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.

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