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‘Religion shows no sign of going away or allowing itself to be relegated to the private sphere’

7th December 2015

The National Theatre has just revived Harley Granville Barker’s play, Waste, about public and private morality in politics. The action turns on a Bill to disestablish the Church of England and divert the church’s assets to educational purposes. Set around 1930, the key plot themes are timeless – political chicanery, the relation between idealism and character flaws, the power of political outsiders… and the role of religion in society. This is a question for anguished reflection in every age, it seems – and readers of the new report from the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life (CORAB) ought to see the play and consider how far the issues have, and have not, moved on in the last eighty-plus years.

When the play was in rehearsal, I met the Director and cast to discuss the issues at stake in (dis)establishment. I made no assumptions about their religious affiliations, and I hope I made the case for both sides fairly – after all, plenty of Christians, including a key character in the play, were passionate disestablishmentarians. This wasn’t a “Christians versus the rest” issue. After an hour’s discussion, one of the cast paused and said, “So, what you are saying is that, if this Bill had passed, the whole way we think of ourselves as a country would be different”. Actors may be better than theologians at summing up a point succinctly….

She was right, because the common assumption that religion is in decline and can safely be relegated to the margins of our cultural life is simply wrong. Patterns of religious observance and affiliation are changing, but religion shows no sign of going away or allowing itself to be relegated to the private sphere. The CORAB report understands this. It is precisely because religion remains a potent factor in understanding British life that the Commission set itself up in the first place. And it is good that the report strongly affirms the notion of the Common Good to which the great majority of the world’s great faiths are committed, and calls for much greater religious literacy among opinion-formers and policy makers. Religion is not just about private morality and behaviour, it is about a vision of how disparate people can live well together. Religious communities reflect the truth, which is now a commonly-held foundation in moral philosophy, that morality and ethics cannot be understood properly without locating them within a framework of traditions, communities, narratives and practices.

And this is where the CORAB report misses its mark. It recognises the enduring social significance of religion and grapples with changing patterns of belief and non-belief. It sees some of the problems generated by the prevalence of the inaccurate story of religious decline and irrelevance in the face of “progress” – but it reaches, not for solutions that reflect how religious belief and religious institutions actually work in changing contexts, but for the fiction that the state should adopt some kind of neutral position in order to accommodate (and, presumably, manage) the diversity of religions and beliefs within society.

This is a fiction because nobody comes from nowhere. There is no neutrality; no “trusted umpire” to hold the coats whilst “religions and beliefs” slug it out in the public square. Secularism is a belief structure just as much as Judaism or Sikhism – though, arguably, with a less developed history, literature and philosophical depth. The fond belief that a secular society can somehow embrace all religions equally is contradicted by the fact that most of the great world faiths present in this country prefer to be part of a polity in which the historic religion of the country is part of the formal structures of governance, rather than a secular polity which marginalises all religions.

But where CORAB slips up most is in the sloppiness of some of its arguments. It calls frequently for “equitable” solutions to matters of religious representation – in the House of Lords, in chaplaincy provision and so on – without ever exploring what equity might mean. The implication is that “equity” means proportionality with the number of professed adherents – the Thatcherite myth that the only source of authority is the number you can command at the ballot box. But what about the new discourse of rights and responsibilities? Might not “equity” be reasonably understood as proportionate to the levels of action for the common good in different religious communities, or the extent to which they are embedded in cities towns and villages across the country? “Equity” is a contested concept and to appeal to it in simplistic terms as a solution to problems of diversity is inadequate.

A problematic assumption underlies much of the report’s reasoning – problematic, because, in a document which seeks to find ways forward acceptable across a spectrum of religions and beliefs, it adopts uncritically the narratives and priorities of one point of view. The root of the fallacy lies in the report’s erroneous assumption that the growing number of people who report that they have “No Religion” can safely be assumed to be, de facto, humanists and that,ergo, they can be adequately represented by humanist organisations – of which there is, of course, only one of any size.

