Tag Archives: religion

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Religion, Society and the Woolwich Murder

The continued belief in religion is a symbol of the failure of multiculturalism; immigrants, and their subsequent families, are feeling like outsiders in the country they have chosen to call home and subsequently turn to things they know to be familiar in their own culture.

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[dropcap]O[/dropcap]n Wednesday 22nd May, the brutal murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich shocked Britain. To state the obvious, the murder was unjustifiable and downright sickening. Nobody would make any attempt to contend that point, and nor would anyone, of sane mind, begin to attempt to justify the actions of the killers. Undoubtedly, the death of anyone is a humbling event and the tragedy in loss of life cannot be questioned. Yet, over the course of just 24 hours I’ve heard a host of opinions on the matter – none of which, in my eyes, come even close to exactly what the worst thing about this whole thing is.

I don’t have any plans to entertain the opinion of racists, or those who stereotype and discriminate in the most uneducated way. For the most part, I think Britain is in agreement that the killers do not represent any faction of Islam – the notable exception being the so-called English Defence League (whose overwhelming membership can be summed up by a delightful video). An opinion that I have found to be extremely common is one that emphasises the harmful role of religion. In this respect, I fully agree; religion has unparalleled power in the lives of ‘believers’. It must be stressed that this is the case in all religions: Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and indeed Islam. By virtue of the sheer profundity of their beliefs religious followers have the capacity to be further indoctrinated – and so extremism is born.

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. (Karl Marx, Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Introduction, p. 1, 1843)

If you had to make a list of quotes that had been overused, misquoted, and taken well out of context, Karl Marx’s reference to religion would be high up there. Few understand that Marx’s critique of religion is not actually that – it is a critique of society. People are quick, and perhaps with reasonable justification, to criticise the role played by religion for a variety of reasons: a) religious extremism fuels the majority of terrorism, b) religion advocates a number of prejudices and outdated laws, and c) religion highlights the incompatible blend of cultures. Religion does all these things, but what if religion is the symptom rather than the disease?

Why is it that, in a country as educated as Britain, that people choose to ignore scientific evidence and subject themselves to the subordination of a deity or scriptures? In the less economically developed world religion acts as an outlet of hope, born out of intrinsic necessity in such insufferable conditions. Thus, the only discernible conclusion to make is that the fulfilment gained from social bonds and interactions is inadequate; people turn to religion as a result of a broken society. In all respects it is true that the madmen who acted so horrifically in Woolwich were not acting out on the behest of social shortcomings, but their initial turn to religion was probably because of this.

The continued belief in religion is a symbol of the failure of multiculturalism; immigrants, and their subsequent families, are feeling like outsiders in the country they have chosen to call home and subsequently turn to things they know to be familiar in their own culture. It is a damning indictment of British society and social policy, that religion takes precedence over a British national identity. Never has it been more evident, than from the thick British accent of a terrorist, that certain communities are becoming isolated and alienated from the rest of British society. Obviously, this is not a justification for terrorism – I can only place that as a consequence of immoral, unscrupulous thinking, if not outright insanity. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for people believing in what they want to believe, it just shouldn’t come at the expense of national pride – British togetherness. It is a sad fact that, because of our broken society, notions of national belonging and identity play second fiddle to religious beliefs.

Religion did not cause the events of Woolwich. However, if religion had not existed – if the killers had been secular, it would have been hard to imagine the barbaric murder of a soldier taking place, as it happened.

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Photo Credit: Mig_R

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Monotheism’s Importance To International Relations

Christianity, Islam and Judaism, along with their own institutions, have contributed to the shape of many vital political concepts.

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The relationship between religion and international politics has been often characterized by mutual suspicion and conceptual misunderstandings as a result of unsuccessful and flawed analyses about their interaction. However, accounting for religion as an intervening variable in world politics can not be entirely dismissed: from a sociological and constructivist standpoint, the field of faith can provide us with relevant and helpful insights for explaining the evolution of some political concepts.

