Ep 09: Simon Barrow | Exploring religious freedom

Alastair Lichten: Hello and welcome to the National
Secular society podcast. I am Alastair Lichten, Head of Education at the NSS. Today’s
episode is part 9 in a 10 part series of interviews where I speak with
activists and experts about religious freedom and what it means to them.
What does religious freedom truly mean? While some religious lobbyists use the term to
demand privilege, this series will serve to highlight that true religious
freedom means freedom of belief for peoples of all religion and none. This is
leading up to our major conference Secularism 2019: If this conversation has whet
your appetite, then I hope you’ll join us at the Tower Hotel in London on the 18th
of May – details are at the end the show and in the show notes. Today I spoke with
Simon Barrow. Simon is director of Ekklesia – a
non-profit think tank focusing on the changing world of beliefs, values and
faith and non faith belief in public life. Simon has a background as a
commentator, journalist and lecturer and theologian as well as various NGO roles.
So without further ado let’s get the interview. Enjoy. Simon, welcome to the
National Secular society podcast. Simon Barrow: Thank you very much indeed. Delighted to be
with you. (AL) Happy to have you here. I thought perhaps you could start by
introducing yourself to the audience – just telling them who you are and what
you do. (SB) Okay. Well, I’m Simon Barrow as you’ve
already said, and I’m based in Edinburgh in Scotland and I’m the director of
Ekklesia which is a think-tank that looks at the relationship between
beliefs and ethics on the one hand and then politics, economics, environment and
so on on the other hand and we have quite a long track record of dealing
with these issues of religious freedom and the role of religion in public life
and I guess the orientation we have is is what you would describe as at the
dissenting end of Christianity, the progressive end of Christianity,
arguing against overbearing religious privilege and arguing very much in favor
of a conversational approach between people of different convictions and also
collaboration wherever possible. So I’m delighted that we have been on
the same side as the National Secular society on a number of issues and the
Humanists UK as well and so on and we’ve also drawn into conversation about these
big public issues people of all religious traditions and none, so that’s
very much part of my personal commitment as well and so I, as I say, I’m director
of Ekklesia. I’ve been working with Ekklesia since 2003 really and before
that I was actually assistant general secretary of churches together in
Britain and Ireland and have a background both in public affairs
journalism but also in working for the the churches. So these days, apart from
directing a think-tank, I do sort of commentary in journalism and bits of
teaching at university level as well – it’s what my wife describes as my way of
earning a lack of income. (AL) Very good. So what does religious freedom mean to
you personally? (SB) It means a lot to me personally though, forgive me, I’m a policy wonk – I’m immediately going to kind of want to redefine the term a
little bit – I tend to refer to freedom of religion or belief first of all to
stress that what I’m concerned about is not just people of my own beliefs and
convictions but people of all other beliefs and convictions who might find
their freedom of expression or their freedom of actions threatened by others
and so I regard my freedom of thought and action as interrelated to other
people’s freedom of thought and action and, and indeed I think I’m a little bit
nervous about talking of freedom of religion because we’re not talking about
the freedom to hold or dispute ideas, we’re talking about people. In a sense
it’s freedom of believers whether those are religious or non-religious believers
and it means a lot to me personally because for example I have friends –
Christians and humanists and others in the Middle East and other parts of the
world who’ve had direct experience of imprisonment and harassment, threats of
death and so on, so this is a very personal issue and
it’s something that we, you know, have to find ways of working together on across
our other differences in order to begin to create a world where actually we do
not need to threaten and harass and imprison and torture and kill those who
are different to ourselves. That’s absolutely fundamental. (AL) I guess one of
the things that brings up is if we look around the world, Christians are the
group, if we look at abuses of freedom of religion and belief, Christians are by and large the largest group suffering those. (SB) Yeah (AL) …. and I mean we
look at quite horrific stuff, you know, we see churches being bulldozed in China,
you see house churches being raised in Saudi Arabia and they’re often
some Christians in the UK, sort of talk about the persecution of Christians and
