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God help the Girl Guides

God help the Girl Guides

The Girl Guides’ decision to change their promise has drawn stinging criticism (see here and here and here and here). Opinion is divided on the nature of the problem. Ditching the promise to “serve… my country” at a time when we are fretting about our lack of national identity and loyalty seems foolish. Ditching the promise to (do my best to) “love my God”, when theism remains the majority position and when an option for non-believers could easily have been added, seems ungenerous.

For me it is adding the promise “to be true to myself and develop my beliefs” that rankles. Quite apart from the fact that it would hard-pressed to draft a more anodyne promise – it reads like something generated by a New Labour focus group – the unacknowledged assumptions are legion. Presumably, they don’t mean being true to myself if I think other ethnicities or nations are inferior to mine, or if I believe in the will to power, or that the survival of the fittest is a suitable ethical basis for social policy.

Of course, the majority of nine-year-old girls (and I speak an expert here) are not, in my experience, racist, xenophobic, Nietzschean, or Social Darwinists. But that is the point. This isn’t really about nine-year-old girls, who simply enjoy the fun and friendship afforded by the uniformed organisations, but their parents. The kind of would-be Brownie or Guide who complains, under their own steam, about swearing a promise to God has either the precocity of a Bertrand Russell or has had The God Delusion rammed down their throat. Either way, theirs is not an enviable existence.

I was dubious about the stated excuse – that the Guides had received complaints about the promise – so I telephoned their press office and was soon disabused. Yes, they had, although they could not say how many. I marvelled at the pettiness. Rather than join a different secular organisation (as Andrew Brown suggested here) or start your own organisation that you can run on your own principles, why not hover around someone else’s, complaining and campaigning about their outdated and exclusive traditions until they finally relent and do things your way?

Which leads me to the vexing issue of Slovakian coinage. According to the New York Times the National Bank of Slovakia last year planned to issue several commemorative coins intended to celebrate the 1,150th anniversary of Christianity’s arrival in Slovak lands. (How did I miss this story?) The coins, designed by a local artist, featured the two Byzantine saints, Cyril and Methodius, who spread the gospel to the Slovakian people, replete with halos, cross, Bible, and model church in the familiar figurative style of Byzantine artwork.

Alas, the design fell foul of European guidelines and the Commission ordered the Christian paraphernalia to be removed. Apparently the coins, which would have been legal currency in other, more secular lands transgressed European rules concerning religion. In the name of secularism and tolerance, the Christian images had to go.

Which leads me, finally, to the atheist Finn, Mrs. Soile Lautsi. Mrs. Lautsi moved to Italy over a decade ago, took objection to the crucifix on the wall in her child’s classroom and took the school to court. Improbably, the case not only found its way all the way to the European Court of Human Rights but the court found in favour of Mrs. Lautsi, on the grounds that the crucifix was of religious as well as of cultural significance and “what may be encouraging for some religious pupils may be emotionally disturbing for pupils of other religions or those who profess no religion.” (See here, para. 55)

So there it was. One atheist, migrating to a new and somewhat foreign country and culture, used her prejudice against Christianity, combined it with a dash of human rights law, a helping of secularism, and an almighty dollop of moral indignation to bring to an end to a tradition that is 1,500 years old, give or take a century or so. As The Guardian’s Michael White put it, “Crucifixes? Italy? Where did Soile Lautsi think she was moving to live? Thailand? What will she campaign to ban next? Pizza, the Mafia, bling, cheating at football?”

There are two points to make about this unlikely and unfortunate trio of tales. The first is that any fair minded person will want to live in a society in which there are no second class citizens. Being Christian, Muslim or atheist should make no difference to your civic rights. In as far as secularism is understood as securing this level playing field (and that is a perfectly legitimate definition) it is the right and proper direction of travel, capable of being shared by believer and unbeliever alike.

But, point two, a level playing field is not the same as one denuded of religious symbols or identity. Nations have cultures (note the plural) and those cultures are often, indeed usually, steeped in religious belief and commitment. Equality of civic rights does not necessitate bland promises, non-religious coinage, and bare walls.

The kind of secularism which enables disgruntled individuals and minority atheistic groups to use the law to override democratic opinions (remember Bideford Town council) or national cultural attachment is deeply problematic, less secularism-as-referee more secularism-as-bully. It is, to continue the sporting metaphor, the kind of secularism in which the secular ceases to be the level pitch on which we play and morphs into a player who insists on controlling the ball at all times because to relinquish it to any other player would be to show "privilege" to them.

Sadly, we are witnessing the growth of this second kind of secularism, a kind of lautsi-secularism, meaning the assertion of personal rights over the commitment and concerns of others, usually under the guise of fairness and equality.

There is a coda. Not all stories end sadly. Slovakia’s national bank chose to stick with its original coin design. The European Commission relented, and the commemorative coins will appear, late, but as planned. And when Mrs Lautsi’s case went, on appeal, to the Grand Chamber, the earlier decision was overturned by fifteen votes to two, on the basis that the matter was, in principle, for the Italian Government to determine rather than the Court. It’s the just the poor Girl Guides who will be left, godless, to be true to themselves.

Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos

Image from flickr.com by Claude Bezzina under the Creative Commons Licence

Posted 20 June 2013

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