As far as the three Abrahamic religions are concerned (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism), historical and comparative analyses show us how religion might be a useful explanatory tool for grasping complex structural phenomena. In fact, far from suggesting any pretentious and inconsistent theory of “religion in world politics”, I will be focusing on monotheism as the basis for the exercise and theorization of sovereignty, social mobilization and civil society.

To begin with, according to Daniel Philpott, the so-called ‘Westphalian System’ of modern states, based in the modern conception of state sovereignty, was built on religious grounds in Europe. Before 1648, political Europe was characterized by deeply fragmented forms of sovereignty, although transcontinental institutions such as the Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire, ruled this broad geopolitical arena through what John Sidel has called the interwoven area between “non-territorial” and material power (powers over land, taxation, and local officials). As a result, the Christian authority represented the embryonic stage of a complex state system, which was later institutionalized through the thirty-year experience of inter-religious conflicts, ending with the Treaty of Westphalia.

Previously, the 16th century had marked the rise of the Protestant Reformation within the Christian world. Calvinism, in association with the structural consequences unleashed by the interaction between transcontinental institutions and pre-existing and scattered forms of sovereignty, played a meaningful role in determining the rise of the state. As Philip Gorski cleverly points out, the Protestant Reformation laid the foundations of a “disciplinary revolution”, which made available the necessary discipline for political control. More importantly, in addition to this cultural feature, the Calvinist church provided the modern state thanks to its own power relation with local communities and government.

If Christianity, and related institutions, have played a substantial role within the development of sovereignty and the modern state-system, Islam has to be mentioned as mobilizing factors in world politics. Islam laid down its bases during the 18th and 19th century. Indeed, European colonialism stretched its arms over Muslim lands, such as in the Indian Ocean where the Portuguese, Dutch and British powers intensified forms of imperial and colonial control. In these lands, the aforementioned imperial powers applied the same political and organizational tenet: the extension of Christian extra-territorial sovereignty founded on the basis of religion.

In the 20th century two remarkable occurrences took place: the creation of new networks of Islamic intellectuals and activists on one hand; and the instrumental use of Islam in domestic and foreign policy against the colonial encroachment on the other. The interaction between these two political and social consequences strengthened the rally ‘round effect of religion in the international realm, especially since the rise of new media and the improvement of communication among Muslims. As a matter of fact, both the rise of Al Qa’ida in the last thirty years (as a counter-hegemonic force against the Soviet Union during the Cold war, and more recently the United States), and the state sponsorship of Islamic movements by Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan, confirm the political clout of Islam in international affairs.

Finally, an overlooked case deserves to be taken into account: Judaism. In his latest book, Michael Walzer stresses the constraining role of Judaism in managing political power: drawing from the philosophical work of Nietzsche, even Walzer identifies the Hebrew Bible as a text against the will of power, as turned by humans against one another. Generally speaking, the Hebrew Bible is concerned with the use, abuse and justification of power by governments. Moreover, Walzer enriches the analysis of Judaism by underlying its role in elaborating a successfully theory of society, conceived as a self-help structure: indeed, the Jews have been able to survive as a society, and without formal political institutions, over the course of history. For such a reason, this religious text continues to be compelling and relevant, and further studies should be provided in order to understand evolution and interaction between civilizations.

Far from being thorough and exhaustive, this article aims at suggesting a more serious account of the role of religion in international relations. As these few words have witnessed, Christianity, Islam and Judaism, along with their own institutions, have contributed to the shape of some important political concepts. All of them, in particular, can serve as “autonomous public spaces and as a countervailing power to state power”, by creating a “particular kind of civil society and associational life.

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Photo Credit: Ian Sane

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The Episcopal Question: The Role Of Women In The Church

The nature of the Church’s enduring internal disagreement is the consequence of a belief, perhaps now held only among a few extremists, that an omnipotent authority has made demands of the sexes and that to ignore his will is to invite punishment.

