religion


Tomorrow the Radio Times will publish an interview with presenters of the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme in which they dismiss as “boring” the Thought for the Day contributions that are introduced around 7.45am each morning. The Telegraph has a piece, but it has already been leaked on Twitter and in the Guardian.

What is disturbing about the reported comments by the presenters is the staggering ignorance of what the slot is about. Set aside the arrogance that dismisses religious perspectives as irrelevant – rooted in assumptions that a five year old could drive an intellectual coach and horses through – and we are still left with questions.

I declare an interest. I do Thought for the Day from time to time. The script had to be written the day before and should be topical – which in today’s fast-moving media world is challenging. The script had to be complied before it can be delivered the following morning. Sometimes it had to be amended at the last minute; sometimes a script had to be scrapped and a new one written quickly because of ‘events’.

Thought for the Day is not about privileging religious nutcases in order to appease an irrelevant subculture in the face of a BBC public service remit. It is also not about presenting religious views or views about religion. It is all about looking at the world through a religious lens, opening up perspectives that subvert the unconscious (or conscious) prejudices about why the world is the way it is – shining a different light on world events that the unargued for and unarticulated secular humanist assumptions undergirding the rest of the programme miss.

Underlying the protests against Thought for the Day (so hackneyed they are in themselves boring to anyone with a brain) is what I call the ‘myth of neutrality’. I am embarrassed to have to say it again. This myth, so effortlessly held by so many, is that there is a neutral space held by secular humanists, leaving those who have a religious world view somewhere up the loony scale. According to this assumption, a religious world view is so odd that it is potentially dangerous and has no place in the public square it should be imprisoned in the sphere of the ‘private’.

But, why is the secular humanist world view to be privileged as ‘neutral’? It isn’t.

Thought for the Day is a bold resistance to this nonsense. If we are no good at it, fire us, ruthlessly. But, then get in people who can do a better job at revealing the world and its events through the lens of a religious world view that challenges the easy and lazy assumptions of those who think their lens is either self-evidently true or neutral.

Over 85% of the world’s population hold an individual or social/communal religious commitment. In order to understand the world, we need to look through their eyes. This isn’t about proselytism, it is about something far more important: understanding and mutual coexistence.

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I am in Erfurt, Germany, to preach at the Reformation Day service in the Augustinerkirche where Martin Luther studied at the university and became a monk. Having arrived on Friday, we have had a packed programme, including a brilliant (though largely incomprehensible) concert in the Michaeliskirche last night – great guitar playing, especially), meetings with groups of people, a visit to a 'pilgrim church' at Schmira, a day in Weimar, and a visit to the former Stasi prison in the Andreasstraße in Erfurt today.

Yesterday was my first visit to Weimar. This is the place where in 1919 the constitution was drawn up that gave its name to the republic that was created in the humiliating aftermath of defeat in World War One. Yet it is also the place where Goethe, Schiller, Herder and Nietzsche spent their finest and most productive years. Here the culture of what became known as the Enlightenment flourished.

(An aside: one of the best stories we heard was of the pastor of the church in the centre where we attended the morning service. In the sacristy there is a portrait of him. His name was Wessel and he came from an upper-class line of distinguished clergy and military officers. When during the War the poor of Weimar couldn't afford a Christmas tree or presents for their children, he put a “tree for everyone” on the steps of the church and got gifts for the children of the town. He supported Hitler at the beginning, but gradually saw where it was all heading. He resisted and eventually was sent to Buchenwald. He survived only because Hitler pardoned him, leaving him to return to Weimar a da totally broken man. Why did Hitler pardon him? Because he was related to Horst Wessel, whose song – the Horst Wessel Lied – became almost the national anthem of the Nazis. Resistance was brutal and costly.)

