Newman Association Lecture: “Secularism: threat or opportunity”
This lecture was reprinted in the Newman Association’s journal.
Firstly, I’d like to thank the Newman Association for inviting me to speak this evening on this important topic.
Edward Said, the Arab academic used to say “I’m Christian, but I’m culturally Muslim”. Inversely, I would say “I’m Muslim, but I’m culturally Christian”. Christian festivities and holidays are built into my life, whether I choose to incorporate them or not. I recently returned from Paris with a traditional cake we eat in France for the epiphany, called “La Galette des rois” – I explained to my children its religious significance for Christians, which although not an event marked in the Muslim calendar, I’m happy to incorporate into our hybrid home culture, where I always emphasise the importance of gleaning the wisdom of other Divine traditions. I mention the cake story because I’m always reminded when I return to the fatherland (my mother being irish), that France despite all its protestations over secularism, is also a deeply traditional country in many ways, where Christianity, although arguably marginalised from the political sphere, continues to hold tremendous importance in national culture. It dictates the holidays, the patisseries we eat and when, but it is also the unspoken language of birth, marriage and death, an unconscious backdrop for many, but a backdrop all the same. And I often consider how much poorer French culture would be without a Christmas “buche” or the cathedral of Notre Dame or the philosophy of St Augustine.
And so reflecting on the topic of secularism, I can’t help but start by considering the good intentions which underpinned the secularist trend in France, the hope of ending ecclesiastical privileges and affirming universal principles including the freedom of conscience and equal rights expressed through the Declaration of Human Rights. The initial objective was to make the church a source of public morals and not the basis for politics, to guarantee that religious practises should be permitted, but with no preference given to any outlook and no one should be stopped from exercising their religion. To ensure as Rajeev Bhargava describes it, that the plurality of society is meet by a type of state neutrality he defines as “principled distance”. Of course today, this aspiration seems far removed from arguments about crosses or headscarves in schools or the right for women who wear face veils to move around freely.
In my earlier days investigating Islam, I came upon the writings of a British diplomat, Charles Gai Eaton who had himself converted to the faith. Discussing religion in general, he spoke of religious wisdom as a type of inheritance, a form of knowledge which we’d acquired from previous generations but failed to recognise the value of. The wholesale dismissal of religion, he compared to a young person who receives an inheritance but dismisses it without examining it more closely. He or she could, he speculated, inadvertently be overlooking immense wealth.
My own evolving view of such matters is indeed that a very specific socio-historical juncture , namely the enlightenment, has led too many of us to often wholesale dismiss religion, without examining the rich heritage which religionS (plural) offer us. Could we actually be overlooking centuries of wisdom in so doing?
Quite understandably, the excesses of the church and abuses of institutionalised religious authorities, the conflict between science and religion, as well as some of religion’s most literal readings, gave rise to a movement, the enlightenment, which associated religion and religious people with hypocrisy, a deficiency in reason and discrimination. Many of the critiques which emerged during this period were valid and contributed to purging religion, but specifically institutionalised religion, of some of its worst excesses. But my own examination of religious philosophy has led me to conclude that we mistakenly threw out the baby with the bathwater. Or to quote Charles Taylor, the counterview to the suggestion that the enlightenment was a move from darkness into light is the view that is was “an unqualified move into error, a massive forgetting of salutary and necessary truths about the human condition.”
Today, largely as a consequence of this massive reassessment of religion, its place within modern secular societies is socially contested and politically divisive.
For people of faith, what exactly is the concern? It is that religion becomes merely tolerated, no longer a moral compass and a social glue, but a quirky eccentricity, derided at best, and often denounced as a form of intolerance and close mindedness. The fears of religious folk also vary to some extent as a consequence of their place within broader society. C of E folk may feel rather differently than Hindus about secularism and the opportunities, or restrictions, secularism is deemed to afford. And of course, across the world, secularism takes many different forms. In the Middle East for example, secularism is associated with brutal dictatorships and religion with people power. Even within Europe, France’s intrusive approach to secularism differs greatly from our experience of secularism here in the UK.
I recently debated the issue of secularism with a Christian colleague from Ekklesia for the BBC, examining the question as to whether we need greater or lesser secularism here in the UK. My friend, a committed Christian himself, argued that the presence of bishops in the house of Lords, the fact the monarch promises to uphold Christianity and the selectiveness permitted in recruitment in religious schools are all examples suggesting that secularism has not gone far enough in the UK. In his words, Jesus (pbuh) “reserved his harshest words for the rich and powerful and for religious hypocrites. In contrast, the monarchy and House of Lords represent privilege and inequality.”
