Popery, treason and plot in Glasgow North-East


Hullo Brian, hullo Sue. You know, in a very real sense, I’m still being periodically annoyed by this Thought for the Day debate. I refer of course to this campaign to get atheist speakers onto TftD, which Polly Pot and her co-thinkers have been boring Guardian readers to death with for months. It came back to me a week or so ago, when some bozo, presumably representing the Ulster Humanist Association or some such outfit, appeared on Talk Back to flog the hobbyhorse a little more.

What annoyed me most was that the discussion centred around the specious claim that only 0.2% of programming was secular/humanist. This seems to be based on the idea that humanists get minority coverage in what is already a very small amount of religious programming. One could point out that, since there’s very little religious programming as it is, most programming is actually secular and atheists are well catered for by all the programming that isn’t religious. But I somehow doubt that would fly with the professional atheists.

As a matter of fact, what religious programming there is is little short of insulting. On the BBC, much of it is made up of Nicky Campbell’s Big Questions, which is really a Kilroy clone. The Beeb can count this towards their religious quota by having an occasional discussion about abortion, and putting a trendy vicar and Cristina Odone on the panel. Much as I like Cristina Odone, this really will not wash. But, for what it’s worth, The Big Questions is on for an hour on Sunday mornings. On weekdays, its role as forum for the discussion of ethical issues is taken up by The Wright Stuff, where you’re more likely to have Peter Andre giving his thoughts than Cristina Odone. I suggest that this is a secular discussion show, and is no less so for the fact that it doesn’t have Professor Dawkins bashing religion five days a week.

Anyway, this leads me back to the question of what secularism actually means. I’ve never been terribly impressed with the French concept of laïcitéCoatesy is your man for that – rather preferring the minimal definition of separation of church and state in the American First Amendment. On the other hand, there’s also been some good work done on this by thinkers in India, where religious strife is still a live issue. Regardless, I think there are cultural issues that are specific to, not England exactly, but certain northern European countries, that don’t translate very well elsewhere.

Allow me to explain. A basic working definition of secularism might be that no particular religious belief is privileged in the public sphere. A concomitant of that might be that neither is unbelief privileged in the public sphere. To say that the public sphere does not privilege religion is not to say that we therefore have an atheist public sphere. I believe Norman Geras would agree with me on that, when he isn’t preoccupied with trying to reconcile his universalist ethics with special pleading for Israel. But yes, minimally speaking, we’re talking about the absence of compulsion. That’s why it’s important that witnesses in court can affirm rather than swear, that parents can excuse their kids from religious assemblies in school and so on.

It’s a departure from that minimalist definition to set out to render religion an entirely personal matter, something for the home and the place of worship, that has absolutely no place in the public sphere. This, I think, is a cultural thing, and it’s perhaps best illustrated by the way the Brits deal with the sexual morality of public figures. It might be good for some curtain-twitching titillation in the News of the World, but there’s also a very strong sentiment that people shouldn’t be judged on their personal conduct. That’s not something that works very well in an Irish context, where (outside of our most Anglicised metrosexual milieux) it would be assumed that we would have a right to know if our TD was shagging all around him, and we would have a right to pass judgement.

It’s a bit like the different concepts of guilt, and how Catholic guilt differs from Calvinist guilt. Catholicism sets extremely high standards of personal conduct, but it also recognises that, as human beings, we will often fall short of these standards, hence the institutions of confession and penance. Calvinism sets impossibly high standards but, lacking the Catholic institutions for handling sin, the only recourse of the sinning Calvinist is to lie his head off – that’s why so many Presbyterians are shocking liars, compared to Catholics who just prefer to be economical with the actualité. On the other hand, liberal Protestantism deals with this problem by lowering the standard and declaring that passing judgement on sin isn’t really the business of the Church. That’s probably why, in certain trendy parts of Dublin, Church of Ireland membership is booming amongst ex-Catholics, who want a nice non-judgemental atmosphere to raise their kids in, and have concluded that you could do a lot worse that the good old C of I, half of whose members don’t even believe in God.

So it’s my view that the concept of strictly privatised religion, like its close cousin privatised morality, is something that you really only get within the cultural realm of liberal Protestantism – there really isn’t a Catholic or Calvinist analogue, let alone a Muslim or Jewish one. Indeed, one might say that modern British humanism really is liberal Protestantism without the theology. Nietzsche, who used to have a lot of fun twitting humanists as essentially Christians without Christ, would appreciate that.

If I’m coming across as being dismissive, that’s not entirely true. There’s something quite attractive about the idea of the privatisation of religion, especially when taken in the context of the usual British array of ad hoc compromises. If people want to live that way, that’s fine by me – what I have a problem with is when there’s any move to enforce privatisation.

