Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Naughty neo-atheism versus nice Mr Alain de Botton

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Given his reputation for responding swiftly, and sometimes savagely, to his critics I must confess I'm rather disappointed not to have heard from Alain de Botton, after the interview I did with him for the current issue of New Humanist. He generally responds if he feels he has been misquoted or maligned, so perhaps I was too faithful to his arguments or too nice. Which would be ironic seeing as that is what I said his book Religion for Atheists was - too nice. There are a lot of things in the book which I agree with – especially the diagnosis of what is wrong with the current state of our art and education institutions, and what religion does quite well - nice buildings, lots of festivals. In fact quite a few of the responses I had to the piece were along the lines of - 'it made me see that Alain de Botton's arguments aren't as stupid as I thought'. Fair enough, I wanted to give his arguments fair play, but I hope I didn't give the impression that I bought them in the end. I didn't. Reading the book and meeting him left me in something of a quandary. He was nice, and the book is nice and the whole thing was just so very bloody nice that, in the end, it led me to think that it lacked a really persuasive edge and that, in the end, religion is both better and worse than he (a very strong atheist) thinks. Better because it has more life than his sterile vision of wholesome therapeutic secularism - tons of blood, evil, contradiction and drama. Worse because a lot of people still buy the metaphysical claims of religion, and this means we (that is, the atheists) have a fundamental disagreement with the religious which needs to be argued about and cannot be dissolved by us all being nicer to each other and respecting each others feelings (or fudged with the Non-Overlapping Magisteria argument) .

I am reminded of my disquiet about de Botton's proposals reading Bryan Appleyard's piece in the New Statesman characterising neo-atheism as a cult, with a "project" to replace religion with an "incoherent idea of reason". Appleyard starts and ends his piece at dinner, with humanist-baiter John Gray, Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Alain de Botton, where they apparently analyse the shortcomings of the neo-atheist cult over nibbles and guffaw at the inconsistencies of Christopher Hitchens over the cheeses course. For evidence of this cult of intolerance Appleyard says that de Botton has been the victim of an "atheist fatwa", complete with threats of violence. No doubt de Botton, due to his public profile, receives lots of negative comments, as everyone does on the internet, but he got criticism for previous books about architecture and work as well, and no one suggested that this was organised by a cult or amounted to a fatwa. De Botton told me himself that he is 'hated' by much of the intellectual elite, because he is a populist and popular. He also courts the controversy as a good way to sell books, which it is. Its a bit rich for Appleyard to use this as evidence of  a supposed cult of intolerance rather than say evidence of the tendency for all kinds of people – de Botton included – to say stupid and aggressive things online from the safety of their own rooms.

I'm sure Alain de Botton can look after himself anyway, and doesn't need Appleyard or Gray (for whom this line is a leitmotif) to help him by characterising neo-atheism, or new-atheism, or any kind of atheism as a cult with a project. There is no such thing. There are people writing books and speaking at events, some famous, most not, some with strong political views some with none, but no "project" to replace religion (perhaps some aspire to this, some don't), no plan, no cadre or sleeping cell, no fatwa and no track record or interest in using violence. Some of them, just like Alain de Botton and, who knows, Brian Appleyard himself, are nice people. Some of them aren't, like any group of people. The only aim is to start a debate and then win the argument that ensues (and we most of us know this will be provisional). This is exactly what de Botton says he wants to do, so presumably he welcomes the critical responses as part of that debate. Calling those who disagree with you intolerant or a cult is a pretty cheap way to try and win the debate.

Nadine Dorries repeats infanticide slur against humanists

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Nadine Dorries
Last year, the Conservative MP Nadine Dorries sealed a landslide victory in our annual Bad Faith Award contest after accusing humanists of favouring infanticide. Her suggestion prompted numerous objections and refutations from humanists, who were keen to point out that a) they don't support infanticide and b) even if someone who is a humanist did, it wouldn't therefore apply to all humanists.