My main concern with a desire to do away entirely with Christian symbolism is that those symbols contribute to fostering a sense of national identity and culture. Nations need common values and perhaps more than that, common symbols of the sacred. Like the academic Tariq Modood, I believe it is “quite possible in a country like Britain to treat the claims of all religions in accordance with multicultural equality without having to abolish the established status of the Church of England, given that it has come to be a very “weak” form of establishment and that the church has come to play a positive ecumenical and multi-faith role.”
Prince Charles’s suggestion that he seems himself as “defender of Faith” rather than defender of ’the’ Faith is one such example of this. His commitment to highlighting and cultivating the rich traditions of a variety of faith communities is another such example. But moreover, free, democratic societies require a high level of commitment and participation which can only be achieved with a strong sense of collective identity. It seems to me that Christianity very much ought to play a part in that collective identity, both in terms of its historical significance but also in terms of the contribution of Christians to modern Britain, alongside that of other faith and non-faith communities. All modern societies must and will undergo a redefinition of their historical identity and it is essential for societal cohesion that all members of society are included in and reflected in this redefinition.
But also, my concern with marginalising Christian symbolism stems from the fact this inadvertently lends legitimacy to the view that religion ought to have no presence or voice in the public sphere.
This is problematic to me on a number of fronts, not least in terms of the loss of invaluable wisdom offered by diverse religious traditions, but also the potential impotency subsequently imposed on religious organisations who time and time again are shown to be an invaluable element of our social tapestry, supporting the most deprived, offering an inclusive space for the elderly, the disabled, those often marginalised by the mainstream. Just today, a survey from Manchester University found a direct correlation between higher visits to religious places and lower crime figures, especially in relation to shoplifting, drug use and music piracy. The findings suggest this is because religion not only teaches people about ‘moral and behavioural norms’, but also spending time with like-minded people makes it less likely they’ll get mixed up with the ‘wrong crowd’.”
The largest network of food banks in the UK, the Trussell Trust, is a Christian charity, which has doubled the number of people it feeds over the past year. Similar intiatives are run by other faith groups, including Muslim organisations like Rumi’s Cave which runs a soup kitchen for the homeless every Thursday. Although it is my view that the state should in fact be providing sufficiently for its citizens so that none have to rely on charity in order to survive, it remains deeply reassuring that where the state fails, religion steps in to fill the gaps. Studies show time and time again that the social networks developed by religions are stronger, deeper and more effective and areligious equivalents. This is not a matter of who’s better than whom, but rather a testament to the deep social wealth contributed by religion to society and sadly often overlooked.
Interestingly, studies also suggest that people of faith are general more content. According to Gallup- Healthways data (that has surveyed 1,000 people a day for several years).
“Americans who attend a church, synagogue, or mosque frequently report experiencing more positive emotions and fewer negative ones in general than do those who attend less often or not at all. This relationship holds true even when controlling for key demographic variables like age, education, and income.”
Of course, this isn’t to say people of no faith don’t also do good, volunteering and donating, but as I regularly argue, religion, as opposed to faith, is all about the social, the societal, it is about the meta-narrative which drives how we perceive the world and our place within it and a totally secular public sphere, with all the good will of the Alain de Botton’s of the world, lacks an overarching coherent narrative to drive citizens to do good. Good becomes alleatory, the product of, as all things increasingly are, individualised and individualistic decisions about one’s own relationship to the world. At the risk of reducing religion to a cost/benefit ratio, the connection between doing good and salvation cannot be reproduced by a focus on the “feel good factor” or an overly optimistic (in my view) hope that people will do the right thing.
How can these injunctions possibly be compared with the depth of religious traditions which teach that our worth as human beings is inherently tied to the good we spread in the world. To centuries of teachings about charity and selflessness, about concern for the meek and the disenfranchised – to structures and habits which orient all of our actions towards concern for the welfare of others and awareness of the impact of our choices on society.