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The General Synod’s failure to grant women the right to episcopal equality in November has ensured that the long-debated issue over women bishops will remain vociferously debated among believers for years to come. The problem is considerably important, not only to the faithful but also to British politics and society, in a number of ways. Firstly, as Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society has argued, the Synod’s vote is further evidence that the Church of England is not an appropriate political mechanism with which the state should be constitutionally intertwined. Sanderson highlights that denying the privileges and opportunities associated with the Church according to gender – a public institution – is a policy incompatible with the British government and its laws. However, secularists must be cautious before rushing to criticise the Church as a whole for the failures of its evangelical minority.

The Houses of Bishops and Clergy overwhelmingly approved consecration rights for women, while the House of Laity was short of the two-thirds majority required by six votes. While there is some considerable conflict between the evangelical and moderate wings of the House of Laity, it is appropriate to say that the Church as a whole has decided to support women in their pursuit of episcopal equality. Indeed, figures in the church have grown increasingly critical of the Synod’s voting system in light of the influence such a small opposition seems to have had on the result of the vote. In this case, it would seem that the theology and faith of a minority within the church has acted as a barrier to the wishes of the majority, in detriment to the pursuit of wider well-being for the believing community. This presents a fundamental problem for religious institutions that must be dealt with honestly and soon. Secular institutions have no divine mandate to separate men from women or to promote men above women, but the minority of evangelicals opposed to episcopal equality insist on deferring to God, who has apparently decided that each gender must have ‘different roles’ in the Church as in society. It is this deference that has prevented women from enjoying the same opportunities as men within the Church.

The struggle for equal rights in the Church serves as a reminder that religious belief is no guarantee of moral superiority or social foundation, precisely because of residual traditionalism and the sway still afforded to hardliners. The suggestion by Eric Pickles that we should ‘embrace the religious character of our nation’ – both that of the Church of England and of Catholicism – cannot be taken seriously when the Church’s long struggle to grant equality to its own members is kept in mind. Moreover, the wider hypocrisy of Christianity’s claims to moral authority is reinforced whenever we hear of some or other cleric’s spiteful remarks about homosexuality and marriage equality. Some may argue that opponents of equal marriage and episcopal equality take their positions for moral or spiritually important reasons, but who can measure the pain and frustration caused by these remarks and the petulant obstructionism than accompanies them? Are we really to say that these enduring struggles are evidence of a divinely inspired belief system?

Justin Welby, the incoming Archbishop of Canterbury, expressed his dismay following the House of Laity’s decision, tweeting, ‘Very grim day, most of all for women priests and supporters, need to surround all with prayer & love and co-operate with our healing God.’ These remarks mean well, but they highlight a lack of understanding as to the fundamental conflict between secular equality and religious privilege. If those in favour of episcopal equality are to eventually triumph in this particular struggle, they must speak honestly about how the debate emerged in the first place. The nature of the Church’s enduring internal disagreement is the consequence of a belief, perhaps now held only among a few extremists, that an omnipotent authority has made demands of the sexes and that to ignore his will is to invite punishment. Secular institutions are unshackled by such beliefs and can make moral decisions based on human compassion without heavenly guidance. Given the largely male-dominated focus of religious doctrine and the kinds of authority it prescribes, it is no coincidence that religious institutions such as the Church of England are forced to grapple as they have with the prospect of powerful women.

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Photo credit: Alan Stanton

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The Peculiar Influence Of The Church of England

Given the influence of the Church of England and the claims it makes on issues such as the law and equal marriage, its new Archbishop has a responsibility to provide a transparent account of his views so that they can be properly scrutinised.

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While it is often said that the United States is politically and socially religious to a considerable extent, it is worth remembering that it is constitutionally secular. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment protects the right of every religious group to practice their faith privately, while ensuring that no one group receives advantageous treatment over others via funding or expressions of support from the state. It has also allowed for the establishment of non-religious executive, legislative and judicial branches of the US government, each free from the prejudices inherent in theocratic systems. This luxury, however, is not afforded to British citizens, who are instead expected to accept that the clergy of the Church of England, the dominant sect, will sit in the legislative house adjacent to that of the country’s elected representatives. Moreover, the monarch rather than the Prime Minister is the ultimate head of state and of the state religion, and while this intimate relationship between our democratic and royal institutions is often viewed as little more than a benign tradition, it remains a potential risk to political representation and social equality.

