Monday, 21 April 2008

Fed up with God

Religion and politics - especially the overlap between the two - is back in the news in a depressingly big way. While much of the attention in recent days has been drawn by the (to some) surprisingly enthusiastic reception given to Ratzo in the USA, closer to home there have been some interesting public interventions and even more interesting surveys.

Tony Blair, in his speech at Westminster Cathedral earlier this month, repeated the line, fast becoming conventional wisdom, that the notion of a secular society is a myth, or at least passé. "Even ten years ago, religion was still being written off as a force in the world," he said.


But in fact at no time since the Enlightenment has religion ever gone away. It has always been at the very core of life for millions of people, the foundation of their existence, the motive for their behaviour, the thing which gives sense to their lives and purpose to their journeys – which makes life more than just a sparrow’s flight through a lighted hall from one darkness to another, in that memorable image of the Venerable Bede. In the last few years we have been reminded of the great power of religion.


Quite.

Archdruid Rowan Williams has been making speeches, too. In his own Westminster Cathedral oration the other day, he explained just why he was so keen on the resurgence of Islam:

The growing presence in Europe of a substantial and confident form of classical religious practice in the shape of Islam has put the quest for detached non-sectarian spiritual capital in perspective: post-religious spirituality has to compete with an articulate corporate voice which stubbornly resists being made instrumental to the well-being of an unchallenged Western and capitalist modernity. The natural and instinctive reaction of government is to attempt to co-opt the strong motivations of such corporate vision into the project of strengthening social cohesion.


He also came out with this masterpiece of self-delusion:

The better we understand the distinctiveness of religious claims, the better we understand the centrality within them of non-violence. That is to say, the religious claim, to the extent that it defines itself as radically different from mere local or transitory political strategies, is more or less bound to turn away from the defence or propagation of the claims by routinely violent methods, as if the truth we were talking about depended on the capacity of the speaker to silence all others by force.


As history shows, of course. Ah, but that's not the point:

Granted that this is how classical communal religion has all too regularly behaved; but the point is that it has always contained a self-critique on this point. And that growing self-awareness about religious identity, which has been one paradoxical consequence of the social and intellectual movement away from such an identity, makes it harder and harder to reconcile faith in an invulnerable and abiding truth with violent anxiety as to how it is to be defended.

Harder for who, exactly?

Clearly Woolliams thinks he's on a roll. A lot of media fuss and blather about religion doesn't equate to widespread religious belief, however. Nor does the increasing visibility, and volubility, of semi-professional atheists (the two Ds and the two Hs most prominent among them) represent a tacit acknowledgement that the secularist cause is fading, as is too often claimed. In fact, in much of Europe - at least among the majority - religion continues to fade. Recent figures suggest that almost a half of British people don't belong to any religion, and only 38% believe in God (presumably the 14% unaccounted once came within splashing distance of a font). Religious belief is much stronger in poorer, less developed parts of Europe, such as Malta, Poland and Greece, whereas the most irreligious countries included Scandanavia, France and Britain.

It is in this general atmosphere that we have to understand the current debate: a volume of talk about religion increasing almost daily against a backdrop of longstanding, and growing, public resentment. There are various reasons for this. Most obviously, there's the explosive (literally) re-emergence of religion into public consciousness in the form of Islamist violence. There's also the (partly-related) re-designation of ethnic minority groups as "religious communities". On top of which, the traditional churches, who had (grudgingly, in many cases) begun to accept the relegation of religion to the private sphere - surely the defining characteristic of secularism - have seen the attention being paid to religious "community leaders" by politicians and demanded their piece of the action. The result is, for the indifferent majority, highly paradoxical.

