Poor Ickle Peter Hitchens


Peter isn’t a happy bunny. So what’s new?


Last week’s ECtHR judgments keep on giving.

The journalist and commentator Peter Hitchens dutifully took up the persecution/Armageddon baton in his Mail piece on 20 January, “Our nation is on its knees to the Church of Human Rights”.

Here I respond to each of his points. His wording is indented.

“Our nation is on its knees to the Church of Human Rights”

I can’t even let the title go without a comment. The implicitly negative and servile connotation is curious in itself, because it’s a religious metaphor. It reminds me of the phrase “secular inquisition” deployed by an internally-combusting Melanie Phillips in the wake of Obama’s recent re-election. As I said then, it’s amusing when faithheads are so enraged that the strongest negative metaphor they can use is a religious one.

“Human Rights are the State religion of Europe, the unpleasant new country in which we are now trapped. These supposed rights have expelled and replaced Christianity. They have shrunk the human conscience and vastly increased the power of the State.”

This is a useful snapshot of Hitchens’ entire position: human rights are a bad thing, or at least when Hitchens doesn’t agree with the way they’re applied.

Human rights don’t trap people. They liberate them. But human rights also have a formidable capacity to infuriate.  They infuriate those who have enjoyed historical privileges and exemptions with which to infringe the lawful rights of others, and this includes selfish, power-hungry individuals and institutions of all religious franchises.

Human rights have maximised human conscience, enabling individuals to form their own conclusions on matters of belief regardless of the dogma propelled by the State or, indeed, by religious leaders and institutions themselves.

Human rights have freed religious people from religious dogma just as much as they have freed the non-religious. One might conclude from reading Hitchens’ piece (and even just the title) that all Christians now feel their religion is under attack. Not quite so. I recommend the website of the Christian think tank Ekklesia for some slightly calmer, more enlightened consideration of these issues (see for example thisthis and this).

“That is why it was no use anyone going to the Strasbourg Court to win back Christianity’s lost status as the dominant faith of Britain. The Church has been humiliated. Britain no longer exists.”

Here is the key to Hitchens’ rage: the lost status of Christianity in the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe. His anger is directed at loss of privilege, not an abuse of any lawful rights. The Church hasn’t been humiliated any more severely than it manages to humiliate itself on a very regular basis.

The ones that have been really humiliated here are Shirley Chaplin, the nurse who unsuccessfully sought to suspend health and safety rules designed to protect patients in a hospital, and Lillian Ladele and Gary McFarlane who went all the way to Strasbourg for the sole purpose of infringing a fellow human being’s right not to be discriminated against (p.s. love thy neighbour).

The religious organisations backing these individuals have also been humiliated. At the point of defeat they have turned over their shoulder expecting to see a mass army of fellow enraged religionists prepared to go into battle alongside them. But having been trapped for so long in a synthetic fog of war of their own creation, when this red mist has finally cleared they’ve seen themselves generally surrounded by calm, rational individuals thoughtfully digesting information and remarking, “actually, this all seems rather sensible to us.”

“True, you can now wear a cross while working for British Airways. But you have that freedom because you are now just another protected minority, which has no more rights or standing than other faiths, such as Atheism, Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism or Hinduism.”

It’s not that “you can now wear a cross while working for British Airways”: there was no general prohibition on wearing a cross at BA or anywhere else and nor is there now a cast-iron right to wear one (as Shirley Chaplin will tell you). The court simply decided, in one particular case, that BA didn’t have the right to prevent one employee, Nadia Eweida, from wearing a cross in these particular circumstances.

Christians do not and should not have any greater rights than anyone else. They have exactly the same rights. It’s a tough old world isn’t it, Peter?

Oh and by the way, even though non-belief such as atheism is protected under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, it’s silly to call it a faith. Atheism is to religions what “off” is to TV channels.

“In fact, the Christian religion is worse off than all the others because it has to be constantly reminded that it is not the national religion any more.”

Hitchens’ persecution narrative is getting rather boring. He sounds like one of those feral kids getting dragged around Asda screeching, “It’s not fair, it’s not fair”.  Peter, get over yourself. You big baby.

Hitchens should consider himself lucky that, as a Christian in the United Kingdom, he has identical rights to everyone else in this country (if anything he has greater rights). If only his co-religionists in the Middle East and Africa were so lucky. And he should rest assured that were he or any other Christian to have fewer rights than anyone else, they would find me fighting in the same corner as them.

Hitchens would no doubt seek to justify the privileged treatment of Christianity and Christians on the grounds the United Kingdom is a “Christian country”.  Presumably by the same rationale “Muslim countries” should be entitled to water down the human rights of non-Muslims?  That’s a very reassuring message, or implication, to broadcast to his co-religionists in those countries, who find themselves genuinely and horribly persecuted.

“This means regular slaps and humiliations of the kind handed out by occupying powers to troublesome peoples not yet used to being subjugated.”

“The most devastating of these was delivered two years ago by Lord Justice Laws, who personally humbled Lord Carey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, before jeering at religious opinions as ‘irrational’.”

“He intoned: ‘The precepts of any one religion – any belief system – cannot, by force of their religious origins, sound any louder in the general law than the precepts of any other.’”

Here, Hitchens delivers some shocking news: a member of our independent judiciary had the temerity to humble A FORMER ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY. That’s fantastic news! Keeping the judiciary separate from the legislature (in which Carey sits) is a thoroughly good thing. A moment ago Hitchens was complaining about the supposed increased power of the State. Is he now suggesting that closer “co-operation” between these two vital arms of the State would solve that problem?

