of Muslim fasting and prayer began on 10 March. There is no objection to people freely practising their religion, of course, but let us not forget the closeted apostates and liberal or non-practising Muslims around the world forced into doing so on pain of ostracisation—or worse. In Nigeria, for example, 11 Muslims have already been arrested for the crime of eating during the hours of fasting. That is why it is nice to see the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain (CEMB) planning to have a picnic in defiance of religious bullying this month.

Apparently, 23 March is Atheist Day, which I would normally find very silly except for the happy coincidence that it falls within Ramadan this year and is the date on which CEMB invites everyone to ‘take a shot of Rum for #atheists and #exMuslims across the globe’ using the hashtag #AtheistDayRUMadan. I for one will join in, though probably with whisky rather than rum. Happy Rumadan!

Ramadan and the Uyghurs

While Ramadan can inspire Islamic bullying and tyranny, it is also a good time to remember the Uyghur Muslims, who are facing genocide at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party. Their plight has faded from the media as other horrors have risen up to capture our attention, but they should not be forgotten.

For them, Ramadan is a dangerous time indeed. As the Campaign for Uyghurs put it:

‘The blessed month of Ramadan is also synonymous with the extreme torture and hardships perpetrated by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), as it wages a brutal war on Islam amidst the ongoing Uyghur genocide. The CCP ludicrously deems any public expression of the Islamic faith as “religious extremism” [there’s that word again] and outlaws religious practices among the Uyghurs, including fasting, owning a Qur’an, and praying. During Ramadan, Uyghurs are forced to abandon their fasts, consume non-halal (prohibited) products, and engage in other activities that contradict their faith. If they refuse, they are subject to severe punishment.’

So even as I have no sympathy with religious belief and practice, I feel a little softer towards Ramadan these days than I normally would. Of course, the only thing is to be consistent in one’s advocation of liberty: just as nobody should be compelled to practice religion, nobody should be prevented from doing so if they freely choose it.

Alexander and Hephaestion redux

‘Alexander Putting his Seal Ring over Hephaestion’s Lips’. 1781 painting by Johann Heinrich Tischbein

In happier news, one of the most famously gay places in all of history has legalised same-sex marriage. Despite the best efforts of the Greek Orthodox Church, the first-ever gay wedding in the Athens City Hall was conducted on 7 March. Nearly three thousand years after Achilles and Patroclus, and more than two thousand after Alexander and Hephaestion, it’s about time! Perhaps now is a good moment to revisit Mary Renault’s beautiful novel about the latter pair, Fire from Heaven (1969); it is a personal favourite of mine, and its sequels, The Persian Boy (1972) and Funeral Games (1981), are also well worth reading.

I can’t resist an apt quote from Fire from Heaven here. Alexander has just expressed his love for his closest friend: ‘Hephaistion had known for many ages that if a god should offer him one gift in all his lifetime, he would choose this. Joy hit him like a lightning bolt.’

The continued decay of subcontinental (and global) secularism

In last month’s Faith Watch, I wrote of Narendra Modi’s ‘assault on India’s rich secularist history’. Well, here we are again. Less than two months after Modi opened a new temple to Ram in Ayodhya, his government has announced that it is set to fulfil another Hindu nationalist dream by enacting the anti-Muslim Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which was passed in 2019. Even the name of the act sounds slightly sinister.

As the writer and Modi critic Mukul Kesavan wrote in 2019, when the act was just a bill, ‘Couched in the language of refuge and seemingly directed at foreigners, the CAB’s main purpose is the de-legitimization of Muslim citizenship.’ He went on to describe it as one of ‘the greatest institutional threats to Indian democracy today.’

With Modi and his party up for re-election later this year, it is no wonder they are so flagrantly pandering to their Hindu nationalist base. Modi is likely to win a third term, so for how much longer will India be able to retain the title of the world’s largest secular democracy? Meanwhile, with Donald Trump, darling of the Christian nationalists, tying with and sometimes even surpassing Joe Biden in the polls, the world’s oldest secular democracy might also be preparing to self-immolate this year.

Perhaps nations like India and the US have forgotten the value of secularism. They should look to Iran, where a poll run by the state found a huge majority in favour of secular government. And, in a rebuke to all those who so vacuously celebrated World Hijab Day on 1 February, it also found that most Iranians are opposed to the mandatory hijab.

Should India and the US choose to abandon their hard-won secular democracies, they will miss them dearly—and they will have to fight for them all over again. At least the ideals of secular democracy will survive among those who most appreciate its worth.

Yet more papal piffle

The above words could be applied to almost everything every pope has ever said, including Pope Francis’s recent intervention wherein he might as well have told the Ukrainians to surrender to annihilation (having forgotten his church’s historical complicity with fascism, Francis has now reportedly joined Kim Jong Un and Xi Jinping in congratulating Putin on his recent election victory), but I have in mind a book released earlier this year: The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Ratzinger. I read (though ‘endured’ might be a better word) this book, intending to review it more fully, but it is so bad that it is not worth the effort. Instead, I shall limit myself to a few reflections.

