What happened to secularism?

Sue Blackmore is right.

“Religious faith is not inconsistent with reason.” I nearly choked on my breakfast when I heard this on the Today programme. These words were spoken by Mr Blair, in his inimitably sincere style. He was addressing an Islamic conference in London, on June 4…But religious faith is inconsistent with reason (and much more that we value as well)…Faith is corrosive to the human mind. If someone genuinely believes that it is right to believe things without reason or evidence then they are open to every kind of dogma, whim, coercion, or dangerous infectious idea that’s around. If someone is convinced that it is acceptable to base their beliefs on what is written in an ancient book, or what some teacher tells them they must believe, then they will have no true freedom of thought; they will be trapped by their faith into inconsistency and untruths because they are unable to throw out false ideas when evidence against them comes along.

The usual reply to that (along with a lot of abuse and random insult about aging and fundamentalism and jowls) is that there are plenty of rational people who have religious faith. The reply to that, I think, is ‘Yes, maybe, but only to the extent that they don’t allow the ‘faith’ to transfer to anything other than religion, which condition itself means that faith is not consistent with reason.’ The two have to be kept firmly separated for reason to be reason (and faith to be faith), and that surely means that they’re not compatible, not that they are.

[U]niversities should be teaching people how to think, question, and understand these things, not to have faith in “truths” proclaimed without reason or evidence. Tony Blair pronounces the word “faith” with just that touch of special reverence in his voice, as though it were something to respect, something we should admire in others and grant them licence to believe whatever they want on its account. Indeed he proclaimed that the conference was “an opportunity to listen; to hear Islam’s true voice; to welcome and appreciate them; and in doing so, to join up with all those who believe in a world where religious faith is respected”. How despicable. How creepy. How frightening when we see the dire consequences of faith-based actions all around us…I, for one, do not want to live in a world where religious faith is respected…[O]ur great universities should continue to teach people to think for themselves, to respect the truth, and to take nothing on faith.

Exactly, about that touch of special reverence in the voice. That’s what the word ‘faith’ is for, really: to summon up that creepy tone of voice. The hell with that.

Blair says some very dubious things in that speech.

We have successful Muslims in all areas of our national life – business, sport, media, culture, the professions. We have our first Muslim MPs, first Muslim Members of the House of Lords; hopefully the next election will bring more and hopefully also the first women Muslim MPs.

That’s a bizarre thing to hope. Does he hope the next election will bring more Sikh MPs? More Hindus? More Jains? More Shintoists? Mormons? Jehovah’s Witnesses? Baptists? Mennonites? Dukhobors? Orthodox Jews? Catholics? Christians?

Probably not. But then why more Muslims? Because he’s treating them as a minority group, excuse me a minority community, rather than (or as well as) adherents of a religion. But he shouldn’t do that, because that causes him to say there should be more adherents of a particular religion in Parliament, and that’s an anti-secular suggestion if I ever heard one.

In the face of so much high profile accorded to religious extremism, to schism, and to confrontation, it is important to show that religious faith is not inconsistent with reason, or progress, or the celebration of diversity. Religious faith has much to contribute to the public sphere; is still a thriving part of what makes a cohesive community; is a crucial motivator of millions of citizens around the world; and is an essential if non-governmental way of helping to make society work. To lose that contribution would not just be a pity; it would be a huge backward step.

Another anti-secular suggestion, to put it mildly.

There is also a clear move across the world to assert strongly the moderate and true authority of Islam. In Jordan, in 2004, under the leadership of HM King Abdullah, a statement, the Amman Message was released seeking to declare what Islam is and what it is not, and how it should be manifested. I was deeply impressed when, the next year, the King convened 200 leading scholars from no less than 50 countries, who unanimously – unanimously – issued a Declaration on 3 basic issues: the validity of different Islamic schools of thought and theology; the forbidding of declarations of apostasy between Muslims; and criteria for the issuing of fatwas – religious edicts – to pre-empt the spawning of illegitimate versions.

What does he mean the true authority of Islam? Why is he talking admiringly about the authority of a religion? Why is he impressed by that Declaration? What about declarations of apostasy between Muslims and non-Muslims or ex-Muslims? Why is he validating the idea of fatwas at all, however criteria-bound they are?

Also in 2005, the summit meeting of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference issued a declaration and a 10-year action plan. The summit reaffirmed Islam as a religion of moderation and modernity. It rejected bigotry and extremism. It supported work to establish the values of Islam as those of understanding, tolerance, dialogue and multilateralism.

That’s not all the OIC did in 2005. Furthermore – Blair neglects to mention the little matter of the Islamic Declaration of Human Rights. Well he ought to. The whole damn speech is evasive that way. Flattering, obsequious, and evasive. He ought not to do that.

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