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Archive for the tag “secularism”

What should we wear?

The recent controversy in France about what one is permitted to wear on certain beaches is not so much about dress codes as it is about religious freedom. Secularism is a kind of civil religion in France, and secularists can be just as intolerant as the followers of any other religion when their religion is allied to state power. The laws that prevented Muslim women from wearing a burkini applied just as much to Christian or Buddhist monastics, Sikh turban wearers, and perhaps Hindu loin-cloth wearers as they did to Muslim women. Fortunately a higher court has found such laws to be ultra vires, so they may soon be scrapped.

Matt Stone asks a more general question about dress codes on his blog — Where do you draw boundaries on dress codes? (Curious Christian):

What would a universally acceptable dress code even look like? In some (sub)cultures full body coverings including face coverings are mandatory for all. In some (sub)cultures clothing is optional. Two extremes on a spectrum. In my own culture jeans and shirts are the norm, with bearing shoulders and midriff common in summer in informal settings. Head coverings are acceptable but face coverings of any sort are seen as subversive and banned in high security areas.

Concerning face coverings, in Western culture there is, of course, the stereotype of the masked bandit, so people who cover their faces must be up to no good. But this does not apply to the French “burkini bans”, because in those garments the face is not covered.

helmetBut Western culture also has the tradition of the masked ball, and there are people who wear celebrity masks in public, which cover their faces and make them look like someone else. Are those illegal or frowned upon in Australia? And don’t American kids wear masks at Hallowe’en?

So where do you draw the line about face coverings?

In some circumstances they are permissible, but in others there is the assumption that someone who covers their face in a way that makes recognition difficult is suspected of having criminal intentions.

anonymousAnd even when they are not regarded as criminal, sometimes masks can be seen as subversive.

So should all face coverings be banned? Or just criminal ones? Or just religious ones?

Though face coverings may be part of a dress code, they are also a special case, and perhaps one should separate the question of dress codes from the question of face coverings.

It is also important to make a distinction between secular and secularist.

Secular is a descriptive adjective, while secularism is an ideology with religious overtones.

A secular society is one in the law does not impose any religious or theological view on people. The law is neutral in matters of religion. Thus a secular society can allow freedom in matters of religion. A secularist society, on the other hand, will seek to suppress religion, and curtail religious freedom.

The French towns that have sought to restrict the kind of clothing that can be worn on beaches have done so in the name of the ideology of secularism. The reason they give for this is that the wearing of clothing that reveals the religious views of the wearer could lead to public disturbances.

I thijnk these are sisters of the Community of the Holy Name, whom I knew in Zululand. If certain French mayors had their way, they would niot be permitted to do this in France

I think these are sisters of the Community of the Holy Name (CHN), whom I knew in Zululand. If certain French mayors had their way, they would not be permitted to do this in France

As is seen in the picture above, recently posted on Facebook, some Christian monastics wear distinctive dress. And many monastics also have dress codes and other restrictions for people who visit their monasteries. A secular society would respect such codes, but a secularist society might not. People can often be hypocritical in demanding that “freedom of expression” be allowed in other societies and cultures, which they would not allow in their own — see Pussy Riot, freedom of expression and Western hypocrisy | Khanya.

Is a dress code imposed by a monastery on its visitors comparable to the code imposed by municipal authorities on visitors to a public beach? Is there a difference between public and private spaces, and if so, what is it?

And this by no means exhausts the question of dress codes and their significance. For a different aspect, see Izikhothane: a new word for an old fashion? | Khanya.




On not knowing the plot

About thirty years ago, on a 400km drive home to Melmoth in Zululand from Pretoria, I listened to tapes of lectures by Bishop Michael Marshall, then Bishop of Woolwich in England, who had visited Pretoria a couple of years earlier and spoken at a conference there. He described taking his nephew and niece to see Jesus Christ, Superstar, and was surprised to discover that they did not know the plot.

By now his nephew and niece have grown up, and probably have children of their own, and they too have probably lost the plot, or probably grew up with even less chance of knowing it.

And now another Anglican bishop, Bishop Alan of Buckingham, describes the same phenomenon in his blog Bishop Alan’s Blog: Bible and Culture 101:

Back in the 1960’s school RE was boring and worthy but predictable, and largely based on the Bible. You might decide it was a load of old tosh, but at least you ended up able to understand Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Milton’s Paradise Lost. The past becomes a completely foreign country, however, when a society obsessed with the latest of everything loses touch with its own roots, and compromises its own corporate memory.

At the age of 11 I went to high school, having grown up in an agnostic/atheist home, but I think I at least would have known the plot of Jesus Christ, Superstar, since when I was about 5 or 6 my mother had given me a book of Bible stories (by Enid Blyton, of all people), Before I go to sleep. I had never been to church, and probably knew more about Islam than I did about Christianity (from another book, King of the wind). I knew something about Ramadan, I’d never heard of Lent.