Sometimes it’s just irritating, like when those nudniks in America take cases to the Supreme Court trying to get “In God We Trust” removed from banknotes, or when their British analogues write letters to the papers demanding that Songs of Praise be taken off the air – I don’t often watch Songs of Praise, but I don’t remotely have a problem with it being broadcast, even in its truncated and dumbed-down format. But sometimes we enter into serious political territory, as with campaigns to abolish the conscience clause that allows doctors to refuse to carry out abortions on moral grounds. I’m in favour of abortion being both legal and accessible, but abolishing the conscience clause and attempting to force doctors to perform abortions against their will would not increase accessibility. Its main effect would be to force out of practice those doctors whose opinions do not conform, but then I suspect that’s a large part of the motivation.

There’s been a recent irruption of this sort of illiberal liberalism in respect of the upcoming by-election in Glasgow North-East. You see, Scottish Nationalist candidate David Kerr is a devout Catholic. In itself that’s worth remarking on, given the SNP’s history of Orangeism and how it’s only really in the last few years that it’s managed to make inroads amongst Glasgow Catholics. But it gets better than that:

It was reported that Richard Baker, Labour’s justice minister, said that Mr Kerr’s membership of Opus Dei would cause voters to question him. Murdo Fraser, deputy leader of the Scottish Conservatives, was also quoted as saying that Mr Kerr’s affiliation with the group raised questions about whether it was appropriate to have a candidate who was a member of a “secretive” and “hardline” organisation.

However, spokesmen for the Labour and Conservatives parties told the Scottish Catholic Observer this week the politicians had been misquoted, their comments taken out of context, and that neither believed that membership of Opus Dei would bar a candidate from public office.

Quite so. I suspect the initial attack had come from political operatives who either thought The Da Vinci Code was a documentary, or who assumed there were lots of gullible punters who would do so. Opus Dei isn’t exactly my cup of tea, and it isn’t terribly popular even within the ranks of organised Catholicism, but it doesn’t have any esoteric beliefs, and Mr Kerr’s membership of Opus doesn’t prove anything except that he’s an observant Catholic. Labour by-election candidate Willie Bain, a practising Catholic himself, has said so, and Mr Bain will be keenly aware that this sort of sectarian dog-whistle politics may play well in Airdrie, but won’t do much good in the East End of Glasgow. To be honest, I would want to judge Mr Kerr on his membership of the SNP, and that party’s policies. He could belong to the Melchizedek Priesthood of the Mormon Church for all I care.

This, needless to say, is not the view of National Secular Society head honcho Terry Sanderson. Some of you may remember Terry from his previous incarnation as a homosexualist activist, who spent a lot of time drawing attention to homophobia in the media. (Parenthetically, there’s still a lot of homophobia in Private Eye. What a pity that the Eye staff doesn’t include any NSS members, or even honorary associates, who Terry could remonstrate with.) Yet, despite his sensitivity to stereotyping of his own community, mention Catholics in politics and Terry goes straight into the old Guy Fawkes rhetoric about sinister cabals seeking to dominate British life on the orders of Pope Benny, currently stroking a white cat in his secret bunker under the Vatican.

But then, this is Terry Sanderson, who quite seriously seems to believe that the late Enver Hoxha was a model of best practice in dealing with religion. What’s more interesting is that, in a somewhat milder form, you’re getting more and more of this in political discourse. It’s actually a little disconcerting to find the New Atheism rearing its head in the Labour Party. This is one of the less advertised cultural differences between New and Old Labour – Old Labour was largely informed by Methodist culture, with a certain admixture of Catholicism in Glasgow, Liverpool and Birmingham, plus a small but significant Jewish contingent, and well understood what most believing people want in a modern society, which is essentially to be respected for what they are and left to their own devices. The fudges and compromises that British public life erected around moral issues worked pretty well, as a rule.

Notwithstanding Mr Tony Blair’s ostentatious religiosity – and I still can’t understand why Pope Benny gave him house room – this is not very well understood by the denizens of New Labour. While I hate to shoot fish in a barrel – all right, that’s a lie – it’s hard to imagine Old Labour throwing up a character like London MEP Mary Honeyball. During last year’s debate on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology bill, Ms Nutball saw fit to go into print calling for Catholic MPs to be debarred from ministerial office if there was the possibility of a conflict between their consciences and Labour Party policy. This looks to me very much like a reversion to the situation before the Catholic Relief Act 1829, only justified by progressive humanist rhetoric rather than Anglican sectarianism. Incidentally, Ms Moonbat is an honorary associate of the National Secular Society.

One of the great achievements of the nineteenth-century democratic movement was the removal of religious tests for office, which not only discriminated in various means against Catholics, Jews and Presbyterians but also against atheists. I think it is an absolute principle that they not be reinstated under the guise of a secularism test, or any other hurdle designed to keep people out of the democratic process who don’t subscribe to various right-on moral shibbolethim. Deciding on serious moral and ethical issues is part of democracy, and if the electorate want to be represented by a member of Opus Dei, or the Seventh-Day Adventists, or the Satmarer Hasidim… that’s really the prerogative of the electorate. Armed with this insight, perhaps we might come to the understanding that living and letting live is much more central to a proper secular order than the strictures of some self-appointed atheist ayatollahs.

