What is the role of religion in public life? A few days ago Baroness Warsi led a government delegation to the Vatican to warn of militant secularism, and to enlist the pope in the fight against it, a fight he has shown himself all too willing to support. Indeed, the pope has made himself ridiculous in his campaign against the supposedly militant secularism and relativism of the age, forgetting that he has been far more shrilly militant than any of the usual suspects on the side of secularism, so Baroness Warsi could be confident that her seeds were being sown in fertile ground. The pope’s warning against Hitlerism and atheism last year was so idiotically farfetched, especially coming from a former member of the Hitler Jugend, that it is surprising that his credibility did not sink like a stone. Only the exaggerated respect for the office of pope could save him — as it did.
However, the pope’s credibility notwithstanding, the fact that the Baroness cannot point to one unequivocal piece of evidence that there is anything militant about secularism, and despite the fact that the secular movement itself was initiated by Christians to keep peace amongst themselves at a time when they couldn’t convince each other by fire and sword, indicates that her mission was more in the nature of a public relations stunt than a mission of serious import. For all that the pope has said, or that his effete yet squabbling minions in the Vatican can do, and not forgetting the growing rage of evangelical Christians who are lamenting the fact that they can no longer with impunity disadvantage those whom they most despise, nothing that Warsi could say would convince a reasonable person that there is any real threat from a militant secularism on the march. Read another way, her speech could be understood as a warning that militant religiousness constituted a real threat to the Reformation settlement that has kept the peace in Britain since the Glorious Revolution, and its early glimmerings of secular democracy; and this suggests that, despite everything, despite Lord Carey’s hysterical opposition to gay marriage and in support of the public display of religious symbols and religious prejudice against gay people, that the religions are not only not suffering, but are more lively and opinionated than ever. Of course, as Dawkins has pointed out, what may be happening is that people are losing their faith, because faith itself is gradually losing its power to convince, but that is an entirely different thing.
It is arguable, I suppose, that Baroness Warsi, whose is a Muslim, finding Islam marginalised in Britain, has found that she can come to its support indirectly by defending Christianity’s public role, and opposing all the forces which oppose religion in general. Thus, by indirections finding direction out, she can protect the public role of her own religion. However, it has to be said that her defence of religion and opposition to secularism is both hysterical and historically uninformed. Here is what she had to say to the pope about the militant secularism, the opposing of which she was seeking the pope’s support:
For me, one of the most worrying aspects about this militant secularisation is that at its core and in its instincts it is deeply intolerant.
It demonstrates similar traits to totalitarian regimes – denying people the right to a religious identity and failing to understand the relationship between religious loyalty and loyalty to the state.
That’s why in the 20th Century, one of the first acts of totalitarian regimes was the targeting of organised religion.
Why? Because, to them, a religious identity struck at the heart of their totalitarian ideology.
In a free market of ideas, they knew their ideology was weak.
And with the strength of religions, established over many years, followed by many billions…
…their totalitarian regimes would be jeopardised.
Our response to militant secularisation today has to be simple.
Holding firm in our faiths.
Holding back intolerance.
Reaffirming the religious foundations on which our societies are built…
And reasserting the fact that, for centuries, Christianity in Europe has been inspiring, motivating, strengthening and improving our societies.
Talk about historically unfounded! Or did Baroness Warsi never hear of the Thirty Years War, one of the most destructive wars ever to be fought on European soil, and all because of religion’s inspirational, motivating, strengthening and improving force?! Perhaps ordinary Muslims can be excused this ignorance, but a public figure and a minister of the British crown should know better. How is it that religions, seeking the respect and customary submission of the populace, centuries after the secular settlement that relegated religion to a more or less marginal position in the conduct of public affairs, simply forget from whence they come? That Warsi herself, as a Muslim, and doubtless quite aware of the militant Islam that is regnant in practically every Muslim majority country on the planet, should herself pretend that all that religion has to bring is sweetness and light, is almost beyond belief!
And, as for toleration, this is a value that has never been very high on the list of religious obligations. Indeed, every religion is simply chock-a-block full of intolerance and hatred of faiths other than their own, and this includes each and every division and subdivision of each religion. Sunni, Shia, and Ahmadi Muslims get along like cats in a bag, murdering each other with religious zeal, and destroying each other’s places of worship. Main-line Christians, having been marginalised in the great secular democracies of the West, aware that their influence was waning, have sought, in hundreds of different ways, to find common ground so that they could work together. United and uniting churches around the globe are a litmus test of religion’s marginalisation, not a sign of strength. Where religions remain strong, like the Roman Catholic Church, they can still afford to make ridiculous claims to the be the sole means of salvation, and dismiss other denominations and sects as “separated brethren,” when what they really mean is “heretics.” That’s why the pope feels perfectly secure in his move to destabilise the Church of England by offering to create an Anglo-catholic enclave within the Roman Catholic Church for those benighted men — and women too, we mustn’t forget Ann Widdecombe and all her tribe – who oppose the consecration of women as bishops in the Church of England as contrary to the catholic practice of the universal church. This is clearly the Christian virtue of toleration expressed at a high level of sophistication.