Of course, whatever is widely reported in the media appears to be important, and is apt to be taken for something of great significant by politicians and other framers of public policy. Moreover, the importance of religion to individual believers - and for the truly devout it can be all-important - is apt to be misconstrued as proof that religion is important in itself, and thus that it is the part of the job of government to channel, control, develop, encourage - and fund - religious institutions and religious initiatives. We're told that the aim is to encouraged "social cohesion" and foster neighbourliness and good citizenship. But when you take a look at what is being promoted and funded - factional and sectarian "faith-based" pressure groups like the Muslim Council of Britain, segregationist "faith schools", university training courses and so on - it hardly inspires confidence in the future of an equal, tolerant society.

Perhaps that's why more and more people are apparently coming to the conclusion that religion is a "social evil". That was the most unexpected (and so headline-friendly) finding of the latest survey(pdf) from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, released yesterday. It wasn't the only finding, of course. The 3,500 largely self-selected participants in the study (made up of people who had heard about it, or had wandered onto the website by accident, plus a few carefully-selected members of minority groups to make it more "representative") were also bothered about binge-drinking, uncontrolled immigration, the fact that "young people nowadays have no respect", untrustworthy politicians and the unrestrained excesses of big business. Typical Mail readers and grumpy old men, in other words. Their complaints had a timeless quality. It could have been Hesiod, moaning about declining standards in archaic Greece. Or Juvenal, 800 years later in Rome. Or some 18th century moralist. Or Peter Hitchens.

Against this unoriginal backdrop, resentment of religion stands out as something genuinely new. And it's not just resentment of particular manifestations of religion, either: rather, the whole phenomenon of religion is increasingly seen, at least by these participants, as part of the problem rather than as part of the solution. While religion might have been a force for morality and social cohesion in the past, the plurality of religious voices today, combined with the implausibility of their claims, make it unlikely to be of similar benefit today. I quote from the detailed analysis by Beth Watts of the Rowntree Foundation.

Some people saw religion as a social evil because it “undermines social cohesion” and is “a force for separating people”. Participants also felt that religion can actively encourage intolerance, towards some groups in particular: “Faith in supernatural phenomena inspires hatred and prejudice throughout the world, and is commonly used as justification for continued persecution of women, gays and people who do not have faith”. So in stark contrast to those who see the decline of religion as complicit in a decline of values, some participants blamed religion itself for undermining certain values. Another participant highlighted the deficiencies of religion as the basis of a value system for a different reason:
There are too many of them [religions], and none make any sense.


Others were worried about the anti-scientific nature of religious beliefs, and how paying attention to them could undermine progress. Religious extremism was also a particular cause for concern.

So why is the government so keen on promoting something which most people are, at best, uninterested in and which is increasingly unpopular? Two possible explanations spring to mind. One is the long shadow of Tony Blair. It is increasingly obvious just how obsessively religious, and obsessed by religion, the former PM always was. His religiosity was always implicit, of course, but the careful insistence by Alistair Campbell that "we don't do God", coupled with Blair's own reluctance to talk about his convictions, managed to create the impression that this was largely a personal idiosyncrasy. In fact, he moved steadily, and stealthily, to promote a "faith agenda": encouraging faith schools and local activism, setting up ministerial groups and working parties (such as the "Faith Communities Unit" in the Home Office), inviting religious leaders to make submissions on matters of policy, and so on. During his decade in office, much of the machinery of government became accustomed to thinking in "faith-conscious" ways, as well as assuming, as a kind of default mode, that religion is a good thing.

A wholly needless comment in the recent social trends report sums this mindset up very well. "Belonging to a religion can provide a spiritual and a moral framework to a person's life, as well as involving contact with other individuals and participation in the local community," it says in the introduction to the "religion" section. Indeed it can. But so what?

We are still living, too, with the aftershocks of 9/11. In the aftermath of that, and even more so after the London tube bombings of 2005, the government sought to co-opt religious community leaders in the fight against terrorist extremism. And so we saw the procession of bearded reactionaries trooping into No 10 for fruit juice and halal sandwiches. As part of the quid pro quo, the religious "community leaders" were treated as the main interface between the governments and the communities which the affected to represent. Groups such as the strongly Islamist MCB (whose long-serving head, Iqbal Sacranie, had once said that death was "too easy" a fate for Salman Rushdie) gained credibility and funding. And the communities themselves came increasingly to be defined by religion rather than ethnicity. It's difficult to understand how this can be considered progressive, or indeed as progress.