Those arguments, however, seem to have had little impact on Dorries, who has this afternoon repeated her assertion that humanists favour infanticide. The prompt for doing so was the news that the Journal of Medical Ethics has just published a paper entitled "After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?", in which Alberto Giubilini of the University of Milan and Francesca Minerva of Melbourne University consider whether the arguments used to justify abortion could also be used to justify the killing of newborn babies. The abstract of the paper is as follows:

"Abortion is largely accepted even for reasons that do not have anything to do with the fetus' health. By showing that (1) both fetuses and newborns do not have the same moral status as actual persons, (2) the fact that both are potential persons is morally irrelevant and (3) adoption is not always in the best interest of actual people, the authors argue that what we call ‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled."

Controversial? Yes. Evidence that humanists support infanticide? No, of course not. Even if the authors happened to be humanists (I can't find any information, admittedly in a brief search, that indicates whether they are or not), that wouldn't have any bearing on what other humanists think. But that hasn't stopped Dorries taking to Twitter to repeat her sweeping attack on humanists, posting two tweets, one linking to the Catholic Herald's coverage of the story and the other to the Telegraph's, both saying the following:
"This is also position of humanists, justification being that commiting the infanticide makes you happy"
And she hasn't stopped there, following it up a few minutes later by saying:
"Evan Harris is a humanist and humanists support this why do people wonder at his Dr Death Moniker. #welldeserved"
Dorries, of course, is a leading voice in the anti-abortion lobby, and humanists generally (but not universally) tend to be pro-choice, which probably explains why she is so keen to denounce humanism in this way. She is, of course, welcome to take issue with the arguments advanced by humanists who are pro-choice – indeed, it is in everyone's interests to have a sensible debate about the issue. But it would be interesting to know why she feels the need to make such sweeping, ill-informed generalisations about humanists. Does she really think that all humanists, or a significant numbers of humanists, are in favour of infanticide? If so, what is her evidence for this? And if not, why does she keep repeating the accusation? Does she think "humanists" are a large, monolithic group who all share the same infanticidal views, or does she recognise that it is a label that covers a diverse array of views, and that humanists will often disagree with each other, even over abortion. Does she not realise that many of her constituents in mid-Bedfordshire will be humanists, and will not appreciate her making sweeping comments about them in this way?

Those are just some of the questions Dorries' latest comments raise - it would be very interesting to hear her answers.

Update: Looking at Dorries' most recent tweets, it appears people have been tweeting her with some similar questions. Several seem to have asked her to explain why she accuses humanists in general of supporting infanticide. In reply, Dorries makes a statement about "the humanist movement [giving] an heroic accolade [to] the humanist who does believe this". Here she is referring to Peter Singer, who, in her second blog post about humanists last October, she used as evidence that "humanists" support infanticide (in her first post she referred to a humanist who had "recently commented", and then when challenged for evidence she produced some of Peter Singer's writings from the 1970s and 1990s). Peter Singer was named "Australian Humanist of Year" by the Australian Humanists in 2004 and, following Dorries' logic, because he has explored the question of infanticide in his work, this means that humanists in general are in favour of infanticide. Which is clearly not the case, but there doesn't seem to be any way of explaining this to Dorries.

In fact, as I was typing this update, one of our Twitter followers suggested to Dorries that her argument is "The same as saying all catholics are in favour of peodophillia", to which she then replied, copying out Twitter name (@NewHumanist) in:

"No its not, we send Peodophiles to prison. Humanists give advocates of baby killing awards."

I have tweeted back to her with two questions:
 An Australian humanist organisation gave Peter Singer an award, therefore humanists in general support infanticide? (link)
Do you really think majority of humanists (millions worldwide, and many of your constituents, surely) support infanticide? (link)
I will of course, let you know if I receive replies.

Is New Atheism an intolerant cult?

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In response to the furore that has raged over "militant secularism" in recent weeks, triggered by the remarks of Conservative chair Baroness Warsi during her trip to the Vatican, last week's New Statesman featured Brian Appleyard attacking the "neo-atheists" for what he sees as their strident, intolerant role in the ongoing God debate.

It's a classic of the genre – the focus, naturally, falls upon Richard Dawkins, who is dubbed "the supreme prophet of neo-atheism" and presented as having an obsession with attacking religion. We are even treated to Alain de Botton, author of Religion for Atheists, suggesting that the God Delusion author may have undergone "a sort of psychological collapse". As is often the case in such articles, it is suggested that the "neo-atheists" have replaced faith in God with faith in science, a "neo-Darwinian triumphalism", and Appleyard ends with reference to "the catastrophic failed atheist project of communism" and the fact that "the history of attempts to destroy religion is littered with the corpses of believers and unbelievers alike".