One of the by-products of this fusion of church and state has been the prominence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, whose commentary on social and political issues is often given a generous amount of coverage in the media. Dr Rowan Williams, who is now stepping down from the post, has frequently commented on issues ranging from economic justice to western foreign policy. However, while Dr Williams is entitled to express his views on these and any other issues, his responsibilities as a political as well as a religious figure mean that his opinions deserve the same critical scrutiny afforded to other political leaders.

Dr Williams’ suggestion in 2008 that elements of Islamic law should be accommodated in the UK provides a useful example of why this scrutiny is so important. While ultimately inconsequential, these comments nonetheless reflect claims about the nature and development of the judicial system. They also reflects a need among advocates of church and state cooperation to accommodate numerous religious groups, in a similar sense to the proposed inclusion of multiple faith representatives in the House of Lords. On the surface, such suggestions may seem to appeal to representation and fairness, but in reality they reinforce the exclusion of minor faiths and unbelievers while empowering major religious traditions undeservedly. Avoiding this discrimination is one of the main advantages of the US political system, which, instead of trying to cater for numerous faiths, separates all religion equally from the state. Far from constituting oppression of religious freedom, this method succeeds in preventing it. Crucially, Dr Williams’ comments on Islamic law suggest that the Archbishop of Canterbury is not only a participant in political discourse but can also seek to influence and develop it in ways that other religious and non-religious individuals cannot.

This unique influence can also be seen in religious resistance to equal marriage. On its website, the Church of England describes ‘the enduring place of the established church in providing marriages that have full state recognition,’ and has also claimed that marriage equality could threaten religious establishment in the UK. Moreover, Dr Williams’ replacement Justin Welby has maintained his opposition to equal marriage while simultaneously offering a vague commitment to re-examining his views ‘prayerfully and carefully’. In light of this, it is clear that while religion in the UK may resemble a ceremonial oddity, the views of leading figures on the validity of marriage could have a direct impact on the civil rights of individuals in society. These individuals, as well as advocates of an equal and fair legal system, deserve better than ambiguous spiritual statements of reflection and prayer from the leadership of the Church.

The political prominence of this leadership is indicative of a constitutional framework that places one religious doctrine above all others and insists on fusing it with the operations of the state. This structure is more than a mere historical peculiarity, and exists in opposition to the ideals of a modern and inclusive democracy. Given the potentially tangible influence of the Church of England, and the bold claims it makes on issues such as the law and equal marriage, Justin Welby has a responsibility, not only to religious believers but to every citizen, to provide a clear and transparent account of his views so that they may be properly scrutinised.

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Photo Credit: Better Than Bacon

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Circumcision & The Dangers Of Force-Fed Belief

While undoubtedly more of a challenge, affording young people the opportunity to learn for themselves is far more rewarding than force-feeding them their beliefs in infancy.

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In early September, a demonstration took place in Berlin to protest the decision of a German court in June that prohibited circumcision on the grounds that the practice amounts to ‘bodily harm’. The ruling, which argued that the ‘fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighed the fundamental rights of the parents,’ has been met with animosity by Jews and Muslims, with additional anger aimed at German Chancellor Angela Merkel. There has since been much debate over the medical benefits and dangers of circumcision, with a report in August by the American Academy of Pediatrics suggesting that ‘the health benefits of newborn male circumcision outweigh the risks.’ However, the medical debate around circumcision is only one aspect of a much deeper issue regarding the implications for a child’s development once the procedure is complete. Indeed, when medical issues are left to one side, circumcision still deserves our critical attention because it presents a number of important ethical and intellectual problems.

Perhaps most importantly, performing religious circumcision violates the intellectual privacy of the child. By surgically altering or damaging the genitals for religious reasons, the child is forced to enter into a relationship with a particular god before he is even made aware of spiritual concepts or ideas. As it is morally reprehensible to force an adult to worship a particular way or pray to particular god, and it should be no different for those who cannot yet speak for themselves. The decision to enter into a special bond with a deity is not one to be taken lightly by the most intellectual developed and mature of us, so it is unlikely that a baby could make such a decision convincingly.

