Hullo Brian, hullo Sue. You know, in a very real sense, I’m still being periodically annoyed by this Thought for the Day debate. I refer of course to this campaign to get atheist speakers onto TftD, which Polly Pot and her co-thinkers have been boring Guardian readers to death with for months. It came back to me a week or so ago, when some bozo, presumably representing the Ulster Humanist Association or some such outfit, appeared on Talk Back to flog the hobbyhorse a little more.
What annoyed me most was that the discussion centred around the specious claim that only 0.2% of programming was secular/humanist. This seems to be based on the idea that humanists get minority coverage in what is already a very small amount of religious programming. One could point out that, since there’s very little religious programming as it is, most programming is actually secular and atheists are well catered for by all the programming that isn’t religious. But I somehow doubt that would fly with the professional atheists.
As a matter of fact, what religious programming there is is little short of insulting. On the BBC, much of it is made up of Nicky Campbell’s Big Questions, which is really a Kilroy clone. The Beeb can count this towards their religious quota by having an occasional discussion about abortion, and putting a trendy vicar and Cristina Odone on the panel. Much as I like Cristina Odone, this really will not wash. But, for what it’s worth, The Big Questions is on for an hour on Sunday mornings. On weekdays, its role as forum for the discussion of ethical issues is taken up by The Wright Stuff, where you’re more likely to have Peter Andre giving his thoughts than Cristina Odone. I suggest that this is a secular discussion show, and is no less so for the fact that it doesn’t have Professor Dawkins bashing religion five days a week.
Anyway, this leads me back to the question of what secularism actually means. I’ve never been terribly impressed with the French concept of laïcité – Coatesy is your man for that – rather preferring the minimal definition of separation of church and state in the American First Amendment. On the other hand, there’s also been some good work done on this by thinkers in India, where religious strife is still a live issue. Regardless, I think there are cultural issues that are specific to, not England exactly, but certain northern European countries, that don’t translate very well elsewhere.
Allow me to explain. A basic working definition of secularism might be that no particular religious belief is privileged in the public sphere. A concomitant of that might be that neither is unbelief privileged in the public sphere. To say that the public sphere does not privilege religion is not to say that we therefore have an atheist public sphere. I believe Norman Geras would agree with me on that, when he isn’t preoccupied with trying to reconcile his universalist ethics with special pleading for Israel. But yes, minimally speaking, we’re talking about the absence of compulsion. That’s why it’s important that witnesses in court can affirm rather than swear, that parents can excuse their kids from religious assemblies in school and so on.
It’s a departure from that minimalist definition to set out to render religion an entirely personal matter, something for the home and the place of worship, that has absolutely no place in the public sphere. This, I think, is a cultural thing, and it’s perhaps best illustrated by the way the Brits deal with the sexual morality of public figures. It might be good for some curtain-twitching titillation in the News of the World, but there’s also a very strong sentiment that people shouldn’t be judged on their personal conduct. That’s not something that works very well in an Irish context, where (outside of our most Anglicised metrosexual milieux) it would be assumed that we would have a right to know if our TD was shagging all around him, and we would have a right to pass judgement.
It’s a bit like the different concepts of guilt, and how Catholic guilt differs from Calvinist guilt. Catholicism sets extremely high standards of personal conduct, but it also recognises that, as human beings, we will often fall short of these standards, hence the institutions of confession and penance. Calvinism sets impossibly high standards but, lacking the Catholic institutions for handling sin, the only recourse of the sinning Calvinist is to lie his head off – that’s why so many Presbyterians are shocking liars, compared to Catholics who just prefer to be economical with the actualité. On the other hand, liberal Protestantism deals with this problem by lowering the standard and declaring that passing judgement on sin isn’t really the business of the Church. That’s probably why, in certain trendy parts of Dublin, Church of Ireland membership is booming amongst ex-Catholics, who want a nice non-judgemental atmosphere to raise their kids in, and have concluded that you could do a lot worse that the good old C of I, half of whose members don’t even believe in God.
So it’s my view that the concept of strictly privatised religion, like its close cousin privatised morality, is something that you really only get within the cultural realm of liberal Protestantism – there really isn’t a Catholic or Calvinist analogue, let alone a Muslim or Jewish one. Indeed, one might say that modern British humanism really is liberal Protestantism without the theology. Nietzsche, who used to have a lot of fun twitting humanists as essentially Christians without Christ, would appreciate that.
If I’m coming across as being dismissive, that’s not entirely true. There’s something quite attractive about the idea of the privatisation of religion, especially when taken in the context of the usual British array of ad hoc compromises. If people want to live that way, that’s fine by me – what I have a problem with is when there’s any move to enforce privatisation.
