Monday, 24 October 2016

Ashers verdict is a victory for authoritarianism, not equality

What should happen when religious freedom and LGBT rights clash?
The English writer Evelyn Beatrice Hall famously summarised the beliefs of the philosopher Voltaire in the phrase 'I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.' Hall's maxim has entered the lexicon of political philosophy, encapsulating the principle of free speech that has traditionally been at the heart of all Western democracies, yet in recent years this precept has been gradually eroded as political and judicial authorities have sought to curtail our freedoms in case they cause offence. This worrying trend reared its ugly head in Northern Ireland today, where a Belfast court ruled that a Christian-run bakery acted unlawfully by refusing to bake a cake featuring a slogan in support of same-sex marriage.

Two decades after the end of the Troubles and Northern Ireland remains the most socially conservative part of the country, a place where fire-breathing Protestants and orthodox Roman Catholics are willing to temporarily put aside generations of acrimony and division in order to form a united front against any hint of progressivism. It is therefore unsurprising that prejudice against the LGBT community remains so strong there, and Christians of every stripe must bear some of the blame for propagating such bigotry.

As a Christian myself, I believe the Church needs to urgently address its approach to the LGBT community if it is to remain relevant and fit for purpose in the 21st Century. Opposition to same-sex marriage isn't just hateful and narrow-minded, but it is also theologically unsound, relying as it does on plucking a small number of biblical texts out of the context in which they were written and manipulating their original meanings. In recent centuries the Church has publicly apologised for its past crimes, from ingrained anti-Semitism and the endorsement of slavery to the persecution of scientists who questioned the fundamentals of Christian orthodoxy, and the test for the 21st Century Church will be whether it can similarly repent of the institutional homophobia that continues to plague vast swathes of Christendom.

Nevertheless, whilst I fundamentally disagree with the anti-gay attitudes of the owners of Ashers Bakery, I must also wholeheartedly defend their right to hold such views. By ruling that they were unlawful in refusing to decorate a cake with a politically motivated slogan, the courts have potentially opened the floodgates to a situation whereby businesses are compelled to comply with the wishes of their customers, even in highly distasteful circumstances.

It may be difficult to have much sympathy for the regressive views of Ashers' owners, but what about cases where a member of a minority group is the victim of this legal authoritarianism? Should a Jewish business-owner be forced to serve a Holocaust denier or a supporter of Hamas terrorism? Would the courts force a Muslim bakery to ice anti-migrant and Islamophobic slogans onto a cake? Such situations seem to be clear violations of personal conscience, potentially causing a great degree of distress and discomfort to the businesspeople involved.

The Ashers case is no different, and today's decision is therefore a sad defeat for freedom of speech and belief. As Peter Tatchell writes in The Independent, people should be free to discriminate against ideas that they disagree with, and although no business should be allowed to refuse service to LGBT customers based on their sexuality, they should also not be forced to endorse a certain view on political issues such as same-sex marriage. It is right that our society becomes more inclusive and tolerant on matters of equality and sexuality, and areas such as Northern Ireland need to reject the social conservatism that remains dominant and makes LGBT people feel like second-class citizens. However, in doing so it is crucial that we do not turn our back on the long-cherished freedoms that form the foundation of our democracy.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

The evangelical War on Halloween

Why are evangelical Christians so scared of Halloween?
For most of us, October is a month of brown leaves, changing seasons and mixed feelings as the last of the summer sun is swept away in the autumnal breeze. It is also the month that concludes with the celebration of Halloween, and stores and supermarkets have already taken it upon themselves to remind us of this fact through their shelves laden with pumpkins, chocolates and costumes. For me, Halloween conjures up happy memories of school discos and the childhood rituals of apple bobbing, trick or treating and my annual Dracula outfit, and for many more children it is also a time of joy, the one day of the year where it is acceptable to amass as much candy as physically possible. Yet for the majority of evangelical Christians, this is a time of the year when an intense battle must be waged against a holiday which is a satanic assault against the Church.

As someone who was not brought up as an evangelical, I never encountered any sense of opposition to Halloween until my late-teens, by which time any opportunities for the holiday to have corrupted my childhood innocence had long passed. Nevertheless, I soon became aware of the lengths so many Christians go in order to prevent their children from engaging in the frivolities; some churches, it turns out, hold alternative light parties, an option which seems to be favoured amongst Halloween's more mainstream critics, whilst the more zealous types hand out biblical tracts to poor, unsuspecting trick or treaters in order to make them aware of the demonic festivities they are unwittingly engaging in.

It is easy to mock such responses, a reaction which is probably unfair, unkind and un-Christian, but even during my short flirtation with evangelicalism I never understood the anger that Halloween generated. No child believes that werewolves, vampires and monsters are actually real, let alone beings to be worshiped or glorified, and it therefore seems somewhat bizarre for Christians to assume that this might be the case. Halloween festivities are not pagan rituals brainwashing the young and emboldening evil, they're just an all-too rare opportunity for children to use their imaginations and engage in traditional, old-fashioned fun.

Likewise, I am sure that light parties are great fun, but is it really necessary for the Church to erect yet another barrier between themselves and the wider world? Evangelicals argue that we are called to be 'in the world, not of the world,' yet by preventing their children from participating in Halloween events with their peers they create an unnecessary restriction which can end up doing more harm than good. Are a few vampire costumes and carved pumpkins really that much of a threat to the Christian values that such churches preach, and if so then surely those churches should question why their principles are so easily undermined?

Evangelical opposition to Halloween seems to be based on a distortion of the event rather than the realities of how it is celebrated by children in the 21st Century, a fact which exposes the ignorance that a lack of engagement can create. Yes, the Bible specifically speaks out against witchcraft, sorcery and the occult, but those supernatural activities have very little discernible influence over trick or treating and apple bobbing. If we are to ban Halloween on the grounds of its pagan origins, then surely we should also rethink the way we celebrate another major festival - Christmas.

Of course there are some exceptions amongst the most hardline of fundamentalists, but the overwhelming majority of those anti-Halloween evangelicals do not refrain from decorating a Christmas tree or hanging up stockings by the fireplace, practices which have direct pagan influences. Neither do most evangelicals prevent their children from writing letters to Santa Claus or leaving a carrot out for Rudolph, despite the very un-Christian implications of such characters within the context of the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. To reject Halloween but embrace Christmas in all its secular flamboyance is an obvious display of double standards, to which the Church seems to have no answer.

Our world is full of evil, misery and despair. One only has to turn on the news to see shocking images of desperate refugees, suffering Syrian children and the numerous rapes, murders and assaults that take place on our own streets every day. The Christian Church certainly has a duty to speak out against evil, but when it does so it should turn its attention to the real evil of the world rather than a few children enjoying themselves in vampire outfits. The evangelical War on Halloween is a superstitious, reactionary impulse which distracts Christians from addressing the real problems of the world, whilst providing the Church's critics with a perfect opportunity to dismiss and ridicule people of faith.

Happy Halloween, everybody!