Equally unconvincing is the claim that circumcision represents some kind of sacrifice or proof of community with the deity. Even if the virtue of faith and religious servitude is granted, neither of these attributes can be sincerely awarded to a circumcised infant, precisely because the child did not decide for himself. A sacrifice made without consent is hardly a resounding endorsement of faith by the child, rendering false the religious claim of humility or the idea of giving oneself to God by the act of circumcision. The act of entering into the religion in question becomes a meaningless gesture over which the child has no control. It would mean more to allow the child room to grow intellectually, and then to present to him the theological and philosophical choices on offer at a more mature age. The decision to enter into Judaism or Islam would arguably be far more impressive and sincere in that case, and would presumably point more convincingly to the credibility of the chosen religious doctrine.

As Church of England priest and Guardian contributor Dr Giles Fraser concedes, religious circumcision is primarily about ignoring the notion of choice in favour of compulsory religious identity. Fraser argues that choice is simply an expression of liberalism, which, as he puts it, represents ‘a diminished form of the moral imagination’, but what he fails to notice is that the power of choice still plays a role in circumcision. Fraser simply transfers the power of choice from the child to the parents. It is not the decision of the affected individual to be circumcised but the decision of the parents and religious officials to enter the child into a religious doctrine. The fact that adults control choice in the matter undermines the argument that religion is a statement of what a person is rather than what a person believes, because it means that the child did not arrive at his faith naturally; rather, was entered into it by his elders.

Many may find it strange or even disturbing to read of Fraser’s disappointment that his own son is not circumcised, and he best demonstrates the negative emotional impact that practices like circumcision can have when he says, ‘I have always found this extremely difficult to deal with. On some level, I feel like a betrayer.’ This is unfortunate, because allowing children to think for themselves should be considered a source of pride, rather than guilt. While undoubtedly more of a challenge, affording young people the opportunity to learn for themselves is far more rewarding than force-feeding them their beliefs in infancy.

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Photo Credit: paul nine-o

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Sleepwalking Into Segregation?

As part of our series on multiculturalism, Patrick McGhee questions Trevor Phillips’ statement that we are ‘sleepwalking into segregation’. 

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In 2005, the now outgoing Chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Phillips (pictured), responded to the 7/7 terrorist attacks in London by suggesting that Britain was ‘sleepwalking into segregation,’ adding that ‘we are becoming strangers to each other and leaving communities to be marooned outside the mainstream’. Phillips’ warnings about the dangers of segregation were met with scepticism by academics citing a lack of evidence behind his claims, but his arguments have unfortunately been more broadly undermined by the wider preferential views he has expressed towards religion over secularism.

In an interview with The Sunday Telegraph last year, Phillips expressed concerns about growing criticism of religion, commenting that ‘faith identity is part of what makes life richer and more meaningful for the individual. It is a fundamental part of what makes some societies better than others in my view’. He later added that religion is ‘an essential element of being a fulfilled human being’. The statements overtly suggested a superiority of faith over non-faith, not only as a means to live an individual life, but to excel as a society. These views have prompted condemnation from the British Humanist Association, and are disappointing given Phillips’ supposed commitment to equality. Crucially, the comments are also symptomatic of a wider imbalance between religion and the state. As Phillips himself has since suggested, far from facilitating improvement, the prioritisation of religion in society can often have dangerous consequences for both societies and the individuals within them.

There are numerous instances of religious interests denying important medical treatment to those most in need. Just this week, doctors have argued that faith in miraculous solutions is directly undermining efforts to ease the suffering of terminally ill children. Meanwhile in Russia, the trial of three punk band members over a protest at Moscow’s central Orthodox church has paid a disproportionate amount of attention to often farcical spiritual testimony at the expense of a fair trial. Both healthcare and the judicial process are aspects of society that have repeatedly been undermined by religious interference, frequently with the support of a close relationship between church and state. Perhaps most relevant to Britain and the debate around multiculturalism, however, is the issue of faith schools.