Not only did this process leading to the increasing visibility of political Islam, the most recent manifestation of which is the "Muslims4Ken" campaign in London. It also opened the door to other religious groups who wanted their piece of the action. Hindus formed a Hindu Forum, on the analogy of the MCB. Sikhs protested against a "disrespectful" play by a Sikh woman playwright, and were shamefully applauded by ministers for so doing. Catholic bishops tried to blackmail the government into restricting important scientific research. Anglican bishops are still desperately clinging on to their seats in the House of Lords. Everyone wants more religion-segregated schools, on the absurd principle that the religious affiliation (or claimed affiliation) of parents should determine the quality of a child's education and life chances thereafter.

With Blair out of the way, things may begin to change. Ed Balls, for example, has been notably less enthusiastic about faith schools than his predecessors in the Department of Education (as I intend to continue to think of it). Gordon Brown has spoken a great deal about growing up as the son of a Scottish minister, but in terms of "values" rather than personal belief. I suspect he's secretly an agnostic. Unfortunately governments, like supertankers, take a long time to turn around. And these things develop a tendency to become self-sustaining. If communities conceive of themselves in religious ways, they are quite likely to start voting in religious ways, too. And that really could be the death of secularism.

Expect resigned tolerance for religion to continue to turn, for a growing number of people, into active dislike.

8 comments:

valdemar said...

Good summation of the depressing mess we're in, and how we'll probably get out of it - good old-fashioned bloody-mindedness. One thing I would like to see is a bunch of atheists take on the goddists over the 'atheism is just another faith' argument. If so, shouldn't there be atheist schools in every town to reflect the high levels of godlessness?

lost causes said...

Heresiarch: great analysis.

Valdermar : good point about atheist schools.

The problem with making the case against faith schools is that some of the atheist/agnostic/secular middle-class parents who would otherwise speak out against them have a vested interest in them, because they send their kids to Cathothic or CofE schools that are basically free private schools or surrogate grammars. This is the position of Cameron's Tories and the Lib Dems I think. Perhaps a new generation like Clegg and Balls can help other politicians see sense.

The Heresiarch said...

Faith schools were actually fairly harmless when they were mainly church primaries. I went to one myself. I remember one cranky teacher who taught us about how God created the world in seven days, and was momentarily stumped when I put my hand up and asked on what day God had created the dinosaurs. She then said he'd created them "along with the other animals"! But I never noticed much religious segregation. It was basically just the local school.

C of E schools were more-or-less benign when Anglicanism was taken for granted as the official religion, because in those days the "faith" nature of the schools weren't especially stressed. The trouble starts when particular ethno-religious communities begin demanding their own schools, on grounds of "fairness", and the government - especially a government that's as intellectually confused about race as this one - can't muster the self-confidence to tell them to sod off. The churches then see an opportunity to demand an expansion of their own schools, and, because they're popular, feel that they can lay much more stress on the religious observance of parents than they ever used to. And so we end up with the current bizarre situation. Though given the unhappy results of religious segregation in Northern Ireland over many years, they can hardly claim not to have seen it coming.

On Valdemar's "atheism is not a faith" point: here's a quote from one of Woolliams' recent speeches, this time at Westminster Abbey:

Are we not in danger of falling into what many philosophers of science call the fallacy of misplaced concreteness? That is, the assumption that when you've got a name for something, you've got a thing that wears that name round its neck.

He was talking about Dawkins and his memes. But I couldn't help thinking that it's a very accurate description of religion. The "something", of course, is God.

Valdemar said...