Hitchens and I are both incredibly fortunate that our judiciary can speak so freely. Were he to speak to some of his co-religionists elsewhere in the world he might get an idea of how things go when judges can’t speak freely, or when religious leaders have the power to intimidate them.

Yes, it was a “devastating” humiliation – but I mean that in a good way. I even quoted this passage in one of my earliest blog posts and I’ll reproduce it here as it’s a ringing, textbook endorsement of secularism:

“The promulgation of law for the protection of a position held purely on religious grounds cannot therefore be justified; it is irrational, as preferring the subjective over the objective, but it is also divisive, capricious and arbitrary. We do not live in a society where all the people share uniform religious beliefs. The precepts of any one religion, any belief system, cannot, by force of their religious origins, sound any louder in the general law than the precepts of any other. If they did, those out in the cold would be less than citizens and our constitution would be on the way to a theocracy, which is of necessity autocratic. The law of a theocracy is dictated without option to the people, not made by their judges and governments. The individual conscience is free to accept such dictated law, but the State, if its people are to be free, has the burdensome duty of thinking for itself.”

“So it is that the law must firmly safeguard the right to hold and express religious beliefs. Equally firmly, it must eschew any protection of such a belief’s content in the name only of its religious credentials. Both principles are necessary conditions of a free and rational regime.”

There’s one thing Hitchens doesn’t mention about this great judge. What was it now? Oh that’s right – that he’s a devout Christian and also a churchwarden. It must have been difficult to include that in his article as it might have forced his readers to think for themselves. And he doesn’t want them to do that now, does he?

“I don’t like this judgment, but it is a deadly accurate statement of the position.”

It’s not only a deadly accurate statement of the position, it’s also a wonderfully solid basis on which to rest an entire legal system.

“This country’s official faith, as people are slowly discovering, is a code of ideas called ‘Equality and Diversity’, based on several European Directives but put into law in Britain mainly through the Equality Act 2010.”

Hitchens demeans human rights by describing them in this way and he undeservedly flatters religion. Human rights are the things that enable people to have a faith or no faith in safety, and without disadvantage (and sadly for Hitchens and other whingers, without advantage either – sorry about that, Pete).

“The continued existence of a few rather wet bishops in the House of Lords, and various other baubles and trinkets in odd corners of the constitution, means nothing against the Equality and Diversity bulldozer, enacted by Harriet Harman with the willing help of her Tory counterpart, Theresa May. Its demands are written into the contracts of public employees, and supported by the politically correct public-sector unions.”

Hitchens’ arrogance and sense of injustice here is something to behold: even having twenty six of his co-religionists installed as of constitutional right in our legislature (hardly “a few”) – and that’s a legislature which makes laws for everyone, not just for Christians – isn’t enough for him as he doesn’t think they’re sufficiently hardline (i.e. not sufficiently in agreement with him). Hardline clerics and legislatures; what a lovely combination. I can’t think of anything that could possibly go wrong there. A bit like priests, young boys and a fearsome code of silence.

“Private firms that do business with the State are roped in. So are (as we have learned in recent years) the owners of small hotels and cafes, adoption agencies, housing associations and councils that have prayers before they meet.”

Quite right. What use are laws, especially laws that ensure all humans are treated equally, if they aren’t compulsory? What if I wanted to refuse to deal with white, heterosexual middle-aged Christians on the grounds of my sincerely held religious beliefs – would that be acceptable to Hitchens?

As for his cheeky remark about councils having prayers “before they meet” let’s stick to the facts, however uncomfortable that may be for Hitchens and some other Christians: the prayers were part of the meeting.

“It controls thought and speech in a new post-modern way. Today’s liberal bigots don’t crudely threaten to throw people in prison for saying things they disapprove of. That might result in protests even from the increasingly spineless people of this country. Instead, they menace our livelihoods. Speak out and you lose your job, with little hope of ever getting another.”

The greatest threat to free thought and speech is not “liberal bigots” but religion. And even where free speech of the religious is unnecessarily restricted, secularists often defend those religious people (for example, see this and this).

“This is, of course, tyrannical and brutal. But because it is not the Gestapo, the Stasi or the Gulag, we don’t recognise it for what it is.”

No it isn’t tyrannical and brutal; Hitchens is being ridiculous. I also get annoyed when I don’t get my own way but I tend to avoid describing my supposed tormenters as “tyrannical” or “brutal” as it overstates my disappointment and devalues those words. It also trivializes the experiences of those suffering genuine harm.

Hitchens needs to get a grip. One of these cases was decided in his favour. Another case was not, because the court felt it was reasonable for a hospital nurse to operate in a safe environment. In the other two cases Christians wanted to deprive fellow human beings of their lawful rights on the grounds of sexuality. And what does Hitchens do? He uses the words “Gestapo”, “Stasi” and “Gulag” to describe the institution which refused to allow them to do this. Ladele and McFarlane weren’t prosecuted; they weren’t criminals and nor should they be. They were just refused a licence to discriminate in the course of their employment. Can’t Hitchens accept that religious freedom has some boundaries and that this was one of them?

“And because it is done in the name of ‘Rights’ – which sound reassuring and friendly – we do not realise that it is, in fact, a deep and shameful wrong. And so it grows worse each day.”

And so it will grow worse for Hitchens and for those of other religions clutching to their deeply-held sense of entitlement and special treatment, until every last shred of religious privilege is removed – in this country and beyond.