On The Pope, Secularism And The Big Society


On Thursday 16th of September 2010, In the middle of a conversation on BBC 2’s Newsnight about the relationship between religious faith and a secular society, a spokesman for the website Conservative Home said something like ”while we might not agree with all the ideas a faith promotes if they take a person who is a burden on the taxpayer and gets them of benefit and make them into a productive person, then that is a good thing.” (my paraphrasing)

The sentiment that this statement represents beggars belief! The reduction of the issue of religion in politics to one of reducing the welfare bill is staggering in its cynical, managerialist lack of perception and perhaps gives the lie to all the Conservative rhetoric on The Big Society.

Is the Big Society primarily about getting citizens, charities and NGO’s to undertake for nothing tasks that are currently paid for? If so one would ask if there are any limits on the beliefs a religious organisation wished to promote before Conservative Home would become uncomfortable working with it to reduce the welfare bill? Homophobia, the oppression of women and sexual repression all seem to be acceptable to Conservative Home.

Would the same apply to political organisations? If the BNP or the Communist Party could show they were saving taxpayers money would Conservative Home be happy to work with them?

This Conservative obsession with tax rates and public spending dismisses all the real issues that make politics really important; issues around freedom, equality and justice.

But in any event this is in fact a side issue that only illustrates the paucity of thought in contemporary Conservative thinking; the real controversy surrounding the relationship between religions and the state is not about, or should not, be about reducing public spending, it is, and always has been, about power.

Historically, human societies have been dominated by power elites based in and justified by religious doctrine. Most religious faiths are by nature mutually exclusive; if Christianity is true Islam must be false and vice versa. Historically this has led one religion or another to achieve dominance in any given region or nation and then oppress or seek to eradicate all heretical religious views, i.e. everyone who does not believe what they do. Such a situation is clearly not compatible with an open and democratic society in which citizens are free to believe what their conscience tells them and free to practice and discuss those beliefs openly.

Secularism is a political theory that attempts to reconcile this contradiction by removing specific religious belief from the philosophy and structures of power thus allowing individuals complete freedom of religious and political beliefs under a religiously neutral state.

A secular society does not mean a society without religion (no such human society has ever existed), it means a society in which no particular religious point of view dominates the political domain. Secularism is not an idea in opposition to religion, on the contrary it is a political idea designed to protect religious freedom.

Religious believers fleeing religious persecution in Europe invented political secularism in the embryonic American state. The primary objective of the English protestant non-conformists who sailed on the Mayflower was to find a space where they could live without religious persecution. Thus the separation of any specific religious doctrine from the state.

However, some Secularists seem to have gone much further, most notably Richard Dawkins and the New Atheists, who seem to be claiming that it is illegitimate to advocate a religious point of view in the public discourse because such views are uniquely irrational.

The process of rational public discourse is about discovering the rationality or otherwise of a proposition and when we say we don’t agree with a proposition (religious, political, economic or scientific), we are effectively saying that we think the proposition is not rationally justified i.e. it is irrational. This means in effect that any beliefs that I don’t believe in I think are irrational. But in an open and free society the mere fact that I (or even a majority of people) think a proposition is irrational does not mean that it is illegitimate to express such views. The freedom to express views in an open society has nothing whatsoever to do with the rationality or otherwise of the views expressed; in a free society it is for informed individuals to decide upon the rationality of statements made in the public discourse.

There is a problem here that liberals have to deal with. In a free society a citizen is entitled to believe what they wish to believe, religious and political beliefs often prescribe or recommend certain behaviours in the real world, indeed most would agree that this is the point of holding such beliefs, i.e. to not only change how we feel inside but to also change our intentional stance towards other people and the world – to change our attitudes and our behaviour.

The problem occurs when the prescriptions or recommendations of religions contradict the laws of the universally applicable laws of the land that have come about through open public discourse and democratic due process.

In a genuinely democratic society a minority group that disagrees with a law is not entitled to act as if the law had not been passed. For example, many members of our society regard marijuana as a harmless drug that the state has restricted illegitimately and thus they continue to take the dug in defiance of the law. Most religious people, and probably a narrow majority of the general population, would think the dope smokers were wrong to do so and that the law should be enforced if they are caught breaking it.

But the legitimacy of the law rests not on what the majority thinks at any given time but on the fact that a genuinely representative government elected by universal suffrage and after due parliamentary process and interrogation has enacted the law on the behalf of everyone.

The problem for some religious believers is that the legitimacy of parliament as an expression of the will of the people is trumped by their religious teaching as an expression of the will of God.

For this reason some religious people go so far as to challenge democracy as a legitimate form of government, and I’m thinking particularly here of the minority form of Islam that sees the establishing of a worldwide Muslim Caliphate as the ultimate aim of all public religious activity. Which, by the way, is not so different from the 19th Century Christian aim of a worldwide kingdom of God on earth.

For these types of religious people whenever democratic laws contradict scripture, scripture must out – But the rest of us are left asking which scripture? And whose interpretation of that scripture?

These contradictions and tensions lead inevitably to nothing but a never-ending cycle of religious wars, both rhetorical wars and shooting wars, resulting in the assertion by brute force of the beliefs of the currently dominant religion, which is indeed what we have seen throughout the world for at least the last 2 thousand years. Only a religiously neutral politically secular form of government can bring to an end this historically inevitable cycle of sectarian conflicts.

But political secularism is not the same as atheism; it would be perfectly possible, and entirely rational, to be a committed Catholic, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or whatever and be passionately committed to secularism. Indeed, it would be in your self-interest. It is only the Church of England that has anything to fear from secularism, for all others secularism is their guarantee of religious freedom.

Even for the C of E the threat posed by secularism is to do with their political status not their religious freedom. And I would argue that the political status of the CofE undermines attempts to maintain a genuinely neutral and secular state in the UK, and that the Church should be separated from the State and that it would be in the CofE’s religious interests for this to happen.

In recent years the debate has become polarised between the new atheists and humanists on one side and religious believers of all persuasions on the other side, with the atheists condemning the religious as representing a threat to a rational free society and the religious groups portraying the new atheists as intolerant bigots.

But these partisan positions are both entirely mistaken. The religious are failing to recognise or acknowledge that it is the secular society itself that allows the debate to happen in the first place and the New Atheists do not seem to understand that in order to defend political secularism they do not have to attack religion, because the truth or falsity of religious beliefs is irrelevant to the debate. It doesn’t matter if I share someone’s religious beliefs I can still believe they should be free to express those beliefs. As a believer in democracy and an open society those are the values I seek to defend, whether the attack comes from religious groups or political groups.

So the problem with some religious advocates is that they wish to impose their normative behavioural values on the rest of us even against our will. The problem of the New Atheists is that they insist that the religious should not be allowed to promote their views in the public square, that for a religious advocate to seek to influence political decisions, based on their religious beliefs, is somehow illegitimate. But this denies the very thing they are seeking to defend – an open and free secular society.

Instead of fighting this irrational battle both sides should unite to fight those who attack freedom, whether they be religious, atheist, socialist, communist, fascist even, we should all be prepared to fight for a genuinely secular political system because that is the only way to guarantee all our freedoms.

I Am Not A Number

Political and Philosophical Dispatches From An Individual Living In A Society

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