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01 May 2008

Religious conscience in a secular state

Religious conscience in a secular state

General Director Joel Edwards explores the tension between conviction and equality...

It's not often I come up with brilliant ideas before breakfast but I had one the other day: ASCOs - Anti-Social Commentary Orders. The concept is simple: if a newspaper pundit is vitriolic, aggressive, rude or disrespectful, they are not allowed within a certain radius of their column for six weeks.

I could keep pretty busy handing them out, although most would no doubt be breached with defiant bravado. Commentators these days are simply out of control.

The media furore surrounding the Archbishop of Canterbury's remarks on Sharia law earlier this year was pretty high in ASCO-deserving behaviour. This was a big shame because the ruckus and vitriol obscured the vitally important question on tolerance he was seeking to address: what is the place of religious conscience in a modern secular state?

Because the challenges we face together in our changing nation are unprecedented in their cultural and political complexity, we urgently need a ceasefire between people of faith and secularists.

These debates are too important to be faced with anything other than mutual humility and thoughtful maturity. The religious need to repent of their failure to accept that most secular humanists are also striving for a better and more humane society. And secularists need to give up their vendetta against the very idea of God and, with a modicum of intellectual humility, stop portraying us as dangerous, deluded or stupid. Let's accept that fine minds and great women and men throughout history have stood on both sides of this debate.

A robust discussion

It is time for a robust discussion about how the idea of God plays out in public discourse in a nation that is institutionally Christian and has drawn its legacy of public service and human rights from the concept of divinely revealed morality. How will a 21st century Britain give birth to a Britishness that honours both religious convictions as well as a secular version of diversity? And it surely must. For at least 6 million people, faith is not a fad. It is the core of our being, determining our relationship with the state and our responsibility to our neighbours.

How can our shared aspirations be expressed in mutual respect to become a joint project in crafting a rule of law for post-Christendom Britain? This is not a call for conscience and conviction to have special pleading. But they must have equal status in democratic discourse.

The secularist demand that religious faith be entirely private, with no place in public conversation or the application of law, is unrealistic. In every society and every age, sooner or later, private beliefs spill over into the public square. The neutral state is a myth. Just because your narrative on life defers all things to a materialist rationalism does not stop it being a god in all but name.

Everyone's convictions are revealed in the public square. The very fabric of liberal democracy is about private worldviews, philosophies and political systems clashing and converging in the media, parliament, focus groups and opinion polls.

The risk of democracy is always the risk of disagreement

After 200 years, the secular experiment has failed to expunge the idea of God from the public square. And so British society is facing a genuine dilemma: what on earth do we do with gods who refuse to stay in the closet? How do we honour both religious convictions as well as a secular version of diversity? The risk of democracy is always the risk of disagreement. But disagreement should not then lead to automatic disqualification.

An intelligent ceasefire

Our society will only bear the tension between responsibilities, equality and human rights when we work hard to create good relationships despite our differences. An intelligent ceasefire between secularists and people of faith is a prerequisite of any true liberalism.

The religious have to accept they have no right to enforce their values against an unwilling majority. Even with its constitutional legacy of Christianity, religion can't simply superimpose theocracy on British democracy and expect to get away with it. But neither should faith be expelled from the public square.

Frankly, I have no patience with religious vigilantism which parades in public places with holy books and clenched fists. It is a travesty of faith. But at its best a liberal democracy should give me a proper hearing and allow me to disagree without accusing me of hatred and intolerance. At its worst it will vilify and impose its will on me.

Religion is more than just a necessary irritant. As long as society has a place for the self-regulatory role of conscience and conviction as integral to public order, good relationships, morality and ethical behaviour, then the rule of law has an obligation to factor it into the democratic discussions. Exemptions in law based on religious belief should not be dismissed as undemocratic simply because they are influenced by faith.

We should use Dr Rowan Williams' provocation as a springboard to find a way forward for those in our - and other - faith communities who feel disenfranchised on matters of conscience by the changing meaning of what it is to be British. And we should do so with a grace and civility that draws on the finest legacies of all our traditions.

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