A piece for The Guardian by the chief executive of the British Humanist Association Andrew Copson makes the case against faith-based schools, citing exclusivity and fraudulent teachings as evidence that they are detrimental rather than conducive to human fulfillment. In this sense, educational institutions formed around religious traditions are directly and necessarily responsible for the segregation Trevor Phillips talked about. Separating young people into religious categories can promote lasting division and undermines the idea of real community. Instead, only a series of insular units are offered, and young people are often required to accept the tag they are given. More broadly, this system suggests that religion serves some special moral or intellectual function that cannot be performed adequately by schools unsupported by religious doctrine.

It is this notion of the moral superiority of religion that individuals such as Trevor Phillips have openly supported. It is claimed that societies are better or worse depending on how spiritual they can be, and that attempts to critique religion or its doctrines must be an attack on society itself. In reality, placing a protective shield around religion hinders our understanding of different faiths because it prevents open discussion around the merits of each tradition and its role in society. Institutions requiring objectivity, such as medical care, justice and education do not benefit from the intrusions of any special interest. If we are unable to make responsible judgements about how spirituality and faith affect these institutions, we risk failure in the pursuit of human well-being.

Just as political opinions should be open to scrutiny and criticism, so too should religious traditions, and while we are bold to desire diversity, we should not assume that faith is off limits to debate. If this assumption is not dispelled, we may yet become strangers to one another: Trevor Phillips’ preference for religion is contributing to our communal sleepwalk into segregation.

US Presidential Election Roundup: 05/8 – 11/8

This week’s roundup of the US presidential elections…

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Romney attacks Obama over military voting [The Hill] Mitt Romney has criticised the Obama campaign for attempting to prevent a law that would extend the early voting period for military personnel.

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Obama policies under fire [Huffington Post] Mitt Romney has accused President Obama of ‘an extraordinary series of policy failures’ in the wake of a recent report on jobs.

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‘Apologies are in the air’ [Washington Post] The Washington Post rounds up a series of apologies from both the Obama and the Romney campaigns from the past two weeks.

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Romney supports Senate contender [CNN] Mitt Romney has campaigned in Indiana alongside Republican candidate for Senate Richard Mourdock.

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Obama ad attacks Romney on Planned Parenthood [Political Wire] A new campaign ad has criticised Mitt Romney’s stance on contraception and Planned Parenthood funding.

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Wealthy will ‘do just fine’ says Romney [CBS] Mitt Romney has said that the wealthiest Americans will ‘do just fine’ regardless of the outcome of the presidential election.

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Reid branded ‘liar’ by Republicans [The Guardian] The majority leader of the Senate Harry Reid has been accused of lying after claiming that Romney paid no taxes for ten years.

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Republican convention speakers announced [Huffington Post] The Republican National Committee has confirmed that Senator John McCain and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will be among the speakers at the Republican National Convention.

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July sees Romney raise over $100 million [ABC] The Romney campaign raised $101 million in July, it was announced this week.

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Obama predicted to exceed fundraising record [Politico] Although behind his Republican opponent, President Obama is expected to surpass the $750 million raised by his first election campaign.

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Jewish organisation demands Romney apology [The Hill] Jewish Voice for Peace has called on Mitt Romney to apologise to the Palestinians after comments made by the Republican frontrunner in Jerusalem last week.

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More convention speakers revealed [Huffington Post] Rick Santorum and Ron Paul will be among those joining John McCain and Condoleezza Rice as speakers at the Republican National Convention.

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Romney challenges Reid over tax accusation [Fox News] Mitt Romney has requested that Senate leader Harry Reid reveals the source behind his claims about the Republican contender’s tax affairs.

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‘Obamaloney’ [CNN] President Obama’s criticism of Mitt Romney’s tax policies as being ‘Robin Hood in reverse’ has been described as ‘Obamaloney’ by the Republican presidential hopeful.

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Republicans label Obama ad ‘dishonest’ [Telegraph] Republicans have criticised a campaign ad from the Priorities USA Action Super PAC for suggesting that Mitt Romney and Bain Capital may have been responsible for the death of a former employee.

