Friday, 25 May 2007

Religion, 'truth' and the state

Should governments get involved in promoting certain kinds of religion? Andrew Sullivan draws attention to an ongoing debate taking place on a number of US blogs.

Jonathan Rowe presents the paradox that, on the one hand 'the rights of conscience are so profound government has no business saying what is true or false religion': 'Yet government indeed does have an interest in promoting the "right"' kind of religion, that is religion compatible with liberal democratic, secular, pluralistic norms.' He thinks the precedent set by the Founding Fathers with regard to Christianity should be followed by present-day governments in relation to Islam - i.e. encouraging a moderate, reformed version of the religion to counter the influence of fundamentalist and extremist varieties. Rick Garnett agrees:

Secular, liberal, democratic governments like ours not only take cognizance of, but also and in many ways seek to assimilate—that is, to transform—religion and religious teaching.

Garnett's starting point is Tony Blair's speech after the 7/7 bombings in which he called for the 'moderate and true voice of Islam' to be mobilized. Writing at the time, Ann Althouse took a different line from Rowe and Garnett:

Of course, I understand his motivation for saying this, and I agree with his opposition to a dangerous, violent ideology, but how can he say what the true intepretation of a religion is? I realize Britain does not have as robust an approach to the separation of church and state as we have, and I can see the role of government promoting the more socially beneficial versions of religion - quite apart from the truth - but who is Tony Blair to say what is the "true" version and what is the perversion?

I find myself asking the same kind of question, whenever there's news of the government calling for more British-born imams, or proposing to fund 'moderate' Muslim organisations. Of course, secularists need to accept that Islam, like other religions, is not going to disappear any time soon - a mass conversion of the population to outright atheism being unlikely - so liberal societies have an interest in seeing versions that are compatible with the principles of freedom of speech, gender equality, universal human rights, etc. gaining ground. But is it government's job to promote them? Not only does such an approach risk breaching the church-state divide - with governments taking side in disputes between believers that are none of their business. It also, in a way, shifts the onus from religious groups themselves to fall into line with the core principles of a liberal society. To use an admittedly flawed analogy: when leftwing terror groups took part in bombings and hijackings in the '70s, did we hear European governments saying, 'This isn't the "true" voice of Marxism-Leninism' or 'We need to encourage a more moderate version of anarcho-syndicalism'?

There's also an element in Tony Blair's approach of the woolly-minded faith-ism or religion-ism that I've discussed before, which glosses over the disagreements between faiths and suggests that they are all, in some undefined way, 'true'. But - to echo my earlier post on faith and truth - what exactly is it that's supposed to be 'true' about Islam, and how can this be compatible with the 'truth' of Christianity, or of Sikhism or Hinduism? They can't all be right, can they...?

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