Over the course of this holiday some very worrying stories surfaced about the role religion plays in politics. Two spring to mind from the Conservative Party, Eric Pickles has told atheists to, effectively, shut up and that this is a Christian country (one wonders if we will be making the same statement about Sharia courts and the Islamic free schools debacle in the coming weeks) and David Cameron has claimed divine inspiration for his Big Society scheme. Two conclusions could be drawn from here, each worrying to those who would hope for even-handed, secular government: one is that the cabinet is cynical enough to play lowest-common denominator politics and hope that through these statements they will curry favour with religious voters in 2015. The other is that those running the country want to give the wheel over to a deity who may or may not support gay marriage, may or may not support the stoning of women for adultery and who, as we have seen from one of the Easter blockbusters, drowns babies because he is angry at himself for creating such a sinful race as we are. Whether or not you believe in such a god, I would hope we can all agree that church and state should be separate. And, indeed, Mr. Pickles we are a Christian Country in the same way we are still a monarchy.
‘The Lord is my Light’, reads the Oxford University motto. But what place should religion have in society today? Should our faith remain private? When we engage in discussions in tutorials, or when our politicians debate big issues in parliament, should belief be left outside? Influential thinkers such as John Rawls have argued that, in public political discussions, we may not argue for a moral position unless it has a secular, non-religious grounding. Religion-based positions are seen as controversial and sectarian, while secular reasoning for moral positions are seen as open to all. Therefore, public discourse should be secular, never religious.
For his Autumn/Winter 1996 collection, Alexander McQueen chose an unusual location. The show, entitled ‘Dante’ was held at Christchurch in London’s Spitalfields, and heavily featured Christian imagery, including thorn crowns and images of angels. The setting was partially chosen for the interesting paradox that the church’s architect, Nicholas Hawksmoor, had been a Satanist. After the show, guests were handed pamphlets railing against the vanities of apparel. Apart from his typical dark sense of humour, this collection exhibited McQueen’s fearlessness in the face of controversy, and a fierce dedication to provoking thought and debate in his audience, rather than merely awe-struck admiration. But was he right to do it? Many might interpret his combination of a sacred setting and theme with overtly sexual clothing which accessorized Christian imagery as disrespectful, or even deliberately attention-seeking. Yet others defend his right to use whatever imagery is available to him in the production of art; design is, after all, primarily art (I don’t know many people who would choose a thorn crown as an item to wear for comfort or practicality).
Justin Wellby, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, recently criticised the use of the crucifix as a fashion statement, claiming that its ubiquity as an accessory has left it devoid of meaning. As an industry which tends to exist by rushing from scandal to scandal, the fashion world does not tend to be all that concerned with whether or not it offends people. Yet many designers might argue that they have no intention of devaluing religion, as their choice of sacred imagery is merely a reaction to their culture. We have seen several notable examples in the past few years of religion as a theme in runway shows. Versace’s Autumn/Winter 2012 show featured the crucifix as a recurring pattern; Dolce and Gabbana used the interior of a Sicilian church as inspiration for their Autumn/Winter 2013 collection, creating gorgeous mosaic dresses on which the Virgin Mary was depicted, and one of the most stunning pieces in the recent Valentino couture collection was a floor-length gown, the skirt of which was filled with an image of Adam and Eve. A connecting factor between these designers is that they are all Italian, and it is therefore fairly obvious that this religious imagery is a response to the highly Catholic country in which they all live. It would be disingenuous for Dolce and Gabbana to create a tribute to the culture of Sicily without including the rich religious imagery which is an integral part of that area.
More serious problems arise when brands and designers feel entitled to use sacred symbols from cultures which are not their own as an accessory in their products. Cultural appropriation is a messy and complex issue which is not always to do with religion, but basically if you’re not Native American it is somewhat insulting to wear a Native American headdress as a fashion statement; these are sacred symbols and integral parts of Native American culture, a culture which has been under threat because of the oppression suffered by its people. Many argue that the use of symbols from other cultures is a form of cultural appreciation, and thus justifies Lady Gaga wearing a burka or Selena Gomez sporting a bindi. While it is true that celebrating different cultures can be a beneficial thing to do, the problem here is that when the fashion industry (which is, incidentally, still very much white-dominated) chooses to incorporate these religious things into a product, it is effectively reducing an entire culture to a commodity. One might argue that this is also the case when a designer chooses to use the crucifix in their work, but there is a difference between a white Euro-American person from a Christian background (even if they do not identify as Christian themselves) featuring a Christian emblem and the same person featuring an image which is important to, say, Islam.
