Thursday, 8 April 2010

Religion, sex and death - election style

It must be election time. The main parties are parading their religious beliefs in order to court what they imagine to be the faith vote.

Both Cameron and Brown's Easter messages are likely to alienate more people than they attract though - both non-believers and people of other faiths. Gordon Brown said that 'the Christian Church is the conscience of our country' and that the visit of the Pope in the autumn would 'make this a special year for the UK'. I'm not sure what meaning of 'special' he was using.

Cameron's Thought For The Day style homily included: 'No matter what faiths we follow, we can all draw strength from Christ's message of hope, of a new beginning and a promise of a new dawn'. It is to be assumed that he will be drawing strength from other religions, too. Or not.

The Tories have gone further than Labour (so far) in parading their religious credentials. In an interview with the Catholic Herald, Cameron pledged to lower the abortion limit, block assisted dying and allow schools to teach PSHE (sex education) any way they like.

On abortion, he said the limit should be reduced to 20 or 22 weeks, His reason for this is 'the way medical science and technology have developed in the past few decades'. He doesn't go into details and blatantly ignores scientific evidence.

Foetal viability was rigorously examined by the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology in 2007. The Committee concluded that:

'While survival rates at 24 weeks and over have improved they have not done so below that gestational point. Put another way, we have seen no good evidence to suggest that foetal viability has improved significantly since the abortion time limit was last set, and seen some good evidence to suggest that it has not.'

This conclusion is shared by the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. Foetal viability means survival of foetuses who are alive at variable times during the pregnancy or the capability of surviving the neonatal period and growing up into an adult.

To put this into context, in 2007, 89% of terminations happened before 13 weeks. In 2005, only 1.3% happened between 20 and 24 weeks.

Are Catholics in this country so different from those in America and Australia? 64% of US Catholics disapprove of the statement that abortion is morally wrong in every case and 72% of Catholics in Australia say decisions about abortion should be left to individual women and their doctors. Cameron may well be scuppering himself with all but the most hard-line Catholic voters, let alone with the rest of us.

His argument against assisted dying is that there is a 'line to be drawn between allowing nature to take its course under some incredibly painful circumstances and on the other hand allowing doctors or others (however well-intentioned) to accelerate death. I think it would be wrong to tread over this line, because there are very serious implications for our families, and for our society as a whole'. The biggest danger he sees is 'that terminally ill people may feel pressurized into ending their lives if they feel they've become a burden on loved ones'.

He presents no scientific research, no statistics, no information from countries where assisted dying has long been successfully carried out. He just goes for the scare tactic. He also commits the hoary old mistake of of assuming that nature is good and right. Perhaps he'll remember that when someone close to him needs an organ transplant or cancer treatment. And he seems to have forgotten (or ignored) a poll showing that over 80% of people in the UK are in favour of assisted dying. Never let the facts get in the way of rhetoric.

When it comes to sex education, he thinks that 'schools should be allowed to teach it in a way that's consistent with their beliefs, and parents should be free to decide whether or not their children should take part in these lessons... I'm a big supporter of faith schools'.

He may think this is a vote-catcher but he is putting the health and well-being of the next generation at risk by allowing religious schools to keep them in ignorance or mix facts with faith.

As I wrote about PSHE before, it's hard to see how a school with a strong religious ethos will be able to teach the facts and get its religious message across without these two aims coming into conflict. Children in faith schools are often the most in need of accurate, impartial information as devoutly religious parents are unlikely to be willing or able to give it to them.

Proposed Conservative amendments would strike the requirement from the current PSHE proposals that teaching should 'endeavour to promote equality', 'encourage the acceptance of diversity' and 'emphasise the importance of both rights and responsibilities'. They would mean that schools would not be required to teach PSHE and also allow parents to withdraw pupils of any age.

