Friday 30 March 2007

Secularism debate: the Cardinal weighs in

Oh dear. No sooner have I published the previous post than this week's edition of The Tablet drops through the letterbox and I see that not only has Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor, the Archbishop of Westminster, launched himself into the 'aggressive secularism' debate in a pretty unequivocal manner, but the good old liberal Tablet has thrown its full weight behind him. Its editorial reports on the Cardinal's recent speech in a way that makes it difficult to see any clear distinction between the speech and the journal's commentary on it - but perhaps that's the intention. Thus:

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor used his erudite Corbishley Lecture this week to erect a breakwater against the incoming tide of aggressive secularism and atheism. His purpose was both to start a debate, he said, and to sound an alarm against the "new intolerance" that disputes the presence of religion in the public sphere. A new breed of secularists, increasingly visible in the media and in politics, seeks to deny even the right of religiously motivated people to serve their fellow human beings in ways dictated by their consciences.

Note the lack of 'scare' quotes around that phrase 'the incoming tide of aggressive secularism and atheism'. This is disappointing after the magazine's rather more nuanced editorial on the whole 'gay adoption' business (which seems to be one of the main issues that has led to the Cardinal's tirade) a few weeks back.

The editorial goes on (whether speaking for itself, or for the Cardinal - it remains unclear) to bemoan the increasing presence of secularist and atheist 'abuse' of religion in the media (interestingly, making the same lazy conflation of secularism and atheism that Sunny at Pickled Politics criticised the National Secular Society for here) and to defend the positive role played by religious people in public life, from the abolition of the slave trade onwards, etc. etc. It then points to the dangers of excluding religious voices from the public and political sphere and adds:
'In practical terms the ultimate goal of the more extreme secularists extends to the closing of church schools and the exclusion of bishops from the House of Lords.' Whoa - hold on there. Maybe we can argue about faith schools (though I don't think anyone has suggested closing them - only questioning whether it's justifiable for the taxpayer to fund them, in a society that is increasingly agnostic in belief and multi-faith in practice) - but since when did it become extremist to suggest that it might not be a good idea to allow a clutch of unelected prelates from just one of the many christian churches, which is just one of many faiths in an increasingly pluralist society, to sit - and vote - as of right in the upper chamber of a modern democratic country?

But the most interesting and controversial part of the Cardinal's speech, and The Tablet's uncritical commentary on it, is his argument that it is somehow undemocratic not to allow religious voices this kind of privileged presence in the public sphere. He interprets religious freedom, not in the traditional sense of the right to believe and practise as you wish, but as the freedom to intervene in public affairs. This, to me, seems like a very odd use of the word 'freedom'. The editorial ends with the hope that secularists will respond to the Cardinal's 'rational approach' with 'similar moderation', and issues a stark final warning that if they don't 'it would suggest that Britain is no longer a place where religious belief is welcome.'

Oh, come on! Just because Richard Dawkins makes a few high-profile media appearances, some MPs try (but fail) to get some basic conditions about diversity of recruitment attached to the generous state funding of faith schools, and the government has the temerity (but only just...) to suggest that you shouldn't discriminate against people on the grounds of their sexuality - you think that makes this a country where religious belief isn't welcome? Look again at those bishops sitting comfortably on their Lords benches, the religious figures on policy commissions, all that support for faith schools. Give even one example where anyone in this country, from any faith group, has been prevented from believing or practicising whatever religion he or she wishes, in the last fifty years. Religious belief no longer welcome? Perhaps they should have been honest and said 'no longer privileged' - maybe that's the real worry. But - as I've said before - is it really true to the spirit of the Gospels to hold on to such privileges for Christianity in the public sphere?

Instead of repeating this kind of 'we're all doomed' act about the slide into the abyss of secularism, perhaps religious leaders should stop for a moment and ask themselves why secularists have become rather more vocal recently? Could it be that secularists too are worried - worried that precious and hard-won secular freedoms, such as freedom of expression, separation of church and state, the right to criticise even when it offends - might be under threat from various renascent fundamentalisms? Secularists would argue that it is a very real aggressive religious fundamentalism -not an imaginary and inflated 'aggressive secularism' - that is the main threat to our present way of life - and they would like to see non-fundamentalist believers speaking out against it rather more.

