On halal, kosher, religious tolerance and having it both ways

Yesterday I live tweeted the SDP conference in Leeds. It was a great day with many interesting speakers, but easily the most controversial discussion – and the one that has generated the most reaction in my Twitter mentions since – was the motion to amend SDP policy on non stun slaughter. Previously, policy was to ban these methods of slaughter, but at the conference a motion was decisively carried to amend this to provisions on strict standards, ensuring supply does not outstrip demand (eg non stun slaughter for export) and proper labelling.

I gather that debate around the subject prior to conference was heated. I know at least one person who left the party over the subject. I spoke in favour of the motion despite being personally uncomfortable with such methods of slaughter on the grounds that an explicitly communitarian party needs to be willing to demonstrate a recognition that religious practice is immensely important to some groups, and to create space for such practices even if we find them personally unappealing.

But once you start making explicit provision for communitarian considerations, the tension between faith and other ethical frameworks is immediately apparent.

The subsequent discussion – and its links into ‘preserve our culture’ groups such as For Britain and Britain First – put me in mind of two brouhahas a little while ago where politicians tried to articulate a position weighing private faith against public mainstream morality. In April 2017, then Lib Dem leader Tim Farron refused to deny that his personal faith held homosexuality to be a sin. In September the same year, Jacob Rees-Mogg made statements on abortion and homosexuality, consistent with Catholic social teaching, that saw him excoriated as ‘a bigot’ and ‘wildly out of step with public opinion’.

Commentators at the time lined up to defend Farron and Rees-Mogg. There was the usual hum from offstage (ie Twitter) about the right to express views in keeping with traditional Christianity without facing punishment from an illiberal liberal elite.

So I find it interesting to see that when it comes to a religious practice from Islam and Judaism – slaughtering animals by slitting their throats, without stunning them first – some of the voices raised most loudly in agreement about the iniquity of ‘You can’t say that’ culture as it bears on Christians today should be perfectly content to support policies that actively militate the practice of those other faiths. If we are to defend Rees-Mogg and Farron on grounds of religious tolerance, should we not also consider defending halal and kosher slaughter on the same grounds? After all, the core argument of tolerance is not that one tolerates only things that one likes or feels indifferent to but that it is extended to things one actively dislikes.

It feels to me as though there are two things going on here.

Firstly, the Britain First types who wish to support religious exemptions for Christians but not for Jews or Muslims are not, themselves, Christians for the most part. Rather, they are secular inheritors of the Christian tradition who wish to preserve the structure of that tradition for the benefits it has for some time provided – a fairly stable, prosperous, harmonious society with congenial values – without taking on the obligations of the faith itself. To put it a less fashionable way, they wish to be redeemed but without themselves taking up the cross. For that, in a nutshell, is the argument made by those who argue against ‘illiberal liberalism’ but do so from a perspective that rejects the necessity of faith – any faith, perhaps, or Christianity in particular – in creating the society to which they wish to belong.

We might term it ‘religious utilitarianism’ – a worldview that recognises the utility of faith in delivering certain social goods but takes no position on the veracity or otherwise of the tenets of any faith in particular. Liberal relativism is a kind of equal-opportunities religious utilitarianism, that wishes to make space for any and all faiths to provide those goods in a pluralistic way, while the Britain First / Batten-era UKIP version of the same wishes to privilege Christian religious utilitarianism over the more relativistic liberal sort. That is, Britain First types want to keep only the outward forms of Christianity but do not wish anyone else to replace those forms with a more deeply-felt faith of their own.

But if we are to argue for religious tolerance, and for Christianity to play an active rather than a purely decorative role in our society then – the logic dictates – we must either be explicit about repressing other faiths in support of that goal, or else extend the same courtesy to other faiths. The alternative – hiding our hostility to other faiths behind a selectively-applied appeal for religious tolerance only as it pertains to ‘our’ deviations from the liberal consensus – is simply not good enough.

Worried about the spread of Islam in the UK? Don’t go to EDL rallies – go to church

In which I try and piss off Muslims, liberals, Christians, atheists and people who share Britain First memes

The voice of Islam has grown in strength in my lifetime, even as that of Christianity has waned. Far more halal meat is now produced in this country than there are Muslims to eat it. At the same time, people have felt increasingly free to speak derogatorily about Christians and Christian ideas, to the point where Thought For The Day speakers write in the Guardian about the BBC’s ‘sniggering’ attitude to Christianity. In contrast, as criticism of and sniggering about Christianity has become such easy sport, it has become steadily less acceptable to voice criticisms about Islamic ideology.

Ahis shifting balance of power has not gone unnoticed. At the ‘deplorable’ end of social media, one sees a great deal of hostility toward what is experienced as a steady encroachment of Islam. Look up the #islamification hashtag if you want a taster. This example is typical.

The officially sanctioned response to this kind of sentiment is to dismiss it as bigotry and then censure, censor and move on. But consider for a few moments what it is expressing. Fear, hostility, concern about the encroachment of a way of life that is ‘not how we do things’. Is it justified? Well, the actual proportion of Muslims to the general population within the United Kingdom is pretty small (around 5%). So why the perception that there are so many?

In a chapter of Skin In The Game, Nassim Taleb outlines the means by which small but highly intransigent minorities can end up dictating dietary and even moral codes for a more flexible majority.

