Saturday, 3 March 2012

Are We Finally Slipping The Religious Leash?

During my lifetime, and mostly since the end of WWI, Britain and the rest of Europe and the USA, indeed all of the developed world and a great deal of the under-developed world, has become increasingly liberal and egalitarian.

Annie Kenny & Sylvia Pankhurst
Womens' Social And Political Union
Although we still have a long way to go we have seen a lessening of the class system in Britain so that we no longer send our spare daughters into the service of the middle and upper classes there to be at the disposal of the men of the house, as in my grandparents day. The once outrageously radical idea of women voting is now taken for granted, even in Switzerland where the last Canton granted women the right to vote and stand for election in February 1971.

1963 Civil Rights March
Lincoln Memorial
Following the Civil Rights Campaign of the Early 1960s and the Black Consciousness and Black Power movements of the late 1960s and 1970s, Black people in USA have made major advances in civil rights. Discrimination on grounds of race, religion, gender and ethnicity is now outlawed in the EU and USA. In the EU working people have employment rights far in excess of anything dreamed of by even the most radical socialists of the 1950s and to the intense annoyance of the political right.

Capital punishment has been abolished in much of the civilised world. Women, with access to contraception, now have the same sexual freedom that men always enjoyed, and the right to planned pregnancies and to limit their family size. In the UK, women now have full property rights and can make contracts in their own name where previously they were regarded more as a possession of their husband or father, at least in the eyes of the law as they were in my grandparents day.

Recently the right to civil partnerships between homosexual couples has been established in many countries and the Christian churches are fighting a desperate rearguard action to prevent this being extended to full marriage rights. Yet only two generations ago homosexual activity was a criminal offence which meant imprisonment and shame for those convicted of loving the wrong person. And it still is in those countries where religious clerics still wield power, even carrying the death penalty.

There is still a great deal to be done in terms of freedom from discrimination but few people nowadays question the basic principle. When I was a teenager many of the rights we now take for granted were considered radical, extremist, even dangerous and well worth the security services paying them special attention. Some people even advocated that boys with long hair should be arrested and forced to have it cut!

So what's the cause of this? Why have we in many different countries, speaking many different languages and with quite different histories, all arrived at the collective opinion that the right to be treated as the equal of any another person is a basic human right?

Of course, correlation does not establish causality, though it certainly makes it worthy of consideration, but one major social change simultaneously with the changes I have mentioned above, has been the decline in support for religions partly because better education in the sciences has rendered so much of it laughably absurd.

No doubt religionists would dismiss this as a cause unless they are portraying them as showing a loss of morals; a breakdown in society. Then they would undoubtedly point to the same correlation as 'proof' of their claim whilst demanding that they be reversed.

However, I think the hypothesis of a causal link is supported by a number of things, the first being that almost all of these advances has been opposed either directly by the churches or by the political parties and classes which are themselves supported by the church.

In the 1960s we had the Protestant-backed KKK killing civil rights workers and black activists. In 1973 we had the grotesque spectacle of the 'conscience of America', Billy Graham, advising Richard Nixon that Jews should not be regarded as American citizens. The term WASP is still synonymous with right-wing Christian white supremacist male chauvinism, which is almost a definition of political conservatism in America and not far off that of Conservatism in the UK and Christian Democracy in most of Europe.

In the UK, the Anglican church opposed universal adult suffrage and especially votes for for women. In Europe, the Vatican had supported Fascism; in Serbia, the Orthodox Christian church supported genocidal nationalists. Almost universally, the Christian Churches opposed easier divorce, easier access to contraception, better sex education for teenagers. The churches in Britain, Holland, Belgium, Spain, France and Italy all supported colonialism and resisted independence for the colonies. In Northern Ireland the Presbyterian Churches were steadfast in their opposition to equal rights for Catholics and universal adult suffrage and had been directly responsible for setting up an apartheid system there in the first place. In the Irish Republic the Catholic Church effectively killed off tentative moves towards a health service.

In short, almost every piece of social progress towards a more egalitarian, less discriminatory, less chauvinistic, better educated, more liberal and more inclusive society has been opposed by the conservative right supported by the main stream Christian churches. Only now that they are losing their grip and have almost lost it altogether in some countries, have we made any real social progress.

I think the correlation is more than a coincidence. I think we are finally slipping the leash of religion, gaining our freedom and building a better society based on Humanist principles.


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