The truth is that all of this is very tricky territory, and is made more difficult to navigate by the fact that many designers are deliberately trying to offend, as well as amuse, their audiences. It is a sure-fire way to get attention, as well as an opportunity to make a tongue-in-cheek statement. Take, for example the work of designer Jeremy Scott. His collections have played over time with ideas of religion which, combined with his unwavering sense of humour and kitsch designs, makes for a playful but controversial aesthetic. His Autumn/Winter 2011 collection featured red dresses on which the word ‘God’ was emblazoned in the Coca-Cola font; by Spring 2013 he had moved on to using burkas in a show called ‘ Arab Spring’. While many find this sort of thing somewhat distasteful, Scott himself claims to be challenging the status quo by pointing out how the commercialism of fashion often seems to resemble an organised religion.
Fashion and religion have never exactly been bedfellows, and this relationship will continue to be a fraught one. Many of fashion’s most revered figures have made questionable decisions when it comes to wearing sacred imagery as part of their outfits; for an example of this, look no further than Isabella Blow’s hot pink burka, designed by Jon Tukahashi, which was also worn by Lady Gaga in a Philip Treacey show recently. However, as the fashion industry becomes more aware of its problematic nature – something which is being examined especially by those who want to challenge the inherent racism in the business – we may start to see a greater respect for religion in catwalk collections. This does not necessarily mean that all religious imagery will disappear, but rather that designers will think more carefully about whether they have the right to turn a religion into something which can be bought and sold. There will also, however, always be those who are simply out to shock. In many ways, fashion needs these individuals, but equally it needs others who take a more conscientious approach.
A new prayer room at St Hugh’s College is set to open next year amidst controversy over its location and security. The room’s proposed site in the Wolfson building would lead to a staircase previously accessible only by residents being open to all college members.
Venkat Kondragunta, JCR President at Hugh’s, stressed that the “consultation period is still ongoing. College have contacted 8 students about plans to open a prayer room in their living area. This consultation period is still ongoing, and college have made it clear that the prayer room will not be opened this year if the students in question have any objections.
“The JCR and college staff fully support the principle of freedom of religious expression; concerns are only based on privacy issues that arise from opening up a locked living area that inhabitants have chosen to live in specifically for its privacy,” he added.
Matt Handley, a third-year History student and a former resident of the Wolfson building, said the location of the room was “questionable”, stating:
“The provision of prayer rooms in college is, of course, important, but this seems to be a questionable location for that, raising concerns about the privacy of both those living on the staircase and those who wish to use the prayer room.”
He further quipped, “The underhanded way in which it appears to have been implemented is unsurprising- Wolfson staircase? More like ‘Wolfson mare-case’!’”
One second-year student, however, said they “did not see what the problem was.”
“Many colleges do not have such draconian security measures, and allow all members of the college to access most areas. This is a prayer room, not a Supermax prison.”
This controversy comes to light following another staircase incident at Hugh’s last Michaelmas, in which new residents found offensive graffiti daubed on the walls. This was described not only as “aesthetically hideous”, but as offensive after it was discovered that the graffiti included swastikas and derogatory comments directed against those suffering from AIDS.
by Domnhall Macdonald
You would be forgiven for thinking, when your post-bop hangover is disturbed on Sunday morning by the ringing of hundreds of church bells across Oxford, that we are living in a Christian city. You would be forgiven for thinking that Christianity was alive and kicking when hearing your college choir rehearse in the chapel, when walking past one of Oxford’s many beautiful churches on the way to lectures, or even when ignoring those incessant facebook invites to text-a-toastie.
