Tuesday 5 June 2007

More thoughts on governments and 'true religion'

I suppose someone reading this post on the state and religion might ask: So what do you think the state should do - nothing? I've thought a bit about this, and this is what I think governments should be saying to 'faith groups' (don't you just hate that term?):

'We don't care what you believe - that's none of our business. You're free to believe that God appeared in a burning bush, or was embodied in a man who came back from the grave, or that he gave his final revelation to a seventh-century nomad, or even that he presented the truth in a set of golden plates to a 19th century American. You're also free to believe in atheism, vegetarianism, crystals or Star Trek. We won't interfere to argue that one faith, or one version of a particular faith, is better than any other.

'All we require as your government is that you, as individuals and organisations, abide by the laws of the land, which embody the underlying principles on which our society is founded and which apply to all its members, whatever their beliefs or lack of them. So we insist that you don't preach or stir up hatred or violence, that you don't infringe the freedom of others to express their opinions even if these contradict your own, that you don't discriminate against people, for example on the basis of their gender or sexuality, and that you don't exploit or abuse the children and vulnerable people in your care. We will only intervene in your religious affairs if you contravene these laws - otherwise your faith is your own private affair.'

Of course, there are a couple of problems for any government taking this position - in Britain. One is that the state is already compromised - it already interferes in religion, showing preference to Anglicanism by allowing its bishops (but not, say, Catholic ones) to sit in the House of Lords as of right, and by funding schools run by Christians, Jews and Muslims, but not those run by Sikhs, Scientologists or socialists. The other problem is that, unlike the United States, we don't have a clear and explicit set of agreed principles on which our society is founded, and around which to unite, whatever our private religious or other beliefs. If we had a written Constitution and Bill of Rights, it would be the job of government actively to promote the principles enshrined in them, and not to go around promoting religion, however well-intentioned their efforts.

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