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Press: Extinction Rebellion’s ‘gospel of abstinence’

11 October 2019


Protesters block Victoria Street in front of Westminster Abbey on Monday

Protesters block Victoria Street in front of Westminster Abbey on Monday

ONE of the marvellous things about Extinction Rebellion is that it is not in the least bit ageist: a mode of protest that involves sitting down and, if necessary, gluing yourself to the spot is admirably suited to both teenagers and older people, neither of whom are much attracted by having to march up and down to make their point. “Direct Inaction” is truly a slogan for our times.

There’s an argument that it is the most influential new religious movement of our time. Those are certainly the terms on which it is attacked from the Right: a commentator in the Telegraph, Madeleine Grant, wrote that “XR is a fanatical group preaching imminent global destruction. . . Its members share a moral certainty — bordering on arrogance — that justifies their extreme behaviour.

“Their gospel is one of abstinence — at least for the little people. Like the 17th century Puritans who believed the state should enforce moral standards by closing down theatres and cutting down maypoles, the XR ‘Roundheads’ tried to ‘occupy’ Heathrow to stop people reaching their holiday destinations.”

The analogy with puritans keeps coming up, but it is not nearly as clear-cut as opponents might hope. Although the folk memory of puritanism dates from Cromwell’s protectorship, they reached power only after 70 years of growth into a popular movement. The Civil War was not a coup. Nor were the puritans corrupt. They gained their moral ascendancy partly by living as they preached.

That is one reason that the charge of hypocrisy is always wielded against rich supporters of the Green movement. The other reason is that it’s half true, in that the rich will suffer least from the climate emergency, whether or not it is handled in a sane fashion. It is curious, though, that the obverse of that message — that the poor will suffer the most — has no cut-through on the Right. Envy is, perhaps, more powerful than empathy.

THE British papers have, so far as I can see, ignored the other religious component of the green narrative: the Roman Catholic synod on the Amazon. Even in the press in the United States, it is treated as being more about sex (will married men be ordained?) than about poverty or the environment. Reuters, however, picked up an eerie and creepy reminder of the religious stakes: in Rome, an effigy of Greta Thunberg has been found hanging from one of the bridges over the Tiber with a placard round her neck reading “Greta is your God.”

THIS week’s sport-and-religion story comes from The Guardian sports pages, which ran an as-told-to piece by a football fan who had been converted to Islam by the example of Mohamed Salah, a Liverpool player of whom the fans sing “Mo Salah, he’s a gift from Allah.” It was a straightforward piece of proselytising propaganda, but one that caught, I think, the real dynamics that lead some people towards conversion: “The Liverpool fans’ song — to the tune of Dodgy’s hit Good Enough — includes the line ‘If he scores another few then I’ll be Muslim too’, and I literally took that to heart.

“I was a typical white-boy student who went to a different city, would get absolutely hammered and lived the student life.

“I don’t think my mates quite believe that I’m a Muslim because I’ve not really changed. I just think my heart is better. I’m really trying to change on match days. Normally it’s pub, put a bet on, then after the game back to the pub and realise you’ve lost a lot of money. It’s hard when you’re used to such a culture and it’s part of football for a lot of people.”

Leave aside the picture that this paints of university education. The dynamics of the conversion, by appealing to young men through a combination of sporting excellence and peer pressure — he spent a lot of time, he said, talking to Saudi students and finding them to be really nice people — is so exactly what the Victorian Church used. Manchester United was itself founded as a church youth club. But it is hard to imagine a newspaper running such a story about someone who had converted to Evangelical Christianity as a result of some ostentatiously Christian goalscorer.

Compare and contrast the Telegraph’s story on the C of E’s evangelistic efforts: “For the past year, the Church of England has secretly been running workshops in which millennials are training thousands of vicars around the UK how to use social media.

“Last month The Telegraph was granted exclusive access to one of the workshops to sit alongside the ‘students’ as they received a crash course in how to reconcile Christ and social media.”

“Granted exclusive access” is a nice phrase in the context, as is “secretly”. I can scarcely imagine the competition for the closely guarded story. More to the point, the whole treatment is one in which conversion is something done to outsiders, not something that comes from within. I don’t think that really is the approach of these courses, but, to the extent that it is, they are doomed to fail. It’s no use super-gluing people to the pews — they have to do it to themselves.

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