So I landed up in this church school where the maths teacher was given the task of teaching “Scripture”. He handled that by getting the class to read aloud in turn from the Bible, starting with Genesis 1, while he got on with marking homework, or setting exam papers and things like that. It was a special school edition of the Bible that we had been issued with, which omitted things like the genealogies, and probably had been bowdlerised in other ways too. I found the stories interesting, and began reading ahead, and surprised my parents by asking for a Bible for my birthday, and had read it twice by the time I was 15, the second time with the “Apocrypha”.

Then this morning (hat-tip to the Not-so-young Fogey) I read this — Orwell’s Picnic ~: Saving the World With Classical Grammar:

The Restoration is not only a matter of politics, or even education qua education. It is an essential re-construction of ruined thought. Imagine Western Civilization not as a set of buildings, or precious cultural artifacts like the Mass (if we may be somewhat impersonal and irreligious for a moment), or the Divine Office, or legally indissoluble natural marriage, or even any philosophical school. Imagine it is a larger thing than that; it is a framework for our thought, our creative efforts. Imagine it is the structure that makes something like Chartres or Salisbury Cathedral possible. The container for the idea of Chartres, without which no Chartres could be conceived.

And I realised that I have very ambivalent feelings about this. I was brought up to regard “Western Civilization” with something like contempt. That was because in South Africa the self-appointed guardians of “Western Civilization” were trying to implement the evil and anti-Christian policy of apartheid and being exposed to their prolonged and insidious propaganda meant that I came to think of “Western Civilization” itself as something evil and anti-Christian.

I’ve also been reading quite a lot about the Restoration over the last couple of years (Pepys’s diaries, etc). As a child I was a natural monarchist, and so I thought the Restoration was a good thing. But its main benefits seem to have been bawdy theatre and the king’s numerous mistresses. The present-day Anglican squabbles about bishops who leave their wives and live with their homosexual lovers seem quite mild by comparison.

In the same vein, I’ve always thought that democracy was a good thing. One of the results of democracy in South Africa is that we have freedom of the press, and so corruption in government isn’t covered up as it used to be in the apartheid days. And so freedom of the press means that the newspapers are filled with political sleaze, and who is promiscuously jumping into bed with whom, sexually, politically and above all, financially. But as bad and boring as it is, I think the Restoration could have shown our politicians a thing or two.

But to get back to the Bible and culture, and especially the literature part of it, someone asked me to be a friend on Good Reads this morning, and I went to the page where one compares one’s taste in reading with someone else’s and I saw that I had given Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey four stars. It’s another book that I’ve recently re-read after a long interval. I first read it as an undergraduate as an English I set book, and I thought it was merely OK. The trouble is that it is a satire on Gothic novels, and I hadn’t read any Gothic novels, so I couldn’t really appreciate the satire.

I’ve now read a few Gothic novels, starting with Maturin’s Melmoth the wanderer, mainly because I once lived in Melmoth (see above) and was curious about the origin of the name. Yes, I knew the town was named after Sir Melmoth Osborne (the the car registration letters are NO, the O standing for Osborne) but I wondered why his parents had called him that. But my education was incomplete until I had read The castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, which is generally agreed to be the first Gothic novel, and the start of the genre that Jane Austen was satirising. The result is that I now have a new appreciation for Northanger Abbey, far more than I ever did as an undergraduate.

And as The castle of Ortranto and The mysteries of Udolpho are to Northanger Abbey so the Bible is to a great deal of Western literature, even modern literature, and even literature written by people who weren’t especially Christian. James Joyce’s Ulysses is full of biblical allusions, and consider this little poem from Samuel Beckett’s Watt (which, interestingly enough, has been censored from the current in-print editions, and therefore worth reproducing here for that reason alone)

But what is this, so high, so white
And what is this, so black, so low
Burning, burning, burning bright
Quenched long ago, cold long ago?
It is a duck, a duck, a duck;
An old East India runner duck,
On a mat, a mat, a mat,
A hairy mat, a hairy mat,
Oh ancient mat! O hairy mat,
Oh high white brightly burning duck,
Cush’s stones are crying yet
Forth from the wall to Habakkuk,
And from the wood the answering beam
Cries yet of the appointed time
Still tarrying and of old resolves
Of wind, and sand, and evening wolves.

Secularists, and some others, fear the influence of the Bible, and say it has no place in schools or in general culture, because it belongs to “religion”, and religion must be set apart and cordoned off and confined to the “private” sphere. “Religion” and “privacy” are distincly “modern” conceptions, and I have reservations about the value of modernity, similar to those I have about “Western civilization”. Actually they are linked, because Western civilization gave birth to modernity.

