The father, the son, and the holy Gucci: how does faith fit with fashion?

The father, the son, and the holy Gucci: how does faith fit with fashion?

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.


Hugh’s “questionable” prayer room plan

Hugh’s “questionable” prayer room plan

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.

Debate: Christianity is dead in this city

Debate: Christianity is dead in this city

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.


This House believes religion harms society

This House believes religion harms society

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.”

Richard Dawkins and the sinking ship of New Atheism

[caption id="attachment_44128" align="alignnone" width="300"]The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: New Atheism's cornerstones The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: New Atheism’s contemporary cornerstones[/caption]

It was pleasing to read Owen Jones’ recent article in The Independent, denouncing, from an atheist’s perspective, Richard Dawkins’ hostility towards religion (albeit almost entirely confined to his various attacks on Islam). It is a rare early example of a public disassociation that must be undertaken by serious-thinking nonbelievers as quickly and emphatically as possible.

Pieces on this topic customarily begin with a personal disclaimer in some agonising form, and I feel as though it would be rude to buck the trend. I cannot attest to the same secular security as Jones, to say nothing of Dawkins, but suffice to say that I live under the assumption that the commonly conceived, anthropomorphised deity of the popular monotheistic religions – a god that I might be tempted to petition with self-interested requests, or to whom I would turn in times of strife or despair – does not exist. Nor do I disagree that the diverse list of moral indiscretions (to phrase the thing politely) – continual subjugation of women, child rape, homophobia, genital mutilation, stigmatisation and condemnation of contraception, of alternative reproductive methods, and of pre-marital sex, to cite a small handful – facilitated and justified by numerous religions can possibly be regarded as anything but repugnant. Moreover, I consider Jones’ assertion that holding critical opinions about followers of certain religions is an act of discrimination comparable to racism (“it is beyond unrealistic to regard religious belief as a ‘choice’”) to be completely ridiculous; if we cannot judge people based on the set of beliefs they hold, we might as well give up judging anyone at all. With this point, Jones is, I fear, unwittingly dabbling in a debate of nature vs nurture that is complex and distracts from the issue at hand.

So far so good. Dawkins would welcome me with open arms. Regrettably, however, I could not return the embrace. Rather, I would seek to distance myself from a movement which, I have slowly and reluctantly become persuaded in recent years, is irredeemably sullied by a vice from which no serious cultural or social revolution has ever emerged; the desire to look clever (often confused with the desire to be right). This relatively young faction of non-belief, of which Dawkins is unanimously regarded the figurehead, is usually referred to as New Atheism (Christopher Hitchens, gloriously accurate about so much, was wrong to claim that “there is nothing new about the New Atheists”), and retains an impressive army of supporters and propagators, including A. C. Grayling, Michael Shermer, Sam Harris, Bill Maher, and even the dependably controversial, fidgeting figure of Ricky Gervais.

The fundamental problem with New Atheism in its present form is, ironically, a deficiency of pragmatism. Ironic because Dawkins’ favoured method of cognition – the governing principle of Dawkinsism, if you like – exercises an arbitrary prioritisation of pragmatism above all other considerations. The pragmatist has no time to think about metaphysics, or entertain the notion of a reality that he cannot perceive but must infer or imagine. Indeed, the diehard pragmatist mightn’t consider a world beyond sense experience to qualify as “reality” at all.

Herein lies the inconsistency. From a pragmatist’s point of view, the overwhelming problem with religion is the vast number of ignominies and injustices it continues to perpetrate in almost every country – and New Atheism has great potential to address and work against such abominations. Instead, however, Dawkins, Maher, Gervais and too many others would rather attempt to prove the intellectual tenability of their position in a debate wherein neither side is able to offer a conclusive argument. Addressing Howard University in Washington D.C., Dawkins admitted: “My interest is that I care passionately about the truth. I’m actually rather less interested in the role of religion in society and all that stuff… Is there, as a matter of fact, a Supreme Being who created the universe or not?” Whilst one might be tempted to smile at the philosophical naivety in his words, they are unhappily symptomatic of a wider tendency, to polarise in an extremely unhelpful way – to group forward-thinking Christians together with creationists, or bracket someone like me with Jones and Hitchens; the discriminating criterion is no more precise or nuanced than “belief in God”, and all theistic belief consequently becomes synonymous and equivalent. The National Secular Society’s Kate Smurthwaite encapsulated this attitude on ‘The Big Questionsa couple of years ago, when she explained that “faith, by definition, is believing in things without evidence – and personally I don’t do that, because I’m not an idiot”. Perhaps she was aware of Dawkins’ declaration in Edinburgh, nearly twenty years earlier, that “faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think”, or indeed, his judgement in ‘The Selfish Gene’:…faith seems to me to qualify as a kind of mental illness”.