Given the disparity between the tone of this editorial and the more 'balanced' approach of previous Tablet opinion pieces, I began to wonder whether it had been written by Madeleine Bunting - who is an occasional contributor to the magazine. This more straightforward secularist-bashing seems like her kind of thing.

Thursday 29 March 2007

A rather long post on religion and liberalism

I promise to post about other topics soon, honest, but as a newcomer to the blogosphere I have a backlog (backblog?) of things I've been wanting to say for a while around these currently hot issues of faith, liberalism, secularism, etc. Please also forgive the fact that, in this post anyway, I'm writing about events that have happened over the past year or two, before I started blogging, so I'm not able to include too many precise references or links. What I want to write about here is the response of some liberal Christian commentators to recent outbreaks of fundamentalist rage. If you're interested, you can track back through the detailed week-by-week coverage of these issues at other blogs, especially normblog and Harry's Place.

What I hope I can add here is the perspective of someone who is not an out-and-out unbeliever, but who sees himself as straddling (often uncomfortably and uncertainly) the sacred-secular divide (see earlier post on secularism and atheism). I'm also interested in doing something that I don't think has been attempted elsewhere, which is to try to understand why some liberal and progressive Christians have taken the positions they have, to the disappointment of many of us (well, me, anyway).

What I'm referring to here is the way that, in the wake of events such as 7/7 and the Danish cartoons row, some liberal Christian commentators have reacted not with outright condemnation of religious fundamentalism and unqualified support for freedom of expression, but rather with attempts to 'understand' and empathise with the rage of the fundamentalists. I'm thinking in particular of the Guardian columnist Madeleine Bunting, but (again, forgive the lack of specific references) I recall her fellow liberal Catholic Paul Vallely writing in The Independent in the wake of the cartoons row, along the lines that westerners should seek to 'understand' the offence caused to Muslim sensibilities. (More recently, other prominent liberal Catholic writers, such as William Dalrymple and Christina Odone, have also cast themselves as advocates on behalf of the interests of Muslims and as critics of western attitudes to Islam.) What was disappointing at the time was not so much this display of empathy, but the fact that it was rarely accompanied by a vigorous defence of the right to freedom of expression, including the right to criticise religion. Of course, religious liberals were not alone in this reaction: one looked in vain in the columns of the liberal press for a defence of the Danes' right to publish (at least in the UK: the progressive press in France was much more forthright in its defence of liberal values in the wake of fundamentalist threats).

To some of us, it seemed that the 'liberalism' of many liberal Christians crumbled too easily in the face of fundamentalism and threats to freedom of belief. This was deeply ironic, given these believers' lifelong opposition to fundamentalism within their own faith tradition. To the more cynical non-believers, it must have seemed as though, having taken 200 years to get round to supporting Enlightenment principles, it had taken Christians a mere couple of decades to ditch them. It could also have seemed as though solidarity with other believers (even believers in a different faith, and the most extreme among them) trumped solidarity with secular liberals and liberal values.

At one level this development can be seen as a result of the basic liberal (and laudable) Christian instinct to understand and empathise with, rather than condemn, 'the Other'. So liberal Christians have been in the forefront of inter-faith dialogue, seeking to find common ground with believers of other faiths, rather than (like their more conservative co-religionists) representing their own faith as the sole repository of truth. The trouble is, in cases such as that of the Danish cartoons or plans for a law against giving religious offence, this instinct conflicts with - and threatens to undercut - another of their instincts, which is to seek dialogue with humanists and draw on the best of secular thought.

