Thinking otherwise about public religion by Simon Barrow

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
10 Dec 2006

Two unhelpful approaches are dominating debates about the role of faith in public life right now. One is the increasingly assertive voice of organised religion defending its privileges and questioning cultural freedom – everything from what plays we should watch to who ‘owns’ Christmas. The other resides in the anxious criticism of many ‘cultured despisers’, who see public religious expression only as a problem to be contained.

Ironically, these opposing approaches do not cancel each other out, they egg each other on. The more religious communities try to assert themselves in controlling ways, the more strident secularist voices become. Likewise, when non-religious advocates say that faith should be abolished from the public square, it only increases the sense of grievance and anger among some religious people.

This is a deeply unproductive antagonism. Rather than enriching public life with a range of perspectives, we are in danger of retrenching further into “competitive grievances”, a war of position between vested interests trying to assert themselves through a narrow interpretation of their own self-understanding.

But there is another way. Ekklesia has been arguing for some time that it is possible for both the religiously committed and for advocates of a plural, secular society to find a place of mutual accommodation. We don’t have to choose one ‘camp’ over the other. We can be in both.

However, in order to figure out how this can be so, and why it doesn’t have to mean a ‘lowest common denominator’ approach, we need first to understand the underlying dilemma of religion in public life and the major obstacles to a more positive approach.

Britain is not, if it ever was, a Christian society. It is, rather, a mixed belief economy where the majority are de facto post-Christian, and where significant minorities adhere to different strongly religious views, or (especially among the metropolitan elite) strongly non-religious convictions.

Among those identifying with faith groups, there is, in addition, an often potent blend of ethnicity or identity involved – for example, among radicalised young Asians turning to Islam, or among disaffected white families being courted by the BNP’s attempt to link Christianity with exclusive nationalism.

The backdrop to all this, ignored by most commentators, is the legacy of Christendom – the European inheritance whereby churches acquired status from an alliance of Christianity and state power.

This ‘hegemonic’ understanding of religion in society may have undergone various transformations, but it is not simply a thing of the past. It still influences what we see as the choices before us today, whether we are Christian or not.

The Church of England, for example, remains established under the Crown and continues to enjoy a range of overt and subtle advantages in the social order, which it still regards as ‘natural’ almost to the point of rights. As it goes on haemorrhaging members and money, its interest in defending its protected status grows ever stronger.
In this way, and through its access to power via the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the bishops in the House of Lords, the established church is still a determinative part of the landscape – one whose current polity is both skewing and limiting the possibilities of a new approach to religion in the public sphere.

The fact that the C of E has persuaded the government to acquiesce in its plans to extend publicly-funded church schools has led to the extraordinary situation where it has to be bargained with by the majority over the reduction of educational selection by religion, for instance. It has also put those who want more predominantly Muslim, Catholic, Jewish, Sikh and Hindu schools in a stronger position.

This poses real dilemmas for those who see cohesion and diversity as moving towards plurally-based, community education rather than ethnically or religiously demarcated schooling.

Similarly, the government is actively trying to solve its own public services dilemmas by offering organised faith groups a stake in provision – one which brings in its wake all kinds of difficulties about access, equal rights and fair treatment, given that many religious groups are not signed up to a comprehensive equalities agenda.

In facing these issues both government and organised religious groups – and, in the way they respond to these developments, many secularists – are operating on the shared assumption that the only way for religion to have a definite role in public life is either through controlling interests or through the buttressing of particular social systems.

The outcome is an un-resolvable dilemma. Some argue that religious groups should be allowed to run big parts of the show (with questionable consequences). Others say they should be excluded from the public sphere altogether. But this is a road to nowhere – or worse, to deep and dangerous conflict.

Since we are not exploring alternative approaches to this double-bind, religious leaders are increasingly pushing the ‘Christendom model’ in a multi-faith direction; attempting to establish religion per se, with a Christian gloss.