Unsurprisingly, since the New Statesman put the piece online it has been generating a high volume of comments, and the main reason we link to it here is so you can go and get involved should you wish.

In the print edition of the magazine, Appleyard's article was followed by one by Richard Dawkins, in which the professor rationally and reasonably outlined the results of the recent Ipsos MORI poll his Foundation commissioned on religious belief in Britain, and made the measured argument that the majority of those who self-identify as Christians do not share the religiously conservative of views of those who advocate for Christianity in public life. For those who had just read the Appleyard piece and were expecting to encounter a vicious screed by the high-priest of an intolerant atheist cult, this must have come as some surprise.

On the bizarre disparity between the media image of Dawkins and his actual personality, it's worth reading this blog post by the man himself, written following his extremely respectful and rather arcane debate with the Archbishop of Cantetrbury last week. He refers to the strident, angry Dawkins as his "mythological namesake", which seems like the perfect description for the intolerant cult leader depicted by Appleyard in the New Statesman.

Update: Dawkins' piece is now on the New Statesman website - it's well worth a read.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

UK Christians are not "persecuted", says England's top Catholic

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Vincent Nichols
The leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, the Rt Rev Vincent Nichols, has responded to the recent debates over "militant secularism" by saying that he does not believe Christians in Britain are the victim of persecution. "I personally don't feel in the least bit persecuted," he told the Guardian. "I don't think Christians should use that word."

At a time when "persecution" is frequently invoked by Christians who are unhappy with legal rulings concerning their faith, for instance in cases concerning the religious exemptions in the workplace, or the recent (and since overridden) judgement against council prayers in Bideford, it is refreshing to hear a leading religious figure reject the use of the word. As secularists have often pointed out, suggesting Christians are "persecuted" in Britain to some extent diminishes the plight of Christians, and other religious and non-religious groups, who suffer genuine, violent and life-threatening persecution elsewhere in the world.

However, in his interview with the Guardian Nichols does not entirely reject that the anti-secularist rhetoric that has emanated from the country's religious and political establishment in recent weeks, saying that secularism "has produced a seeming determination to tear the legal and therefore cultural life of the country away from its Christian roots".

In suggesting that secularists are tearing Britain away from "its Christian roots", Nichols has added his voice to those who have recently presented secularism as a hostile threat to British society. It's a strange inversion of reality – at a time when the country has a government that is perhaps the most accommodating to religion in recent memory, with a Prime Minister who has declared Britain to be a "Christian country", and cabinet ministers such as Baroness Warsi and Eric Pickles speaking out for Christian Britain at every opportunity, secularists are somehow presented as being in control, putting the finishing touches to their sinister plan to eject religion from the land.

Yet the truth of the situation is that secularists are simply arguing that we should have a government that doesn't favour religion, that doesn't alienate large sections of society by proclaiming that we live in a "Christian country", that doesn't divide children by encouraging the spread of religious schools, and that doesn't argue that community cohesion is best attained in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society by emphasising the role of Christianity, at a time when those in power are doing the exact opposite.

The advocates of "Christian Britain" seem to have realised that they can discredit their opposition by turning "secularism" into a dirty word. It's a clever move, but it is one based on a fallacy. Secularism is not the same as atheism, and it is not the enemy of faith – it is the enemy of religious privilege, and the guarantor of religious freedom. In the face of calls for a return to a monocultural Christian Britain that no longer exists (and indeed never really existed), those who support diversity and a neutral state, whether they are religious or not, should surely join together in defence of secularism.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

NH contributor Francis Beckett's new play opens in London next month

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Regular New Humanist contributor Francis Beckett (here he is on the return of fire-and-brimstone televangelists in our last issue) is also a successful playwright, and his new play, The London Spring, opens at the Etcetera Theatre in Camden on 6th March.
The Prague Spring in 1968, the Arab Spring in 2010 – but what will it take before London has had enough?