As I've noted in other posts, the longstanding instinct of progressive Catholics and other Christians (particularly since Vatican 2) to seek commonality with all 'people of goodwill' has been replaced recently by a tendency to identify instead with other 'people of faith' - whatever that faith may be. Tracing this new sense of 'believer identity' is complicated, but it is partly the product of joint campaigns around blasphemy laws, faith schools, etc. If you wanted to be cynical, you could argue that Christians have realised that the only way of rationally justifying a place for religion in the public sphere - whether in the education system, the House of Lords, or in legislation - is to justify it for all religions, not just Christianity. Thus Christians have an interest in defending 'faith' as such, against a secularity which would void the public sphere of any confessional presence. (There's a link here, which I'd like to explore at a later time, with government interest in 'faith-based' welfare, which has tended to lead to a bland 'faith-ism', devoid of specific content and glossing over very real differences between faiths - very much a case of 'Any dream will do', to quote the great Lloyd-Webber).

At the same time, you have to feel sorry for liberal Christians. There just is no legitimate position from which they can criticise fundamentalism in other religions, and get away with it. If secular liberals are hampered by post-colonial guilt and understandable fears of being thought racist, then thoughtful Christians are further constrained by what we might call post-missionary guilt. There's no way they can be publicly critical of elements in Islam, for example - from their position as Christians - without being cast as latterday crusaders, or at the very least Christian triumphalists. There's just too much history there. Much easier to be an atheist and proclaim a plague on all your houses, rather than have to imply, however indirectly, that your own faith might be just that little be more tolerant and compassionate than someone else's.

But there's something else at work here besides liberal or Christian guilt - and this is where I allow my cod-psychoanalysis full rein. Some Catholic commentators have already made an explicit comparison between the experience of Muslims in the UK today, and the experience of (particularly Irish) Catholics a century ago. In both cases we see a migrant community, bound together by strong religious belief , their traditions and practices facing suspicion from the 'host' community, seeking refuge in community identity through communal religious institutions and faith schools. When Catholics look at Muslims today, there's an undoubted element of recognition and fellow-feeling, even if it's not consciously acknowledged. The danger, of course - as the history 0f colonialism shows, time and again - is of misrecognising oneself in 'the Other', seeing only similarity and glossing over key differences.

But as well as recognition, there may also be an element of unconscious envy. At a time when church attendance is in freefall, and when Christian belief is neither as fervent or as marked by dogmatic certainty as it was in the past, the spectre of a strong and fervent Muslim community unworried by post-Enlightenment doubt must hold a certain wistful appeal for some Christians, and perhaps for Catholics in particular. And because this fervour and dogmatism is bound up with the mystique of 'otherness', it can appear far more attractive than the fundamentalism within one's own tradition: thus the spectre of liberal Christians, despite a lifetime of opposition to conservativism and dogmatism in their own faith, attracted by the glamour of renascent Islam. There's a possible parallel here with the way in which the secular radicals of Respect and the Socialist Workers' Party have been seduced by the pseudo-revolutionary glamour of radical Islam.

So as well as a sense of 'the Other' as somehow 'like us' - but with the exotic sheen of otherness - there may also be an element in liberal Christians' response to renascent Islam of wishing to be more like 'the Other' - wishing that your own faith community was as fervent and and as certain of itself. But, as the history of colonialism and occidentalism shows, there are enormous dangers in seeing the racialised (faith-ised? communalised?) 'Other' through the prism of your own experiences and longings. Crucially, there is a danger of reinforcing a colonialist and - yes, possibly - racist sense of the 'others' as the passive objects of western actions, rather than as having any agency of their own.

Hence the tendency among some western progressives to cast Muslims as victims, and to see even the terrorism of 9/11 or 7/7 as a reflex, a 'response' to 'western foreign policy' (as in the New Statesman's notorious front page headline 'Blair's Bombs' after 7/7), rather than as the product of a coherent ideology and deliberate decision-making. Similarly, many liberal Christian commentators characterised the often threatening and violent demonstrations following the publication of the Danish cartoons in terms of a 'response' to 'provocation'.

