Is secularism a greater threat to Christianity than Islam? Before a debate on this question began at the Royal Geographical Society last night, I, along with 136 other members of the audience, supported the motion, while 67 disagreed. By the end of the evening opinion shifted quite significantly.
Speakers for the motion included the eloquent Dominican friar, Fr Timothy Radcliffe, and Tariq Ramadan, Professor of Islamic Studies at Oxford University. Both speakers at times made thoughtful and convincing contributions. Prof Ramadan’s assertion that religious communities deserve not just toleration, but respect, certainly made me pause for thought.
The most notable speech in favour of the motion came from Damian Thompson, editor of Telegraph blogs, who received warm applause both after and during his address. Perhaps his most popular observation was the rise of “toe-curling trendy hymns”, with “Shine Jesus Shine” marked as prime suspect for falling rates in church attendance. Beyond the rise of the Tambourine Form of the Roman Rite, Thompson noted that the erosion of Christianity was so advanced that it was even present within the Church itself, leading to a general dumbing down of Christian messages from some bishops and priests.
However, this dumbing down, he explained, is surely a result of secularism’s essence; contempt for religion manifest from the sneer around the secularised modern-day dinner table to the forced closure of Catholic adoption agencies.
Speakers against the motion were Nick Cohen of the National Secular Society, Dr Patrick Sookhdeo, who converted from Islam to Christianity, and Douglas Murray of the Centre for Social Cohesion.
I doubt a dissertation, let alone a blog, could do justice to the plethora of points the opposition raised last night, some of which were valid. There is no doubt that the incidents of Christian persecution by Muslims abroad, cited by Sookhdeo and Douglas Murray, were a powerful corroboration of the threat Islam might pose to Christianity.
But it was lamentable to witness the piety with which Douglas Murray deployed his attack, telling supporters of the motion that they were devoid of sense, reason or thought. I could barely see the panellists for the number of straw men Murray constructed during his 10-minute speech, squeaking at Thompson; how could he compare intimidation of a Catholic at a dinner party to a Christian being beheaded by a Muslim in Iraq? In light of these antics, it is depressing that the opposition still won the argument in the end by 59 votes.
All in all, the difference in opinion seemed to boil down to a question of priorities summarised by Sookhdeo, who reassured us: “Secularism does not pose a physical threat to Christianity, just a moral and spiritual one.”
Just moral and spiritual. Brilliant. Case closed.