then they also lump in ‘…..and also this this Christian had to serve a gay person
in their shop in the UK. (SB) Yeah, absolutely. Well indeed and and let me say to start off with that
I think attempts to suggest that Christians are persecuted in the UK, is
simply an abuse of language – it’s extremely insulting to Christians and
other people who really are threatened and persecuted throughout the world, and
it’s an ideological attempt to advance a particular narrow form of religion by
using that kind of language. Now as a matter of fact, a couple of years ago
Ekklesia published a very interesting book called The Jesus Candidate:
Political religion in a Secular age by Paul Lusk, who comes from an evangelical
Christian background as well as having very wide experience in public affairs
and one of the things that Paul does in that book is to go into detail regarding
the kind of cases that some well-known Christian lobby groups in Britain had
been using to suggest that there is persecution and he dismantles those
really rather effectively from a legal point of view but also from a Christian
point of view because what this is really about is an attempt to institute
a kind of religious privilege and to use
the language of religious freedom in order to disguise that, and I think, you
know, I find that something that that’s insulting as I say to those who
genuinely are persecuted and something that we all need to expose and
combat and along with that of course more recently has become the attempt to
introduce the term Christophobia and so again that’s another attempt to turn into
ideology a particular viewpoint that’s trying to assert itself from a position
of dominance which is what it really seeks I think. I mean that also relates
to to the sort of changing place of of different forms of Christianity in
different forms of religion in society in Britain and more widely in the West
which we might go on and and have a look about, look at, as a sort of contributory
factor here. (AL) How much is Ekklesia’s focus or work divided between sort of those
international freedom of belief issues and more domestic concerns? (SB) Well,
freedom of belief is I suppose something that cuts across a number of other
issues. As a matter of fact, probably the majority of our work in recent years has
been on public policy issues to do with poverty, working with disabled people on
disability issues and all of that kind of stuff and in our earlier years we
worked quite heavily on those questions of religion in public life and we
perhaps done less of that more recently. So amongst other things, it’s
good to be brought back to that and to have this opportunity to have a
conversation with the NSS and its partners about that because I think it’s
very much coming back into the arena and something that we need some fresh ways
of tackling but the one thing that I would say about Ekklesia in terms of the
work that we’ve done over the years, is that a common thread has been a critique
of what we would call Christendom – indeed that’s a term that’s been used
throughout history – Kierkegaard for example distinguished between what he
saw as a sort of liberating Christianity on the one hand and the dead hand of
institutional religion that he labeled Christendom on the other hand. When we
use the term, what we mean by it is that period
which is really 1700 years, particularly in European history, where some of the
major churches have done a kind of deal with ‘Governing Authority’ and effectively
what they’ve done is to say look, we will give you our religious blessing on the
one hand if you give us particular positions of privilege and protection on
the other hand and that era for a number of years has been coming to an end. Now
Ekklesia’s perspective is that it’s good that that’s coming to an end because our
understanding of the core of the Christian message is about liberation
not about an imperial dominating kind of religion, indeed, we do need to remind
ourselves from time to time that Jesus was actually executed by a toxic
combination of the wrong kind of religion and the wrong kind of politics –
so that’s very important, but there’s a new possibility emerging out of that, that
what we’re seeing is really quite a strong backlash from ideologues against,
in a sense, the removal of privilege and prestige and that kind of Imperial
top-down church and top-down religion. So people are feeling threatened and one of
the responses of that is is those who are using a narrative of persecution
within the UK to describe what is in fact the loss of their ability to tell
other people within the churches and outside the churches what they should
do and to try and enforce that by law. (AL) So would you say then, would you diagnose
this problem as a bit of a Christian identity crisis, perhaps similar
to the crisis in masculinity caused by moves towards gender equality. (SB) Yeah.