Which leads us to the latest broadside in the religion-secularism wars, one that also made me aware of a new player in the contemporary religious struggle against secularism, good government and sane policy in Canada. The Cardus Policy is a new Canadian think tank devoted to restoring religion to public life in Canada. It describes itself as follows:
Cardus (root: cardo) is a think tank dedicated to the renewal of North American social architecture. Drawing on more than 2000 years of Christian social thought, we work to enrich and challenge public debate through research, events and publications, for the common good.
In other words, it is a Christian think tank, devoted to placing Christian thought in the public sphere. To get a taste of what it is all about, here is its comment about the Parti Québécois:
Politicians given enough rope will invariably hang themselves, figuratively speaking of course.
Such is the case with Parti Quebecois justice critic Veronique Hivon, whose clamor for legalizing euthanasia and assisted suicide should, if there is any justice, now be choked off for good and all.
In other words, the Cardus Policy is opposed, for Christian reasons, to the legalising of assisted dying. This does not, of course, come as a surprise, but it means that it is organisations like the Cardus Policy to which I am opposed, precisely for this reason. As it says on the masthead of my blog, Choice in Dying:
Arguing for the right to die and against the religious obstruction of that right
And I will oppose any Christian intervention in public policy in Canada which would oppose that right. Religious reasons are simply irrelevant to the question of the legalisation of assisted dying, and reason enough to oppose any organisation which enters the public realm with that policy goal (amongst others) in mind. Its explicit religiousness is enough reason to bar it from the public sphere.
Which brings me to “Religion doesn’t get much more stupid than this.” In today’s Globe and Mail, Robert Joustra, Cardus Policy researcher, and editor of the journal, Cardus Policy In Public, has an article entitled “Beware the secular atheocracy.” It is written in response to an earlier Globe op-ed by Doug Saunders, “The problem in public life isn’t Islam, but religion itself.” This, in contrast to Joustra’s special pleading on behalf of religion in public life, is a sane, balanced, and reasonable assessment of the facts.
Saunders points out, for example, how conservative newspapers responded, with alarm and hysteria, at the decision of Britain’s High Court to rule out prayers at municipal council meetings. As Saunders writes:
Right-leaning newspapers laid on the two-inch headlines known by insiders as “Jesus type” and backed her [Baroness Warsi]: “Britain being taken over by ‘militant secularists,’ ” screamed The Daily Telegraph. The Daily Mail and The Times used their front pages to charge that religion was “under attack” and “on the rack.” Then the Queen joined in, using a meeting with representatives of nine major religions to make the case: “We should remind ourselves of the significant position of the Church of England in our nation’s life.”
However, as Saunders points out, only a few months before, the same newspapers were expressing alarm “at the prospect of Muslim prayer rooms in universities or the existence of sharia divorce tribunals.” Which gives us a clue as to why Baroness Warsi, a Muslim, should have taken up the gauntlet thrown down by the High Court, and entered the lists on the side of Christianity and the “inspiring, motivating, strengthening and improving” nature of its beliefs and practices. Surely, she must be thinking, Islam will receive the crumbs from the master’s table.
But Robert Joustra’s response is altogether less politically subtle than that. Indeed, he actually warns us that, if we exclude religion from the public square, we can expect a fundamentalist backlash. It doesn’t get clearer than this:
… excluding faith from society’s public square creates the emptiness that fuels the fires of the fundamentalism – both secular and faith-inspired – some would prefer to hide from view.
This, of course, is nonsense, as anyone observing the way that fundamentalism expresses itself in the world can observe. (Nor, of course, should we miss the sniping at something called fundamentalist secularism, for the existence of which he provides no supporting evidence or argument.) Fundamentalism is not marginalised in the United States. Indeed, the Republican Party primaries this year are a lesson in the public expression of and commitment to fundamentalist religious ideals, an expression and commitment that leads one to wonder about the sanity, let alone the rationality of the chief contenders. In other words, this is an empty threat. Indeed, considering the role that religion plays in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, and the United States, marginalising religious expression in public debate seems to be a counsel of reason, rather than an occasion for alarm that fundamentalism will extrude itself into public space.
Joustra’s remarks about the place of religion in the foundation of Canadian democracy are equally bizarre:
Secularism is not the settled, intellectually stable public project that many suppose. It is not at all clear that religion is poisonous to Canadian public order, or even not implicit to it. Our Constitution literally says otherwise, and it is questionable whether the stark secularism of a political order with no metaphysical bias about the nature of human kind is even possible in a democratic society.
