Here's a letter that was signed by many highly admirable people from the UK. I was not asked to sign it, and nor should I have been - this was very much a letter to be signed by British worthies, protesting the Pope's state visit to the UK. So there's another reason not to sign something: in the circumstances, you might not be an appropriate person to do so. Most of the things I'm asked to sign could be signed by almost anyone, but as an Australian I'm not really an appropriate person to be signing a letter to be sent to British newspapers and addressed specifically to this kind of political choice. I suppose I'm entitled to an opinion, but it's really better left to people who are British citizens or at least have a much closer association with the UK than I do.
In the event, it's signed by:
Stephen Fry, Professor Richard Dawkins, Professor Susan Blackmore, Terry Pratchett, Philip Pullman, Ed Byrne, Baroness Blackstone, Ken Follett, Professor AC Grayling, Stewart Lee, Baroness Massey, Claire Rayner, Adele Anderson, John Austin MP, Lord Avebury, Sian Berry, Professor Simon Blackburn, Sir David Blatherwick, Sir Tom Blundell, Dr Helena Cronin, Dylan Evans, Hermione Eyre, Lord Foulkes, Professor Chris French, Natalie Haynes, Johann Hari, Jon Holmes, Lord Hughes, Robin Ince, Dr Michael Irwin, Professor Steve Jones, Sir Harold Kroto, Professor John Lee, Zoe Margolis, Jonathan Meades, Sir Jonathan Miller, Diane Munday, Maryam Namazie, David Nobbs, Professor Richard Norman, Lord O'Neill, Simon Price, Paul Rose, Martin Rowson, Michael Rubenstein, Joan Smith, Dr Harry Stopes-Roe, Professor Raymond Tallis, Lord Taverne, Peter Tatchell, Baroness Turner, Professor Lord Wedderburn of Charlton QC FBA, Ann Marie Waters, Professor Wolpert, Jane Wynne Willson
That's a pretty impressive list!
If I'd been British, and if I'd been asked to sign the letter, would I have done so? Very likely I would. I'd want to scour it carefully to make sure I really did agree with everything in it ... but say I decided that I did? Would I have any other reason not to sign it?
I raise this because Julian Baggini, who is both British and a valued contributor to 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists , was given an opportunity to sign it and declined. Now, I'd understand this if he disagreed with the sentiments in the letter, or even if he generally agreed with them but found something there that he was just not prepared to put his name to. I think that's quite legitimate. It's also quite legitimate to explain your misgivings or reservations privately to the person who has asked you to sign up. Indeed, it's okay to explain them publicly.
But I'm at a bit of a loss to understand what was going on in this case. As far as I can see, Julian doesn't have any objection to the letter's content and would have been prepared to sign it if there hadn't been enough other people already doing so: "If only a few people were [protesting] I might have felt it necessary to sign the petition." As far as I can see, his reasons amount to the claim that signing would have been divisive.
I have a lot of time for Julian, and I think his essay in 50 Voices is well worth reading. I don't mind that his stance towards organised religion is more conciliatory than that of some atheists and religious sceptics. There's certainly room for a range of viewpoints, and my own experiences witth organised religion are not vastly different from his - a mix of benign and not so benign.
But I find it very odd that someone would decline to sign something that he doesn't really disagree with and might have signed in slightly different circumstances ... and that he'd then publicly criticise the document that he might have signed. Of course, he has -and should have - every legal right to do so; but what did he think he was achieving apart from putting his own allies on the defensive and creating further confusion and division within his own ranks? If you're going to think so damn tactically, rather than concentrating on whether you actually agree with the content of a document, what's the tactical advantage in writing a high-profile piece in which you criticise your allies (and don't, subject to one point below, express any specific reservations about the document itself)?
It's all very puzzling. I hope Julian will think a bit further next time he's tempted to do something like this. He's shown a tendency lately to want to distance himself from his allies in a way that can only provide succour to his intellectual and political opponents. That's not the kind of division he should want to create. Conversely, it's healthy to express your views on issues where you really do disagree with opponents, and especially if those opponents currently wield vast power and influence. That is the kind of division - a difference of views - on which liberal democracies thrive. Talk of things getting "ugly" is inaccurate and inappropriate when all that is going on is expression of a viewpoint (and not even in some viscerally powerful way such as by destroying opponents' flags or symbols).
Providing he actually agreed with the letter, I still don't understand why Julian couldn't sign it. If his real point is that he disagreed with the demand that the entire papal visit be cancelled, while agreeing with other points, why not concentrate on simply saying that very clearly as the main focus of the article? It's an arguable point, but it gets lost in the rhetoric.
As it is, Julian has written a piece that makes things worse - especially for his own allies, but also generally - by talking about the signatories to the letter as if they are stirring up violence, or on the path to doing so. No - what they are doing is exercising their right to free speech, which is generally a civilised alternative to making your point through violence. Liberal societies provide freedom of speech to provide an avenue for strong feelings and principled viewpoints to be expressed publicly but non-violently.
That's what the signatories to the letter were doing. They were not stirring up violence or trying to make things get ugly, or even naively acting in a way that was likely to have such an effect. Questioning their propriety or prudence merely adds to the idea that there is something illegitimate about strong criticism of religion ... and lends assistance to the decidedly ugly idea that violence is an understandable, inevitable, or somehow forgivable, response to criticism. No it isn't; free speech is a key value in Western societies, and violent responses to it are totally beyond the pale of toleration. We may understand how violent people think in an abstract, intellectual sense of "understand", but we must insist that this way of thinking will not be treated with any toleration or leniency if it's expressed in action.
Julian Baggini is definitely one of the good guys, but he's tied himself in knots on this occasion, and, once again, I hope he'll think it over before too many more occasions like this come up in political life.