The Enlightenment flourished partly as a reaction to the horrendous bloodshed in conflicts that were rooted in the sorts of religious and political power games that emanated from the Reformation. Never again should religion be allowed space in the political sphere: reason and rationality should thenceforth define genuine humanity and humanism. It is not hard to follow the logic and the sentiment. Speaking of Martin Luther today in the Augustinerkirche, there also had to be an acknowledgement of the less-than-gracious elements of his character, to say nothing of his appalling antisemitism. (Like his bowel problems, it got worse as he got older.)

Yet, getting rid of religion in favour of faith in rationalism did not quite go according to plan, did it.

The train from Erfurt to Weimar takes you past Buchenwald. Just around the corner from the famous statue of Goethe and Schiller in front of the theatre in Weimar is the hotel where Adolf Hitler was greeted by the idolatrous crowds that claimed the poets and Herder as their intellectual and cultural heritage.

My point is simple. The problem of the human bias to destructiveness is evidenced in religious conflict and the lust for power at any level. It is not cured by rationalism. How is that the culture, philosophy and idealism of Goethe, Schiller, Herder, etc. was so easily corrupted within a century or less by a populace drawn to populism, fascism and mass slaughter?

If the bloodbaths of religious wars in Europe led to a better way, then that better way also led to Buchenwald and the Stasi. Now listen to the rhetoric of the far right wing groups springing up in Germany and across Europe, blending the language of dehumanising hate under the guise of “cultural realism”.

 

Before coming to Iraq I was asked to write a piece for the Radio Times. Picking up on the Kate Bottley programme on Good Friday, I thought I would start from there. However, the article was essentially about avoiding the pigeon-holing of religious broadcasting. Here is the text, but buy the Radio Times anyway – the biggest-selling magazine in the UK.

So, it's Easter again. And there's a programme about Judas on the telly.

When Bob Dylan decided to go electric some of his fans thought he had sold out. The infamous sound of a bloke in the audience shouting “Judas” said it all – one name pregnant with a hundred accusations.

I feel a bit sorry for Judas. He is not just another one of those characters in the well-known story of the crucifixion of Jesus; rather, he has gone down in history as the ultimate traitor, the cheap and nasty greed-merchant who sells his friend and his soul for a few quid. I wonder what his mother thought.

Well, it's a bit more complicated than that. Judas had invested himself in the revolutionary leadership of Jesus of Nazareth … only to find himself let down. Trying to force the hand of the messiah didn't work, and, instead of provoking the ultimate uprising against Roman rule, the glorious leader simply let himself get nailed without resistance. No wonder Judas got upset.

I guess it's up to the observer to decide what was really going on with Judas – whether he is a traitor or a scapegoat. Whatever conclusion you draw, he's has had a lousy press. Just call someone by his name…

It's actually all about betrayal. And faith. And disappointment. And hope and meaning and living and dying. All the stuff of life as we all know it, in every age and every culture.

It shouldn't be surprising, then, that the case for or against Judas should be re-opened on Good Friday. After all, what better opportunity can there be for taking a fresh look at a religious story than hanging it on an Easter peg?

That's fine in itself. But, it begs the question why such programming shouldn't be scheduled at other times of the year. Why lock 'faith' stuff into the predictable slots when 'people who like that sort of thing' can be indulged for an hour or so? If sport and politics, economics and science can be exposed to the searching eye of the camera and the probing ear of the microphone throughout the year, shouldn't 'religion' get the same treatment – and not get pigeon-holed at the predictable times of the calendar?

Well, I celebrate those broadcasters that spot the creative opportunities to tell the stories and ask the hard questions. Faith provides a lens through which the stuff of human living and dying, leaving and losing, laughing and weeping, searching and finding can be explored. Faith isn't a box whose lid can be lifted from time to time in order to keep one section of the audience happy. Faith is about the raw stuff of life – and the questions about what it all means. Not just at Christmas and Easter, but all year round.

And this is why the Sandford St Martin Trust joins with the Radio Times to celebrate and reward excellent religious broadcasting. That's not broadcasting about religion for religious people; rather, it is telling those – often surprising – stories about people whose lives and interests and failings and celebrations shine a light on those questions that face us all as human beings. They offer a sort of vocabulary for thinking and asking and wondering.