The danger is that young people have no way of judging the quality of any sex and relationship teaching they do get until it is too late and they fall pregnant or get an STI. And how will young gay people cope in a school whose religion actively disapproves of homosexuality? The irony is that good PSHE would help reduce abortion rates overall and help women face the decision on whether to have a termination in a more informed way, which could reduce the (already small) number who need late ones.

The Tory party's stance on equality wasn't helped when Chris Grayling, the Shadow Home Secretary, said that Christian B&B owners should be allowed to turn away gay couples. Hotels should take anyone but Christians should be allowed to say who comes into their homes - even though these homes are businesses for tax and legal purposes like hygiene and health and safety - laws which Christian B&B owners would of course observe because they don't happen to clash with their bigoted beliefs. The law says that services must be provided to everyone without prejudice. Grayling's message appears to say that belief puts you above the law.

It's not just the Tories who are pushing the religious agenda. Religious groups are trying to give the impression that they can deliver masses of voters. In previous elections when parties running on the Christian ticket stood, they failed in no uncertain terms. In the last European election, the Christian Party averaged only 1.6% of the vote, despite having a candidate in every constituency.

A group called Westminster 2010 has made a declaration which includes pledges to

'protect the life of every human being from conception to its natural end and we refuse to comply with any directive that compels us to participate in or facilitate abortion, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide, euthanasia or any other activity that involves intentionally taking innocent human life'.


'support marriage - the lifelong covenantal union of one man and one woman as husband and wife. We believe it is divinely ordained, the only context for sexual intercourse (...) and we refuse to submit to any edict forcing us to equate any other form of sexual partnership with marriage'.

So - no abortion, assisted suicide, embryo-based research, civil union, sex outside marriage or divorce. By refusing 'to submit to any edict' they are partly referring to equality law. That's law passed by Government and approved by the Queen (they're very keen on saying this is a Christian country based on Christian values because the Queen is Head of State and Head of the Church).

This manifesto is signed by five senior clerics, a peer, the chair of the Mission and Public Affairs Committee of the Church of England, the principals of three theological colleges and senior staff of around a dozen Christian associations and campaigning groups. That's a lot of heavy pressure put on MPs, threatening them with lost votes if they don't promote the same values. Blackmail is now apparently part of the democratic process. It should be noted that less than 3% of the population go to Church of England services at Easter, the festival on which the whole religion rests.

No wonder Brown and Cameron are bending over backwards to appease the religious voters. Except that the days of people receiving political guidance from the pulpit are long gone. Very few people now vote on single issues. Voting for a party purely on its stance on abortion, for example, is likely to land you with an MP or party you disagree with on many other issues, like tax, health care or foreign policy.

Not one of these religious messages puts women's and gay rights or health and well-being or personal choice before faith. Not one of them is evidence-based. Not one is even humane. Vote for the Dark Ages.


  1. Wouldn’t it be great just for once if a party leader stated openly in public that they were atheist? I long for the day but regret that it may be a long time before it dawns. I really hope the Tories don’t get in though, as you say, a return to the Dark Ages. For all their faults Labour are the lesser of two great evils.

  2. Nick Clegg came out as atheist

  3. Given that so few voters are church-goers, it makes me wonder why politicians feel the need to publicly espouse religion. I presume that 'focus groups' (the one area where the politicians believe the research, it seems) perceive this kind of talk as being 'moral' or 'good', and they can feel good about their own bigotry because it is supported by the religious extreme. "If a bishop says so, that proves it's true."

    I suppose politics has always been this way - everyone is swayed by a good con artist, and facts have little to do with it.

  4. Valid comments and well researched. It seems that politicians are not so much `religious` when it suits them to be, as frightened of the religious pressure groups and what damage they may cause if they are ignored by those politicians. What drives this apparent hypocrisy is the politicians need to appeal to the unthinking voters (I hesitate to use the word `masses` because that is patronising and presumptuous)It would seem that some of their policies are to be dictated by this pandering to an unthinking body of bigots