More on this from Red Maria.


  1. Thomas Byrne said,

    July 28, 2009 at 12:45 am

    The sad thing is, is that most of my peers -do- think The Da Vinci Code is a documentry.

  2. Tom Griffin said,

    July 28, 2009 at 2:55 am

    Indeed, one might say that modern British humanism really is liberal Protestantism without the theology.

    There’s a very interesting argument on these lines in Alastair Crooke’s new book on political Islam:

    One key theme that runs throughout Resistance is the power and longevity of emotion fuelled by myths and by deep-seated religious insights, which far from being mere ancient curiosities and relics, still condition the way people – including secular people – think today.

    Crooke, of course, was an MI6 officer in the North in the 1970s, which makes for an interesting (unmentioned) subtext to some of his thesis.

  3. hidflect said,

    July 28, 2009 at 6:03 am

    That’s Jeremy Clarkson! (the painting)…

  4. Ray said,

    July 28, 2009 at 7:52 am

    “that parents can excuse their kids from religious assemblies in school ”

    Not good enough, seriously.
    I’m lucky enough to have a choice of schools to send my kids to. A ‘normal’, church-run school, where all the kids in second class would spend a lot of school hours preparing for their First Communion, or an Educate Together school, where there’s an after school Communion class for those who want to go.
    Opting out from something singles kids out, in a way that opting in doesn’t.

  5. ejh said,

    July 28, 2009 at 7:58 am

    I reckon you’ve constructed quite a lot of straw men in this piece, something which is evidenced by the number of times you’ve had to use the term “seem” or its equivalents to create a motive which does not really exist. One obvious example would be then “I suspect that’s a large part of the motivation”, which avoids the rather obvious point that the reason for denying doctors the conscience clause on abortion is not to persecute Catholics but to ensure that women in overwhelmingly Catholic parts of the country do actually have the same access to abortion as other women. This was, I recall, a big issue for the Left in cities like Liverpool a generation ago, and I’m sure you recall it too.

    I’m sure you also know very well that not everybody who has a problem with Opus Dei has either read The Da Vinci Code or seen the movie. In the highly unlikely event that you do not, I’ll do as an example. I first came across Opus Dei as a young Catholic when my mother – a teacher at the Catholic school I attended – was commenting on one of her fellow teachers and mentioned that he was a member of that organisation, of which I had not previously heard. Her suspicion of it was not unlike that expressed by members of the Labour Party who – contemporaneously – had difficulty with people in the Militant, not because of what they read in the newspapers, but because they were a secretive and tight-knit organisation operating within an organisation but owing their loyalty to the smaller group.

    That is the problem with Opus Dei. It’s the same problem that exists with some orders of Masons, for instance: it’s necessarily a matter of concern if senior police officers, judges, ministers of state and so on join and swear loyalty to secretive organisations. Now this wouldn’t and shouldn’t – as the politicians you mentioned concede – be a bar to the right to stand for office or to represent constituents who saw fit to elect you, not least because the right of citizens to elect the representatives of their choice is paramount. But it might very well represent a bar to government office, because there are genuinely good reasons not to have people in positions of authority who are members of secretive organisations.

    You want to be a bit careful with this “seem” business: bear in mind how readily is used against, for instance, people who were opposed to the bombing of Yugoslavia and therefore “seemed” to be supportive of the late Slobodan Milosevic. Oh, that is a joke abour Cristina Odone, Isn’t it?

  6. July 28, 2009 at 8:28 am

    i’m not bothered by most of the religious programs on BBC or C4 (I either simply don’t watch them, sometimes there are also some good documentations) but I would ban the transmission of this kind of charismatic christian pop songs on “Songs of Praise”, a kind of crap music that you only are able to stand for more than a few seconds when you are convinced by their content

  7. John Palmer said,

    July 28, 2009 at 8:51 am

    What pisses me off if that although the Abramamic religions (Christianity/Judaism/Islam) are deployed non-stop on BBC programmes like Today, no one bothers to explain where the seriously radical idea of monotheism emerged from when it surfaced in Judea in around the 5th century “BC.” The historical evidence is that the so-called Judean/Israelite “exiles” who were liberated from captivity in Babylon by the Persian King Cyrus actually returned with a new Persian monotheistic religion as developed by its prophet Zarathustra centuries earlier (one God, heaven, hell, a “messiah”, angels, sin – the works). This was grafted onto earlier polytheistic Israelite/Judean myth stories. The clever trick of the Persian empire is that they allowed their subject peoples to keep the NAME of their No 1 gods (Jahwe in Palestine, Marduk in Babylon etc) as the only God. So instrumental were Persian religious ideas in historical Judaism that in Second Isaiah Cyrus is even described as a “messiah” chosen by Jehova/Jahwe although clearly a “non-Jew”. Maybe that is why Matthew when imagining the story of the birth of Jesus 400 years later has Persian Zoroastrian priests (still today called “Maji”) recognise him as the infant Messiah. As an atheist I say that if we must have a preacher on Today it should be a Zoroastrian one!