No shoving stuff down people's throat. But, capturing the imagination and offering images and narratives that keep scratching away at our mind and memory, possibly opening us up to new, and sometimes surprising, ways of thinking and seeing.

Whether it's Gogglebox or Grantchester, Call the Midwife or Rev, a documentary or drama, there are some great programmes to celebrate.

Cast your vote.

 

This is the script of this morning's Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2's Chris Evans Show with guests: Len Goodman, Danny Boyle, Idris Elba, Kirstie Allsopp and James Bay.

Did you know that today is the 43rd anniversary of the last time we landed a man on the moon? Yes, 11 December 1972 was the day and Apollo 17 was the mission.

I only note this because I was thinking about Steve Jobs and wondering what it is that makes the difference between people who trundle on through life consuming what other people create … and those who keep breaking the boundaries and creating new things.

Or, to put it differently, what's the difference between people who look at the moon and think it looks lovely … and those who look at it and wonder how to get there?

If I'm honest, I think the same when I watch Strictly and think about dancing with two left feet. Or when I admire a ruin that used to be a lovely home and then see someone imagine a new future for it. It's something about the way we see.

Now, I know that someone like Steve Jobs was fired by a driven curiosity. Problems were there to be solved and technology was there to be stretched. He once said: “What a computer is to me is the most remarkable tool that we have ever come up with. It's the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.” Well, some would say it has become a sports car for our minds, given the speed of development.

I respect people who see differently. Or – and this might surprise you – who repent. The word for repentance in the New Testament literally means 'changing your mind' – or, in this context, seeing the potential others are blind to. Like feeling you're trapped and have no future, but daring to believe that this is not the end – that there is hope of what one writer called “newness after loss”.

When we get there this is what Christmas will be about. Down to the wire in a mucky world, but still looking to change it. On the ground, but looking up at the stars. Down to earth, but not bound by earth.

It's a while since we walked on the moon – something my kids read about in history books. But, I hope we can never forget that that was simply one small step for humanity. There might yet be greater leaps ahead.

 

I am about to leave New York City having attended the second meeting of the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief. The acronym IPPFoRB might need a bit of attention…

Convened last year by a small group of parliamentarians from the UK (Baroness Elizabeth Berridge), Norway, Brazil, Germany and Canada, this event brought together a hundred parliamentarians from fifty countries and from every continent – including from Myanmar, Iran, Pakistan and Iraq. The Church of England was involved in planning and running the event.

Not only was there informed and passionate discussion of the challenges in many parts of the world – including the naming and numbering of the persecution of Christians – but there was also the telling of stories from particular countries. This was a remarkable meeting, in the shadow of the United Nations and ahead of the meeting shortly of the General Assembly, of politicians (largely) who recognise the challenges across the globe.

Underlying the discourse lies two tough questions that go to the heart of a world that privileges rights: who, and according to which criteria, arbitrates between competing rights? Who, and according to which criteria, establishes the hierarchies of rights and freedoms? So, which takes precedence when freedom of expression collides with freedom of religion or belief? For some people this is an interesting – if challenging – conundrum; for others, it is a daily matter of life and death. There is a lot of work to do on this, and this coalition of parliamentarians from around the globe has engagaed with it with some energy.

There is too much to report here, but reports and the text of the Resolution will be posted on the website in due course. I tweeted through the main session yesterday, so have a look at my timeline to get a taste.

 

This article was published today in the Yorkshire Post.

I remember 7 July 2005 very clearly.

I was in my office in Croydon when a friend phoned to say she couldn't meet me in London later because “London is closed”. She said the train from Leicester had been stopped at Peterborough and turned around. Passengers had been told that a power surge had shut the rail network.

It wasn't long before the shocking news began to drip through that in fact there had been four suicide bombings and the casualty numbers were going to be high. Within an hour all the buildings around the station had been evacuated and the station cordoned off. Fear of further attacks was palpable.

