COMPARE and contrast two pieces in The Times last week: Justin Welby on religious freedom, and a curious hit-job on Tim Farron for being an Evangelical.
The Archbishop’s piece I thought confused and confusing. He opened with a harrowing image of a destroyed Christian village: “The village, as we approached it, was the normal collection of straw-roofed huts and a school. It was only as I got out of the car that the destruction was evident. A few days earlier raiders had struck.
“I found one man sitting on a heap of ash like Job. The raiders had killed his wife and six children. He had hidden down a well for three days. On a nearby hill, a raider stood silhouetted with a rifle in his arms and watched us the whole time we were there. The cause of this brutal attack? The village was a Christian community.”
He goes on to explain that, in other parts of Africa, it is Christians doing the massacring, before switching back to narrative of persecuted Christians around the world, and then a plea not to curtail religious freedom in England.
But the supposed attacks on religious freedom in Britain are of an entirely different order from what goes on in parts of Africa or Asia. And as soon as you widen the topic of persecution out from Christians, who seem, reasonably enough, to be the people he really cares about, to religious people generally, you run into incoherence. The answer to massacres of the sort he describes is not greater religious freedom, but a restriction on the power of those forms of religion whose followers think themselves enjoined to massacre.
You could avoid all these tangles either by talking about human rights — but those are neuralgic, because the definition of humanity is contested between religious conservatives and liberals; or by talking about Britain as a Christian country with a duty to defend Christians around the world. But no government is going to do that, and it wouldn’t, in any case, help in South Sudan.
A SIMILAR confusion is evident in David Cameron’s speech on combating extremism, where a ringing declaration that “We believe in freedom of speech, freedom of the press” is followed by a promise to censor foreign television channels, with the remark: “We need to put out of action the key extremist influencers who are careful to operate just inside the law, but who clearly detest British society and everything we stand for . . . and stop them peddling their hatred.” This may be sensible, but it’s not free speech. You can’t get away from the problem of distinguishing between or within religions by taking refuge in platitudes about liberal values.
THE second Times piece was an extraordinary hatchet job on Tim Farron in the leader column: “The new Lib Dem leader is not in all respects a liberal. An evangelical Christian since his teenage years, he believes that every word written in the Bible is literal truth, that God has a precise plan for all of us, and that heaven and hell are physical entities to which all of us are consigned after death.”
Now, I cannot believe these charges. This is partly because it seems to me literally impossible to suppose that every word of the Bible is literal truth — if only because of the contradictions within it, quite apart from the difficulty of attaching literal meaning to a statement like “In the beginning was the Word”.
But even where there might be a literal meaning, as in the suggestion that heaven and hell are physically existent entities, I am reluctant to believe that Farron supposes this is what they are. That may just be my illiberal unwillingness to let others be as irrational as they want to be.
What The Times really means is that Farron is wrong about equal marriage and abortion. This, apparently, makes him an incredible leader of a party. Of course, they don’t mean literally incredible.
FROM San Francisco comes news of an exciting development in the religious world: tech support by witchcraft. The Revd Joey Talley, “a Wiccan witch in Marin County with more than four decades of experience and three master’s degrees”, told SF Weekly that she debugs office networks.
“‘Most people want me to protect their computers from viruses and hacks,’ she says, ‘so I’ll make charms for them. I like to use flora.’
“Jet, a black gemstone energy-blocker, is ideal for debugging office hardware, Talley says; bigger or more vulnerable computer networks often require ‘a rainbow of colors to divert excess energy’.”
This approach to computer security would explain quite a lot of recent stories about massive hacks of personal details. But the detail in the article that I wish, I really wish, I could find literally incredible is that there is a man in San Francisco who describes himself as “the father of evolutionary astrology”. Don’t anyone tell Richard Dawkins.