Sometimes it’s just irritating, like when those nudniks in America take cases to the Supreme Court trying to get “In God We Trust” removed from banknotes, or when their British analogues write letters to the papers demanding that Songs of Praise be taken off the air – I don’t often watch Songs of Praise, but I don’t remotely have a problem with it being broadcast, even in its truncated and dumbed-down format. But sometimes we enter into serious political territory, as with campaigns to abolish the conscience clause that allows doctors to refuse to carry out abortions on moral grounds. I’m in favour of abortion being both legal and accessible, but abolishing the conscience clause and attempting to force doctors to perform abortions against their will would not increase accessibility. Its main effect would be to force out of practice those doctors whose opinions do not conform, but then I suspect that’s a large part of the motivation.
There’s been a recent irruption of this sort of illiberal liberalism in respect of the upcoming by-election in Glasgow North-East. You see, Scottish Nationalist candidate David Kerr is a devout Catholic. In itself that’s worth remarking on, given the SNP’s history of Orangeism and how it’s only really in the last few years that it’s managed to make inroads amongst Glasgow Catholics. But it gets better than that:
It was reported that Richard Baker, Labour’s justice minister, said that Mr Kerr’s membership of Opus Dei would cause voters to question him. Murdo Fraser, deputy leader of the Scottish Conservatives, was also quoted as saying that Mr Kerr’s affiliation with the group raised questions about whether it was appropriate to have a candidate who was a member of a “secretive” and “hardline” organisation.
However, spokesmen for the Labour and Conservatives parties told the Scottish Catholic Observer this week the politicians had been misquoted, their comments taken out of context, and that neither believed that membership of Opus Dei would bar a candidate from public office.
Quite so. I suspect the initial attack had come from political operatives who either thought The Da Vinci Code was a documentary, or who assumed there were lots of gullible punters who would do so. Opus Dei isn’t exactly my cup of tea, and it isn’t terribly popular even within the ranks of organised Catholicism, but it doesn’t have any esoteric beliefs, and Mr Kerr’s membership of Opus doesn’t prove anything except that he’s an observant Catholic. Labour by-election candidate Willie Bain, a practising Catholic himself, has said so, and Mr Bain will be keenly aware that this sort of sectarian dog-whistle politics may play well in Airdrie, but won’t do much good in the East End of Glasgow. To be honest, I would want to judge Mr Kerr on his membership of the SNP, and that party’s policies. He could belong to the Melchizedek Priesthood of the Mormon Church for all I care.
This, needless to say, is not the view of National Secular Society head honcho Terry Sanderson. Some of you may remember Terry from his previous incarnation as a homosexualist activist, who spent a lot of time drawing attention to homophobia in the media. (Parenthetically, there’s still a lot of homophobia in Private Eye. What a pity that the Eye staff doesn’t include any NSS members, or even honorary associates, who Terry could remonstrate with.) Yet, despite his sensitivity to stereotyping of his own community, mention Catholics in politics and Terry goes straight into the old Guy Fawkes rhetoric about sinister cabals seeking to dominate British life on the orders of Pope Benny, currently stroking a white cat in his secret bunker under the Vatican.
But then, this is Terry Sanderson, who quite seriously seems to believe that the late Enver Hoxha was a model of best practice in dealing with religion. What’s more interesting is that, in a somewhat milder form, you’re getting more and more of this in political discourse. It’s actually a little disconcerting to find the New Atheism rearing its head in the Labour Party. This is one of the less advertised cultural differences between New and Old Labour – Old Labour was largely informed by Methodist culture, with a certain admixture of Catholicism in Glasgow, Liverpool and Birmingham, plus a small but significant Jewish contingent, and well understood what most believing people want in a modern society, which is essentially to be respected for what they are and left to their own devices. The fudges and compromises that British public life erected around moral issues worked pretty well, as a rule.
Notwithstanding Mr Tony Blair’s ostentatious religiosity – and I still can’t understand why Pope Benny gave him house room – this is not very well understood by the denizens of New Labour. While I hate to shoot fish in a barrel – all right, that’s a lie – it’s hard to imagine Old Labour throwing up a character like London MEP Mary Honeyball. During last year’s debate on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology bill, Ms Nutball saw fit to go into print calling for Catholic MPs to be debarred from ministerial office if there was the possibility of a conflict between their consciences and Labour Party policy. This looks to me very much like a reversion to the situation before the Catholic Relief Act 1829, only justified by progressive humanist rhetoric rather than Anglican sectarianism. Incidentally, Ms Moonbat is an honorary associate of the National Secular Society.
One of the great achievements of the nineteenth-century democratic movement was the removal of religious tests for office, which not only discriminated in various means against Catholics, Jews and Presbyterians but also against atheists. I think it is an absolute principle that they not be reinstated under the guise of a secularism test, or any other hurdle designed to keep people out of the democratic process who don’t subscribe to various right-on moral shibbolethim. Deciding on serious moral and ethical issues is part of democracy, and if the electorate want to be represented by a member of Opus Dei, or the Seventh-Day Adventists, or the Satmarer Hasidim… that’s really the prerogative of the electorate. Armed with this insight, perhaps we might come to the understanding that living and letting live is much more central to a proper secular order than the strictures of some self-appointed atheist ayatollahs.
More on this from Red Maria.