But Christianity, in Oxford and the UK today, is a minority pursuit. A brief look at local authority data from the 2011 census revealed 48% of the Oxford city population consider themselves to be Christian and 33.1% to be of no religion (with Muslims making up the next-largest group at 6.8%). These figures are well below the national averages of 59.3% Christian and 25.1% non-religious.
Fair enough, Christians do constitute the largest group. But the vast majority of them are nominal Christians, identifying so for cultural reasons, not religious ones. In a 2011 YouGov poll conducted at the same time as the census, people were asked when was the last time they attended of worship for religious reasons (as opposed to family or tourist reasons). 63% of people in England and Wales hadn’t attended in the last year and only 9% of people had bothered attended a place of worship within the last week! Admittedly, this poll was commissioned by the British Humanist Association, but even so, the 1 in 10 churchgoing figure is in broad agreement with all the other polls I found online. Because the Fourth Commandment calls on Christians to “remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy,” churchgoing for prayer, scripture and sacraments is how our society defines a practising Christian.
I grew up in a place where everyone went to Church, and one particular kind of – Catholic – church at that. You could count the number of Protestants on one hand, and the number of anything else on no hands at all. I know what living Christianity looks like. And I know its problems. Where no one can come out as gay for fear for societal retribution, where shops don’t sell contraception, where saying you are an atheist brings shame on the family, and, in my case, risks estrangement.
As someone who is supposed to uphold an evidence-based way of life, it would be silly of me to say Christianity is completely dead in Oxford. But meaningful Christian faith is not part of the daily life of the vast majority of its citizens. Within our colleges, the Christian Union is a society, a hobby, like any other. Just as some eccentric individuals think getting up at 5am to row is the best start of the day, so do some students think going to Church on a Sunday is the best use of their time.
Christianity is just one of many religions in this city. I personally know Muslims, and Hindus, and Jews and Quakers. There is now even an atheist Church in the form of Oxford Sunday Assembly! The City of the Dreaming Spires was christened so because of its many churches. But Christianity is dying here, today in the 21st century. And perhaps it wouldn’t be too cheeky of me to venture that it’s a healthier Christianity for it. Better 10% of the city and our colleges are truly-believing Christians who actually get something out of going to Church, rather than 100% who go out of a sense of duty and sin.
by Joshua Peppiatt
I came up to Oxford two years ago unsure of myself and unsure of my faith. I was apprehensive: would there be any other Christians in this famous city of academia, home to Dawkins and Hitchens? Would my medical studies create doubts and weaken my convictions? Oxford of course has a famous history of Christianity. I was aware of our motto: Dominus Illuminatio Mea – The Lord is my light. I knew of the great Christians to have passed through our institution. But surely in 21st century Oxford, Christianity is dead?
Well, I soon found out how wrong I was. By the end of Freshers’ week I had met Christians in college who weren’t embarrassed about Jesus; in fact they loved speaking about him. Christianity wasn’t a hobby or something they did because of parental pressure, but was what they were most passionate about. They were part of the Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (OICCU), a group of students from every college who want to give other students the chance to hear the message of Jesus.
I was immediately struck by the size and activity of the OICCU: there are hundreds of active members who give up a substantial part of their time in all that goes on. There are weekly Friday Lunchtime Talks addressing common objections to Christianity, last term attended by 150-200 people, many of whom aren’t Christians. A week of talks in 4th week of Hilary term each year sees thousands of students come to find out more about Jesus. Most importantly, each day students talk with their Christian friends about life’s big questions; I’ve been delighted to see two close friends in Oxford come to personally know Jesus this way.
You might also be surprised to know that there are many vibrant churches in Oxford full of all sorts of ages, races and backgrounds. I’ve taken great encouragement from being part of a local church, St. Ebbes, which not only is a place where I am cared for, but has challenged me to think seriously about whether Christianity makes sense and examine who the historical Jesus was.