Michael, a prosperous American doctor, is in London for the first time. On Waterloo Station, a pretty girl steals his wallet, a tramp sells him a square of toilet paper for five dollars, and precious and dangerous drugs are stolen from him. Trying to get them back, he’s plunged into the darkness and despair that is London in the 2020s.

Written by Francis Beckett and directed by Christine Kimberley, The London Spring is a dark yet optimistic view of our future.
The play is on at the Etcetera Theatre nightly at 7.30pm from 6th to 25th March (note there are no shows on Mondays and the Sunday performances take place at 6.30pm). Tickets are £12 (£10 concessions and available through the theatre.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Opponents of gay marriage launch online campaign

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Lord Carey
This morning saw the launch of the Coalition for Marriage, which will campaign against legalisation of same-sex marriage. According to reports in the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph (the only papers to pay much attention to the launch), the Coalition is a "grassroots organisation" but, as Martin Robbins points out in an excellent post on his Guaridan Lay Scientist blog, it's not entirely clear how a group that appears to be spearheaded by a collection of MPs, peers and bishops, including the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey, can be considered to have come from the "grassroots".

Carey, in particular, seems to be positioning himself as a vocal voice in the campaign, and he sets out his arguments against gay marriage in an extraordinary piece for the Mail. The former Archbishop is the biggest name involved in the Coalition, and is presumably seen as the man with the formidable intellect required to put forward the definitive case for keeping marriage heterosexual, so it's rather telling that the best he can offer is a rambling argument based on fallacy and anecdote. In one line that has caused particular bemusement among observers, Carey explains that the government's proposals to legalise gay marriage constitute "one of the greatest political power grabs in history", because:
"The state does not ‘own’ the institution of marriage. Nor does the church.

The honourable estate of matrimony precedes both the state and the church, and neither of these institutions have the right to redefine it in such a fundamental way."
Marriage, it seems, has a transcendent existence outside of earthly laws, and because it was not historically open to gay couples (Carey passes over the fact that this tended to go together with homosexuality being considered a crime), its definition must never be altered. Carey goes on to explain that marriage must be a good thing because couples continue to choose to get married, but his enthusiasm for choice does not extend to the thousands of gay couples who would also choose to marry, if they were not prohibited from doing so.

Carey is clearly keen on the long history of marriage, and it leads him to make an interesting claim for its influence on the development of British society:
"For many centuries, Britain has known much more stability than most other nations on Earth, and marriage has been essential to our national welfare. It keeps families together. It is clear that family breakdown has a personal and societal cost – from children damaged by the experience of growing up in a broken home to the older people who are left lonely and isolated because of the break-up of their families in middle age."
In stating that Britain has known greater stability than "most other nations", Carey is presumably referring to the comparative absence of revolutionary upheavals in British history (if this isn't what he means, I have no idea what he's referring to). Historians have long concerned themselves with the question of why the various European revolutions of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries never spread to Britain, but as far as I am aware none of them have ever posited the endurance of the institution of heterosexual marriage as a reason. Perhaps Lord Carey is on to something, and should be invited to advance this thesis further.

Ultimately, what Carey fails to do is point out why the legalisation of gay marriage would affect him or any of his fellow campaigners in any way whatsoever. Why are they so concerned by what other people do with their lives? Their entire case seems to come down to the argument that marriage should be between a man and a woman because it just should be (essentially a roundabout way of saying that anything other than heterosexuality is unnatural), and to listen to their hysterical protests you would think the law is going to be changed to make gay marriage compulsory. No one is trying to force the members of the Coalition for Marriage to marry members of their own sex. The government's proposal is simply about giving everyone the choice to get married if they want to.

Reading Carey's article and the material on the Coalition's website, it seems that they think society will eventually collapse if gay marriage is legalised. If this is what they think, surely it's something they should elaborate on – what do they believe will happen? And if this isn't want they think, why are they so determined to restrict people's access to marriage?

Sunday Telegraph attempts to smear Richard Dawkins over 18th-century slaveholding ancestors

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Few public figures divide opinion quite like Richard Dawkins, and in the years since he stepped to the centre of the religion debate with his 2006 bestseller The God Delusion, those who disagree with him in the press have rarely passed on an opportunity to mount an attack. Of course, such attacks go with the territory – Dawkins is an uncompromising voice in an often heated debate, and when the focus is on the key issues and ideas, he'll always give as good as he gets.