I, I think that’s absolutely the case, that when you find movements of
change and of liberation within society there is an identity crisis and some
people feel threatened. I certainly don’t think the majority of people who
identify as active Christians in the UK actually buy into this persecution
narrative – I think its a very small number of people are trying to promote it but some
people are rather prey to it because they’re confused and baffled by the fact
that they they used to be able to count on,
you know, a certain kind of recognition, a certain kind of social status
coming out of their, their Christianity and that’s no longer the case, and what
we’re doing is saying actually you know that kind of privilege really didn’t
have anything to do with the core of what the Christian gospel is about, if
you look at it hard, and it’s something we need to move away from and actually
there are lots of new opportunities for finding bridges rather than walls
between ourselves and other people, finding common cause – also, you know, where
there are disagreements on the basis of religion or anything else, finding
different and better ways of disagreeing rather than trying to enforce your, your
views but I mean the kind of issues that are really important around this are for
example equality issues and Ekklesia has argued for long a long time that’s it’s
entirely wrong for example that the Church of England, if I might talk about
a church across the border from where I live, that the Church of England has
exemptions to equalities legislation, that it is a church established under
the crown – we think that’s wrong – as well, we think that it’s wrong that
there are in the second unelected chamber of Westminster people from, leaders from one religion of one country who actually take part in the
legislative process. Everyone who is in Parliament, however they get there – by
election or nomination should do so on the same basis. You know, if bishops want
to to to put themselves forward for, you know, a second chamber that’s absolutely
fine but it should be on the same basis as everybody else not because they’re
bishops of one Church of one religion of one country and so on, so those kind of
things we would challenge from a Christian point of view and enable,
hopefully enable, people to see that there’s a positive case for that change
and it actually opens up a new kind of path for a different kind of
Christianity in the 21st century, which interestingly enough will perhaps have a
little more in common with with some of the earliest strands in Christianity
before it became an imperial religion. (AL) Might an effort to make more Christians
aware of the tradition of, you know, secular, secularist thought within
Christianity and more aware of the experiences of,
because Christians in this country are becoming a minority religion, as we become
a majority non-religious country. (SB) Yes (AL) So perhaps, you know, more knowledge of
what it’s like to be a Christian community in a, say, a majority Muslim or
majority Hindu country. (SB) Yeah, well that’s a really interesting point actually
because of course Christians in other parts of the world
have long experience of being minority communities. I mean, Christians in the
Middle East, let’s remember that Christianity in in the Middle East is,
has a longer tradition than Islam for example – it’s the cradle of Christianity
and in most countries in the Middle East Christians are minority so they’ve had
to negotiate their position in society from a very different kind of
perspective and actually over the years that’s often been a very positive
experience. At the moment of course for many it’s an extremely negative
experience for reasons that I hope we’re going to go on and discuss in terms of
worldwide persecution of people on the basis of religion or belief, which, as you
said, does affect Christians particularly badly though, I don’t think we should be
trying to in a sense out-compete each other as different kinds of communities but I mean unless it’s important to recognize that.
