Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Faith, the Secular State and May 6th

The April issue of the New Statesman explores the idea of God in Britain's secular culture (it also contains the 50 greatest political photographs which are a powerful pictorial document of recent history). Here is an excerpt from the editorial:

This magazine has been resolutely secular since its first issue in 1913. Yet our annual "God" issue often proves to be our most popular. Proof, perhaps, that as Harold Wilson recognised, social democracy in Britain always owes more to Methodism than it did to Marx.

For us, secularism has always meant a secular state, not a secular society. A belief in a state that does not act on the basis of religious considerations is perfectly compatible with a recognition that faith has an important role to play in the public sphere...

Religious observance in Britain is, with a few exceptions, in steep decline, but interest in science, metaphysics and epistemology has perhaps never been stronger. David Lewis-Willians (author of Conceiving God: the Cognitive Origin and Evolution of Religion) is right when he says that the human appetite for belief is hard-wired. We hope this issue goes some way to sating your hunger.

On the one hand, this editorial acknowledges the positive influence that religion has on society ("Britain always owed more to Methodism than it did to Marx") and in the same breath, it wishes to place a distance between religion and the state. I wonder where in the mind of the editor the state ends and society begins. Are there clearly defined demarcating lines separating the secular state from society? Does there exist a more symbiotic relationship, an ecological interdependency that this editorial fails to recognise? Can the state run in isolation from society as this editorial appears to suggest? And if the state "does not act on the basis of religious considerations" then what considerations does it act on? What are its governing principles and foundational philosophical attitudes? Where do they come from? Do they bear moral scrutiny?

These questions are not just the stuff of pub philosophy. They have concrete applications and affect human lives. Take, for example, the account in today's issue of The Times of the Christian nurse, Shirley Chaplin, who refused to remove her crucifix when asked to do so by her employer. In the magazine, Faith Today, the three leaders of the main political parties are asked if they see religious faith as a private pursuit or whether it has a role in the wider community:

Gordon Brown: Our common realm is not and cannot be stripped of values - I absolutely reject the idea that religion should somehow be tolerated but not encouraged in public life. Our Equality Bill is specifically designed to protect religion and belief on exactly the same terms as race or gender or sexuality. I welcome the role that people of faith play in building Britain's future - and the Catholic communion in particular is to be congratulated for so often being the conscience of our country, for helping "the least of these" even when bearing witness to the truth is hard or unpopular.

David Cameron: I believe faith groups have a huge role to play in building a stronger and bigger society. I'm convinced faith is a force for good in this country. Compassion, fairness, tolerance, responsibility - these values are shared by people across faiths; they are exactly the values our whole country needs.
What's more, faith groups form a key part of my vision of the big society. They have answers to many of the problems we face and I want to help them in the good work that they do. If I become Prime Minister, I will unleash the power of the voluntary sector. We will fund social enterprises to tackle our toughest challenges. And we will give church groups and charities the power to set up new schools.

Nick Clegg: I do believe in the separation of church and state - but that doesn't mean keeping faith out of public life. People of faith have an extremely valuable contribution to make to public debate and often challenge our consciences on a whole host of issues. Church leaders have spoken out on issues such as refugee rights, international development and prison reform, for instance. I'm also keenly aware of the good work done by people of faith in our inner cities and in schools. A liberal society is one in which all creeds can flourish and in which many different points of view can make their voice heard.

Well, that's that then...isn't it?


  1. I vote for the Dean of Brentwood Cathedral!

  2. By the way, about them having something to say: that was sarcasm.

  3. Glad to see that those guys had something to say... Though Cameron's promises to the Catholic Herald (reported in todays Telegraph) are interesting...

  4. It seems that political leaders from Harold Wilson through to the current three who are quoted have a more instinctive grasp of the subject than the New Statesmen, even if their comments are lacking a little in analytical precision. It is not surprising that as politicians they should be stronger on the rhetoric than the analysis.
    Quite simply, there is no mysterious dividing line between state and society because the ‘good’ state exists to serve society and the people – its citizens – who make it up. Those people have many different beliefs but it has to be some consensus of those beliefs that shapes the state and informs its actions. If society derives its core ethical beliefs from faith then surely those beliefs will infuse the state.
    Once the state becomes separated from society and acts in a way that hasn’t derived its authority from its citizens then conflict is inevitable. Sadly, there are all too many examples around the world of dictatorial states where dislocating and often bloody conflict exists because state and society have become separated.
    So, the New Statesman’s initial premise is wrong but so is some of what follows. Where does it get the idea that there is a booming interest in science and metaphysics? The numbers of people studying these subjects in our schools and universities doesn’t offer evidence to support this.
    I think it is back to the drawing board for the New Statesman if it wants to tackle this subject again.