Tuesday 2 December 2014
Richard Harries and secularism
Lord Harries. Or a secularist. Thinking.
I confess I hadn't realized that the House of Lords were debating 'religion and belief' until it was all over (Hansard here). Anyway, I'm going to focus on the contribution made by Lord Harries, former Anglican Bishop of Oxford, and particularly to his discussion of secularism.
Now despite the continual claim by secularists that secularism is a clearly good thing and that it's very different from atheism, I've posted enough on this subject in the past to make my own position (and the reasons for it) clear: 'secularism' is an ill defined word and, so far as it is actually used in modern Britain, it usually means atheism applied to the political realm. (Perhaps the main posts on this have been here and here. If you're an atheist, do try and deal with the arguments before coming on here to tell me I'm an idiot.)
Bryce Gallie came up with the term 'essentially contested concepts' (here) for terms that served as openings to debate. The flipside of that is the existence of 'essentially uncontested' words which serve to structure debate by closing it down. In Scotland, it is essentially uncontested that we are progressive. More generally, it is essentially uncontested that religions are faiths and that good government is secular. Well, I contest all of those, but let's focus on the latter claim as channelled by Lord Harries (from Hansard here).
...we need to be very careful about the use of that word secular. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Williams of Oystermouth, draws a helpful distinction between programmatic and procedural secularism. The latter is what we must all accept, for it refers to a set of procedures, arrangements and rules of discourse that enable rational debate to take place and decisions to be made with everyone participating on an equal basis. Programmatic secularism, however, has been perceived as an attempt to drive the religious voices out of the public square altogether, and this must be resisted, for the public square is quite rightly a crowded place where all voices need to be heard, including religious ones. As often as not, those religious voices will be translated into the shared assumptions of public reasoning, but this should not be mandatory.
Thirdly, public authorities should beware of privileging only certain forms of authority or religious representation. There are often groups, such as women, who need to be heard and who lack access to power. Public authorities should not replicate and reinforce oppressive practices that might be present in a particular faith community.
Fourthly, in a society in which we all have multiple identities, our identity as UK citizens imposes a duty to the state. While both Christians and Muslims, for example, will claim a higher loyalty, according to the tenets of their religion, this must not be interpreted as loyalty to a foreign power structure, as it was, for example, by some Roman Catholics in the 16th century.
Fifthly, in devising public policy we need to take into account where we are as a result of our history and culture. There is no neutral realm, and what we have now is a quite specific achievement that has been worked out over many centuries. It is a fantasy to think that there is some neutral secular blueprint existing somewhere else, which can simply be plonked down. Clearly, one feature of where we are now is the existence of an established church, and here of course I have to declare an interest as someone who has had the privilege and fulfilment of being a bishop in that church, serving society for my lifetime.
Let's kick off with that distinction between programmatic and procedural secularism. Let's agree that programmatic secularism ('an attempt to drive the religious voices out of the public square altogether') is wrong. What of procedural secularism?
The latter is what we must all accept, for it refers to a set of procedures, arrangements and rules of discourse that enable rational debate to take place and decisions to be made with everyone participating on an equal basis.
Well, contrarian as I am, why must I accept this? Let's start by cavilling at the word 'secularism' here. If the claim was: 'we must support a set of procedures etc that enable rational debate to take place etc and decisions to be made with everyone participating on an equal basis', I might (for might see below) be inclined to accept it. But to describe that as secular is (given the normal use of the word) profoundly misleading. The problem of course is that what is rational and what is equal (or more exactly fair) is highly contested: to bracket out religion from what constitutes fairness and rationality is to concede far too much without discussion. (For a fuller development of this thought, think eg Alasdair MacIntyre.) So by all means let's look for those rational and fair procedures, but let's not assume that they can be described as secular without a great deal of explanation. (Indeed, just to be provocative, let's at least consider the possibility that they have to be religious, at least in the sense of requiring the social cohesion of a civil religion.)
Let's move on to the third point: public authorities should beware of privileging only certain forms of authority or religious representation.