Is there an alternative 'liberal Christian' response to the new fundamentalist threat, one that is true both to Christian values of tolerance and understanding, and to liberal values of free speech and pluralism? That's a question for another time.

Secularism or atheism?

Sunny at Pickled Politics picks up on a recent posting by Terry Sanderson from the National Secular Society, over at The Guardian's Comment is Free. Sanderson lays into liberal religious believers, accusing them of acting as a smokescreen for fundamentalists. Sunny is none too happy about this, nor are the liberal-minded Christians at Ekklesia. Here is Sunny's main criticism:

The problem with the National Secular Society is that while they preach secularism, they actually prefer atheism. By conflating the two they not only wreck it for the non-atheist secularists but also help their opponents keep confusing the two.

I think I agree. Secularism, rightly understood, means the separation of 'church' and 'state' - the kind of freedom of religion and freedom from religion guaranteed by the US Constitution. Believers can be, indeed have often been, enthusiastic supporters of secularism as a political principle, while remaining firm religious believers. One of the reasons that I get frustrated by recent sweeping pronouncements about 'aggressive secularism' from some believers in the west(see here and here for earlier posts on this) is that, they tend to forget that, elsewhere in the world, Christians have often been among the most enthusiastic supporters of secularist ideas and political parties - especially in Middle Eastern and majority-Muslim countries where secularism is seen as a way of guaranteeing their civil rights as a religious minority.

At the same time, as a 'secularist' with a religious background and a sympathetic interest in matters of belief, I have shared Sunny's frustration that other secularists, and secularist organisations, assume you share their atheism and general hostility to religion. The same is true of some kinds of 'humanism'. I regard myself as a liberal humanist - believing in free speech, equal rights, a liberal and plural public sphere - but have been disappointed with publications such as New Humanist which seem to devote a lot of their energy to knocking religion - i.e. focusing on what they're against, rather than what they're for.

Having said all that, there is a grain of truth in what Sanderson says. As I've tried to say elsewhere, some 'liberal Christians' - like some liberal secularists - have been slow, to say the least, in standing up for liberal principles such as free speech and women's rights in the face of religious fundamentalism, whether here or abroad.

Tuesday 27 March 2007

'Aggressive secularism' revisited (and a bit of personal history)

This is a topic I can see myself returning to, as I try to tease out what I think is going on here. Why is that religious commentators, including those one might have thought of as 'liberal' or at least 'thoughtful', have begun to use the kind of language about 'secularism' that was once the province of their more conservative co-religionists? And why is it that it bothers me, as someone who sees himself 'working' the margins between sacred and secular, humanism and belief?

Answering these questions is going to take a number of attempts, so please bear with me. A bit of personal context first. I grew up in a Methodist home and went through an evangelical/charismatic phase in my teens (this was back in the early '70s). At university I reacted against what I saw as the anti-cultural, anti-intellectual bias of evangelicalism and for a time identified myself as a 'liberal' christian, before developing an interest in Catholicism that led to me being received into the Church in my early '20s. However, the Catholicism that attracted me was very much of the post-Vatican 2, liberation theology, Christian-Marxist dialogue variety, and I didn't see any incompatibility with my commitment to socialism and with my broad interests in politics, literature and ideas. I drifted away from Catholicism in my late '20s and, as a result both of my university studies and my later work in adult education, became interested in the ideas of Marx, Gramsci, et al, my intellectual heroes at the time being people like E.P.Thompson, Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall.

However, despite no longer being a practising Christian, I never completely renounced or rejected religion and occasionally, over the years, 'lapsed' from my day-to-day secularism and found myself reading the odd religious book, or slipping into the back of a church during Mass. Recent years have seen a more determined effort to find a 'spiritual' grounding for my life, especially in the wake of the collapse of socialism as an intellectual and practical project in the wider world. I went through a sort-of-Buddhist phase a few years ago but, though I found meditation and the other spiritual exercises mentally beneficial, ultimately I found Buddhism to be too individualistic, otherworldly and (rather like the evangelicalism of my youth) anti-cultural to sustain my commitment. So I turned back, with more vigour this time, to my Christian and Catholic heritage, searching for a way to reconcile it with what remained of my 'secular' worldview. For although some elements of my youthful political zeal had inevitably fallen away over the years, I found that some things stubbornly remained, such as a commitment to equality (including gender equality), to freedom of belief and expression, and to the importance of an open and pluralistic cultural realm. It wasn't that I now thought that liberal humanism was 'wrong', rather I sensed that it might not be enough.