Some criticism, however, just seems desperate. It was fairly ludicrous for the anti-Dawkins camp to imply that he had somehow disgraced atheists everywhere (and perhaps even brought the whole Godless edifice crashing down) by failing to name the full lengthy title of Darwin's On the Origin of Species during a radio debate last week, but if those attacks seemed a tad silly, they were nothing on the Sunday Telegraph's effort yesterday.

Under the headline "Slaves at the root of the fortune that created Richard Dawkins' family estate", the paper's Adam Lusher wrote that Dawkins must face "awkward revelation" that one of his ancestors was a major slaveholder in Jamaica in the 18th century and that the family's Oxfordshire estate, in which he still has some involvement, was paid for using the profits of slavery.

Among the passages detailing the family's slaveholding past and the profits gained from the enterprise, the article was scattered with references to Dawkins' pledge to fight "intolerance and suffering" through the work of his Foundation for Science and Reason, with the clear implication that this work is somehow compromised by the revelation that some of his ancestors were involved in slavery more than two centuries ago.

As smears go, it's a fairly pathetic one, and it looks even more ridiculous when you read Dawkins' account of a phone conversation with Lusher, who called him on Saturday evening to confront him with the genealogical bombshell:
"I’d scarcely had time to re-open my lecture notes when he rang back: 'Darwinian natural selection has a lot to do with genes, do you agree?' Of course I agreed. 'Well, some people might suggest that you could have inherited a gene for supporting slavery from Henry Dawkins'.

'You obviously need a genetics lesson,' I replied. Henry Dawkins was my great great great great great grandfather, so approximately one in 128 of my genes are inherited from him (that’s the correct figure; in the heat of the moment on the phone, I got it wrong by a couple of powers of two)."
Really, this ought to be beyond parody, but full credit has to go the tireless investigators at the News Thump website for uncovering another shameful chapter in the Dawkins family history.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

What's wrong with free speech? March/April issue on sale 16 February

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What’s wrong with free speech? So asks the cover of our new issue, on-sale Thursday 16 February, with a ripped-out space where Salman Rushdie’s mouth should be. On the one hand of course the answer is “nothing”, as in free speech is one of our most cherished and hard-won rights and something we value and should protect. On the other hand the answer is “quite a lot”, in that threats to free speech seems to be proliferating around us, as in the case of Sir Salman himself, who was prevented from travelling to the Literature Festival in Jaipur because of death threats which may or may not have been concocted by the local police to keep him away. Our response is to bring out the heavy guns in the shape of the tireless free-speech campaigners Kenan Malik and Nick Cohen. Kenan writes a typically economical and acute piece about what has gone wrong with our commitment to freedom, and Nick contributes a brilliant ten-point plan for fixing it, drawn from his latest (and briskly selling) publication You Can’t Read This Book (Fourth Estate).

Having committed ourselves to the principle of free expression we proceed to use it to its best advantage in this issue – we interview Alain de Botton about his controversial new proposal that atheists ransack religion for useful ideas; a year after the Fukushima nuclear crisis in Japan, Angela Saini asks are we any safer?; Matthew Adams searches out the enigma that is Jonathan Meades; Laurie Taylor interview Stefan Collini about the crisis in higher education; Stephen Cave explores the all too human obsession with cheating death; and Lisa Randall talks us through the mind-warping findings of contemporary cosmology.

Plus: a Q&A with the campaigning MP Tom Watson, why rationalists should embrace Tarot cards, 10 things we miss about Christopher Hitchens and the best worst review you will ever read by the incomparable Jonathan Rée. And just in case you haven’t seen it, we have Jesus appearing in a KitKat bar. Something for everyone. If you don’t already, you should subscribe now – at the incredible special offer price of just £1. If there was a God you know he’d want you to.

Alternatively, you will find us from Thursday in hundreds of stores nationwide, including selected WH Smiths (use the store finder box on our home page to find a stockist).

