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Newman Association Lecture: “Secularism: threat or opportunity”

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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.‎

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Written by Myriam Francois

February 5, 2014 at 17:24

BBC Biq Questions: my contribution to “do we need 10 new commandments”

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This week’s show focused on the Catholic Church and whether we need ten new commandments…

Featuring: Colm O’Gorman; Tim Stanley; Francis Beckett; Caroline Farrow; Lavinia Byrne; Fr Paul Keane; Alain de Botton; Rabbi Pete Tobias; Deborah Hyde; David Herbert; Jasvir SinghImage

You can watch it on i-player here for a week: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01qxrzw/The_Big_Questions_Series_6_Episode_7/

Written by Myriam Francois

February 18, 2013 at 19:22