Re: atheist schools - some potential for fun at those 'informal' chats with the parents faith schools so enjoy.
'Ah, Ms Smith. Now, I think I heard you mutter 'Jesus Christ!' when you stubbed your toe on the way up the stairs, so I'm not at all sure we can accept little Wayne...'

Heresiarch: you're quite right about the harmless nature of old-time C of E schools. In my junior school the headmaster used to take his legal duty to preach at us so seriously he would discuss the philosophical implications of Star Trek. It was fab.

The Heresiarch said...

Brilliant. But how strict would be the school's admissions policy? Would they ban children whose parents had been married in church? Or who hadn't been "unbaptised"? Or would they just have to show a working knowledge of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion.

There was a story on the radio tonight about a member of the "Jedi Church" who had been attacked by a drunk in a bin liner who shouted "I'm Darth Vader". The Beeb were spinning it as a "faith crime". I'd love to be able to send my children to a Jedi school. Being able to control the Force, and use a light sabre, would be a lot more useful skills to acquire than being able to quote the Book of Genesis, methinks.

WeepingCross said...

As often, I suspect (and from my point of view, worry) that your overall conclusion may well be correct. Ironically considering where I come from ideologically, I'm becoming colossally irritated by the whole discussion of 'religion' and its relevance. Naturally I think it's a good thing if people have a faith in the Christian God, because I think the Christian God is real and life will, by and large, work more as it's supposed to if people try to co-operate with him rather than get by on their own. In that cause, I would rather like this country to maintain a Christian symbolic discourse of identity in the Establishment of the Church of England. But when did we start arguing that religion per se is a Good Thing? That, as one's atheist chums are perfectly adept at pointing out, hardly seems borne out by historical experience, though I suppose one could argue there's very little to the contrary either. To base the 'relevance' of religion on such vague social benefits, rather than referring to anything supernatural, would seem rather to miss the point. Of course actually to think about that point would get us into dangerous areas indeed - like the differences between a faith whose founder ends nailed to a cross and one whose architect ends surrounded by wealth, power, and all other brands of human fulfilment. How curious.

WeepingCross said...

In actual fact, having just read His Grace of Canterbury's address, I don't find a great deal in it to disagree with. It is simply the case that the presence of political Islam in Western polities exposes the nonsense there is in any multicultural confidence that all religious differences are merely cultural, rather than ideological, and therefore can rub along happily together; surely we aren't simple enough not to recognise that a Bad Thing can have positive results? And as for his assertion about universalising religious traditions having an internal dynamic towards pacificity; well, it may be slightly wishful thinking, but it's what's happened to me. If you really believe in a transcendent God who really acts to reveal himself and to draw human beings into a relationship of love, you feel less need to defend that truth by the force of law or arms. If I can come to that conclusion, it's hardly COMPLETELY absurd to imagine others might as well. It depends whether other religious traditions do believe that about God - and that's where it remains to be seen.

The Heresiarch said...

1) I may have misunderstood Woolliams (it's easy to) but what he seemed to be implying in his remarks about Islam was that it was helping to reverse the secularist drift is politics/ society. And he seemed to think that this was a good thing. It's of a piece with his earlier ideas about Sharia: the notion that religious principles are more important than secular democratic ones, and should therefore take priority.

it may be slightly wishful thinking, but it's what's happened to me
Is it? Were you a violent warmongering bigot before you became a Christian, but then became a pacifist because of Christian beliefs? What Woolliams seems to have been doing, and you seem to be doing as well(though your last comment is more ambiguous), is universalising from a personal understanding of Christianity - one among many tendencies that may be observed historically - to a theory about religion in general. "I believe this about God, therefore this is what religion is." But it isn't. It's merely the consequence of one way of being religious.

If I can come to that conclusion, it's hardly COMPLETELY absurd to imagine others might as well.

But it IS, I think, completely absurd to imagine that others MUST come to that conclusion. And that is was Woolliams was actually saying.