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Obama maintains Colorado lead [Politico] A new poll has found that President Obama’s lead over Mitt Romney in the battleground state of Colorado has remained at around 49% to 43%.

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Obama appeals to women in Colorado [Politico] President Obama has spoken about the benefits of his healthcare reforms for women during a campaign trip to Colorado.

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Spokesperson promotes Romney health law [CNN] The Romney campaign has spoken about the successes of the Massachusetts healthcare law passed by the Republican contender.

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Obama waging 'war on religion' says Romney ad [CBS] A new campaign ad from the Romney campaign has accused President Obama of threatening religious freedom.

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Polls show Obama lead [Political Wire] A poll for CNN shows that President Obama is seven points ahead of his Republican rival, while a Fox News poll gives Obama a nine point lead.

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Democratic National Convention to feature Republicans [Politico] Planning papers for the Democratic National Convention have revealed that the event will feature Republican speakers.

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Romney leading in Iowa poll [Politico] A Rasmussen poll gives Romney a two point lead over President Obama.

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Paul Ryan to be named VP [Reuters] Congressman Paul Ryan is expected to be announced as Mitt Romney’s running mate.

Compiled by Patrick McGhee.

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The Pussy Riot Trial: Russia’s Resurgent Religious Right

Crucially, the Pussy Riot trial is important not only because it carries implications for the integrity and credibility of the Russian judicial system, but also because it is evidence of the country’s resurgent religious right wing. 

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The BBC Trust ruled last week that Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman’s use of the phrases ‘religious hogwash’ and ‘stupid people’ during an interview about religion ‘breached the editorial guidelines on harm and offence’ because the words may have unintentionally upset religious viewers. The ruling was the result of just one complaint, raising serious questions about the disproportionate weight of the offended individual in swaying the process of open debate, but the apparent power of religious upset in manipulating rational decision-making can have even more dangerous consequences for justice and those it should serve around the world.

In the same week, it was reported that a 23-year-old mother had been sentenced to death by stoning in Sudan after being found guilty of committing adultery. The sentence comes after the Sudanese President articulated support for an entirely Islamic constitution in July, and has been condemned by Amnesty International. In a statement, Amnesty has specifically called attention to the unfair nature of the woman’s trial, in which they say ‘she was convicted solely on the basis of her confession and did not have access to a lawyer.’

Meanwhile, three members of the punk band Pussy Riot, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alyokhina, have been detained in Russia since early March after performing an anti-Putin dance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. The women have been charged with ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred’ by the court, facing up to seven years of imprisonment if convicted for their brief demonstration.

The trial began on 30th July and an interesting account by Pyotr Verzilov, husband of one of the accused, has described court proceedings from his perspective, detailing the court’s attitude towards the press and the conditions in which the three detainees are being tried. The Guardian reports that lawyers for the defendants have openly criticised the reportedly exhausting and unfair trial environment, with one stating: ‘this is one of the most shameful trials in modern Russia. In Soviet times, at least they followed some sort of procedure’.

Crucially, the trial is important not only because it carries implications for the integrity and credibility of the Russian judicial system, but also because it is evidence of the country’s resurgent religious right wing. As the writer Wayne K. Spear argues, it is important to note that this resurgence has been reinforced by the cosy relationship between President Vladimir Putin and Russia’s Orthodox Church, reflected in early February by Orthodox leader Patriarch Kirill’s description of Putin’s previous two terms in office as ‘a miracle of God’.

Despite an unconvincing call for leniency from Putin, the distinctly religious nature of the complaints made against the accused demonstrates the dangers presented by influence of religion in Russia’s legal framework. Witnesses for the prosecution have repeatedly implied a paranoid fear of the supernatural, as well as belief in literal hell, ‘black energy’ and divine judgement. Verzilov’s diary notes that one witness described the ‘devilish twitching’ of the protesters, while another complained of ‘spiritual trauma’ in the wake of their demonstration. It has also been reported that one witness deplored the role of the internet in spreading Satanism, accusing the three women of having ‘lowered themselves into hell’ with their actions. Questions from the prosecution have been no less focused on trivial expressions of offence, with the Guardian reporting that witnesses were asked about the meaning of their faith and how offended they were at the clothing worn by the protesters.