Secularism shares the chracteristics of totalitarian regimes: Baroness Warsi strikes again

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Sayeeda Warsi
Sayeeda Warsi, the Conservative peer and Cabinet Office minister, has a track record of riling secularists – a look back at the occasions when she's been mentioned on this blog shows that in the past two years she has declared that the Coalition government will "do God", suggested that anti-Muslim bigotry is acceptable around the dinner tables of middle England, and insisted that Britain needs to become more Christian.

Now, in an article in today's Daily Telegraph, Warsi has dusted off her old arguments in order to claim that "a militant secularisation is taking hold" of society. The comments coincide with her trip to the Vatican as part of a British delegation (a reciprocal visit following the Pope's UK tour in 2010), and the Baroness points out that, when she meets the Pope today, she will be giving him her "absolute commitment to continue fighting for faith in today’s society".

So how exactly is "militant secularisation" taking hold? Over to Baroness Warsi:
"We see it in any number of things: when signs of religion cannot be displayed or worn in government buildings; when states won’t fund faith schools; and where religion is sidelined, marginalised and downgraded in the public sphere."
In her article, Warsi is talking about the whole of Europe, so it's possible she isn't referring to Britain in this passage. But if she is, it will certainly come as news to many secularists that the British state "won't fund faith schools", especially with the information coming directly from a minister in a government committed to funding faith schools.

In Warsi's view, "faith has a vital and important role to play in modern society", and in order for it to play this role European societies need to become "more confident and more comfortable in [their] Christianity", because "the societies we live in, the cultures we have created, the values we hold and the things we fight for all stem from centuries of discussion, dissent and belief in Christianity". With this in mind, Warsi says she is astonished "that those who wrote the European Constitution made no mention of God or Christianity".

And what of those who argue that states and societies should not be founded on religious foundations? For Warsi, they are embracing a dangerous principle:
"For me, one of the most worrying aspects about this militant secularisation is that at its core and in its instincts it is deeply intolerant. It demonstrates similar traits to totalitarian regimes – denying people the right to a religious identity because they were frightened of the concept of multiple identities. That’s why in the 20th century, one of the first acts of totalitarian regimes was the targeting of organised religion."
Reaction to Warsi's article has focused on this last statement, but it's important to point out that she qualifies it in the next paragraph:
"I am not calling for some kind of 21st century theocracy. Religious faith and its followers do not have the only answer. There will be times when politicians and faith leaders will disagree. What is more, secularism is not intrinsically damaging. My concern is when secularisation is pushed to an extreme, when it requires the complete removal of faith from the public sphere. So I am calling for a more open confidence in faith, where faith has a place at the table, though not an exclusive position." 
Nevertheless, it's clear that Warsi doesn't view secularism as a positive – note that the best she can say is that it's "not intrinsically damaging". Her outrage at the absence of God and Christianity from the EU's Lisbon Treaty is particularly telling, and it would be interesting to know what she makes of the American constitution, which requires the state to remain neutral on matters of religion. According to Warsi's argument, the First Amendment would surely be an expression of militant, even totalitarian, secularism, but it has allowed an array of faiths to thrive within America's diverse society.

Secularists argue that, in a Britain (or Europe) populated by people of many faiths and none, it is better for the state to adopt this neutral stance towards religion. But for Warsi, "faith has a key role to play in bridging" the divides between different communities. Perhaps so, but secularists would also argue that faith has the power to divide, sometimes violently, and as such it should not be placed in a position of power. Neither should one religion be seen to underpin our contemporary society on account of its historical dominance. Warsi suggests we should be proud of our "Christian foundations", and even believes that such pride can benefit non-Christian Europeans. But, as Kenan Malik argued in a recent essay for New Humanist, European history is hardly a simple tale of Christian heritage, and European civilisation (whatever that may be) has been moulded by both Christian and non-Christian influences. The religious landscape of Europe, through both secularisation and immigration, has changed profoundly in the last century, and secularists argue that we should embrace this diversity by agreeing that it is no longer appropriate for religion to play a dominant role in public life.

This issue is the subject of a lively and ongoing public debate, but it is not one that is enhanced by drawing parallels with fascism and Stalinism. Baroness Warsi does not quite stretch to mentioning Hitler in her Telegraph article, but by comparing modern secularists to 20th century totalitarians, it could certainly be argued that she has broken Godwin's law.