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Occupy the Cathedral? Is religion relevant to effecting change?

October 28, 2011

I was going to talk about some social concepts that might be discussed around braziers and in General Assemblies but, with the Church of England seeking an injunction for the forcible removal of protesters from in front of St Paul’s, and the resignation of Canon Giles Fraser, I want to ask, with Mammon seriously compromised, is religion relevant?

First, my declaration of bias. I have a spiritual side, but this is something that’s very much between me and my Gods and the forces of Nature (sic) that make up the observable (and less observable) universe. I’m not in any way religious, in the sense that I don’t subscribe to doctrine. When it comes to my politics, I’m strictly secular, even downright humanist. When it comes to interpreting observations of the physical universe, I’m a scientist, accepting the basic principles of Neo-Darwinism, and so on. I regard many of the tenets of faith-based religion as almost as bizarre as some of the tenets of modern economics.

I say almost as bizarre. Surely one is based on faith; the other on reason. Well, to a point. I’ll happily sit and refute Creationism and its strange offspring Intelligent Design, but one cannot prove or disprove the existence of God. The proper response of a scientist to the existence of God is agnosticism (although the proper response of the scientist to an omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent creator is refutation). The same cannot be said of edicts of faith like the free movement of the means of production: that faith-based statement is demonstrably false, and one of many lies peddled to keep the rest of us in line. If you don’t have a job, you can always move, without restriction, to where there is a job, so if you don’t have a job, then it’s your fault. The reasoning person dismisses this as blatant twaddle, which says a lot about those who continue to parrot it.

Where was I? St Paul’s.

The situation at the time of writing is that the staff at St Paul’s Cathedral are in collusion with the City of London Corporation to permit a forcible eviction of peaceful protesters camped outside the church. Canon Giles Fraser, who previously told police that the Cathedral did not need protection from a group of chilled demonstrators whose target was moneylenders, not the temple, has resigned. The rest of the staff at St Paul’s appear more worried about loss of income than about social justice. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, usually one of the most vocal proponents of social justice in the Church of England, has been uncharacteristically silent (or silenced).

Of the world’s great religions, who is taking sides? Of course, it’s hard to generalise about religious groups with up to hundreds of millions of adherents, any more than it’s possible to generalise about the disparate individuals making up the Occupy protests.

The CofE hierarchy is obviously taking sides: with the usurers. Anyone who disagrees is out. The Catholic news media seems to mostly be repeating what Fox is telling it, peddling the myth that some protesters are being paid $10 a day, and making a fuss about a group called ACORN, which was involved with community organising, the enfranchisement of poor people, an apparently limited gay rights agenda, along with some evidence of embezzlement of funds. It’s not clear exactly what the Catholic Church most objected to but, again, they are mostly taking sides against the protests.

(Apparently ACORN, or a direct successor, are paying protesters $10 a day to protest: the fact that ACORN is bankrupt has been forgotten, or ignored, by Fox, who are peddling this lie.)

The best the Vatican can come up with is a demand from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace for banking reform, including global authority – a stance guaranteed to lead to an authority run by the same people running the show at present. Personally, I’m not surprised at the Catholic Church’s stance, given the amount of money locked up by the Vatican.

In contrast, the Jewish community has been conspicuous by its presence at some demonstrations, including Yom Kippur services at the protests at Zuccotti Park, Philadelphia and Boston. As Dan Siederaski, who organised the event in New York pointed out, “Kol Nidre reminds us that though we make commitments under duress, ultimately we are accountable only to the higher values of justice and righteousness.” Rabbi Yonah Bookstein has published a useful reminder of principles and action in non-violent protest. I could go on.

Likewise, a number of Muslim groups, including the Council for American-Islamic Relations, have become involved with Occupy protests, most notably at Wall Street, where they have held Friday prayers, concentrating on the issue on usury.

Many Buddhist figures have spoken out in support: Buddhism is of course somewhat less organised than other religions (the pedant accepts that it may be argued whether Buddhism is a religion at all, but that’s beside the point here). Their view seems to be that we’re supporting social justice against the powerful few, and that is more than compatible with their faith. Some see it as a move towards a restoration of balance, which my own spiritual side relates to.

Hinduism seems, sadly, silent. On the other hand, Hinduism is also less recognisable as a religion compared to the more familiar monotheistic systems of the west. It may be difficult for Hindu groups to come together and make a stand. Perhaps, to any Hindu reading this, that time might be now.

I started this entry expecting to end with general condemnation, indicating the irrelevance of religion in public discourse but, in fairness, I need to temper that. Many religions have edicts against moneylending. Others – in some ways all – express views on social justice. So why is the Vatican either silent or allowing its mouthpieces to repeat the lies of Fox “News”? Why are the senior figures in the Church of England going along with demands to forcibly remove peaceful protesters from the steps of the Cathedral.

To be fair, some Christian groups have also become involved, mostly again at Wall Street but, in public, they are mostly siding with the establishment. Don’t get me wrong: I know decent Christians who are involved with the protests. That’s not at issue. What is at issue is the men (mostly!) in charge.

It might be argued that I’m being inconsistent. My friends know that I’ve said often enough that religion has no place in public debate. I stand by that, but there is a subtle distinction: we are talking about three different things. One one side, you have religious institutions like The Vatican Incorporated demanding recognition because they are big religions, putting pressure on governments to toe their line – often a homophobic, misogynist line. That is simply contemptible.

Secondly, you have parts of religious groups acting in their own financial interest, and against their own stated principles of justice and fairness. This is the position of Richard Chartres and Graeme Knowles at St Paul’s, and is a disgrace.

Then you have individuals who are religious acting according to the precepts of their religion. The fact that I agree as a secularist that moneylending is an inherently dodgy activity, that supporting social justice is generally to be applauded, and that a healthy balance is a good thing is not especially relevant. I might happily disagree, even quite strenuously, about some of the other teachings of some of those religions, but at that point we can always sit down and discuss those teachings like adults. That kind of activity is quite in keeping with the methods and ideals of the occupation movement.

Now, I’m no expert on the Christian Bible, but I remember a story about some chap who went into a temple, objected to the economic activity taking place there, and started overturning tables. I think his name was Jesus, and I think he had substantial influence on the development of the modern Christian Church. I think he also said some things about being nice to the poor.

Under the circumstances, can it be said that the Church of England should be permitting people who object to the usurious activity of the institutions of the City of London to sleep out in the cold? Of course not. They should be given shelter in the Cathedral. It’s a big place, with more than enough room for both them and for the Cathedral to continue with its usual activities of praying and making money. At the very least they need to be speaking out in favour of people who are acting in a way compatible with their teaching, even if they don’t follow their religion.

Sadly, that’s not likely to happen. The attitude of the Dean seems to be that the protest is there only to make a point, even offering “debate”, on condition the protester leave. It’s not: the protest is there to effect change. Some of the protesters have even thrashed out a list of demands: these demands are only of relevance to the City of London (in summary: accountability), not particularly of wider relevance, but that’s part of what the broader process is about. The Dean won’t even, it seems, support those demands.

Perhaps it’s also an opportunity for broader redemption. The misdeeds of some individuals in the name of Islam do not reflect the religion as a whole any more than the crimes and subsequent cover-ups of sexual abuse by some Catholic priests reflect the entire Christian Church, but that doesn’t change the fact that damage has been done, and broader reputations badly damaged. This might be a chance for the world’s great religions to actually stand up for the poor and vulnerable. If they do not, they will support the view that I held when I started writing this afternoon: that religion is as much of a problem as neo-Classical economics, and as much of an anachronistic irrelevance.

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