Roman pagans were initially tolerant of Christians, as the tradition was to share gods with other members of the empire. But they wondered why these Nazarenes didn’t want to give and take gods and offer that Jesus fellow to the Roman pantheon in exchange for some other gods. What, our gods aren’t good enough for them? But Christians were intolerant of Roman paganism. The “persecutions” of the Christians had vastly more to do with the intolerance of the Christians for the pantheon and local gods, than the reverse.

Today, some seventy percent of New Zealand lamb is slaughtered using halal methods, because while non-Muslims will for the most part tolerate halal slaughter, a high proportion of Muslims will not tolerate non-halal. Thus, by simple commercial expedience, the less tolerant minority ends up disproportionately influencing the available food choices for the majority.

One can extend this insight beyond halal slaughter. A recent YouGov poll illustrates this: most Brits think only six of the Ten Commandments are still important. The commandments that have fallen by the wayside are: worshiping false idols, taking the Lord’s name in vain, worshiping anything other than God and keeping the Sabbath. In other words, the commandments that relate to active piety specific to religious adherence. The rest deal with theft, murder, adultery and the like; things which are clearly bad whatever you think of God. But edicts against blasphemy and the proliferation of gods, and for loyalty to the faith? Those are the rules that sustain the identity of a religion, and the cohesion of a group that follows it. That these are the edicts we have abandoned, in the UK, tells us everything we need to know about the level of religious intransigence in the general population. The commandments that gatekeep a faith, head off any dalliance with other faiths, in a word keep the faith intolerant enough to be influential have all faded to meaninglessness for the majority of Brits. This is not, in the main, a population willing to dig its heels in for the sake of religious beliefs. Indeed, a recent survey suggests that more than half the UK population do not feel themselves to have a religion.

In the midst of this sea of secular laissez-faire, Muslims are the only faith group present in the UK in any number who take their faith seriously enough to make sacrifices for it. This makes them very visible, and – in a tolerant, pluralistic society – makes Islam disproportionately powerful. British Muslims care about stuff the majority isn’t that bothered about, like saying prayers in slaughterhouses, so their secular fellow countrymen shrug and go along with it because what’s the problem? Those that are bothered, the angry traditionalists tweeting about ‘islamification’, are concerned because they sense, instinctively, the asymmetric influence of an intransigent minority and rightly fear for their own cultural norms.

But the populist reaction – hostility to Muslims and Islam – is misguided. Sharing memes on Twitter decrying the intolerant minority won’t lessen its influence and just makes the meme-sharers look nasty. If those complaining about Islamification are themselves secular, atheist or otherwise indifferent to serious, practising Christianity, they are helping to create the conditions for the Islamification they so detest.

It is no good saying the Muslims should be more tolerant. That’s not how religions work. No: the only force that can counter religious intransigence is religious intransigence. Anyone who is seriously concerned about Islam becoming the dominant religion in the United Kingdom should stop sharing Britain First memes and start going to church. And making sure their family does the same.

I can hear serious Christians protesting that running cultural interference is not a proper reason to attend church and indeed might itself qualify as worshiping graven idols. But is religious oractice not always as much about tribe and belonging and sociocultural norms as a mystical connection with the divine? Meanwhile atheists might protest that their problem is with religions as such, so embracing one imaginary sky fairy in order to see off another imaginary sky fairy is no solution at all. But newsflash, Mr Atheist: your rationalist medicine is weak. People die for religions: no-one would burn at the stake for Richard Dawkins. In the medium to long term, the prognosis does not look good for your freedom to be an atheist unless you pick a sky fairy with a reasonable track record of tolerating dissent. (Spoiler: that’s probably not Islam.)

As for the EDL meme sharers, if you can’t be arsed to educate yourself on your country’s religion, and get yourself out to church once a week, and take it seriously, then you are contributing to a dissolution of your culture that you are unjustly blaming on Muslims, and deserve to see its norms replaced by those of a religion whose adherents can.

Elsewhere I can hear Muslims protesting that this is nasty conspiracy-nutter #islamification clash of civilisations stuff and that I’m a bigot. Joining the chorus, I hear liberal secularists protesting that religion has been responsible for most of the wrongs in human civilisation and having moved mostly away from it in this country it’s barbarous to suggest resiling back into intolerance, especially if one is doing so out of intolerance towards a newer faith. But I am not a bigot. There isn’t a plot to Islamify the UK. There is just Islam, which is a confident faith whose adherents have plenty of intransigence about blasphemy, false gods et cetera, and it is influential because there is nothing substantial in its way. Secularism just doesn’t have the guns to stand against a strongly asserted faith.

In this country we have forgotten the power of faith to move mountains, and thus we do not yet take seriously the potential of a newly arrived faith to move – and replace – the entire post-Christian secular humanist edifice. The greatest error of our secular, pluralistic society has been to assume that the advantages of secular pluralism are both self-evident and historically inevitable (there’s a trace of religiosity right there: it’s all around, if you’re looking). But this is not at all self-evident to me. It seems far more likely to me, considering other civilisations that have gone before, that it is an anomaly and will be succeeded by the advent of a new religious age. We should stop trying to convince ourselves that our much-vaunted secular pluralism is anything but a transitional state for the culture of these islands, and ask ourselves what religion we would like that to be.