  8. July 28, 2009 at 10:40 am

    I think, the supremacy of the Jerusalem temple and Yahweh worship began before the Deutero-Isaiah (which is indeed influenced by Zoroastrianism and its dualism which is less influential in the abrahamitic religions) but during the Deuteronomic Reforms during the reign of Josiah, where a kind of Talibanesque campaign against all other religions in Judah was carried out … I like the ostraka from Quntilat ‘Ajrud referring to “YHVH of Samaria and His Asherah” but they were forcibly divorced during the reign of Josiah (~ 615 bce)

  9. skidmarx said,

    July 28, 2009 at 11:07 am

    In The Roots of Civilisation,Abdullah Ocalan puts forward an argument, summarised by Stan Newens,as ” Christianity and Islam both challenged slave society and provided the ideological counterpart to changes in the mode of production which led to the emergence of feudalism.”

    What seems to annoy me most about the post is the way it seems to assume that atheist attacks on the staus quo where propagators of superstition are allowed an easy ride in public discourse are as Red Maria calls them ,atheist bigots. I think it was on Big Questions a few weeks ago that one audience member said that faith-based schools contravened one useful educational principle: that education is doubt-based. When religious nutters are allowed to spread their self-serving fairy tales on the airwaves, it seems that it would seem only reasonable that someone without a pile of dogma rotting in their brain be allowed to present an alternative.

    When I read a history of Zoroastrianism a while back, it suggested that “Zarathustra” meant “he who talks to camels” or a couple of alternate phrases involving camels, and that “Spitama” meant “brilliant”,”aggressive” or “white”. Thus if you really want to insult a Parsee the way to go might be to suggest that the name of their prophet best translates as “Camel Fucker McSpunky”.

    I hardly think the suggestion that Labour ministers shouldn’t be allowed to put their allegiance to the Church before the needs of their constituents comparable to the ban on non-Anglicans in parliament. Perhaps a career producing (US)Republican talking points awaits you.

  10. John Palmer said,

    July 28, 2009 at 11:30 am

    You are right “entdinglichung” but under Josiah Yahwe was the only permitted god for Judaeans/Israelites to worship. That is a case of Monolotry not Monotheism. “Others” still had their own rival and sometimes hostile gods. Monotheism (the notion of one universal, all powerful god) only found expression with Second Isaiah – whose account of the “Messiah” Cyrus and the Persian imperial generosity in the rebuilding of Jerusalem and its temple is so striking. Two of the “Jewish” prophets sent back to accomplish these tasks and who reformulated and redacted the old Israelite and Judaean myths to reflect the new monotheism – Nehemiah and Ezra – may have been Persians themselves. When Nehemiah addressed the bewildered locals back in Palestine (those who had not been transported to Babylon) they could not understand his “tongue” and an interpretor seems to have been required to put these revolutionary new doctrines into a language which was understood (Aramaic or Hebrew). Perhaps that is why the prophets had such a struggle against the locals in their entire project of rebuilding and development of the new cult. The Persian Zoroastrians (the Greek rendering of Zarathustra) were dualist in that they admitted on an epochs long struggle for supremacy and final victory between the good God – Ahura Mazda – and the bad Angel – Ahriman. But this is duplicated in Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Shatan/Satan/Lucifer and poses the same conundrum to their monotheistic eschatology. Byt the way all the stuff about “the end of days” etc is straight out of Zoroastrian doctrine and pre-dates the Abrahamics by at least several hundrted years.

  11. Mark P said,

    July 28, 2009 at 11:40 am

    As long as the National Secular Society continues to irritate both Red Maria and our esteemed host at his least honest it serves a useful social function.

    I think by the way that my devoutly Roman Catholic father would be surprised to learn that his well-grounded hostility towards Opus Dei makes him an anti-Catholic bigot. As opposed to merely sensible.

  12. Ray said,

    July 28, 2009 at 12:41 pm

    It’s interesting that neither Honeyball, Sanderson, Baker, or Fraser said that there should be a legal ban on religious people taking office. In the case of the Opus Dei candidate, they all thought his membership of an extremely right-wing secret society should be taken into consideration by the electorate. Honeyball argued that MPs should not be appointed to Cabinet if their primary loyalty is to neither that government or constituents – not a legal bar, just a choice that should not be made. (I’m not arguing in support of this idea, just describing it accurately)

    Describing all this as a new religious test for office, or an attempt to remove the religious from public life… it’s just dishonest.

