Faith in the Public Sphere – A Humanist Perspective
From a lunchtime seminar organised by the East of England Faiths Agency for Suffolk County Council Staff in Ipswich on 14 October 2010. The previous seminar was led by a local vicar and more seminars would be led by various faith representatives. My introduction was followed by a Q & A session.
Iâ€™m a Humanist. Humanism is a descriptive word applied retrospectively (from about the late 19th century) to a certain set of beliefs and values, free from religion. These beliefs and values are at least as old as recorded history.
Humanists accept naturalism (rather than supernaturalism) and we value scientific method as a means to gain knowledge. We accept that this life is the only one we have, and we think that morality arises out of human nature and culture. These ideas are a â€˜permanent alternativeâ€™ that recur throughout time and place. Theyâ€™ve been evident in Europe from the 6th century BCE to about 6th century CE, in China from the 6th century BCE onwards (the followers of Confucius were humanists), in India from the 6th century onwards, in the Arab world from about the 12th century, and in the Western world from about the 17th century onwards.
Humanism isnâ€™t a religion for atheists. Itâ€™s not equivalent to religion. Itâ€™s not a â€˜faithâ€™ â€“ the word â€˜faithâ€™ means believing in something without evidence, which is anathema to a humanist. Humanists use reason to try to make sense of life and the world we live in, and if thereâ€™s something we donâ€™t know or understand weâ€™re content to admit that we donâ€™t know.
Some people misunderstand the word â€˜humanistâ€™ and think that it means an anthropocentric (meaning human-centred) view of the universe, as though weâ€™re the most important species. We are important because weâ€™re potentially the most dangerous species, but humanismâ€™s about being aware of this potential and of our responsibility to live in a way that will cause the least harm.
Many humanists might describe themselves as atheists, or are willing to be described as atheists, but Iâ€™m uncomfortable with the term, for several reasons. The word atheist comes from the Greek â€“ â€˜aâ€™ meaning â€˜withoutâ€™, and â€˜theosâ€™, meaning god. I donâ€™t care to be described in terms of something Iâ€™m not or in relation to a belief I donâ€™t share. I donâ€™t believe in fairies either, but I donâ€™t call myself â€˜afairyistâ€™. Some humanists might call themselves agnostics, a term invented by the 19th century naturalist Thomas Henry Huxley to mean â€˜without knowledgeâ€™, as Huxley said itâ€™s impossible to say whether or not God exists. Again, this would mean defining yourself in religious terms.
The notion of a God or gods is irrelevant to my life. So is religion. I live perfectly happily without any of it. If other people have faith, thatâ€™s up to them, but I donâ€™t believe that they have any right to try to persuade me to accept their beliefs, or to impose their faith on me or anyone else. This is why Iâ€™m a secularist. I reject the opinion expressed by Canon Jenkin last week that faith has a legitimate place in the public sphere. If weâ€™re talking about institutionalised religion at public expense , it does not.
Just as the word â€˜humanistâ€™ has been misrepresented and misunderstood, so has the term â€˜secularâ€™, which was invented by an agnostic British writer called George Holyoake in 1846. He used it to describe the promotion of a social order separate from religion, without actively dismissing or criticising religious belief. Holyoake wrote, â€œSecularism is not an argument against Christianity, it is one independent of it. It does not question the pretensions of Christianity; it advances others. Secularism does not say there is no light or guidance elsewhere, but maintains that there is light and guidance in secular truth, whose conditions and sanctions exist independently, and act forever. Secular knowledge is manifestly that kind of knowledge which is founded in this life, which relates to the conduct of this life, conduces to the welfare of this life, and is capable of being tested by the experience of this life.â€ Holyoake referred to Christianity rather than religion in general because this was a culturally Christian country in pre-multiculturalism 1846.
A secular society is one where religion and the state are kept separate, where politics and religion donâ€™t mix, and where everyone is free to practice his or her religion, or not to have a religion, according to his or her own conscience, as long as he or she does no harm. There are many religious people who support this principle, as well as humanists like me. In religious states, such as Yemen and Iran, you arenâ€™t free to practice any other religion but the state religion and it would be dangerous to assert that you donâ€™t believe in a god or gods. In some societies, it would be impossible for Canon Jenkin to assert his Christian beliefs in public.