But, of course, religion is, and has been, poisonous to Canadian public order, and the impartiality of public decision making. All one has to do is go back to the debate about assisted dying, when Francine Lalonde’s private member’s assisted dying bill was before parliament, to find the almost universal expression of religious reasons for refusing to pass the bill on to parliamentary committee where the issue could have been given a good public airing. Instead of doing this, there was more explicit religious argumentation in evidence in the debate in the Commons than is customary in Canadian legislatures, and the bill was, inevitably, on the strength of this argumentation peremptorily relegated to the parliamentary dustbin. Joustra’s remarks are to this extent correct. Religion plays a huge part in Canadian public life, and the churches, mosques and other favoured haunts of the religious make sure that it stays that way. Our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, is a fundamentalist, evangelical Christian, which he usually keeps in check, or at least out of public sight, but the crime bill, the new Office for Religious Freedom (modelled on the American office of the same name), and other projects, makes Harper’s religious commitments, and their role in the public sphere, abundantly evident.
But Joustra’s (as well as other religious commentator’s) views of secularism are based entirely on a misconception. There seems to be a misunderstanding at the heart of things. Secularism is not a religious point of view. So far as the notion of “atheocracy” goes, the point of secularism is not to exclude religion, but to make sure that no religion has a favoured status in the political and judicial process. The Roman Catholic Church already has a disproportionate role in Canadian public life, stemming, I believe, to a large extent, from the fact that it has diplomatic representation in the nation’s capital. This has a tendency to skew matters in a Roman Catholic direction, and to make sure that Roman Catholic priorities are uppermost in the minds of politicians. The Vatican nunciature in Ottawa is one of the most active religious lobby groups in the country, and provides a voice for the Roman Catholic Church that no other religious body possesses. This in itself is an intrusion into the democratic freedoms of Canadians that anyone intent on providing religiously neutral legislation should be concerned about.
But it is at the theoretical level that Robert Joustra’s article displays the arrogant stupidity of the religious mind. Speaking of the public square, he writes:
That “square” is the common ground upon which societies meet. In liberal democracies, it’s where their ideas mesh, clash and are ground by the polity into compromise. That, in fact, is true secularism: a place where all influence and none dominate. Yet when people’s most deeply held beliefs are banished from that public square, they no longer have a meeting place. Without that, the more likely it becomes that those ideas – uncontested – default into fundamentalism and sectarianism.
As I have suggested above, the actual manifestation of fundamentalism and religious extremism seems to belie this claim. Secularism is the solution to fundamentalism and sectarianism. So long as each ideological group (and each religious grouping is an ideological group seeking influence and power) brings its unique perspective to the public discussion, and insists that its values are too important not to be represented in public decision-making — as Roman Catholic bishops constantly do — there is no possible resolution to public disputes. In the seventeenth century these disputes ended up in one of the bloodiest of Europe’s many wars. We can see the effect of this in the United States today, where the US Conference of Catholic Bishops is trying to prevent women in the employ of Catholic hospitals from receiving contraceptive services, even if they are not required to pay for it, thus defiling their tender consciences. This is not the result of marginalising religious voices, but the result of letting religious believers think that their consciences should be allowed to override and suppress the good of ordinary people. Conscientious refusal to act is one thing; attempting to use individual conscience as a ploy to wreck social programmes is quite another, and the Catholic bishops in the United States, knowing no shame, are quite prepared to use their dogma to rule over decisions about American public good.
That this is Robert Joustra’s purpose is evident. Doug Saunders puts the point clearly:
In truth, no one is calling for a religious state or attacking faith. Rather, we are witnessing a showdown, across the West, between two competing definitions of “freedom of religion.” In one definition, the public sphere is a wide-open space: Citizens are free to try to impose religion, to invoke their gods in legislation, to wear whatever symbols they like. It’s a marketplace of beliefs, and may the strongest prevail.
In the other definition, that sphere is a neutral space: Religion is private and public places are unencumbered by competitions for divine supremacy. This definition recognizes that freedom of religion depends on a strongly defended freedom from religion. And freedom from religion is just as important for non-believers, who don’t want public life to be corrupted with spiritualism, as it is for devout believers, who don’t want their sacred beliefs to be sullied by the vicissitudes of politics.
Robert Joustra belongs in the first camp, the one that allows religious ideologies to compete, and the strongest to prevail. This is a recipe for disaster, the like we have not seen since the wars of religion in the seventeenth century. It is an attempt to roll back the Enlightenment, and to enforce the endarkenment of religion on all of us. The sectarian bickering that underlies Joustra’s preoccupation with religion in the public square is in conflict with the compromise that modern democratic states are founded upon, and it is something we need to do our very best to avoid. If we do not, then we can expect religious violence to multiply, and religious arrogance and intolerance to rule our future. This is as stupid as religion gets.