So yes, that’s one thing – beginning to rethink your position, your place and
your opportunities – I think it’s about two things – I think it’s about looking
for the sources of pluralism and bridge-building within your own
community and tradition and I would want to say as a Christian that Christianity
is an internal argument – there are strands historically within Christianity,
within the life of the church, within the Christian scriptures and so on which are
monarchical and overbearing and somewhat authoritarian but there are also
strongly liberating traditions which are about freedom and autonomy and justice
for the poor and peacemaking and other kinds of things and that argument has
gone on throughout Christian history and it’s going on at the moment and I’m part
of that argument and I would want to advocate a Christian perspective which
is, wants to see a plural society, a level playing field,
the freedom of ourselves tied into the necessary freedom of other people who
are different to ourselves and so on. So there’s a kind of pragmatic argument for
secularism, there’s also I think an argument from within each of our
traditions for a secular polity which is about a level playing field and I mean,
last comment to make on that, in in his book that Jesus candidate Paul Lusk
makes the point that Christians within Europe have actually contributed to the
development of a secular polity in a positive way. Again, I would want to be
very careful and not sort of, you know, do the Imperial thing of claiming that
somehow secularism is the product of Christians and so we take credit for it
and so on and so on – it’s something that’s developed from a number of
different sources, as has humanism, but it does seem to me if we can recover a
sense of that, that there is a shared thing that we’re trying to do here which
is to create freedom and opportunity for all, then we can find a pragmatic way
forward as well as finding those resources deep within our own traditions
which argue in favor of that. (AL) Hmm. I mean I would sort of conceptualize it as
perhaps, something I’ve been thinking about recently, of secularism as like a language, if two
people are speaking different moral languages – one is speaking the moral
language of Christianity and one is the moral language of atheism and secularism
is sort of a language that’s neither of their native tongues but they can, they
both can share, but then would both be speaking it with their own accent. (SB) Yes, I
really like that. I think that’s important. I think we can all contribute
something to it. It is a common space, a common language and a common
opportunity that we are trying to create and I think that’s that’s really really
important. I mean, I would say also that that we need to recognize that
secularism as a way of thinking and as a path for action has taken different
forms and I’m, I’m at the kind of liberal plural end of it if you like. I mean, some
people have interpreted secularism as an attempt to exclude religion from public
life and I think that’s much less helpful and
much less healthy – I think the way in which secularism developed in France
is not so much to my taste for a number of reasons, though I understand why it’s
happened in the way that it has. I think we need a more plural path so on the
one hand what I would say is we need a separation of religion and state and
government and I would argue that we need that on in my case Christian
grounds as well as on secular grounds but you know there’s plenty of space for
people of different religious convictions and no religious conviction
in civil society in public life – they shouldn’t claim a privilege in the way
that they engage, they should seek to engage in a conversational way, to try
and persuade one another about public Goods and so I think that’s that’s
really quite possible, and I mean I noticed that when a lot of my atheist
and humanist friends you know object to religion being involved in politics what
they tend to mean by that I think quite rightly is is manipulative domineering
attempts by religious organizations to privilege themselves at the expense of
others. I don’t know that many atheists who complain about let’s say Desmond
Tutu and Martin Luther King and there’s a good reason for that which is that
they that their involvement in politics is very strong and their argument is
that their politics is resourced from the liberating strands in Christianity
but they’re not trying to privilege themselves, they’re trying to campaign
for human freedom, justice and peace for everybody and therefore they’re very
willing to work with other people and so on. That seems to me to model the
positive engagement of religion in public life as distinct from that
dominating attempt or the confusion of religion with state and government, so I,
you know, I I want a level playing field for us all – I want a space where we feel
we really can bring the depths of our own traditions and thinking to public
debate but in a way that opens up possibilities rather than contributes to
a narrative of domination. (AL) I’m often very confused by these opinion polls that we
see – you ask people a question of ‘do you think religion should influence
politics?’ and you tend to get sort of these vast majorities up in the eighties,
nineties percent that people saying no but I think that’s a product of the
question is is too narrow – as you say, someone who is influenced by
their faith to support equality, versus someone who’s influenced by their
faith to support discrimination – that, that’s the difference – it’s
not where the influence comes from. (SB) I, I think that’s absolutely right and, I