  13. splinteredsunrise said,

    July 28, 2009 at 6:21 pm

    Oh dear, oh dear. I knew this would stir things up.

    I’m all in favour of having Zoroastrians on Thought for the Day. And Baha’is too.

    In the general run of things, I’m probably about as fond of Opus Dei as Mark P is, but the uncomfortable fact is that Opus doesn’t hold any actual beliefs that aren’t well within mainstream Catholicism. We’re not talking about the bloody SSPX here, or whatever wingnut group Mel Gibson supports. If it can be shown that Kerr’s religious beliefs have some negative impact on his politics, fine. But I don’t think it is at all obvious that Kerr’s membership of Opus in itself renders him unfit to hold office. And I think that’s clearly the implication of what Sanderson is saying, especially as Sanderson has plenty of previous on this issue.

    The issue of tests is one that I’m perhaps a bit sensitive to, but remember that under the old Stormont Catholics weren’t unequal to Protestants in law – sectarian domination was carried out by informal means. In some ways, it would be an easier argument if someone did have the balls to argue for a formal “secularism test”. Honeyball’s argument, as I read it, is that Catholic Labour MPs should be obliged to jump through some sort of hoop in order to prove that their beliefs don’t impact on, er, their beliefs. And I suggest that she would be more careful in levelling charges of divided loyalties if she was talking about Jewish MPs.

    Now, if Mary Honeyball wanted to argue straightforwardly that participation in Labour Party politics should be conditional on passing some sort of NSS checklist, that would be another matter. But I don’t think she would get much support.

    What I find funniest in some ways, and this might be a generational thing, is that Terry Sanderson used to write a really good feature in Gay News analysing homophobic stereotypes in the media. Turns out he’s a dab hand at the stereotypes himself.

  14. July 28, 2009 at 8:00 pm

    O-o-oh! I like a man who uses “concomitant” in such seemly fashion. Yowza, come and specious all over me, big boy …

    Skidmark/Jizzxmarxter/Camel Fucker McSpunky (is that last double-barreled, btw?). Do I spot a theme here? A trope, some sort of synecdochal metonymy, if you will, as clever chaps might have it?

    Talking of eschatalogical, I had that Lord Boothby under my glass coffee table once.

    Where might I purchase a ticket for this Monolottery?

  15. Ray said,

    July 28, 2009 at 8:51 pm

    “But I don’t think it is at all obvious that Kerr’s membership of Opus in itself renders him unfit to hold office.”

    No, membership of a secret organisation that everyone agrees is at the extreme right-wing of Catholicism obviously shouldn’t disbar him from office. But there’s nothing wrong with telling the voters that he is a member, and letting them make up their minds, is it? It obviously isn’t a bar on being religious in general, since in the story you link to other candidates are also religious and nobody seems to care.

    “if Mary Honeyball wanted to argue straightforwardly that participation in Labour Party politics should be conditional on passing some sort of NSS checklist”

    But she didn’t. She argued that members of the cabinet should be expected to vote for government policy, and to vote in the interests of their constituents. That’s a very different thing. We could talk for days about the idea of collective cabinet responsibility and whether or not it’s a good thing to have ministers who disagree with government policy. But taking one side on that debate is not the same as wanting to roll back Catholic emancipation. It’s silly to pretend otherwise.

  16. splinteredsunrise said,

    July 28, 2009 at 9:38 pm

    As secret societies go, Opus isn’t doing a very good job of hiding its light under a bushel. It’s about as secretive as the Orange Order. Besides, anyone with more than a glancing acquaintance of Glasgow politics can recognise dog-whistle sectarianism.

    Now we come to the question of government policy. Sensible politicians have long understood that you need to allow latitude on what you would broadly describe as moral issues. To take it from another angle, Iain Duncan Smith (a Catholic politician) made a very big mistake in imposing a three-line whip in opposition to the repeal of Section 28. That’s why John Bercow had to resign from the shadow cabinet. Had he been sensible, he would have allowed a free vote, and I don’t believe anyone on the left would have had a problem with that.

    The immediate context of the Honeyball article is on the subject of the HFE bill and her view that ministers should have been compelled to support the bill or forfeit their positions. You might think that’s reasonable, as it’s the imposition of the whip on the progressive side. But you might also ask yourself why she feels compelled to bring in all this stuff about divided loyalties and how continental Europe languishes under the vice-like grip of Romanism. It’s the sort of rhetoric we used to hear from the DUP, although Paisley was much more entertaining about it.

  17. splinteredsunrise said,

    July 28, 2009 at 10:26 pm

    Readers may also be entertained by this gem.

    Justin has a decent point about certain orders of Masons, which almost tempts me to discourse on the Lambertistes and how their party leadership all belong to the same lodge. My problem with Opus is not their theology, which is well within the Catholic mainstream. It’s how they operate. If it can be shown that Opus has a disproportionate influence in some particular area – and that’s probably more frequent in Spain than in these islands – it’s a fair topic for discussion.