First, why is a respected university press publishing a book almost entirely composed of theological waffle written mostly by committed theological wafflers? They may as well publish a Cambridge Companion to Scientology written by L. Ron Hubbard fans. If Catholics (or Scientologists) want to publish this stuff, they are free to do so – and they certainly have the resources with which to do it. And there is no reasonable objection to the publication of historical-analytical volumes on religion and theology.

But a serious academic press printing what amounts to mumbo-jumbo? I look forward to a future Cambridge Companion to John Frum Worship consisting entirely of pseudo-sophisticated analysis by Melanesian acolytes of the eponymous cargo cult. (Again, anthropological study is an entirely different thing.)

The Ratzinger book opens breathlessly, with the editors placing their subject alongside Aristotle and Shakespeare in the depth of his influence (in his case, on Catholic theology rather than philosophy and literature). He is also compared with Augustine and Aquinas (of course), but at least that pair had the excuse of living in periods of relative ignorance. The editors and contributors clearly think of Ratzinger as a great and humane scholar. A useful tonic to this hero worship is Daniel Gawthrop’s 2013 book The Trial of Pope Benedict, which (so far as I am concerned, anyway) exposes Ratzinger as the nasty, authoritarian, reactionary old bigot and bully that he was.

‘critical mass’. 2009 painting by james miller. image used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Here is an example of theo-waffle from Joseph Ratzinger, as quoted by a contributor to the Companion, so that the reader can judge for him- or herself this towering intellect:

‘The truth cannot unfold except in an otherness open to God, who wishes to reveal his own otherness in and through my human brothers and sisters. Hence it is not fitting to state in an exclusive way: “I possess the truth.” The truth is not possessed by anyone; it is always a gift which calls us to undertake a journey of ever closer assimilation to truth… truth is disclosed only in an encounter of love.’

As with so much theology, this babble is reminiscent of the worst stylings of the postmodernists. It is an irony that conservative theologians like Ratzinger, who abhor postmodernism and the like, sound so much like them—and carry about as much intellectual weight, assuming as they do all the things that they need, and have signally failed, to prove before they even begin and building an absurd and abstruse system on top of those assumptions. Change a few words here and there, and the most sophisticated Christian theology can be rendered into a postmodernist, or even a cargo cult, tract. (And it is beyond me how the above quote can be squared with another contributor’s statement that ‘the Catholic Church, for Ratzinger, is…the Spirit-filled infallible authority…’)

Here is another example, this time from one of the contributors, whose simultaneous pomposity and meaninglessness might make even Jacques Derrida scoff: ‘[F]or Ratzinger, communion is the fundamental figure of reality, created and uncreated, and historically mediated relationality is thus disclosive of the deepest meaning of being.’ Thus disclosive of the deepest meaning of being—magnificent.

According to Ratzinger and his Cambridge companions, Christianity is a pre-eminently and uniquely rational religion. Curious, then, that even its most ‘sophisticated’ defenders fall back on such fatuous language (all the better to befuddle, I suppose). There is also the awkward fact that Ratzinger himself, as discussed in the book, admitted that silly doctrines such as the Trinity can only be accepted on the basis of revelation—after all, they do not do very well under rational scrutiny. And what of the plain superstition that is literal transubstantiation? Or intercessory prayer?

Worst of all, the Companion barely deals with the thousands of child rapes that Ratzinger was arguably morally culpable for. When it does, it is to excuse him and to warp the record to portray him as a saviour rather than an enabler. On moral as well as intellectual grounds, then, this book is almost as rancid as its subject.

I cannot think of an excuse for Cambridge University Press here. Would they take an obvious work of fiction, complete with its own metaphysics and theology and imagined history, and allow deluded people who believe that the fiction is real to write so sincerely about it?

There is a Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature, but, so far as I can tell, none of its contributors believes in Aslan or Gandalf or treats fantasy as reality rather than literature—and it now strikes me that the papal piffle that fills the pages of the Ratzinger companion would be much more at home in the back-end of some anthology of third-rate fantasy.

Further reading:

Secularism, women’s rights, and religious charities

Secularism is a feminist issue, by Megan Manson

Blasphemy and free speech in the UK

Blasphemy and bishops: how secularists are navigating the culture wars, by Emma Park

Free speech in Britain: a losing battle?

Blasphemy Month at the Freethinker

Secularism and the struggle for free speech, by Stephen Evans

Britain’s blasphemy heritage, by David Nash

On trial for blasphemy: the Freethinker’s first editor and offensive cartoons, by Bob Forder

Freethought in Pakistan

Coerced faith: the battle against forced conversions in Pakistan’s Dalit community, by Shaukat Korai

Breaking the silence: Pakistani ex-Muslims find a voice on social media, by Tehreem Azeem

From religious orthodoxy to free thought, by Tehreem Azeem

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

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