So a lot of my mental energy over the past few years has been spent in trying to find a way of reconciling my deeply-held liberal humanism with some form or spiritual belief and practice. So far I've failed, swinging from one pole to another rather than finding any lasting accommodation between the two. I know that it can be done - that others have done it - but I've yet to make it work for me. What helps, or would help, is finding writers who are at home in both worlds - who can speak about matters of faith, for example, in the language - and with an understanding of the doubts and dilemmas - of contemporary secular humanism. So far, I haven't found very many. And my sense is that their number may be diminishing - that the possibilities for dialogue are beginning to be closed down.

And this (by way of a very long digression, for which I apologise) is where I come back to the debate about 'aggressive' secularism. I see the recent tendency of even liberal Christian commentators to indulge in this kind of language as a kind of raising of the drawbridge, or circling of the wagons, against the secular world. Gone, it seems to me, are those heady post-Vatican 2 days when Catholics and other Christians entered enthusiastically into 'dialogue' with the secular world, wanting to find points of contact, to learn from and integrate the best of secular ideas. Instead, we can see signs of a much more pessimistic and conservative sense of the 'secular' as the enemy, threatening to storm and overwhelm the defences of faith. The dualistic neo-Platonism, or Manicheism, implicit in such reactions, is rather worrying. To be blunt, if the energetic going-out to the secular world in a spirit of dialogue in the '60s and '70s could be seen as a sign of the strength, vigour and confidence of faith, then this new withdrawal from and hostility to secularism can be interpreted as a sign of weakness, defensiveness and withdrawal.

There is a link here to another, related topic that I want to write about in a later post, and that is the disappointing tendency among liberal Christian commentators - people whose writing I have admired in the past - to rush to the defence of illiberal tendencies in other faiths. This was seen in the recent controversy over the Danish cartoons, when key liberal Christian commentators seemed to forget their liberalism - which should have led to them supporting free speech - and instead rushed to 'understand' and explain the illiberal threats to free speech posed by those demonstrating (and worse) against the cartoons. The link with the withdrawal from the dialogue with the secular is this: that whereas, in the post Vatican 2 days of 'dialogue' liberal believers sought to identify themselves with all 'people of goodwill' - and that was the phrase that was often used in ecclesiastical statements - now, they tend rather to identify themselves with a new Big Tent constituency: 'people of faith'. If you see your interests (whether in fighting to retain faith schools, or opposing gay equality legislation, or keeping blasphemy laws or religious figures in the House of Lords) as aligned with those of other 'believers' - whatever the content of their belief, even if it contradicts your own - then your tendency to ally yourself with the wider secular world will be weakened - indeed, that secular world may come to be seen as a threat to the interests of 'faith', now defined in a very broad way. Whether Christians should be see their aim as fighting to defend the interests of 'faith' is another matter. More on all of this another time.

Monday 26 March 2007

Danny Postel on liberalism in Iran

As they say in the ads, if you liked Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism and Nick Cohen's What's Left? then you'll enjoy Danny Postel's new book Reading Legitimation Crisis in Tehran: Iran and the Future of Liberalism, which discusses the revival of interest in liberal ideas among Iranian students and intellectuals. Postel's slim volume provides an incisive critique of the western Left's failure to support Iranian dissidents. He sees the main stumbling block as the Left's tendency to view everything through the prism of American imperialism:

We're better at making sense of situations in which the US Empire is the foe and building our solidarity with other people around that...But that model simply doesn't apply to situations in which the struggles of oppressed groups are not aimed directly against American imperialism. And that's a serious blind spot. It creates myopia on the part of American leftists [and British leftists too]. Anti-imperialism can turn into a kind of tunnel vision, its own form of fundamentalism. Cases that fall outside its scheme simply get left out, and our solidarity with struggles around the world is determined by George Bush, rather than by our principles.