mean, when I’m asked that question well, you know, ‘do you think we should
separate religion and politics?’ I say two things really- I say well first of all
I’m not in favor of the wrong kind of religion being involved in promoting the
wrong kind of politics, by which I mean the kind of politics and the kind of
religion which denies human dignity, which denies human rights,
which takes civil liberties away from people etc. etc. – I want to argue against
that and I think we should, but where people are using their religious
tradition and their motivation to open up space and possibility for other
people, that’s a really quite different thing. So I think there are two kinds of
things that we’re talking about when we talk about religion and politics in
those terms but the other thing is, I mean, sometimes people will say and it’s
commonly said in a sort of liberal democratic society, ‘well, religion is a
purely private thing and it needs to be kept to the private sphere’ well first of
all, you know, I would have to say personally that, as a Christian, my
Christianity impels me to get involved with issues of peace and justice so I
don’t see it as a purely private thing – I see it as a matter of public engagement –
but the second thing is that when people gather together for religious or any
other purposes, they create institutions, they have buildings, they pay taxes, they
employ people – there’s no way in which it can be a
purely private enterprise – that’s just not possible – so the issue then becomes
what kind of public enterprise is it?, you know, how do we pay our taxes, how do
we treat ourselves and other people with equality and justice and so on and what
are the values that actually underpin that? and that’s what we need a
conversation about. (AL) Yes, I think that is a product – when people say that it’s
often a product of language not being very precise so, for
example, I meet for my role, work in education in NSS many many people who say
they don’t want any religious education in schools but then I’ve never met
anyone I have a conversation with that actually means that. What they mean is
there’s this idea of, or there’s this type of religious education I don’t want,
and I think that’s very similar many people would say I don’t want religion
involved in politics and if, and if you had, like, you know, a yes/no tick box, you
know, I think I’d probably tick the yes I agree with that statement tick box but
if I was given, you know, 140 characters to expand on that versus, and then a
five-minute conversation to expand on that, that position is, even though
you or I, you might tick the no, I might tick the yes,
actually in the longer conversation our position is much more aligned. (SB) Yeah, I
mean, well, being being a natural member of the awkward squad I would just across
the box out and write something else underneath it but, but I think it is
important that we really need to create better understanding in a better
conversation and since you come on to the matter of education again Ekklesia
was part of setting up the Accord Coalition which campaigns against
religious discrimination in education and wants to see the reform of schools
that are religious foundation schools away from excluding people on the basis
of religion or giving privilege to certain kinds of perspectives and so on
so again there’s a large measure of agreement between us as Christians and
humanists and atheists in that kind of area but as far as religious education
is concerned, again, I would want to talk about education about religion or belief
and values and life stances and so on to broaden it out and it seems to me
absolutely essential in the kind of world we have at the moment that kids
grow up learning about the different convictions that that people hold and
ways of handling all of that stuff but it’s not about propaganda or trying to
inculcate people into one way rather than another way, it’s about, you know,
learning how to be citizens, that amongst other things, deal with issues of
religion, belief, along with politics, economics, environment and so on so I
think when people want to say you know they want to keep religious teaching out
of schools what they mean is they want to keep propaganda and attempts to
indoctrinate people into one way out of schools and of course I entirely agree
with that. Not, incidentally, that I think anyone should be doing indoctrination
and propaganda but it is the role for example of Christian communities you
know to bring up people within those communities, to give them an
understanding of what that community stands for and of course then also to
give people the choice to to stay in that community or leave that community
– that seems to me to be really important but it’s the job of the church is to
teach Christianity. It isn’t the job of a public, publicly funded school to try and
make people Christians or indeed atheists or Muslims or Jews or Sikhs or
Hindus or anything else from that point of view, that the job of the public
school is to enable us to engage together and I think of course that
happens when you have the kind of schools which can be mixed, where people
meet not just in in textbooks or in propositions but they actually meet
people in the playground, down their Street etc and I think the problem with
faith schooling at the moment is that it’s actually dividing people on on
grounds of religion and I as a Christian think that’s wrong. (AL) Hmm. And I think that does go then back to the question of the crisis of identity
and the, I think fear among some religious groups that that
internal community Faith Formation aspect isn’t sustainable in the long run –