There are secular states around the world; America, Canada, France, and Turkey (where secularism is under threat from Islamists) are just a few where secular principles are written in their constitutions. In Britain, weâ€™re not a secular state because we have an established church, a legacy from King Henry VIII, who split with Rome when he had some difficulties over divorce, an heir, and alliances. The Queen is head of state and the church, and so we have a confused and confusing system.
Letâ€™s think about how faith in the public sphere works in practice. Itâ€™s not about censoring people who want to talk about their faith in public, though soap-box preachers are generally ignored.
The Church of England, which has bishops sitting in the House of Lords despite its dwindling congregations and lack of accountability, tends to dominate all national and regional ceremonial, including remembrance events. We live in the only democratic country that has religious representatives in the legislature as of right. If youâ€™re a member of the judiciary , the military, or the government, youâ€™re expected to participate in Christian services on special occasions, whether youâ€™re a believer or not, whatever sort of belief you may have. This makes hypocrites of thousands. Iâ€™m told that serving soldiers, sailors and airmen are not excused from church parade, regardless of their religion or lack of it. Religion, or faith, in this sense, is something thatâ€™s foisted on you, not something you choose. If religious authorities were confident that they were offering people something they wanted or needed, they would allow us to opt in, rather than making it difficult for us to opt out.
I, and many others like me, find it very annoying that whenever an ethical issue is being reported in the news, the media, particularly the broadcast media, invariably find a cleric to comment on the issue, as though the clergy were the only moral authority. Handing over the moral high ground to religious people gives the impression that they have a natural entitlement to it; they do not.
Whenever thereâ€™s a disaster of some sort, how is it commemorated? With a church service. Any event of this type excludes a significant proportion of the population because the religious terminology, the hymns and prayers, are meaningless to many of us. It was interesting, I thought, that the families and friends of the people killed by the bombs in London on 7th July 2005 organised their own memorial event in Regentâ€™s Park a year later, and it was entirely secular so that it included everyone â€“ of all faiths and none. Thatâ€™s how all such public events should be, if theyâ€™re to be considered inclusive.
Then thereâ€™s the difficult matter of multiculturalism, a concept that was promoted by Tony Blair, when he was Prime Minister, and his Communities Secretary, Hazel Blears. This has caused more problems than it pretends to solve. If you were as cynical as me, you might be inclined to blame it on the Iraq War, and a clumsy attempt to woo back the Muslim voters whoâ€™d abandoned the Labour Party. But even if youâ€™re not a cynic, you might recognise that it isnâ€™t fair or democratic to offer religious groups special channels of communication to local or national government, especially when those channels have been used by unelected, unaccountable self-appointed â€œleadersâ€, who presume to speak on behalf of British citizens who ostensibly share the same religion, but whose attitudes and values may vary enormously. The Conservatives rejected this approach to â€œconsultationâ€ as fraught with difficulties, saying that itâ€™s better to consult people directly. Itâ€™s also presumptuous to talk about religious â€œcommunitiesâ€, when this assumes a commonality that may not exist. I recently met a young Egyptian Muslim who said that heâ€™d visited a British mosque that was dominated by Pakistani Muslims, and that heâ€™d never go again as he had nothing in common with them. In places like Oldham and Bradford, where there was rioting a few years ago, immigrant imams, who donâ€™t speak English as a first language, impose their backward tribal values on young British people, and wonder why theyâ€™re resented.
So, in many instances, faith in the public sphere is about people taking liberties by imposing their beliefs on other people, whether they like it or not â€“ a recipe for dissatisfaction.
I wasnâ€™t surprised, but I was irritated, to note from Canon Jenkinâ€™s summary that he linked atheism with â€œseveral of the most destructive and vile regimes of the 20th centuryâ€. Within minutes of landing in Britain on his recent visit, the Pope mentioned atheism in connection with Nazism. The Pope should know, and probably does, that Hitler was raised a Catholic and although he may have lapsed, he wasnâ€™t an atheist. He developed a personal religious faith that seemed to have something to do with his Aryan ideals. Many Nazis were also Christians, and many Catholic priests openly collaborated with the Nazis in Germany and Italy. Like the other â€œdestructive and vile regimesâ€ Canon Jenkin might have been referring to, atheism didnâ€™t have anything to do with the ideologies concerned. As I mentioned earlier, atheism simply means â€œwithout godâ€. Describing someone as an atheist doesnâ€™t tell you any more than that; it doesnâ€™t tell you anything about his or her values and attitudes. Conversely, saying that someone is religious doesnâ€™t necessarily mean that he or she is a good person. Whether you are good or bad, or mostly good or bad, doesnâ€™t depend on whether or not you believe in a god; it depends on how you behave.