Read the whole book - it's an important intervention in current debates about relations between the West and the 'Muslim world', and about whether liberal and democratic ideas are 'western' or universal. I first read about the book in the latest issue of the online journal Democratiya, which contains a (not uncritical) review by Ladan Boroumand.

Friday 23 March 2007

On 'aggressive secularism'

You know that feeling of disappointment when a writer you usually admire says something that makes you want to throw the book, newspaper or whatever across the room? It happened to me twice last week – and for similar reasons. Last week’s edition of the Tablet (the UK-based Catholic weekly) carried an otherwise insightful piece - on the possible undercurrents of anti-semitism in recent media coverage of the travails of Lord Levy - by Clifford Longley - one of the few speakers on Radio 4’s ‘Thought for the Day’ I can listen to without the usual lurch for the ‘off’ button. Then, in the closing paragraph, he goes and spoils it (for me) by writing:

These examples occur against a more general background. Modern British secularism seems to be changing its shape, from tolerance of diversity to imposed uniformity. Is Britain to be a plural society of many faiths and none, treated equally under the law, or is it to be a ‘naked public square’ from which all religions, and the different models of humanity they represent, are all equally to be banished and despised? It is the question of the moment.

This notion that we’re entering a new era of secularist uniformity is fast becoming a commonplace amongst religious commentators, even quite liberal ones (whereas in the past it was the preserve of conservative Vatican spokesmen and representatives of the evangelical right). My second example from last week drew on similar assumptions. It was in a review article by church historian Eamon Duffy in the latest New York Review of Books. Again, Duffy is a writer I admire – both for his historical works and his essays on contemporary religious issues. However, in the course of an urbane discussion of the impact of Christianity on the history of the book, Duffy says of the books he’s reviewing:

…they provide a reminder – salutary and timely, from a European perspective, in an increasingly aggressive secularist climate – of how much Jewish and Christian thought patterns have contributed to shaping some of the most fundamental assumptions and directions of Western culture.

Like ‘liberal fundamentalism’ and ‘Enlightenment fundamentalism’, 'aggressive secularism’ has recently become one of those phrases that trip easily from the pens and keyboards of religious commentators. But where’s the evidence for this new era of aggressive, conformist secularism? These terms seemed to gain media currency last Christmas, when there was a brief tabloid hoo-hah about politically correct local councils banning Christian festivities, but most of that turned out to be the stuff of urban myth. More recently, there have been brief spats about faith schools and gay adoption. But we remain a country where everyone is free to practise their religion of choice, where there is government funding and support for faith schools, and bishops sit in the House of Lords.

Surely if there’s been any ‘aggression’ or ‘fundamentalism’ it’s been among some religious believers - in demonstrations and threats against theatrical productions or against the publishers of cartoons satirising religion. In response to this, some secularists have perhaps become more vocal in defence of freedoms they took forgranted but now perceive as under threat – but what’s aggressive, conformist or fundamentalist about defending free speech or the separation of church and state?

I don’t write this as an avowed atheist or secularist – except that I believe in the Enlightenment view of religion as a private matter and in a secular, pluralistic public sphere. Although I would describe myself as a liberal humanist, I come from a believing background (of which more another time) and am interested in issues of faith and spirituality (why else would I be reading the Tablet?). Indeed, one of the reasons I started this blog was to explore the interface between sacred and secular. It’s as a sympathetic outsider that I find myself put out by liberal Christians’ apparently newfound hostility to ‘secularism’. It raises barriers which shut me out and make dialogue between believers and humanists more difficult. I have some thoughts about why this might be happening – which I want to explore further another time.