The Church of England won’t let go

There’s a report out in the UK, about religion and diversity and public life yadda yadda…

And Malcolm Brown at the Church of England blog has a post about it. (Did I know there was a CofE blog? No.) Brown is slightly triumphalist, saying religion isn’t going anywhere so ha.

But he also does the thing religionists always do: he pretends we can’t do without religion because religion is the source of all the good things.

[T]he 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.

Wait. Stop right there.

That is a shameless falsehood. It is not true that “the great majority of the world’s great faiths” are committed to “the notion of the Common Good.” That’s horseshit. It’s secular morality that focuses on the common good, and what it is and how we figure out what it is and how it relates to the many idiosyncratic notions of the good that individuals want to pursue. Secular morality. This world morality. Religions focus on an imagined other world, and especially, most of them, on an imagined other-worldly Divine Personage. Religions pay attention to the common good as an afterthought at best, and they define it in terms of the imagined other world and its ruling Divine Personage. Often they ignore the common good altogether in favor of the good of themselves –  the One True Religion.

It’s true that many people see their religion as a conduit for morality, for pursuit of the common good – but their religiosity can always confuse them about what the common good actually is.

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.

No, it isn’t. Secularism is not “thick” in the way religions are; it doesn’t rest on willful belief in fictional entities; it doesn’t rest on “belief” in general. Secularism isn’t a belief system, it’s a methodology.

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.

So, a clear endorsement of theocracy then: yes, clerics should be part of the state, backed by all the power of the state. Good plan; see Saudi Arabia for how well it works in practice.

And then Brown argues the opposite of what he just said.

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.

A couple of paragraphs up, secularism was a belief system, but now no religion and humanism are definitely not belief systems. He seemed to be defining secularism broadly when he claimed it’s a belief structure, but now he defines no religion and humanism so narrowly that they have few beliefs. Looks like having it both ways.

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.

“Post-liberal thought” – I hadn’t heard of that before. Is it a new word for postmodernism? Whether it is or not, it’s creepy. It’s basically the idea that you can’t have freedom, because “embeddedness” is better.

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.

It’s such a coercive mentality, this. To tell us that “approaching the moment without specific reference to some religious or belief tradition is impossible” is sheer bullying. It’s not impossible at all, and clerics should stop telling us it is.

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