Another fallacy that some religionists are fond of suggesting is that atheists never do anything charitable. This is nonsense. Most of the humanists and atheists I know have contributed or are contributing their voluntary efforts to good causes, but they do it without waving a banner in organisations like the Red Cross, Oxfam, UNICEF and so on, which donâ€™t have a religious agenda but do include people of all faiths and none. Theyâ€™re also likely to be found supporting other people on a one to one basis, without making a fuss. Iâ€™ve conducted about a thousand funerals for people whoâ€™ve lived without religion, and Iâ€™ve heard many stories of unselfish actions that have benefitted other people.
Finally, there is another reason why no religious organisation is entitled to claim a legitimate presence in the public sphere, and thatâ€™s because they donâ€™t speak for a majority of those who have a religious faith. Only a minority of nominal Christians, the ones who tick the â€œChristianâ€ box on the census form or hospital admission form, actually know or understand the theology of Christianity. A minority of British people subscribe to religions that never get a look in, because theyâ€™re barely recognised â€“ though apparently the Druids have just been recognised as a religion. An increasing number of people will say that they do have a faith, or that they do believe in a god, but donâ€™t subscribe to any form of organised religion. Theyâ€™ve worked out their own personal set of beliefs, which can be a mixture of paganism, pantheism and pacifism, and theyâ€™re happy to just try to live quietly by their own values, without coming into conflict with anyone. The conventions and rituals of organised monotheistic religions donâ€™t interest them. I seem to remember that there was a newspaper report about some research that demonstrated this not long ago, but I canâ€™t remember where it was. My own experience, having talked to people at Suffolk Inter-Faith Resource events, is that this is fairly common. My experience of young people, as a school visitor, is that most wouldnâ€™t describe themselves as religious, but they do feel very strongly about ethical issues.
So, my view is that a secular society is the best sort of society for everyone, because it allows you to freely practice whatever faith you choose, or to live without religion without interference, as the case may be, and that the representatives of organised religion have no right to claim a stake in the public sphere, because they speak for a small minority and itâ€™s presumptuous of them to do so. As a humanist celebrant with twenty years experience, I can confidently say that thereâ€™d be no problem providing ceremonial or other public events to suit any occasion that would include everyone.
Funding the Church of England: over Â£200 million is given tax-efficiently each year through Gift Aid and a further Â£60 million is recovered from the Inland Revenue in tax.
Church voluntary aided schools: the school is owned by the church, a majority of the governors are appointed by the Church, the teachers are appointed and employed by the governing body, the cost of repairs and capital projects is raised by the governing body with 90% grant from the DfES, religious education and worship are distinctively Anglican, the governing body is the admissions authority;
Church voluntary controlled schools: the school is owned by the Church, the Church appoints governors, but there is no Church majority on the governing body, the teachers are employed by the Local Education Authority, the LEA funds repairs and capital projects, religious education follows the local agreed syllabus, the worship is Anglican;
Academies: some academies are designated as having Church of England character. Academies are independent schools, owned by their trustees, governors employ the staff and are the admissions authority. The church appoints a minority of governors, religious education and worship are distinctively Anglican, set up capital is provided partly by the trustees. Revenue, and continuing capital funding are provided by the DfES. No fees are charged. (Source: Church of England)
In rural areas, the only local primary school is often owned by the church, so non-religious families donâ€™t have a choice. LEAS have provided free school transport for children attending religious schools outside their catchment area but an increasing number have had to cut this free provision for financial reasons, including Suffolk.
â€œThe NSS had undertaken research under the Freedom of Information Act to discover how much is spent on chaplains. The research revealed that Â£32 million was spent in the UK on wages alone. We estimated that when national insurance, pensions, administration, office space, prayer rooms and chapels were taken into account this was likely to be in the region of Â£40 million.â€ (Source: The National Secular Society).
â€œIn a classic example of the distinct lack of separation between church and state in Britain, the start of the UK legal year was formally marked last week with a religious service in Westminster Abbey. The service was attended by judges, senior judicial officers, the Law Officers, Queen’s Counsel (QC), Government ministers, lawyers, members of the European Court and other overseas judges and lawyers.â€ (Source: The National Secular Society, 15 October 2010).
My thanks to Andrew Copson of the BHA for the stuff about the history of Humanism, cribbed from his talk ‘Objections to Humanism.