And so, the push for greater secularisation must be approached cautiously. In some ways, the attempt to create a neutral public sphere, one which might prove blind to religion or its absence, could help to foster greater tolerance, insure that the diverse nation which is modern Britain is reflected at all levels and that the privileges of a historically rooted religious group do not supersede the right of each and every citizen, whatever their faith or lack thereof, to be represented in and influence the public sphere. Like the academic Charles Taylor, it seems clear to me that secularism should not be about religion per say, but about managing diversity, not favouring any basic position be it religious or not. Rather than focusing on the separation of church and state, or the notion of removing religion from the public sphere a la French republican model, Taylor argues that we should focus on the objectives of secularism – which he lists inline with the french revolutionary trinity as “liberty, equality and fraternity” as well as harmony of relations – and derive the concrete arrangements from there – in other words, what are the objectives of secularism? To defend plurality – therefore how can the state best achieve this.
Like many people of faith, I have profound reservations about the radical secularism being pushed from some quarters which seek to depict religious views as antiquated and outmoded at best, and archaic and discriminatory at worst. Such currents pose a significant challenge to religious communities because of the intransigent assumptions concerning the assumed universality and immutability of liberal norms, some of which are anti-religious arguments masquerading as ‘liberal’ principles. Most recently, the Grand Mufti of Atheism himself waged his own mini war against the Times for referring to “Muslim babies” in an article, contending that babies are not Muslim or Christian or otherwise. Tim Stanley has written a rather brilliant response to him in the Telegraph today pointing out that this ignores how religion and culture work. He states that Muslim or Christian or Hindu parents are adherents of a narrative which includes their loves ones within it and that ignoring the ways in which cultures transmit beliefs, including religious beliefs, is in this instance, a case of selective outrage. Of course Muslim parents have Muslim babies because that’s how Muslim parents perceive things. The issue of course is a much deeper one, the idea pushed by radical secularists that rather than creating a neutral public sphere in which all religious views can coexist, that the state must impose a pseudo-neutrality which banishes any trace of religion from our midst. And of course, this is a worry. Not least because, as fully fledged, tax paying citizens, religious folk have as much right as anyone to see their views respected by the state and expect accommodation of their perspective, within of course the given boundaries of not harming others.
In academia, Modernization theory, although widely discredited in theory, continues to influence how many of us perceive the world. It holds that all societies are evolving according to a linear model, with Western industrialised societies as the epitome of human development and so-called primitive, i.e. preindustrial cultures, viewed as backward and doomed. This outlook continues to underpin much of how we view the rest of the world. We assume that technological development is concurrent with human, social and ethical development. Inline with modernization theory, there is a widespread assumption that progress means becoming more secular. Here in Britain, Half of those brought up in a religion say they have abandoned it. We often assume that our economic success and relative wealth are tied to this secularisation, noting as many do how much of the third world remains deeply religious, evidence some claim, of their economic and moral backwardness. And yet, the somewhat large exception to the secularisation and development rule is the US, which was and continues to be very religious and also very modern. In the US, 92% of adults believe in the existence of God or some kind of universal spirit, 70% are “absolutely” certain of God’s existence.
In their book “God Is Back: How the Global Rise of Faith Is Changing the World”, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, both of the Economist magazine, trace how in the 19th century, the most influential thinkers predicted that modernity and secularization would go hand in hand. Throughout most of the 20th century, it seemed this was the case. But by the late 1960s and 1970s religion began to reappear in the public square and in the people’s lives, confounding modernisation theorists who couldn’t understand how we could be DE evolving!
In this sense, not only does the period in which religion disappeared from the European public and private spheres appear to represent a small blip in an otherwise consistent presence of religion throughout human history, but that blip is a distinctly European phenomena which is at odds with the manifestation of religion globally.
Globally, it is our societies in Europe that are the anomaly.
While just half of Britons say that faith is important to their life (only 44% identify as Christian), according to Ipsos Mori, almost everyone in Brazil, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and India say faith is important to theirs.
If, as some theorists speculate religion is not only not disappearing, but is actually reshaping, re-emerging in new shapes and forms, less institutional, more individualistic and personalised, the question of secularism, how we define it and how it relates to the religious becomes ever more pressing. As people of faith, I believe secularism contains in principle important elements for managing a diverse society, values which we might even recognise as part of our moral lexicon, and I would urge you not to allow the term to be hijacked and reframed by those who wish to use it as a means of marginalising faith and its adherents from the public sphere. Secularism contains both opportunities to better express the plurality of religious traditions, and a threat that religion could be increasingly evicted from public life – it is my hope that people of faith will recognise the value of a moderate, accomodationist secularism and help to redress the imbalance in the perception of secularism and its goals.
Thanks for your time. God bless.