that, that if we don’t have the faith formation taking place in schools that
it’s not going to be able to take place and some Christians will then say well
what we need to do in response to this is we need to find a new way to engage
the public through perhaps increased charitable
work that sort of reaching out to people and some Christians would say well we
need to double down on, you know, the Faith Formation can’t take face in
churches, so take place in schools. (SB) Well, yes. I mean, my response to that would be
well first of all you know if as Christian communities you can’t even
have your own, you know, forms of education which show that that
Christianity is a viable belief, a viable way of life etc, that’s that’s a counsel
of complete despair and you should perhaps pack up and go home. Also, you
shouldn’t be expecting someone who isn’t Christian to somehow make Christians of
us but I do sometimes think that the sort of, within parts of the Church of
England as the established Church for example is this kind of idea that the
next generation will be produced by, you know, increasing our stake in public
schooling etc. Of course the actual evidence is that when you try and put
religion on to the curriculum as a way of inculcating people into a certain
form of belief, be it Christianity or anything else, what you usually do is you
inoculate people against it and indeed that’s what’s been happening I think
really. So, you know, the churches have to take responsibility for their own staff
and stop believing that someone else should do it for them really but that’s
part of the kind of Christendom mindset that, you know, we should be privileged, we
should be in control, other people should be serving our interests – that’s
disappearing and I think it’s spiritually healthy that it’s
disappearing and we’re likely to see I think the continuation of the decline of
institutional and formal religion but I believe that out of that there’s the
possibility of the recreation of a much more healthy form of Christian community
and and witness if you like and by the term witness I mean simply living out a
good example of what you’re about really not trying to propagandize other people
in in forced ways, so there’s a whole lot of stuff there which relates to what
you’ve called the identity crisis and I think that’s right but you know I think
now let’s also get back to this whole question of what we mean by
religious freedom or freedom of religion and belief and what are the threats to
it because this is something I think where Christians and atheists and other
people have a very common agenda in seeking to identify what’s going wrong
and how we challenge it. (AL) Give us your diagnosis and your prescription. (SB) Okay,
well I mean first of all what are the threats to freedom of religion and
belief, to the freedom of believers whether they’re religious or
non-religious believers as I prefer to put it throughout the world? Now I think
ironically of course one of the answers to that is that one of the biggest
threats to freedom of religion comes from religion. In other words, from
dominating and top-down forms of religion that really develop a narrative
of exclusion and domination and frankly hatred as well and that does happen
within pretty well all religious traditions – I think I might
exclude the Quakers from that for example – I think those of us who are both
religious or non-religious can learn an awful lot from the Quakers both
historically and from their practice but unfortunately that is a trend within a
lot of religion. The second thing I’d say is that the threat comes from people of
a totalitarian mindset who kind of believe that only they should really
have freedom and everyone else should do what they want and I’m afraid you find
these people, you know, you find them amongst religious communities, you find
them amongst political ideological non religious communities, political parties
and groups as well – so that’s the second kind of threat. The third threat at the
moment that I think is particularly prominent in different parts of the
world is the growth of the far-right and often the way in which the far-right
can co-opt religion, perhaps particularly Christianity, as we’re seeing in the
United States at the moment or we’re seeiing in the likes of someone like
Nigel Farage – says we should be a Christian nation which keeps immigrants
out etc etc – he has a very particular ideological picture of what Christianity
has and in terms of white evangelicals in the United States, many of them have
almost totally abandoned core aspects of the Christian message
and turned it into a hard right-wing ideology – it’s become evacuated really of
spiritual meaning. So it’s interesting. I’ve referred a couple
of times to Paul Lusk’s book The Jesus candidate that came from, I can’t
remember which of the religious right candidates in a previous American
election, first used that term the Jesus candidate but the whoever said it,
that their point was that every election needs a Jesus candidate and they went
then went on to say extraordinarily of course this, this Jesus candidate, this
Christian candidate, shouldn’t do any of the things that Jesus talked about –
shouldn’t love our enemies, shouldn’t forgive people, shouldn’t stand up for
the poor and so on – that’s all entirely unrealistic. What we must do essentially,
is put ourselves in control so what it’s done is to turn Christianity into an
ideology which says we are the representatives of God and we will rule
and dominate other, other people. Now I think that’s – I’m tempted to use the word
blasphemous – for certain reasons I don’t tend to use that word very much, which