Constructing a tension between those who believe in a deity and those who do not is polarisation at its laziest, indulging the same predisposition for eradicating nuance (now ubiquitous) that sees divorced parents become “broken families” or New Feminists “misandrists”. It is stupid to believe that any debate concerning the existence a transcendental, supernatural entity could reach a satisfactory conclusion – reasonable, defensible theism is wise enough to refrain from appealing to evidence in the physical world, and cannot therefore be validated by scientific verification. The hackneyed notion that theism and science are as air and seawater in a sinking boat – the latter steadily pushing the former out of each diminishing alcove – is a fallacy, deriving once again from the same erroneous tension of which the New Atheists are so fond. This tension is favoured because it helps to formulate a caricaturised version of theism that may be easily challenged or ridiculed, but it is likely to offer little comfort to those non-believers who would rather not score intellectual points at the expense of pursuing essential cultural progress. When it comes to God, presence of belief matters far less than the manifestation of that belief, and it is this new conflict that needs to replace the old; a distinction between rational, moral theists (of which there are many) who recognise the enormity of the problems caused by religion, and those who perpetrate those problems.

In its current artless form, New Atheism needlessly estranges all believers, merging the reasonable with the idiotic, and thereby alienating many of those with whom it needs to work in order to change the function and influence of religion. Atheism, similarly, no longer interesting of its own accord, has implications and concerns – the viability of a meaningful life without a deity, for instance, or the source of secular morality – which invite further controversy and debate. In order to engage in these discussions, however, the unsophisticated approach of Dawkins and his fellow New Atheists must be abandoned immediately, and a more nuanced style of atheism adopted in its wake.



“Hindu mythology is Machiavellian”

“Hindu mythology is Machiavellian”

[caption id="attachment_38060" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Sanal Edamaruku Sanal Edamaruku is a wanted man.[/caption]

Persecuted under India’s blasphemy laws for proving last year that the water trickling down a Crucifix in a Catholic church in Mumbai was not a miracle, but bad plumbing, he faces a three-year prison sentence. The Catholic Church, which filed the case, say they will drop the charges if he apologises for the “offence” he has caused.

Edamaruku, who is well known in India for debunking religious myths as the President of the Indian Rationalist Association, refuses to do so. This makes him even more unpopular with Indian Catholics, who have already clashed swords with him previously when he publicly criticised Mother Teresa’s legacy in Kolkata. He has been in exile in Finland since he was refused bail in July 2012, and now travels in European cities campaigning in defence of free speech and rationalism, and against blasphemy laws. He has generated much interest and support, in quarters as varied as Richard Dawkins and Tim Minchin.

Yet, for a man who has ruffled as many feathers as he has, he appears remarkably unruffled and calm when I met him in Oxford (he was here for an event organised by ‘Oxford Skeptics in the Pub’). He begins by enthusiastically describing the work that the Indian Rationalist Association (IRA) does: they travel to Indian villages and replicate and explain the ‘miracles’ of local charlatans and ‘god-men’. The aim, he says, is to move people from a traditional superstitious way of thinking to a modern one. For a country where 75 per cent of the population are superstitious,  this is a mammoth task.

I ask him how people react to this assault on their traditional beliefs, expecting anger and disbelief as a response. Surprisingly, he maintains that they are friendly and grateful for “showing them the truth”. The explanation lies in the Association’s unique strategy – they do not confront believers, they merely show them facts and provoke them to reach their own conclusions. They believe a life without religion is advisable, but they don’t try to convert people to atheism.

But why does he recommend a life without religion so strongly? Most people in India subscribe to religion (less than 0.5% of Indians identified as without religion in the 2011 census), and on a daily basis, this doesn’t really hurt anyone. Many would go so far as to say that faith gives people hope, and a moral code on which to base their decisions.

Edamaruku is quick to dismiss this idea – he calls Hindu mythology “Machiavellian”, and says that it does not provide a moral code. He uses an example from Hinduism’s most holy book, the Bhagvad Gita. In it, Krishna, an incarnation of God, tells his colleagues that the ends justify the means, especially in war, and encourages them to lie and undermine the accepted code for ‘honour’ in battle. He is sceptical even of karma, saying that it is dangerous because it leads to the idea that your caste is a product of your actions in a previous life. It compels people to accept their place in society, and encourages the dominance of the Brahmins, the highest Hindu caste. He says that the concept of karma essentially leads to “mental slavery”.