You may be thinking this has no relevance to you. But what if I said Christianity is alive in Oxford today because Jesus is alive? I’d like to challenge you that Jesus, the historical man that lived and died, doesn’t leave you the option to ignoring him or dismissing him as just a good teacher. He makes outrageous claims, saying that he is not just the only way to know God, but also that he is God himself! C. S Lewis, the famous fellow of Magdalen, after looking into it himself, said: ‘We are faced then with a frightening alternative. This man we are talking about either was (and is) just what he said, or else a lunatic, or something worse. Now it seems to me obvious that he was neither a lunatic nor a fiend; and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that he is God.’ What do you make of that?
Socrates said that ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ Use your time here to examine the claims of Christianity: that there is a God who you can know, and who loves you so much that he died for you. Where can you start? Talk to a Christian friend, ask them your questions. Come to the weekly Friday Lunchtime Talk or the Carol Service in the Sheldonian Theatre near the end of term. Christianity isn’t only alive in Oxford, it’s thriving, and it’s worth investigating too.
Constituents and debaters of the fourth debate of Michaelmas Term weighted the merits of the motion ‘This House believes religion harms society.’ Along with ample discussion of the qualities of religion, the speakers raised the weighty question in a sometimes confrontational but engaging manner.
Asking the crowd whether they had already made up their mind before listening to the debate, David Amess, a Conservative MP, instructed people who fit the criteria to raise their hands, to which a significant amount obliged. “Well, it would seem that there are some left who might be persuaded by the course of the argument,” he remarked.
Speaking first for the proposition, Michael Nugent, a Chairperson of Atheist Ireland, evoked memories of a man in Pakistan that was hung for the defamation of Muhammad, the most revered prophet of Islam. “Religion corrupts our sense of reality and corrupts our sense of morality. These corruptions confine society and cause terrible suffering,” he said.
The issue of Islam and Islamophobia weighed heavily on the debate. Mehrunissa Sajjad, a member of the Standing Committee, responded by asking people to focus on the ethos and the humanitarian core of Islam and other religion, and on how religion “provides moral guidance.”
The burden of proof, Sajjad said, “is not to defend ridiculous measures,” but “point to the majority of people who have faith, religious beings who act out their lives as productive members of a better society.”
In his rebuttal, David Silverman, President of American Atheists, pointed to instances wherein the bible condones slavery and rape, and explicitly mentions execution. He specified the infamous passage Leviticus 20:13, which states: “If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.”
On the longstanding role of religion in society, Silverman said, “Religion was created with yesterday’s knowledge[…]Religion took the credit of that knowledge. The problem is that the society back then knew much less than we know today.”
Yet, according to the arguments, it seemed that religion nevertheless plays a big role in modern society. “Religion is at the heart of everything here,” David Amess said.
“I was born a Catholic and I will die a Catholic. Just as if I had been born Jewish, I would have been proud to have be born a Jew,” Amess stated. “I’ve never met anyone[…]who have explained to me, in such a way that I could accept entirely, that there is no God.”
Nonie Darwish, a critic of Islam and founder of Arabs for Israel, rebutted, saying that she did not believe religion benefited society. “In the Middle East, where I come from,” she said, “I would be killed by the religion I was born into.”
Bring up the sensitivities of Islam, Darwish mentioned that Islam maintains a hardline nature. “You have a religion that has a right not to be offended under the penalty of death,” she said. “While at the same time, that religion seeks to control governments. Islam, without government enforcement, does not have any strength to survive.”
Finishing off, Professor Tariq Ramadan, a noted Islamic scholar, tried to reframe the issue. “It’s dangerous to come with a binary mind,” he said.
One of the most confrontational moments of the debate occurred as the professor, decrying the unfair nature and prompt of the proposition, was in the midst of his final remarks.
Addressing atheists, Professor Ramadan said, “You are arrogant in the way you talk to us, you are arrogant about the fact that you are reducing religions to myth and anecdote. You are treating me, who is a believer, as if I were a child who is full of dreams.”
One member responded, “Yeah, that’s exactly what it is,” to which Ramadan riposted, “You fell into my trap. I wanted to show how arrogant you are.”
“I’m arrogant because I’m right?” the member retorted.
“You are doubly arrogant,” Ramadan said, rebuking sarcastically, “I am wrong and I am humbly wrong.”