The difficulties with this are manifold. The virtue of faith communities is that they are voluntary associations which can bring people together from many different backgrounds. Forcing them into ethnicised or institutionalised blocks turns them into a competing power interest which you either have to be for or against. It gives citizens and governors, let alone believers, little space for manoeuvre.

Furthermore, faith communities are seriously distorted and diseased (on their own terms) when they are turned into arms of the state or functionalist props within social institutions. The case against Establishment, religiously selective schools, blasphemy laws, bishops in the Lords and special tax breaks for religion is, for this reason, a thoroughly theological one.

This means that the argument for untying the cords that bind church and government does not have to be based on being ‘anti-religious’, or upon the imposition of a version of secularism which simply wishes to shackle, ban or repress religious identity.

On the contrary, it can and should flow from the transformation and reformation of religious identity from within.

What needs to be pointed out to the Church of England and to friends in other faith and non-faith groups, therefore, is that the presumption of the interweaving of religion and state seriously obscures more radical, levelling traditions.

In Christian terms this means the prophetic and pastoral biblical vision which does not see wielding ecclesial power over others as a good thing. Instead it recalls the vocation of the church as being to practice hospitality, healing, equality and peacemaking in the pattern of Jesus, and thereby to become a vibrant source of alternative values and communal practices within civil society.

On this basis we are quite justified in rejecting the prevalent but false antithesis between the privatization of religion on the one hand, or its elevation into a piece of functionalist governing apparatus on the other.

The alternative model is for Christians and those of other faith communities – in developing their own distinctive perspectives and commitments – to be in a position to work with (and challenge) the social order on a level playing field which requires neither fear of their participation nor favour for their interests.

What is needed to make this different approach viable is not just less defensiveness among Christians (who must thereby learn to let go of an outmoded majority mindset) but more cooperation between transformative voices in other religious communities, among humanists, and with people who define their identity in different ways.

It is vital to nourish the sources of pluralism and egalitarianism within religious traditions, not just between them or in other spheres of society. This is a tough task in the current overheated climate. It certainly requires a serious realignment of current arguments among faith groups, which have become obsessively preoccupied with sex and survival – perhaps for not entirely coincidental reasons.

Neither religion, nor identity nor ethnicity is singular and homogenous. Rather, each of these is varied and diverse. The problem comes when we adopt social, cultural and political stances which repress alternatives and privilege only one way of thinking and acting.

This happens as much when someone like Richard Dawkins speaks about ‘religion’ as a nasty virus to be eliminated, as it does when representatives of the Church of England talk as if our national freedom depends upon their franchise in state and education.

We can all contribute to ending the logjam. If government and media would talk to more than a narrow range of faith and community leaders, as the New Generation Network is asking, that would be one important step forward. We need to hear a wider range of voices and to acknowledge a larger public.

Likewise, if the vision of a fair, plural and secular society could be seen as other than the proprietorial interest of the vehemently anti-religious, it could begin to be shaped in ways that are inviting rather than threatening to those who feel that there is a conspiracy among the chattering classes to repress religion.

At the same time, it is incumbent upon faith groups to accept the virtues of a mixed society, whereby the freedom afforded for deep religious expression finds meaning in the freedom to think and act otherwise among dissidents or non-adherents.

Viewed in this way, secularity is not about ideology. It simply means common life, resourced in a variety of ways (not one exclusive one). This requires practices of ‘shared space’, an idea that has been well developed within recent ecumenical Christian theology and that shares hopeful affinity with streams of thought in other traditions, religious and non-religious.

The fact that secularity can be spoken from these multiple perspectives also shows why, if we want to live rather than to suffer together, we need to stop regarding our different ways of looking at things as primarily other-excluding.

Instead we should seek mutual benefit, wherever possible, and constructive ways of arguing where this proves difficult. That can only happen when difference is considered in the setting of friendship. In that way we start to listen rather than to shout. A change of heart is what makes a more civil politics possible.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 England & Wales License. Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.