The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, and the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, are introducing a new think-tank report that challenges the secular dream of taking Christ out of Christmas or anything else…In a joint foreword, they welcome the conclusion of the report that faith is not just important for human flourishing, but that society can only flourish if faith is “given space” to contribute and challenge.
Really? Is that true? ‘Flourish’ in what sense? According to whom, by what lights, according to which criteria? And what kind of ‘space’ has to be given, and how much of it, and to whom? Can society ‘flourish’ only if, say, Fred Phelps is given space to contribute and challenge? Or does society do a better job of flourishing if Fred Phelps is thoroughly ignored. Can society ‘flourish’ only if the pope and the archbishop of Westminster and Catholic clerics in general tell everyone in the world not to use condoms? Is that ‘flourishing’?
“Many secularist commentators argue that the growing role of faith in society represents a dangerous development,” the archbishops say. “However, they fail to recognise that public atheism is itself an intolerant faith position.”
Could that be because that’s not true? Could these many secular commentators fail to recognise that public atheism is an ‘intolerant faith position’ because it’s not a ‘faith’ or a ‘faith position’ at all and because it’s not inherently intolerant any more than not playing the saxophone or not watching football or not eating pizza?
The report argues against confining faith to the private sphere, and says that religion will play an increasingly significant role because of the return of civil society, research about the role it plays in happiness and the politics of identity.
The politics of identity is one big reason to hope religion won’t ‘play an increasingly significant role’ in the public sphere; the politics of identity is…tricky and often reactionary stuff.
“We should not react with bewilderment when a public figure does ‘do God’. We should be less scared of public figures citing religious texts in mainstream contexts. We should be more willing to treat other value systems as coherent, reasonable and even valuable rather than as primitive or grotesque mutations of the liberal humanism to which every sane person adheres.”
No we shouldn’t. Religious texts, like so many things, are only as good as they are; many of them are revolting; the less revolting ones are less revolting for human secular ethical reasons that don’t need religion to ground them; so why should we be encouraging ‘public figures’ (which looks like a tricksy euphemism for political figures) to cite them? And we shouldn’t be more willing to treat other value systems as coherent and reasonable unless they in fact are coherent and reasonable – we shouldn’t be subject to blanket instructions to treat all other value systems as coherent and reasonable. Some are, some aren’t, and they should be evaluated on their merits, not on generalized instructions to accept and respect everything.
So archbish me no archbishops.