    But that’s not the same as Sanderson mentioning Kerr’s membership of Opus as something that, in itself, makes Kerr an unsuitable candidate for public office, with all this stuff about where Kerr’s loyalties really lie. And as I say, Sanderson has a track record here. It isn’t that long ago that he was criticising Mark Thompson’s appointment as head of the BBC on the grounds that Thompson is a Catholic. Frankly, I’m surprised he didn’t attack Vincent Nichols’ elevation as Archbishop of Westminster because Nichols is a well-known Catholic.

  18. Chris Williams said,

    July 28, 2009 at 11:01 pm

    You can take the boy out of the church…

    As a paid-up secular chaplain, I will respond to (some of) this when I sober up.

  19. Phil said,

    July 28, 2009 at 11:08 pm

    “the Roman Catholic Church and other extreme Christian organisations”

    I’m sure it’s fun to write stuff like that, but even for the NSS it’s not the most constructive approach, surely.

    I have some sympathy with Justin’s point about not confusing anti-Opus Dei attitudes with anti-Catholicism, but I felt there was an odd disconnect between the buildup and the punchline of Sanderson’s Opus Dei piece – “secretive, divided loyalties, tightly-knit group of religiously-motivated men… and do you realise they don’t approve of abortion!” I’m personally very iffy about members of Opus Dei holding government office, but not because its members tend to hold utterly basic, mainstream, bread-and-butter Catholic positions. I felt that Sanderson and Honeyball were setting up Opus Dei as a kind of anti-CofE – not only do they have illiberal beliefs, they actually believe them.

  20. splinteredsunrise said,

    July 28, 2009 at 11:29 pm

    Yes, and the dear old C of E barely even bothers fighting its own corner any more. In fact the strongest opponents of disestablishment are likely to be rabbis and imams, on the grounds that an established church (even one they disagree with) at least validates religion as having an honoured place in public life.

    All told, I’d be a lot less annoyed on this point if the NSS would just rename themselves the National Atheists Society. It would sort of clarify things.

    I’ll look forward to Chris coming back. This sort of knockabout is all good fun.

  21. Ken MacLeod said,

    July 29, 2009 at 7:27 am

    splintered: Justin has a decent point about certain orders of Masons, which almost tempts me to discourse on the Lambertistes and how their party leadership all belong to the same lodge.

    Please do give in to this temptation. I had thought the bit about the Lambertistes being Masons was one of Tariq Ali’s flights of fancy in Redemption.

  22. Ray said,

    July 29, 2009 at 7:56 am

    “As secret societies go, Opus isn’t doing a very good job of hiding its light under a bushel. It’s about as secretive as the Orange Order.”

    That’s not true. Everyone knows that Opus Dei exists, but they don’t go marching down the street, they are very secretive about their membership. The obvious comparison is with the Freemasons – would anyone be complaining if a parliamentary candidate was ‘outed’ as a mason?
    And I don’t see how you can argue that this is really just dog-whistle sectarianism when your link points out that another candidate was Catholic too, but nobody was making a big deal about _that_.

    Honeyball… the important point is that she was not proposing a religious test for office, or debarring Catholics from ministerial positions. That, first of all, must be established. You have this hobby-horse about militant atheists trying to purge religion from public life, but the examples you bring up come nowhere near demonstrating that this actually a problem. Even if Honeyball is a raving anti-Catholic who sees the dread hand of Benedict pulling the strings of every papist in the UK, she would hardly be representative of a major current in Mr Tony’s happy-clappy New Labour, would she? Even if she would like all MPs to spit on a crucifix before taking office, she’s not actually saying that, nor would she have any support if she did.

    (As for what she did say – Italy, Portugal and Ireland have anti-abortion positions, in large part because of political activism by the Church – true. Benedict attacked politicians for supporting gay rights – true. [and Catholic bishops in the US have threatened to withhold communion from politicians who were pro-choice, pro-gay rights] Buttiglione is a right-winger who should never have been nominated to a position that involves protecting freedom – also true.
    Is it anti-Catholic of Honeyball to bring all this up? No. Because Kelly made it all fair game herself, when she said she wouldn’t vote with her government because of her religion. Since that’s her argument, it’s legitimate to point out that this is not an isolated incident.)

  23. July 29, 2009 at 8:31 am

    why not simply forcing Opus Dei and Orange Order to merge, they will soon discover that they have many things in common?

  24. skidmarx said,

    July 29, 2009 at 12:27 pm

    Brigadier- it’s double-barrelled if you believe hard enough, otherwise thefairy’s gonna git it.

    I was a little surpised not to find the picture atop this post replaced with Roxanne Claxton shoving pages from the Bible down her bra and knickers.The events at the Glasgow modern art museum would seem to provide facts for both sides, those who would support the protestors outside saying “The Nazis defaced Bibles,the Nazis burned Bibles, this is just the same”, and rational people who would suggest that it seems like another example of Christians not being able to handle freedom of speech.