The tone of this dialogue underscores a religious sentiment that may have persisted in Russia since the Tsarist era, as the late writer and journalist Christopher Hitchens often suggested. In this sense, state support for the Orthodox Church may not be directly responsible for the faith-based fury surrounding the trial, but the overtly spiritual content of the prosecution’s case is a symptom of deterioration within Russia’s constitutional separation of church and state. As the verdict draws closer, it is clear that the increasing power and influence of the Orthodox Church is denying the Russian people a strong legal system blind to the special interests of religious tradition and uninterested in accusations of blasphemy, no matter how many claim to be offended by it.

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Sexual Health & The Need For Secularism

Despite the absence of a codified constitution in the UK that explicitly separates religion from the state, it would nonetheless be heartening to see the Education Secretary take a more objective and inclusive approach to education, especially when the sexual health of young people hangs in the balance.

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As the International AIDS Conference in Washington D.C. draws to a close, it is worth keeping in mind not only the efforts being made in the struggle against the disease but also the obstacles that have attempted to undermine these efforts. In a sense, little has changed since 2003 when the Catholic Church was discouraging people across the world from using condoms as a means of protection against HIV, with patent disregard for the scientific evidence against their claim that the infection could pass through the contraceptives.

In 2010, the Vatican was forced to vociferously reemphasise the Church’s opposition to contraception after the Pope suggested that condoms may be of benefit to male prostitutes, an offer of compromise hardly worthy of the serious conversation being had by medical professionals, scientists and coordinators about how best to tackle the epidemic. This case, in addition to Catholic opposition to the Affordable Care Act in the United States, suggests that healthcare would benefit from a secular outlook that prioritises wellbeing and safety over theological interests. It could be argued, however, that education is in need of a similar non-religious framework in order for these priorities to be realised.

Last week, it emerged that some schools in England have been not only discouraging but also actively preventing students from receiving important cervical cancer vaccinations as a direct consequence of religious belief. Explaining its decision to withhold vaccines from its students, one school said that its ‘pupils follow strict Christian principles, marry within their own community and do not practice sex outside marriage’. The news prompted criticism from numerous commentators, as well as calls for calm from others, but the debate itself should be seen as a symptom of a wider conflict inherent in the relationship between religion and education.

This conflict is perhaps best illustrated by the establishment of the Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) Council in May this year. The Council seeks to ‘promote the best possible sex and relationship education both at home and at school’ and is comprised of seven founding organisations, all of which have been found to support positions associated with the Christian right-wing and several of which have declared religious intent outright. Last week, one of the Council’s member organisations, Lovewise, was found to have given presentations containing misinformation to schoolchildren in order to discourage abortion, prompting condemnation from Labour MP Dianne Abbott.

The values of the Council in general and the actions of Lovewise in particular demonstrate the irreconcilable differences between elements of religious tradition and education, especially as it relates to sexual health. It may be true that, as the director of Lovewise Dr Chris Richards has said in defence of his organisation, young people ‘have a right to hear and discuss what might be positive about keeping sex for marriage and keeping their unborn child’, but schools have a more important obligation to deliver evidence and fact-based education to their students.

This can often mean dialogue and debate, but only in a secular environment can credible and objective conclusions be reached without the risk of unfairly promoting the beliefs of one faith above human wellbeing. Young people deserve to be educated in an environment that promotes multiple voices and a variety of ideas, but they also deserve a structure of learning that values the search for truth above all else. It would be a mistake to forgo that structure in order to facilitate the interests of particular religious traditions.

It is worth noting that the SRE Council has received the personal support of the Education Secretary Michael Gove, who has said, ‘I look forward to working with you all in ensuring that the interests of families are put at the heart of our policies’. Despite the absence of a codified constitution in the UK that explicitly separates religion from the state, it would nonetheless be heartening to see the Education Secretary take a more objective and inclusive approach to education, especially when the sexual health of young people hangs in the balance.