The next morning I was due to be at meetings in central London. There was a lot of questioning about whether it was safe to use public transport or venture into town at all. I was clear that (a) you can't let terrorists win by giving them what they want, and (b) life must carry on. So, I went.

Two weeks later there was a second attempted attack, but it failed. On a visit to Belmarsh Prison later that year I met the alleged terrorists and had a conversation with them about scriptures.

As we discovered very quickly, the bombers came from West Yorkshire; and questions began to be raised about what it was about this part of the world that made young people capable and willing to commit such atrocities. Of course, the religious motivation behind these murderous actions soon became the focus of media speculation and the satellite vans descended on Leeds and its environs.

The ten years since those appalling events have been both encouraging and discouraging.

Whatever the (often simplistic) public debates about radicalisation or ghettoisation in West Yorkshire, much significant positive work has gone on under the media radar. Relationships between Christians, Muslims, Jews and others have been worked at on the ground in order that they are strong and supportive when the crises come. When Muslims feel scapegoated by wider society in the wake of some Islamist atrocity somewhere else, it is often those of other faiths who maintain the friendship and keep the communications open. Although some local authorities are locked into a narrow conceptual preoccupation with 'community cohesion', they often facilitate and encourage serious initiatives that bring people together and break down barriers.

There are numerous examples of mutual care and compassion in our communities as well as honest debate and discussion about the hard issues: why some young people reject 'normality' and have their head and heart turned by exclusive and violent ideology; how doctrinal teaching can breed in young people the seeds of hatred; how the isolation of ghettoised communities can be countered and schools become places of encounter with difference.

The last decade has taught us that communities finding themselves under media scrutiny naturally turn in on themselves in preemptive self-defence. Muslims fear being scapegoated for the sins of the fanatics, and they resent the ignorance of outside commentators who find basic distinctions such as “ethnic” and “religious” too difficult to comprehend.

Clearly, radicalisation has its roots not just in religion, but in poverty, ideology and politics. (The Arab Spring turned into a nightmare ignited by responses to the chaos left behind by western invasions and occupations.) However, what has been particularly interesting about the western response to radicalisation and the cases of individuals and entire families disappearing to join so-called Islamic State is its bewilderment. We are told that we need to educate our Muslim young people better so that they know how appalling are life conditions under IS – that they will be subject to a brutal religious ideology that might involve them in violence and suffering. Of course, many of those who have left the relative comfort of 'home' in the UK are extremely well educated and fully cognisant of what they are heading off to. Education is not the issue. Information is not lacking. What perhaps is lacking is inspiration to see life and death here as in any way valuable or attractive.

I don't say this lightly, and I certainly don't say it in defence of Islamic maniacs who are prepared to do unspeakable things to innocent men, women and children. But, if we are to begin to understand what attracts then drives (mainly) young men and women to leave behind a life of humdrum security for a (perhaps short) life of action, we must ask this question: how do we offer our disillusioned young people an alternative world view and lifestyle that captures the imagination, fires up vision and inspires self-sacrifice (in a non-mortal sense)?

In one sense, none of this is new. Young people are always – and always have been – susceptible to alternative inspirations. But, our question in 2015 has to do with how we inspire young people to see value beyond celebrity and consumerism in a world short on vision and long on entertainment.

We need to continue to work in schools and places of worship to enable integration in a multicultural and multifaith and multiethnic society. We also face an urgent need to offer real opportunities to elements of this society who – rightly or wrongly – feel disenfranchised, disempowered and disillusioned. But, education won't do this alone; we need to inspire. And that is a much harder task.

 

Questions of religious literacy in media and politics are being articulated more loudly by the day. It is a truism that is almost embarrassing to articulate, but you can’t understand the world (or art or literature or history or just about anything else that comes under the bracket of ‘human’) without understanding religion.

So, I was intrigued to read this excellent academic approach to the need for religious literacy of the highest order in the realm of diplomacy and foreign affairs.

More fuel to the fire, then.

(Just for the record: I got introduced into the House of Lords this morning.)

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