It was interesting, therefore, to see how this worked out in Orthodox civilization (which Samuel Huntington saw as quite distinct from Western civilization). While doing research in Russia for my doctoral thesis on Orthodox mission methods I asked people about the revival of Orthodoxy and the fall of Bolshevism, and many people told me a similar story. The Bolsheviks were secularists, and they wanted to abolish religion altogether, or at the very least confine it and quarantine it in the “private” sphere. But they were sufficiently Russian to allow people to read the great works of Russian literature, many of which, however, were imbued with an Orthodox “fronima”, a mindset, a set of presuppositions. So “Holy Russia” survived in literature, and as an ideal, and people read this literature and became curious about the thinking and the ethos behind it, and wanted to learn more. And in Brezhnev’s time, when Bolshevism was dull and boring and conservative and stick in the mud, the thirst for something more interesting and more exciting grew and so Bolshevism was overthrown. One of my interlocutors said that he thought that this showed that the best method of re-evangelising Russia was to promote “Orthodox Christian culture”. I’m not so sure about that. In the late-Bolshevik period it was the only accessible alternative to Bolshevism, but since the fall of the Communist Party from power Russia had been flooded with all kinds of literature and culture from all over the world, and so the choice is not so simple any more.

Now this, of course, is the secularist’s nightmare, and shows the danger of letting religion get a toehold in the culture after all their strenuous efforts to sideline it. And I find myself out of sympathy with them, but equally out of sympathy with those who want to identify the Christian faith with the culture so completely, and use arguments like those about Chartres Cathedral that I quoted above. I quite like Harvey Cox’s distinction between secularisation and secularism. I tend to favour secularisation, because, like it or not, there is a distinction between the church and the world, and I’m aware of those who see religion as so entangled with secular culture that they see other religions as an insult to their culture (some have called this “Christendom”). Secularism, however, is an ideology, and a rather narrow-minded and bigoted one at that, which sees anyreligion as an insult to its culture.

Saving the Soul of Secularism

Recently someone sent me, quite unsolicited, a link to this article Saving the Soul of Secularism:

Since February 2003, millions in the U.S. and around the world have participated in marches, rallies and varied protests, making a bold, ethical stand against U.S. military aggression. Citizens have engaged in persistent resistance to the destruction of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of U.S troops.

While numerous humanists have and continue to be actively involved in the anti-war movement many others are too narrowly focused on issues such as church-state separation and promoting science education.

The time has come for humanists to actively assert that they are as committed to peace and ending U.S. militarism as they are to the separation of church and state. If we can see the threat to freedom posed by the mixture of church and state, we must see the threat to freedom posed by militarism.

The very legitimacy of secularism and freethought is at stake. Humanists, atheists, and assorted freethinkers along with the organizations that represent them: the American Humanist Association, American Atheists, Secular Student Alliance, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Center for Inquiry, among others, should join anti-war/peace organizations in calling for a dramatic change in U.S. foreign policy away from neo-liberal imperialism and militarism.

This strikes me as very strange.

I can understand why humanists, who believe that human beings have intrinsic value, might see militarism as a threat to human freedom and therefore a bad thing.

What I find difficult to understand is the logic of urging atheists to support such a cause. I can see no logical connection between atheism and a response to militarism (or to pacifism, for that matter). There is nothing about atheism that makes it desirable that atheists should join anti-war or peace organisations. There is also nothing about atheism that makes it undesirable. Atheism, as atheism, is surely quite neutral in regard to such moral imperatives.

Why should an atheist, by virtue of being an atheist, believe that neoliberal imperialism is a bad thing? Some atheists have clearly believed that it is quite a good thing.

It is possibile to say, as Marx and Lenin did, that it is incumbent on a communist to be an atheist. But the reverse is not true. It is not incumbent on an atheist to be a communist. An atheist can just as easily be a neoliberal imperialist.

This seems to be “fluffy bunny” secularism, as some of my (neo) pagan friends would say. They seem to be getting carried away by moralism.

The paganism of Narnia

The post-Christian man of our day differs from pagans as much as a divorcee differs from a virgin, said C.S. Lewis. Hat-tip to A conservative blog for peace for the link.

Comment: The paganism of Narnia:

‘When grave persons express their fear that England is relapsing into Paganism, I am tempted to reply, ‘Would that she were.’ For I do not think it at all likely that we shall ever see Parliament opened by the slaughtering of a garlanded white bull in the House of Lords or Cabinet Ministers leaving sandwiches in Hyde Park as an offering for the Dryads.

‘If such a state of affairs came about, then the Christian apologist would have something to work on. For a Pagan, as history shows, is a man eminently convertible to Christianity. He is essentially the pre-Christian, or sub-Christian, religious man. The post-Christian man of our day differs from him as much as a divorcee differs from a virgin.’

Al-Jazeera TV news network

My wife was feeling ill and stayed home from work today. She was channel hopping on the TV, and came across the Al Jazeera TV news network, and was quite impressed, and called me to have a look.

I don’t watch much TV, but the programme I saw was quite impressively presented. It was about Russian journalists by didn’t follow the Putin line on Chechnya being assassinated. And I found it interesting that in showing the funeral of one of them, the camera lingered on the priest, and on the cross on a nearby grave. It impressed me, because Western secular journalism tends to ignore such religious symbolism, unless, of course, it is the domes of St Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square, but for the average Westerner that is as much a symbol of communism as of Christianity.

In establishing shots, too, they showed street scenes as seen by the average Russian, with trams and trolleybuses, rather than shots of the Kremlin.

It may be misleading, of course, that was just one programme, but I found the different approach was quite striking. I think I’ll be watching it some more.

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