Sunday, November 12, 2006

‘Doing God’ – er, doing what?

After AC Grayling’s elegant trashing of it, I almost decided to ignore Theos, the new “public theology think tank” and its report, ‘Doing God’ [PDF]. But Grayling’s piece, good as it is, only relates to the report’s foreword, penned by a brace of archbishops. And the response from the National Secular Society is really very knee-jerk, consisting mostly of a general diatribe against religion and not quoting the report once. So I thought I’d have a read.

The report is seriously let down by inclarity. The lack of a summary and a conclusion make it harder to discern what it is actually arguing for (or against), and its failure to define terms is also a self-inflicted handicap.

Its title alludes to Alastair Campbell’s response to a question about Tony Blair’s religion: “We don’t do god.” The report uses this phrase, “doing god” (also “do god”) dozens of times, every single time within scare-quotes. No definition is offered, and so the overall impression is that the author, Nick Spencer, has allowed his thinking to become captured by this soundbite even as he rejects it. A catchy phrase is fine for a throwaway remark, but to make it the foundation of a think tank’s philosophy without fleshing it out is pretty shoddy.

The report does say at the start that the overall aim of “public theology” is “putting God ‘back’ into the public domain”. Theos “seek[s] to demonstrate that religion in public debate is not dangerous or plain irrelevant, but that it is crucial to enable such public debate to connect with the communities it seeks to serve”. It adds: “We… reject notions of a sacred/secular divide.”

This last is a little puzzling, as secularism is about promoting a sacred/public divide. What it presumably means is that Theos rejects this latter division – i.e., it rejects secularism. But it’s not arguing for theocracy. Rather, the most tangible proposal I can discern is that religious people should be allowed to be part of political life and make public comment – directly referencing religion, if they wish, and in their capacity as representatives of religious organizations, if they are.

A modest aim; I believe it was achieved long ago. Perhaps, then, the aim is merely persuasive: to encourage those secularists who scorn explicit religion in politics to calm down, and to encourage those religious believers who fear such scorn to take heart.

This is only my best judgement about what the report might be trying to say, though. The report doesn’t, for instance, say what it means by ‘secular’ or ‘secularism’. The closest it comes is on page 37:

“The word ‘secular’… was adopted in early Christian writings to mean ‘this age’ or, more precisely, ‘confined to this present age that is passing away’. The secular was Christianity’s gift to the world, denoting a public space in which authorities should be respected but could legitimately be challenged and could never accord to themselves absolute or ultimate significance.”

Disregarding the etymologically based bait-and-switch that predictably follows (“the secular public square, properly understood… requires an ongoing Christian presence”), we can see that indeed, theocracy is being rejected here. The “authorities” Spencer mentions as legitimately challengeable are the worldly, political ones, not Church leaders. But he does go on to state that “treating religious groups as valid participants within the identity debates to which modern politics is gravitating does not mean failing to scrutinise or criticise them” – so this challengeability will apply to all perspectives, with no one religion being favoured.

This sits very comfortably with secularism – indeed, the refusal to privilege one religion within the public sphere has been a key historical driver of secularism. Perhaps Spencer is really arguing against a Dawkins-style militant atheism, but confusing his terms. He wouldn’t be the first.

But there is a real problem about what Spencer actually means when he supports “religious engagement in public debates”. This arises because he rejects such engagement taking the narrow, sectarian, exclusive approach that it sometimes can. Say that a Catholic is asked to justify her proposals on abortion law reform. “If the answer is the ‘Holy Scriptures’ or ‘the Pope says so’, further public debate is stymied and the public square is divided.”

He endorses Julian Baggini’s view that religious contributions to public debate should be expressed “in universalist and not particularist terms”, arguing that “participation in the public square requires publicly accessible thinking”. In this context, that means that “religious groups… must be willing to defend themselves without recourse to sectarian or inscrutable reasons”.

Well… hear, hear, I think. But I’m a secularist and an atheist; my agreement should give pause for thought. Am I missing something? Is Spencer? Are his clerical backers?

He argues that religious participation in public debate should be publicly accessible, using terminology and indeed reasoning that does not create a divide between the exponent and other participants. But the logic of this is that we replace one form of secularism with another. Spencer opposes the view that people should leave their religious identification at the entrance to the public square, so that debate can take place between secular participants. He proposes instead a view that religious groups should be allowed to flaunt their allegiance in the public square, but before entering it they should, in effect, secularise their own political thinking. Religion can discuss public policy – but not religiously.

If this is really what is meant, then the proposal is a (presumably unwitting) Trojan horse that takes the principles of secularism into religion itself, while putting on a show of making the public square look more religious. On the other hand, if there is disingenuousness afoot, then this all amounts to a PR trick – a way of getting religious groups to make their demands in secular-sounding ways – and the Trojan horse is in fact trotting in the other direction. Stealth theocracy, if you like.

Given the inclarity of the report and its difficulties with terminology, I’m more inclined to think that Spencer simply doesn’t appreciate where his argument leads than to think that this is some sort of sinister, deliberate obfuscation. But that’s just my personal faith position.


Paul Burgin said...

Well it is a tough one. As a Christian I am happy to see a secular society where Christians can declare their faith, trojian horse or not. I mean how can we do anything else that would not make Christians, or indeed Jews, or Muslims, inferior to agnostics or athiests in the declarations of their faith!
As for Catholics declaring their reasons for voting against abortion etc.. you can always argue that their rationale can be put down to conscience which is a generally respected position!

Tom Freeman said...

Yes, I quite agree - I think that an enforced atheism in public debate would be as wrong in principle as theocracy.

And politics has to be about what outcomes and values are good and bad as well as the more mundane technocratic competence type stuff - which means that where people get their conceptions of right and wrong from is important.

But because people have different starting points doesn't necessarily mean it's impossible for them to agree on some common end to pursue (as long as we're not fundamentalists who shun all compromise and refuse to even debate openly).

But there'll be times when persuasion just runs into the sand, and then the ability to agree to disagree peacefully really comes into its own.

Harry Barnes said...


You might find my "A Gentle Atheist" of interest. It was posted on 5 November.


Tom Freeman said...

Hi Harry - thanks, I'll take a look.