Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Faith talk

As Secretary of State for "Communities" (and it's worth pausing here, just for a moment, to notice the typically New Labourish elision of title and propaganda - seen also in Miliband Minor's billing as secretary for "climate change") one of John Denham's responsibilities is to front the government's effort to cosy up to representatives of "Faith". Apparently, he wants Faith leaders to have "a central role" in shaping government policies. In a recent speech, he described himself as a secular humanist; which you might think would give him some sense of perspective - but no, he went on to eulogise Faith in terms that seem to have been ripped almost word-for-word from one of St Tony's regular sermons.


For many people, their faith plays a defining role in their lives, their character, their identity. It can inspire and give purpose; it is a source of consolation and comfort. It brings duties and responsibilities; often challenge - but also joy and hope. It motivates some people to get involved in public life - it sustains others through private crises.... Government should respect - should value, prize and celebrate - those things which matter to its citizens. And for many citizens in this country, their faith shapes and defines who they are.


The terminology reveals the government's basic dishonesty here. Take Denham's most recent speech, launching "Inter-Faith Week" (and announcing that he had £2 million to spend on the "Faiths in Action" programme). The word "faith" appeared seventy-nine times in the course of his remarks. The word religion, by contrast, appeared once - and that was in a quote from a Dr Singh about "barriers of misunderstanding and prejudice that divide our different religions". It's easy to see why. "Faith" is a friendly, mushy catch-all, encoded with positive ideas such as commitment, honesty, trust, integrity and wholesomeness. It's one of those words - "diversity" is another - that are used to circumvent thought. "Religion", by contrast, brings in all sorts of awkward questions - claims to truth, exclusivity, peculiarity of practice, the wagging clerical or divine finger proclaiming Thou Shalt Not. Religion separates; faith unites.

Of course, neither Denham nor anyone else in the government would dare put it like that. Instead, by talking exclusively of Faith they hope, magically almost, to make the problem of religion melt away.

You may not be surprised to learn that I don't share this government's enthusiasm for Faith. The only Faith that ever really appealed to me was the one portrayed so memorably by Eliza Dushku. Oddly, I've much less problem with religion. Religion I can deal with: it has sharp edges, it has something to say, even if I disagree with it or regard its doctrines as risible, and there are things that may be said back to it. You know where you are with religion: on Planet Batty, maybe, in many cases, but at any rate somewhere. You can debate religion. I can even respect it. But Faith? It has all the coherence of a half-melted blancmange. That's why the government - this government - prefers to talk about Faith rather than Religion, of course. Cosy talk of faith, rather than hard talk of religion, conceals the reality - perhaps even from those in the government who easily confuse the positive connotations of the word "faith" with the Thing Itself.

This sounds warm and fuzzy:

Anyone wanting to build a more progressive society would ignore the powerful role of faith at their peril. And we should continually seek ways of encouraging and enhancing the contribution faith communities make on the central issues of our time. That is obviously easiest when faith requires its members to engage in the great issues of the day....we should not only permit, but welcome and celebrate the expression of faith in the public sphere as part of the democratic debate on the challenges we face.


This, on the other hand, sounds rather sinister, or just plain self-contradictory:

Anyone wanting to build a more progressive society would ignore the powerful role of religion at their peril. And we should continually seek ways of encouraging and enhancing the contribution religious communities make on the central issues of our time. That is obviously easiest when religion requires its members to engage in the great issues of the day...we should not only permit, but welcome and celebrate the expression of religion in the public sphere as part of the democratic debate on the challenges we face.


By "the great issues of the day", Denham means those issues that the government agrees with: climate change, for example (though it mystifies me why it should be thought that the science that underlies the theory of global warming should be strengthened, rather than weakened, by the enthusiasm with various Sky Pixie believers have adopted it). But the religious voice, as he well knows, says other things as well: that homosexuality is sinful, that abortion is always wrong, that women should obey their husbands, that parents have the right physically to chastise their children or even to select their marital partners. These too are great issues of the day. Not all religious voices say all of these things, of course, and some say none of these things. But a government starting from the faith position (for that is what it is) that religion deserves respect simply by virtue of being religion, and that religious leaders speak in some sense "for" their particular communities, is sooner or later bound to come up against insuperable contradictions.

The determination of the government to suck up to religious leaders has given us an education system in which children are increasingly segregated according to what sect their parents adhere to (or profess to adhere to). In the name of "equal respect", it has encouraged reactionary Muslim leaders to set up "courts" handing down verdicts often unfavourable to women, and for years turned a blind eye to forced marriages and domestic abuse - though there has been some small improvement of late, thanks largely to campaigns mounted by secular human rights groups, not by bearded theocrats with access to Number Ten. And, more insidiously, it has encouraged religious leaders of all sorts in the belief that they have important messages to deliver about every aspect of life and society, because Faith is the embodiment of everything good and they, my lords, embody Faith. So that you end up with bishops pontificating like Prince Charles and (again like Prince Charles) expecting to be taken seriously.

Today we learn that the Church of England is advising people that it's a bad idea to run up huge credit card debts, and that you can save money by doing some of your Christmas shopping online. Which may well be good advice, but what on earth makes the CofE think it is its job to deliver it?

Denham talks of "the unique insights that faith groups bring to contemporary issues." But he offers little that might be described either as unique or insightful that they have offered, beyond a desire to influence government policy in accordance with their particular beliefs. If I wanted to know about Christianity I would talk to a bishop (or perhaps to my friend Father Rattue). But if I wanted to know about climate change I'd rather talk to a scientist working in one of the relevant fields. For centuries, Christians believed that they were given dominion over the earth. Today, they are more likely to tell you that the earth is a precious divine trust that must be taken care of. That is not a Christian insight: it is a contemporary commonplace given a theological twist. As in so many areas, the religious are playing catch-up with modern society. We should give them credit for moving with the times, not pretend they are supplying the motor.

For some of the truly religious, religion and faith may be indistinguishable, in that their particular religion inspires them to a general compassion and tolerance (while other, also deeply religious, people turn to fundamentalism - or "aggressive religious conservatism", as Rowan Williams, rightly I think, prefers to call it). For others, their adherence to a religion is not much more (and may be less) than support for their football team. By telling people that their religious identity is fundamental, what makes them distinct from others, the government exaggerates differences and actively encourages ghettoisation. That it should regard labelling people by religion as a method of encouraging social cohesion and "progressive" political goals is, on the face of it, bizarre. It is explicable only as the consequence of talking blandly of Faith rather than honestly about religion. The language of Faith may be appealing to politicians for its soft inclusivity, but the worst aspect of it is how it messes with their brains.

Even if, like John Denham, they're not in the least religious.