Edamaruku has a personal reason for dismissing religion as well. He was fifteen when he watched his neighbour, a famous Indian athlete, succumb to leukaemia. Convinced by faith healing, her family had refused blood transfusions and instead asked a local ‘healer’ to cure her. The senselessness of how her life was lost, he says, is what convinced him that “people need to be liberated” from a life of religion and superstition.

I ask him about the theme of his recent lecture tour – the clash between traditionalism and modernism in India. Why does he think rationality is the most important means by which to achieve modernity? The answer is simple: there are two Indias that exist next to each other and are in permanent conflict – one is medieval and the other progressive. The only way to ensure that progressive India wins is to get rid of a culture that is based on traditional religion; according to him, it is these traditional religious ideals that promote gender injustice, and stifle India’s potential for economic growth. Moreover, the way this conflict is settled will determine how the rest of the world will look at India, and this is of crucial importance in a globalized world.

Many Indians who view the ‘progressive’ India as a mere reflection of Western values find his views unappealing. They argue that these times of globalization are exactly when India should hold on to its traditional roots, to ensure that interaction with the West does not create a vacuum of Indian values and culture. Edamaruku thinks this is a false dichotomy, and argues for cosmopolitanism. Increasing cultural interactions are an opportunity for Indian culture, not a threat. They allow for a cultural give and take, and give Indians a chance to get rid of the negative aspects of their culture.

But who decides what is negative and what is positive about a culture? Edamaruku believes the power lies with the people, but that they are only equipped to make this choice in a “free marketplace of ideas”. Everyone has the right to promote what they think correct, allowing individuals to eventually make informed decisions. Indian culture can be developed by incorporating new values of human rights, without losing its original precepts. A classic example of this cultural conflict is evident in the blasphemy laws that he is persecuted under. They date back to colonial times (they are part of the Indian Penal Code written in 1860) and are directly at odds with the fundamental rights to free speech that are enshrined in the Indian Constitution of 1950.

Edamaruku strongly believes the laws should be scrapped and even laughs at the idea they can prevent religious conflict. India, according to him, does also have a strong history of cooperation between religions; he cites the cooperation of Hindus and Muslims in the early days of the Indian independence movement. In any case, when violent and aggressive statements have been made, as in the aftermath of the 1947 Partition of the country into India and Pakistan, these laws were never used. He maintains that they have only ever been used against rationalists, and by upholding them the Indian courts serve only to keep India from being a modern nation.

But then how can India draw the line between freedom of speech and preventing religious riots? Who decides that if not the courts? Edamaruku claims that this is not a tough line to draw – freedom of speech is only useful if it is unbridled and absolute, there can be no ifs or buts. As long as someone isn’t actively inciting violence or calling on people to kill and persecute practitioners of another faith, they are allowed to say what they like. According to him, both the rational and the religious have a right to criticize each other’s views – correction is only possible if criticism is permitted. Without freedom of speech, he believes that there can be no intellectual or cultural growth.

Evangelism: loving necessity or unnecessary evil?

George Huntley proposes that evangelism is an integral part of Christianity and is motivated by love for one’s friends. 

Whilst attempting today to drag a friend along to one of the ‘This is Jesus’ talks at the Town Hall, I was asked the poignant question ‘why are you bothering?’ I was thinking the same thing – he obviously just didn’t see things the same way as me, and I was wasting my time and probably not helping my friendship with him very much.


But, as a Christian, telling my friends about Jesus is an integral part of what I believe. Jesus told us to do so – ‘go into all the world and preach the good news’ (Mark 16.15). But also, on a more human level, if I genuinely believe that my friends can gain eternal life by trusting in Jesus to forgive them of their alienation of God, then I am bound to tell them. Especially since it is something I believe is completely rational, based on a historical event – the death and resurrection of Jesus – which I have investigated and am confident did actually happen. If I don’t tell my friends, the likelihood is that either I don’t like them or I don’t believe it myself. It would just be selfish not to try to explain to them what I believe and why I believe it. Banning evangelism would prevent Christians from carrying out a fundamental part of their faith, equivalent to stopping them from reading the Bible or praying.

Evangelism is about challenging people’s disbelief of the news that Jesus died for their sins. To give it up would be to give up the intellectual fight, and presumably could be prompted by an admission that atheists are unable to debate Christians adequately. Discussions about God are part of a universal education whilst at university. It’s a shame that people are can be too focused on their degrees to think about politics, history, art, philosophy, and God. Banning evangelism would just institutionalise this and our capacity to think holistically would be lost.

