Monday, February 20, 2012

Religion and the public sphere

Baroness Warsi has thrown fresh fuel on a fire that has raged furiously for decades in many countries by arguing loudly for the role of religion in public life. If you have not heard her name before, you will hear it more often, at least in the UK, where she has become a very controversial figure.

Sayeeda Hussain Warsi (born 28 March 1971) is a British solicitor and politician of Pakistani origin who was created a life peeress in 2007. Recently she became the co-Chairman, with Lord Feldman, of the Conservative Party, and was appointed a Minister without Portfolio in David Cameron's Cabinet. She is the third Muslim minister, following Shahid Malik and Sadiq Khan, and the first female Muslim to serve as a minister in the UK.
Official photo of Baroness Warsi

The minister wrote in The Telegraph: “My fear today is that a militant secularisation is taking hold of our societies. We see it in any number of things: when signs of religion cannot be displayed or worn in government buildings; and where religion is sidelined, marginalised and downgraded in the public sphere. 

“For me, one of the most worrying aspects about this militant secularisation is that at its core and in its instincts it is deeply intolerant. It demonstrates similar traits to totalitarian regimes – denying people the right to a religious identity because they were frightened of the concept of multiple identities.” 

She added that to create a “more just society” Britons must “feel stronger in their religious identities.”

Her comments came as a report conducted for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (UK) suggested that almost three quarters (74 per cent) of Christians polled agreed that religion should not influence public policy, while only about one in eight (12 per cent) thought it should, the survey found. It also found that 92 per cent of Christians agreed the law should apply to everyone equally, regardless of their personal religious beliefs. 

Just over a quarter (26 per cent) said they completely believed in the power of prayer, with more than one in five (21 per cent) saying they either did not really believe in it or did not believe in it at all. And almost half (49 per cent) admitted that they had not attended a church service in the previous 12 months, apart from on occasions such as weddings, funerals and baptisms.

For more details on the poll results of the Dawkins Foundation you may consult the following web site: The earlier poll on the views of British Christians on religion can be found here as well as their views on its influence on public policy which is the focus of the second poll..

Baroness Warsi and the Pope

Baroness Warsi lashed out at "secular fundamentalists" as she met the Pope and concluded an historic visit of British ministers to the Vatican, including Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary, Michael Moore, the Scottish Secretary and Alan Duncan, the Minister for International Development. She expanded on the speech she gave earlier in Rome and in a newspaper article that British society was under threat from a rising tide of "militant secularisation" and that Europe needs to be "more confident in its Christianity".

She explained: "Secular fundamentalists are saying that people of faith shouldn't have a voice in the public sphere. I'm saying faith should be one of many voices, it should be part of the debate."  

She also criticized the arguments of Richard Dawkins, the outspoken atheist, as "false". Asked if she was swimming against the tide in a country where faith appears to be diminishing every year, Baroness Warsi explained: "The fact that people don't go to church doesn't necessarily make them secular."

Evan Harris

The reaction to her comments was largely predictable and not entirely fair. The remarks of Evan Harris, the vice-president of the British Humanist Association and an honorary associate of the National Secular Society, are one example of such a reaction: "Baroness Warsi is wrong on every count. Secular liberal democracy, which involves the separation of Church and State and an end to religious privilege, is the best guarantor of religious liberty and free expression. The last thing the world needs is more theocracies or governments giving special status to religious laws. To talk of militant secularism is self-serving paranoia. What a pity that ministers are going to a totalitarian theocracy - the Vatican State - with a poor record on gay rights, women's rights and children's rights, to criticise those who peacefully campaign against sharia (law), sectarianism and homophobia as 'militant'."

Even the Queen intervened to defend the Church of England's role in Britain. Prime Minister David Cameron supported Baroness Warsi by stating that faith can make a positive contribution to society and affirmed that she has consistently made the case for a deeper understanding of faith in the British Parliament.

Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins, whose survey about Christianity in the UK helped to ignite the row, defends his position on secularism, faith and tolerance. Dawkins is the author of The God Delusion and an emeritus fellow of New College, Oxford. Some of his observations include:

''In recent years Christian campaign groups have become increasingly vocal. Whether demanding special rights for Christians to be exempted from equalities legislation, strenuously opposing all attempts to review the law on assisted suicide, or campaigning against further social advances such as equal rights for gay people to marry, it is now clear that they are completely out of step not just with the population as a whole, but also with a significant majority of Christians."

''Britain is a secular society, with secular, humane values. There is overwhelming support for these values, even among those who think of themselves as Christian. Just as importantly, there is also deep opposition to the state promoting religion in our society. When even Christians overwhelmingly oppose the intermingling of religion and state policy, it is clearly time for the Government to stop 'doing God'.''

Poll results, he explains, have shown that religion was ''largely irrelevant even to those who still label themselves Christian.'' He added, ''When it comes to belief, practice or even the most elementary knowledge of the Bible, it is clear that faith is a spent force in the UK, and it is time our policy-makers woke up to that reality and stopped trying to impose beliefs on society that society itself has largely rejected."

Doug Saunders

Doug Saunder's article in Canada's Globe and Mail, which first alerted me to Baroness Warsi's comments on the role of religion in public life, argues that the problem in public life isn’t Islam, but religion itself. He explains that in the West we are witnessing a showdown between two competing definitions of “freedom of religion.” In one definition, the public sphere is a wide-open space where, according to him "citizens are free to try to impose religion, to invoke their gods in legislation, to wear whatever symbols they like. It’s a marketplace of beliefs, and may the strongest prevail."

In the other definition, he argues that the public sphere is a neutral space: where "religion is private and public places are unencumbered by competitions for divine supremacy. This definition recognizes that freedom of religion depends on a strongly defended freedom from religion. And freedom from religion is just as important for non-believers, who don’t want public life to be corrupted with spiritualism, as it is for devout believers, who don’t want their sacred beliefs to be sullied by the vicissitudes of politics."

Nevertheless, Baroness Warsi’s intervention is a positive development for both sides, Saunders claims. "On the religious free-for-all side, she has shown that Muslims can join the other two Abrahamic religions in pressing for privileges without being accused of engaging in a 'clash of civilizations.' At the same time, she helps people realize that the problem in public life isn’t Islam but religion itself."

Baroness Warsi's comments make a lot more sense to me than that of her opponents, whose secularism blinds them to the positive role that religion can and should play in the public sphere. In this post I cannot refute the various arguments that have been presented thus far. Such a debate would probably be futile, since the gulf that separates the two views of religion that Saunders describes is so great that it is almost unbridgeable. The two universes of discourse are too far apart. In spite of this gulf, attempts at dialogue must continue. That will not be easy, as the comments in various British and Canadian newspapers make clear.

Religion does belong in the public sphere. Religion is not as dangerous as many secularists claim, but it is source of inspiration and hope for billions of people all over the world. It can also be a strong force for unity, as long as fundamentalists of whatever stripe are not allowed to set the agenda. 

A militant atheist is perhaps more dangerous than as portrayed here

1 comment:

  1. In a secular society the principle that religion and politics are independent realms is accepted, but religion continues to influence politics in a number of ways. These are both combustible subjects, and throwing them into each other's arms is sure to cause a fire. Thanks a lot.