  25. Phil said,

    July 29, 2009 at 6:57 pm

    Artistic freedom innit. As one of the vox pops on the news last night said, artists should be free to follow their vision and use whatever book they like, even if it is the Bible. Thus skating neatly past the fact that there would be absolutely no point demonstratively defacing any book which wasn’t a sacred text, and that defacing a book that is a sacred text is bound to get somebody annoyed.

  26. Danny said,

    July 29, 2009 at 7:30 pm

    On the Opus Dei question, a number of working class Catholics in the west of scotland I know disprove of it because its a clique of well connected Catholics, out for themselves. Thats aside from taking religion far more seriously than even your regular church goers.

    I dont know what ‘dog whistle’ sectarianism is to be honest, but lets remind ourselves that Orangemen have been voting Labour in the west of scotland for half a century, even in my own Airdrie (and places worse besides).

    Whereas the Scottish Catholic Church has always positioned itself as an establisment (if not yet the established) church, launching the congregation into the middle class and beyond is the main goal of its school system, reviving Opus Dei for the upwardly mobile in recent years seems part of that too.

    Its progress that the SNP now prefers to court the Catholic Church rather than scapegoat the ‘Irish menace’ but if I had any choice I wouldnt vote for an Opus Dei member myself

  27. splinteredsunrise said,

    July 29, 2009 at 7:56 pm

    The question of influence comes in here, and it may well be a real one in some of the Labour rotten boroughs in the west of Scotland, or possibly Liverpool. Elsewhere… I think there are 43 Catholic Labour MPs, which is about a ninth of the parliamentary party. Quite a few of them aren’t very observant, and the number belonging to Opus is, I believe, in the low single figures. They aren’t exactly doing very well at infiltrating top positions. Like I say, I’m not a fan of Opus, but I’m about as worried about them as I am about Socialist Action.

    The fact that the argument around the HFE Act took the shape it did tells a story in itself. Not all Catholic MPs voted against, and IIRC the majority of critical votes on issues like abortion limits were from non-Catholic MPs. Some were evangelical Protestants, a few were Muslims, some were even atheists. Gerald Kaufman voted against, and he isn’t a Catholic as far as I know. Now, I don’t agree with the MPs who voted against, but I don’t have a problem with the idea that there were MPs who voted against, some of whom might be informed by their religious beliefs. It’s a basic function of democracy. I do have a problem when people start arguing, and there is an undercurrent here, along the “must not be allowed to influence” line. If you’re going to say that MPs can’t vote their conscience on a moral issue – and only the most degenerate utilitarian would say there was no moral aspect to the HFE Act – then you may as well say people who don’t agree with abortion shouldn’t be allowed to vote on abortion. Absolutism isn’t all that much more attractive when you agree with what it’s trying to do.

    Incidentally, can anyone explain to me how Lisa Jardine gets to be head of the HFE authority? Last I heard she was a literary critic. If you’re not going to have a scientist running things… at least Mary Warnock was a moral philosopher. Still, we can at least be thankful Trevor Phillips didn’t get that job.

  28. Brigada Flores Magon said,

    July 29, 2009 at 9:21 pm

    Danny’s point is well made. The thing about Opus Dei is that they represent an élite organisation within the Catholic Church. My own experience when I was a practising left footer, some years back, was that they actively recruited university graduates in relatively influential positions: I know because they tried to do it to me and others like me. On the one occasion I darkened their doors I found staggering opulence, a far cry from the cracked lino and rickety furniture of, say, the Carmelites. As to ‘infiltrating top positions’, just because they have few members among MPs, lobby fodder at best, doesn’t mean that they aren’t inflitrating other possibly more influential top positions……..

  29. Ray said,

    July 29, 2009 at 10:03 pm

    “I’m not a fan of Opus, but I’m about as worried about them as I am about Socialist Action”

    It’s not a question of being worried that Opus Dei are going to take over the world. It’s a question of being allowed to point out that someone is a member of a secret society without people jumping up and down accusing you of trying to purge Catholics from politics. If someone is a member of Opus Dei, or the Masons, or the Orange Order, that is relevant information.

    “If you’re going to say that MPs can’t vote their conscience on a moral issue”

    I’m not saying that, and Honeyball didn’t say that. She argued that _Ministers_ should be expected to vote with the government. Whether or not you agree with the idea of collective cabinet responsibility, it is quite distinct from MPs voting their conscience.
    (And when it comes to voting their conscience, you would hope that MPs are at least voting with what they believe to be ‘real’ party policy, or the interests of their constituents – but Labour party policy has been pro-choice for decades)

  30. splinteredsunrise said,

    July 29, 2009 at 11:35 pm

    The argument over party policy is a bit disingenuous. There were huge tracts of the HFE Act that weren’t in the Labour Party manifesto, and in any case Labour has never been a democratic centralist party in the Comintern sense. Much as some of its leaders might have wished that. And latitude has always been allowed on issues of personal morality, including on the part of ministers – say, on equalising the age of consent, where some ministers voted against. In Old Labour, this would never have been an issue.