There's a bit of a non sequitur from the Bishop here: the claim 1) public authorities should beware of privileging only certain forms of authority or religious representation is linked (in the next sentence ) to 2) there are often groups, such as women, who need to be heard and who lack access to power. Public authorities should not replicate and reinforce oppressive practices that might be present in a particular faith community. The two claims are in principle distinct. I suspect that, to put forward a coherent point, what he should be saying here is that, when privileging religions, one should be careful not to encourage oppressive practices. But what it sounds like (and again, I suspect this is deliberate or at least the culpable negligence of the bien pensant eager for social approval) is that the existence of some oppression within religion means that no subset of religions should be given privileges over other religions. The absurdity of the latter claim is clear: whilst we should clearly be careful about reinforcing (say) FGM in some religions or cultures, that carefulness has absolutely no implications for the privileged role of (say) the Church of England in national life. (I would also mention here the weaseliness of the word 'oppression': I have no doubt at all that Lord Harries regards the exclusion of women from (ordained) ministry as oppression and, hence, the exclusion of most traditional religions from 'privilege' in principle as entirely justifiable: highly convenient, no doubt, for the sort of liberal Protestantism he embodies.)
Moving on to point four: While both Christians and Muslims, for example, will claim a higher loyalty, according to the tenets of their religion, this must not be interpreted as loyalty to a foreign power structure, as it was, for example, by some Roman Catholics in the 16th century.
OK. Point received. Nonsense. My loyalty to Catholicism is not simply to obey everything coming out of the Vatican. But equally, I do have a loyalty to a 'foreign power structure'. (And analogous things can be said about Jews and Muslims etc etc.) Inconvenient for Erastians, I know, but get over it: that's what proper religions are like.
Fifthly, in devising public policy we need to take into account where we are as a result of our history and culture. There is no neutral realm, and what we have now is a quite specific achievement that has been worked out over many centuries. It is a fantasy to think that there is some neutral secular blueprint existing somewhere else, which can simply be plonked down.
Now, this I agree with!! To adopt 'secularism' as a 'essentially uncontested' term is to assume a rupture of pietas and tradition: the existing state (State and situation) of the UK is not one where there is a neat separation between Church and State (let alone between Christianity and the State). If secularism is adopted as an unproblematic aim, then, on almost any interpretation of the word (and certainly on any of the usual meanings chucked around by the secularist clubs), we would need to change and abandon traditional ways of doing things. So, we need to ask, why? On what grounds (and on what evidence) do we assume that changing the (rather lazy vague Protestantism) of Scottish and English history in favour of some Spartist atheism is going to benefit anyone? I'm sure there's some tweaking to be done (in particular to allow, eg, theists from a non-Christian background such as Muslims to participate fully and bring up their children in their religion). But my bet would be that those sorts of accommodations would be more easily obtained in a culture and a State run by Christians (say) signed up to Dignitatis Humanae
It is in accordance with their dignity as persons-that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility-that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth. However, men cannot discharge these obligations in a manner in keeping with their own nature unless they enjoy immunity from external coercion as well as psychological freedom. Therefore the right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature. In consequence, the right to this immunity continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it and the exercise of this right is not to be impeded, provided that just public order be observed.
Further light is shed on the subject if one considers that the highest norm of human life is the divine law-eternal, objective and universal-whereby God orders, directs and governs the entire universe and all the ways of the human community by a plan conceived in wisdom and love. Man has been made by God to participate in this law, with the result that, under the gentle disposition of divine Providence, he can come to perceive ever more fully the truth that is unchanging. Wherefore every man has the duty, and therefore the right, to seek the truth in matters religious in order that he may with prudence form for himself right and true judgments of conscience, under use of all suitable means.
than by the sort of secularist whose view of religion is summed up in the following (here)
The Cambridge Secular Society was formed in 2009 to provide a forum for likeminded freethinkers concerned that religion, far from being in terminal decline, is making a comeback. With the establishment still in the thrall of religion the reasons are easy to see, for the politicians it is the grovelling pursuit of votes that motivates them along with the misguided idea that religion is good for us and our children, for others it is the cosy familiarity of Bishops smothering us all with pious words and incantations of God's love...
'Secularism' is not a clear desideratum. Lord Harries is wrong to accept procedural secularism as an aim. Instead, we should aim for a public space and debate that is rational and just, but also accepting that what this means is not easy and will involve conflicting views. How we live with that conflict is what matters, and that will be more easily done within the sort of broad theism (I might even be tempted to say deism) that existed within the institutionalized Protestantism of the existing State than within the shrill certainties of secularism.