Eric Pickles, bad journalism, and fighting for the right to be heard

Eric Pickles, the UK Communities Secretary, has come out recently and said that Britain is a ‘Christian nation’ and that ‘militant atheists’ should just ‘get over it’. This was in the context of defending a law that ensured the rights of councils who wished to pray at the start of public meetings.


That would be worth a post in itself, but it was reading the Telegraph’s article covering it that has made me write this. In it, there is an example of what I think is truly awful journalism.

At best stupid

The piece outlines what Pickles said, but had no reactions or comments from anyone else. Why bother? The Telegraph and its readers are surely expert enough. I mean, surely it’s obvious. Either Pickles is right and atheists should accept we’re a Christian nation and shut up, or Christians should accept we are secular and keep their beliefs to themselves.

I can’t imagine there possibly being a middle ground. Actually, I can. But the Telegraph cannot. This is a poll, inserted half way through the article, so readers can give their opinion:

Screen Shot 2014-04-08 at 16.27.22

(As I write, by the way, about 13,500 people have voted. 31% ticked the first box, 69% the second. For reasons I will give below, I could tick neither box, so did not vote.)

At best this is stupid. It could be that the journalist who wrote this is just uninformed and has no concept of the complexity of the situation. No idea it is possible for ‘religion’ to be something other than EITHER a base of power (a ‘Christian’ nation) that everyone else must get on board with OR something so individual and personal it should never be voiced in public. If so, I question their credentials.

At worst manipulative

If not, though, it’s worse. It’s manipulative. It forces a great big wedge in the debate, polarises opinion, makes people angry with each other and causes a stir. (In so doing, people get riled up enough to post it on Facebook and write blogs about it, driving traffic to their site (Irony noted).)

Let’s say I’m a non-Christian. “I can’t possible tick number one – why would I want to live in a ‘Christian nation’ if I’m not one? – so box two it must be for me. Yeah, we must be secular, and we must protect that secularism by keeping all faith matters private, otherwise those Christian overlords will start dictating again.”

Or maybe I’m a Christian. “A ‘Christian nation’ looks a bit extreme. What’s the alternative? I have to keep my faith private. That sounds scary. That could lead to me being arrested for public faith-based convictions. I’ve heard of that happening to others. Not keen on that. I suppose we do need to be a Christian nation after all.”

In refusing to present any kind of middle ground, The Telegraph subliminally tells us there isn’t one and forces us to set ourselves up in two opposing camps.

nuanceWhat’s the answer, then?

Since I’ve written about my views on this before, I won’t in detail again.

Simply, I can’t tick box one. I do not believe there is any such thing as a ‘Christian nation’. It should never be the place of the church to be in power telling people what to do. Nor can I tick box two. I believe everyone should be able to express their beliefs, act on them, and do so publicly. I believe the church has a prophetic voice into society, not over it.

That paragraph alone (which barely scrapes the surface) contains more nuance than Eric Pickles’s statement and the Telegraph article added together. And that’s the point: we need nuance. Not everything can be argued in 140 characters, or summarised in few enough words that it makes a catchy soundbite. Not every poll can be reduced to two options. Not every policy or position is a simple ‘yes or no’ issue.

The answer is nuance. The answer is letting Christians define what they believe about something, not politicians and not the press. The answer is deeper engagement with issues, not shallower.

And the answer for us Christians is to speak up (with grace and humility) so we can define ourselves, instead of having others tell the world what we’re about.

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  • Graham Criddle

    One of the bizarre things about the article is the last four paragraphs where the journalist seems to go “off-topic” and have a general “go” at Eric Pickles. It’s almost as though he is using this particular statement as a way of commenting adversely about Mr Pickles!

    On the real point of your post, you are absolutely right that this is a complex and nuanced issue which can’t be be simplified to a sound-bite, which is where the media seems to be going more and more.

    • Dave Criddle

      Thanks Dad. I agree that I’m absolutely right! 😉 Also agree this is sadly where things are going, and yeah the article was a bit odd. Made a lot of assumptions about how people would feel about a lot of things. Poor journalism!

  • Adrian Thorp

    To define what are ‘militant atheists” is a view point that no expression of religious faith should be allowed. In reading an article by someone who would label themselves as a militant atheist they were challenged that the one country that fitted there views was North Korea. In an honest answer they replied it was their version of utopia as all faith views are banned. It would be wrong to label all atheists like this as many have no problem is seeing people express their faith. In going back to the article which in my view was poorly written. We are secular country which has a rich history in Christian faith.

    • Dave Criddle

      Agree Adrian. I find that phrase ‘militant atheist’ really unhelpful. It brands someone firm in their opinions and seeking to promote them as being inherently violent and dominant, which is not the case. Their are plenty of reasonably atheists, just as there are plenty of unreasonable Christians!

      Personally I don’t get the obsession with needing to label ourselves as a country, whether as Christian or secular or anything else! We are a country made up of lots of different people, so why try?

      • Gavin Crowley

        Once an atheist starts promoting their opinion they leave behind the world of science and enter the arena of the heart. They often don’t recognise this. I usually see ‘militant’ used as a device to shock them into seeing that in this arena they too rely on the things they often declare to detest; opinion, belief, lack of verifiable evidence.
        The effect is usually to offend without the point getting communicated. I don’t think that there is much room for shortcuts like ‘militant’

        • Dave Criddle

          I think you’re right. If I’m honest, I also think ‘militant’ is used to describe atheists by Christians as an excuse. If we are being attacked by militants, it must be ok to use force to fight back. But it never is, and it just escalates. Name-calling is never helpful!

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  • James L

    Thanks for this Dave, I found the same with the poll in the article, it’s a complete false dichotomy that will only serve to push people towards either extreme by implying that those are the only options available!
    A few thoughts: On ‘militant atheists’, I think the term can be legitimately be applied to some people, as there are certainly those around who really would like to see all semblance of religion obliterated from society. They may be a vocal minority (and certainly over-represented in the comment threads on Guardian Comment is Free articles!), but they do fit that description quite well in their complete unwillingness to consider that they might not be entirely right. The problem is when the term is used to tar all atheists with the same brush. Further, there are certainly Christians about who fit the ‘militant’ description and are marked by a stridency and disdain for non-Christians that is very much lacking in grace and humility.
    Just picking up on Adrian’s comment that we are a ‘secular country’, I hope it’s not overly pedantic to note that it is precisely because we are not a ‘secular country’ (in the way that France is) that this debate is so complex. Perhaps a better way is to say we have a (largely) secular ‘culture’ that sits uncomfortably alongside a religiously-established (i.e. Anglican) state, even if in most ways this is largely ceremonial. The fact that each day in Parliament starts with Prayers in the chamber is a demonstration of that.
    As to Mr Pickles, it is certainly not the first time he’s pushed this particular argument. While there is certainly a validity in emphasising the fact that Christians (and other religious groups) should have freedom to be active in the public square, it is often blended with an implied dig at the supposedly ‘secular’ New Labour government (with the obligatory quote from Alastair Campbell), which is a misrepresentation of their previous government’s attitude. So while what he’s saying about religious freedom is not intrinsically a bad thing, it is undermined by using straw men as his targets, as cases of ‘politically correct militant atheism’ are much less common than he implies.
    Anyway, that’s quite enough chuntering on from me, best get back to work… appreciate your blogging! :-)

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