we’ll come on to in a minute, I would say it’s it’s an obscenity really and
there’s a massive crisis of identity within Christianity in the United States
as a result but undoubtedly a certain kind of Christianity has been co-opted
for a certain kind of political agenda which seeks to, to go against equality
for all people, human rights, it’s even in favor of torture and other kinds of
things and from my point of view it’s something I as a Christian because this
is justified in terms of Christian language scripture and so on have a
particular responsibility to be engaged in combatting and certainly that is one
of the things that Ekklesia is seeking to do. So that kind of co-option of
religion – and then i think that the last kind of threat to freedom of religion
and belief comes from what I would call exceptionalism – the temptation of
all communities to say we above all people are treated badly and so you know
we will pursue our own interests without really paying attention to other people
and it seems to me that actually freedom of believers
whether religious or non-religious is indivisible – if we are not campaigning
for the other but only campaigning for ourselves, were not really campaigning
for freedom – we’re campaigning for privilege and so it’s extremely
important that we find ways of standing together across our other differences
for the indivisibility of freedom of thought and freedom of action in this
kind of context. (AL) One of the issues you raised there is a phenomenon which I
would refer to as either Christian nationalism or Christian supremacy and I
don’t want to get into this trap of, I think many religious people do, of when
someone’s manifestation of religion you don’t like you say well they’re not a
real Christian or they’re not a real Muslim or they’re not a real atheist but there does seem to be these
people, I think there’s a significant number of them even within the various
atheist communities, that view whether or not they’re personally religious, view privileging Christianity as central to a certain form of Western
civilization, and I think when people say Western civilization we know
what that’s code for, so, we see this among certain leading figures
within the English Defence League and within Britain First who don’t seem to
be personally religious or have even said stuff that suggests they don’t believe
in God but are very much invested in defending the idea of a Christian
country and Donald Trump, Donald Trump is is an atheist by
all accounts but is also certainly a Christian nationalist in turns of his
political thinking. (SB) Yeah, well, I mean, you know, I have no idea about what his
personal beliefs are apart from very clearly believing in Donald Trump and
his own interests but and really that’s not my concern – my concern is the way in
which he has quite openly courted what you rightly called Christian
nationalists. Now again, from my point of view I’d say that Christian nationalists
are a lot to do with nationalism and not much to do with Christianity but I I
think there’s something you said there is incredibly important – I’m not going to
sort of say oh these people aren’t real Christians so you know I can ignore them
etc – if they use a Christian language and source
themselves in that way, I as a Christian have some responsibility to engage with
that and I have some specialist experience in using and understanding
what that language is about and so I have a responsibility to try and combat
that. They will of course deny that I’m a Christian but I have no need to do that.
I’m interested in what their ideas are, how they’re using them and how they’re
harming people. So that’s one side of an equation but I’ve also been in the
situation which I think at least one member of the National Secular society,
I’m sure not necessarily representative in this, accused me once of being a cover
for such people – you know, the very fact that I’m a Christian, and I think I was
designated as a liberal Christian, means that I’m providing cover for all kinds
of terrible fundamentalists and so on which i think is also wrong – I mean
simply from the point of view that if you look at, I don’t know someone like
Franklin Graham in the United States, people like me are far worse than
atheists or all kinds of other people that he regards as terrible because he
knows… (AL) You’re an appostate (SB) …well that’s right and because he knows that when he
tries to use the Bible to justify all kinds of awful things,
I am amongst other things a theologian and understand principles of legitimate
and illegitimate interpretation and use of texts and will challenge all of that
and so there’s nothing more that totalitarians hate than people who have
the same kind of labels from them but actually can call them out for what they
are doing and again therefore for me it is extremely important to do that but
also to make common cause with atheists and humanists friends and Muslim friends
and Jews and Sikhs and Hindus and others who are trying to do the same things
within their own communities and across those kind of boundaries, those are the
the common bonds that we actually need to develop because amongst other things
that proves that one of the central narratives of Christian nationalism is
wrong and part of that narrative is that somehow you know people are different to
you or a threat and must be excluded. No, actually in our diversity lies our
strength, if we can find better ways of cooperating and better
ways of conversing together. (AL) Simon, it seems like every question sort of
opens up whole new avenues and things, things for us to talk about, you know.