I understand anxiety about aggressive street evangelism. It has happened to me and can be pretty annoying. But most evangelism isn’t like that – it is motivated out of love for friends and a hope that those friendships will be able to last forever. Evangelistic events like the ‘This is Jesus’ talks aren’t that bad anyway. There are hundreds of other people there, all with very different opinions, you get a free lunch and you may even get free salvation too.


Will Brandler responds that evangelism is a patronising, arrogant and irrational form of spam.

Evangelists seek to inform and persuade others that their beliefs are true. This is a noble pursuit and Christians can evangelise at will, but not for any of the reasons suggested by George. They can do so because we live in a society where people have a right to express their views, as long as they do not infringe on the liberties of others. If evangelists want to hold a talk explaining how their imaginary friend decided 2,000 years ago to send his son down to Earth to be tortured, gruesomely executed, and then resurrected for some mysterious reason necessary to save us from our sins past, present, and in perpetuity – that’s fine. However, George should be embarrassed to have attempted to ‘drag’ a friend against his will to hear about Jesus. Coercion does not fall under the remit of evangelism.

Evangelists claim to be motivated by love for their fellow man. But what they fail to appreciate is how unbelievably patronizing it is to be offered a bottle of water on your way out of Camera and be looked down on and lectured on how you will not receive salvation unless you embrace Christian values and beliefs. How modestly they assert to know the mind of God! I’d rather spend an eternity in darkness than a day in the company of such self-righteousness.

Faith is not rational; it is a belief without, and often in spite of, evidence. There is no virtue in this. Evangelists are free to assault us with emails, Facebook invites, and flyers. But they should expect us to treat these requests in the same way we do other spam such as offers of cheap Viagra and penis enlargement. We should be open to new ideas, but as Richard Dawkins explains: “not so open-minded that our brains drop out”. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and the burden of proof is on evangelicals to show that they have not only  ‘investigated’ the resurrection, but also that they have compelling evidence that it happened. Without this such ideas do not deserve our consideration.

Evangelists can hold as many ‘This is Jesus’ talks as they like, offer bribes (there’s no such thing as a free lunch), and explain with breathtaking arrogance why they have been chosen for eternal salvation. But we should no longer allow it the respect we give the evidence-based disciplines of politics, history, art, & philosophy.

Archbishop of Canterbury vs. Dawkins

A groundbreaking debate between the Archbishop of Canterbury and Professor Richard Dawkins is to set to take place in Oxford next week.

The atheist scholar and the head of the Church of England will be pitted against each other at the Sheldonian Theatre on the 23rd February. While tickets for the event have already sold out, because of its popularity the debate will also be screened in the Physics department via a live video link. For those who cannot make it, the debate will also be broadcast over a live video screen.

The title of the debate, which will be chaired by the philosopher Sir Anthony Kenny, is “The Nature of Human Beings and the Question of their Ultimate Origin”.

The two men both have strong connections to Oxford. Dr Rowan Williams studied theology at Wadham College whilst Professor Dawkins studied zoology at Balliol College and is now an emeritus fellow of New College.

The event is scheduled to last an hour and a half and is being hosted by Sophia Europa of Oxford University’s Theology Faculty. Lord Patten, the Chancellor of the University, will also be attending the debate.

Dr Margaret Yee, a senior research fellow at St. Cross College, and the organizer of the event, said: “We are greatly looking forward to this dialogue event at the Sheldonian Theatre. Although tickets sold out in a matter of hours, we are delighted that anyone interested will be able to watch the discussion live on”

The event, which comes after months of planning and hard work, promises to offer what organizers’ have described as “a great opportunity for valuable, open discussion by three leading thinkers, with expertise in their respective areas of study.”

Opinion among students remains divided ahead of the debate. Peter Swann, a 3rd year medical student, said: “As someone who is both religious and a scientist I find debates like this polarize two issues which can be perfectly compatible. But I do think its definitely worthwhile because it does get people to consider difficult questions.”

A Biochemist from St Edmund Hall found it difficult to pick a favourite between the two candidates: “Rowan Williams will always be the ‘master’ because of his incredible hair, however Richard Dawkins is I’m sure regularly top of Tatler’s best dressed list and is bound to wow on the day.”

Whilst a third year Catholic student at Corpus Christi was unfussed by the prospect of the debate: “I understand neither Dawkins or Williams but fortunately I have the Pope and the St. Benet’s to provide answers to the thorny questions in life.”