    But if you look at la Honeyball’s pronouncements on this issue, I think it takes quite a perspective to say “Hmm, she’s making a valid point there about collective cabinet responsibility”, and ignore the stuff about the “vice-like grip” and Catholic “interference in the democratic process” that she surrounds it with. If you read a selection of her material, it’s hard not to conclude that she takes an anti-Catholic position verging on the paranoid. You might as well say that Nick Griffin is concerned about the lack of social housing.

    To return to Ken at #21, the Lams’ Masonic proclivities are well sourced. In fact they’ve been involved in recent years in a joint venture with an anarcho-syndicalist group whose leadership belong to the same lodge. It must be a French thing.

  31. Ray said,

    July 30, 2009 at 7:38 am

    As I said, the fact that Kelly said, “But I can’t vote for this – I’m a Catholic!” makes it legitimate to look around Europe to see where else this is happening. The fact that most Catholic MPs in the Labour Party, as far as I know, didn’t take the same line as Kelly means there’s no need to apply a ‘faith test’. But any government could consider applying a ‘will this person actually vote with us’ test when wondering who to promote.

  32. Phil said,

    July 30, 2009 at 7:47 am

    any government could consider applying a ‘will this person actually vote with us’ test

    They can and they do – the last Cabinet where any breadth of opinion was represented was chaired by Jim Callaghan. Why is that a good idea again?

  33. ejh said,

    July 30, 2009 at 7:50 am

    It’s a question of being allowed to point out that someone is a member of a secret society without people jumping up and down accusing you of trying to purge Catholics from politics.

    This is indeed the point.

    I appreciate that there can be dog-whistle politics, and invoking Opus Dei can serve as a proxy for anti-Catholicism (although let’s be honest it’s largely Catholics* who are concerned about it). But you have to ask why a secretive organisation specifically chooses to target and recruit potential high-flyers if it is not seeking to have some influence over them when they later attain high office. You have to ask, and you have to be able to ask.

    Incidentally, Torreciudad is not very far from me. I’ve not been, though I’ve been past quite a few times, but if you see their literature for tourists and other potential visitors, they’re really quite keen to mention Dan Brown. He’s been good to them.

    [* I include ex-Catholics in this category on the grounds that there ain’t no such thing…]

  34. Phil said,

    July 30, 2009 at 8:06 am

    at least Mary Warnock was a moral philosopher

    Lisa Jardine’s Deep Thought.

    My wife and I learned about Elizabethan literature & later about Shakespeare at Lisa Jardine’s knee, getting on for 30 years ago. What I remember – apart from the henna and the life-size Superman figure on the wall and so on – is that she had a talent for picking the flash gits (one of whom did get a First, to be fair). The best she ever called either of our work was ‘solid’ – solid and stolid, in one case.

  35. Cian O'Connor said,

    July 30, 2009 at 9:23 am

    Lisa Jardine is a pretty sharp thinker. I can think of worse chairmen, including most scientists (whose moral thinking, in my experience, tends to be pretty limited).

    Opus Dei are hardly that mainstream. Self-mortification is seen as pretty weird by all the Catholics of my acquaintance (which of course would include me, as Justin points out).

    I’ll have sympathy for christians in this country when they start campaigning for faith schools to be secularised. Until then the bastards are fair game. Living close to two church controlled schools (and boy are they ever) I am quite bitter about them, particularly as due to the government’s idiotic rules on school selection my kids will have to travel several miles to attend their primary school.

  36. Ray said,

    July 30, 2009 at 12:02 pm

    Phil, I’m not arguing in favour of enforcing a whip on cabinet. But I can understand that making everyone read from the same hymnsheet does not mean stopping people from kicking with the other foot.

  37. splinteredsunrise said,

    July 30, 2009 at 7:18 pm

    Never been to Torreciudad myself. My Basque friends have quite a lot of patriotic pride in the Jesuits, who also used to get a very bad press. And while the old SJ can be aggravating in their own way, I’ll take them over bloody Opus any day.

  38. ejh said,

    July 30, 2009 at 9:11 pm

    Oddly, just last night we were at dinner with some neighbours who inform us that the well-off Madrid/Barcelona family who weekend in a big house in our village – high-flyers all – are Opus Dei people. But of course that may or may not be true (which is part of the problem with secret societies).

  39. Ray said,

    August 1, 2009 at 7:25 am

    the problem is not religion being kicked out of public life, just the reverse

  40. August 3, 2009 at 8:00 am

    […] of religion are all over the left blogs at the moment, see Splintered Sunrise and Liam Mac Uaid, the discussion in both threads of comments is quite […]

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