Perhaps we just need to sit down with some coffees and tea and
biscuits and chat all these things through much more at our leisure but you’ve
been very generous with your time so I think we’re gonna draw it to a close
there. Simon, thank you very much for your time. Before you go we always like to ask
our guests are there any recommendations for books or films that you think do a
good job of exploring freedom of religion and belief? (SB) Yeah, well I’ll
mention a couple of books and I won’t mention ones that I’ve been involved in
myself – very self-effacingingly here… (AL) It’s not a strict rule (SB) …..but in this case I think
that there are a couple of others that – I’ve already mentioned The Jesus
Candidate: political religion in a secular age by Paul Lusk and that’s an
Ekklesia book, you can find it on Amazon and you can find it on a number of other
sites that don’t involve colluding with Amazon’s non-payment of taxes, as you
choose, another couple of books that I’d mention, I’d mention Faith and Politics
after Christendom which is by Jonathan Bartley. Jonathan, of course, doesn’t have
anything to do with Ekklesia anymore – he was the founder of it and we worked
together for a number of years – he’s now working as co-leader at the Green Party
of England of Wales, so that book was written a number of years ago back in
2006 but it’s a fabulous exploration of the sort of scene of Christianity in the
UK including the sort of right-wing radicalization that’s been happening in
some Christian circles and those issues of freedom and belief that come up as a
result of that, so I think that’s quite insightful – it also illustrates our
understanding of what Christendom means and why we need to be moving away from
that from a Christian point of view as well as from the point of view of a
secularist and then the last book I would mention
isn’t directly on this subject, but I have touched on Quakers in the midst of
all of this and my colleague Jill Segger who’s an associate director of Ekklesia
has just published a book called Words out of
Silence which is a collection of poetry and prose and in writing something about
this, I said I think it will appeal to people of both religious and
non-religious persuasion and begin to open up the kind of conversations which
enable us to think and act together much more collegially and show also how
someone from a particular spiritual path can, you know, have deep understanding in
connection with with people who are quite different to them as well and I
think that’s as important as the campaigning action for civil rights
against the erosion of equalities on religious or other grounds and so on
that we must be engaged in together. (AL) Okay well we’ll have links those in the
show notes and as well to our review or the Jesus candidate. (SB) Oh, excellent. Good. (AL) …. so thank
you very much and I hope we speak again soon. Well that was the penultimate
episode of this series, so thanks for joining us. Episode 10 – my interview with
Pragna Patel should be out next week and at that point I’ll have some closing
thoughts on the whole series. This won’t be the last podcast on the
National Secular Society – we have plans for future interviews, in-depth coverage
of specific issues and other news and commentary so please keep subscribed,
please keep sharing with your friends and leaving us 5-star reviews everywhere
you can. This will be my final or maybe penultimate chance to plug our major
upcoming conference Secularism 2019 – that’s on Saturday 18th of May at the Tower
Hotel in central London. When this episode comes out there’ll be about a
week left to book tickets but they are running out fast. Tickets are just fifty
pounds with fifty percent and 80 percent discounts available for NSS members and
students – so pretty incredible value. They include the full-day conference with our
internationally esteemed line-up of speakers, lunch, refreshments and our
Secularist of the Year awards drinks reception overlooking Tower Bridge.
You can visit secularism.org.uk/2019 for details on all our
speakers and to buy tickets. This podcast is made possible by the
National Secular society – a nonprofit organization which works for the
separation of religion and state and equal respect for everyone’s human
rights so that no one is either advantaged or disadvantaged on account of their
beliefs. Please make a stand for freedom, fairness and human rights by adding your
voice to the call for a secular democracy at secularism.org.uk . I’ve
been Alastair Lichten – Thank you again for joining us. Until next time, goodbye.

1 thought on “Ep 09: Simon Barrow | Exploring religious freedom

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *