All or nothing?

I wrote the following piece for the Theos website on Friday for their weekly ‘current debate’ section.  Why not hop over there and join the debate?!


The European Commission has sent a gift to three million secondary school children across the European Union. The Europa Diary includes 51 pages of information, statistics and tips on life in Europe today. Its theme is “Wise Choices”.
“The Europa Diary,” the website explains, “is an educational tool. It contains the basics of what the EU offers young citizens, covering a range of their specific concerns: e.g. travel, nutrition, drugs, shopping, money matters, environment, climate change, sustainable consumption, development, external trade, safety issues, etc.”
These concerns also include, of course, tolerance because “In the European Union, we are keen to uphold fundamental rights and celebrate diversity.”
Unfortunately, this ‘celebration’ does not appear to extend as far as the diary pages themselves. While the key festivals of many of the religions followed in the EU are listed, none of the Christian ones are – not even Christmas which, as a spokesperson for the Catholic Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community pointed out, Europa staff will most likely be given time off work for.
A commission spokesman apologised for the “blunder”, saying, “We’re sorry about it, and we’ll correct that in next edition.” But his proposed method of ‘correction’? “Religious holidays may not be mentioned at all to avoid any controversy.”
It is possible that this was a genuine oversight, perhaps the diary’s compilers thought the Christian festivals would automatically appear in any diary, so they only had to specify the other days they wanted marked – though it is hard to see how it passed through all the many proof checks without anyone raising a question.
But even if it was a deliberate omission on somebody’s part, why does it matter? If a significant portion of the readers of the diary don’t adhere to any religion, why should they be informed of holidays in which they will not participate? Would it not be better simply to remove all mention of any holidays, however tentative their connection with a religious meaning?
Firstly, far from avoiding the danger of privileging one worldview over another, this would be explicitly to privilege irreligion over religion – implicitly to advocate atheism and marginalise all other faith positions. While this may be desirable to some, it stands contrary to the rhetoric of ‘celebrating diversity’ which the European Union claims to uphold.
Secondly, it is neither a generous nor a helpful course. Simply pretending that my neighbours’ religious holidays do not exist will not stop them from existing. Conversely, acknowledging them and disseminating information about them will enable people to make informed choices about life in their community. If I know when my Muslim colleague is observing Ramadan, I will be able to avoid scheduling an office lunch for that period. If I know when my Jewish neighbours are celebrating Sukkot, I will not be perplexed by the booths being erected in their gardens.
This gift to Europe’s teenagers purports to advocate tolerance, but it is the tolerance of exclusion rather than of inclusion. That may be tidier but it is far less generous and, ironically, given that the diary is posted under the ‘empowerment’ section of the Europa website, far less empowering.  Perhaps next year the European Commission will take their own advice and make wiser choices in their official publications.

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