The idea that “No Religion” means “Humanist” has underlain the public posture of the British Humanist Association for years. They have deployed it to argue, for example, that the funding for humanist chaplains in the NHS should reflect the proportion of people with “No Religion” in the country. The sleight of hand is possible because the terminology of “religion and belief” allows “belief organisations” to sit around the table alongside the representatives of world faiths, despite the fact that these secular member organisations only resemble religious organisations in a few respects. Thus it is disappointing to read in CORAB that humanist groups sometimes come together for social action in a similar way to churches or mosques when this is only an occasional characteristic of the few thousand registered humanists whereas it is the core function of the millions who attend churches, mosques etc.  When the exception is allowed, not to test (“prove”) the rule but to imply that there is no rule at all, one suspects that some special pleading is at work.

The sense that CORAB has been hijacked deepens as one reads on. In the section on education, attention is drawn to the plight of non-religious parents who live in the catchment area of a church school and have few if any other options. What goes unremarked is the massive demand for places at church schools which reflects the much greater number of parents who value the ethos as well as the results which church schools embody. Even the report’s terminology about education displays a secularist bias – the term “faith schools” lumping together schools run for the exclusive or main benefit of their faith alongside Church of England schools which have, since the 19th Century, offered education to all children.

Far from being schools where parents reluctantly send their children, the pressure on places at Church of England schools is because they are vastly over-subscribed. If those where 90% of pupils are Muslim are still oversubscribed it is clear that we are not looking at religious exclusivism. But this fundamental difference is lost in the expression “faith schools”.

And just to top off the argument, so to speak, the report even gets its facts wrong in ways that favour a humanist standpoint. The Church of England did not, as is asserted, oppose the concept of humanist wedding celebrants – a glance at our submission on the subject would have shown that we strongly supported the idea that a shared belief structure between the couple and the celebrant was a Good Thing, religious or otherwise.

In the end, the report’s apparent bias toward a version of liberal humanism may be less about lobbying than a failure to engage with more contemporary thinking and literature which can be found on the political left and right, among many of the great world faiths, and among many profound thinkers who espouse no religion or belief. This is the rising tide of post-liberal thought which understands that neutrality is a myth which tries to contain and control plurality whilst claiming to support it. Post-liberals value, instead, the reality of embeddedness in social groupings and the richness of narrative-formed community.

We have seen in recent weeks how secularist assumptions of “neutrality” fail to reflect the imagination and priorities of our apparently irreligious population. The furore over the church’s “Just Pray” initiative which saw an advert based on the Lord’s Prayer banned by the cinema chains to almost universal public opprobrium (even Richard Dawkins weighed in against the cinemas), shows that modes of religious observance are changing but that secular neutrality is no solution. The significance of prayer has also been shown in the way school children have valued the opportunity to use the “anachronism” of collective worship to deal with the emotional aftermath of dreadful events like the Paris shootings. Abolishing collective worship would leave no space to express corporately this aspect of being human – and approaching the moment without specific reference to some religious or belief tradition is impossible. It could be Islam, it could be humanism, but in reality, the historical embeddedness of Christianity in Britain means it is to the Christian tradition that people turn when, despite describing themselves as having “no religion” they need to acknowledge the profundity of a shared experience too overwhelming for propositional knowledge to handle.

History matters, especially in an old country like ours, and in times of rapid change, the historic legacy of the Christian faith has a salience that goes way beyond the raw data about the number of people in the pew on a Sunday. It is neglect of this historical perspective that undermines so much of the worthwhile content in the CORAB report. This self-appointed commission makes the same mistake as the central character in Granville Barker’s Waste – the belief that logic transcends context and that a “rational” argument must command universal acceptance. But history suggests that rationality is, as the philosophers say, “tradition constituted”, not transcendent. In the end, CORAB is captive to a kind of liberal rationalism that is simultaneously hubristic and losing the wider argument. What a sad waste of a glorious opportunity to exemplify the religious literacy that the report calls for in others.

This blog was first published on Church of England Communications


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