Monday, June 09, 2008

Why secular humanists are neither Satan nor Stalin

One of the things I like about clergymen who demand a greater role for religion in public life is that it exposes their claims to proper scrutiny. It reminds us that they’re politicians as much as clerics and that their views can and should be treated as critically as those of any political party.

John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, says:

This religious vision needs once more to become a political vision for all to create a more just society and usher in God's rule of justice upon earth.

In doing this, he forfeits any ability to make the (always-dubious) claim for uncritical ‘respect’ that religion often does. This is no matter of private conscience about which we may cheerfully agree to disagree; he wants his movement to have more say in the running of our country.

Also, a report for the C of E due out today is reportedly critical of the Government, but they’re big boys and girls: they can look after themselves. More importantly, the report (as billed) serves to attack secular politics and humanistic ethics – as does Sentamu’s speech.

At the start, he makes the obligatory concession in noting that “Organised religion… can be both an instrument for good or for great evil.” This contrast, though, skips past a lot of greyer territory. He is not committing great evil in the name of religion. But he is advancing an agenda that’s illiberal and tribalising, even as he imagines he’s being tolerant and inclusive.

As does much archepiscopal politicking, his case proceeds by means of obfuscation and spurious redefinition. He takes ‘liberty’ to mean “the principle of respect for personality in all people”, which is a new one to me. To explain this, he quotes William Temple, one of his predecessors at York: “if each man and woman is a child of God, whom God loves and for whom Christ died, then there is in each a worth absolutely independent of all usefulness to society”.

This is no explanation at all. A notion of liberty that doesn’t mention being entitled to make one’s own decisions is a failure. Talking about worth in general is fine, but it’s something else. Talking about the worth of “each” is closer to equality than liberty.

But Sentamu’s thoughts on equality are also confused:

Temple believed that everyone had an equality of worth before God, but he did not see that this implied that everyone should occupy the same kind of position in society and be treated in the same kind of way. In his charge to the clergy of Manchester diocese he argued that:
"men are born with different capacities and different gifts, and if you insist upon the principle that everyone must be free to develop his own life [as William Temple did], the result will be an emphasis on Liberty, but there will be no Equality.
Whereas if you begin with an insistence that all are to be counted alike, however different their gifts and powers, then of necessity you will put great restraint upon many of the citizens and possibly on all."

Our current Government is in danger of sacrificing Liberty in favour of an abused form of equality – not a meaningful equality that enables the excluded to be brought into society, but rather an equality based on dictat and bureaucracy, which overreaches into the realm of personal conscience.

An A-level politics class could cut through this in under a minute on a hot Friday afternoon. Temple, as quoted, takes undeniable individual difference as his starting-point, and then notes that equality of opportunity (which he calls “Liberty”) will preclude equality of outcome (which he calls “Equality”). Then he notes that insisting on equality of outcome will require restrictions of liberty.

But hardly anyone – certainly not this Government – believes in equality of outcome. Most people – including this Government – believe in some form of equality of opportunity, and in using the resources of the state to advance this for those who find themselves lacking opportunity. To this end, resources come from tax, which restricts some of the economic liberty of those that pay it. The trade-off is broadly accepted. On the more general matter of equal moral worth, regardless of sex, race and all the other false grounds on which equality has been denied, there is majority agreement.

In some cases, though – sexuality being one in point – there are still too many who deny equal worth. Thus there’s also substantial agreement that the state should use some resources to prevent people from disadvantaging others based on prejudice such as homophobia. This, I am sure, is what Sentamu derides as “dictat and bureaucracy, which overreaches into the realm of personal conscience”. He is less liberal than he likes to think.

And his demands for religion to be more assertive in politics, as well as the overall style of his address, would do as much to divide society as any of his sweeter notions would do to unite it. He speaks as one Anglican addressing others; by preaching to the converted, he shuts out the rest of us and works to replace a national polity that can deliberate on its future as one with a culture in which tribal religions compete for influence.

Human rights without the safeguarding of a God-reference tends to set up rights which trump others' rights when the mood music changes.

This may mean that unless we stick to ancient scripture, then we might change our minds about things, or that relying on supernatural authority is a nice way to justify discriminating against gay people.

Many people do see religion as a bedrock for moral values; but for many more of us, it is the fog that obscures them. Take this quote again: “if each man and woman is a child of God, whom God loves and for whom Christ died, then there is in each a worth absolutely independent of all usefulness to society”.

The first part serves only to weaken the second. For one thing, a lot of us are sure there’s no God and a lot more are pretty dubious about the idea, which makes it a poor notion to collectively lean on. For another, this transcendent ‘worth’ simply swaps human preference for divine preference as its basis, while never explaining why that should make a moral difference. For yet another, it falsely implies that the only concept of worth that an atheist can have is the crude one of generalised social usefulness, rather than true individual value. And for one more thing, we’re not talking about a god in the abstract but the God of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, replete with wrath and bigotry, smitings and arbitrary diktats. This narrative does contain some good moral teaching, but it also contains a lot to divert us from more careful and open consideration of what really counts in matters of right and wrong.

Sentamu quotes another of his predecessors, Stuart Blanch, with an analogy for secular humanists: the Devil. He “had chosen to reign in hell rather than serve in heaven; he preferred to be a law unto himself instead of an observer of the law of God; he had decided to pursue his own objectives rather than the objectives which God had prescribed for him.”

The analogy fails so pitifully because there was only one Devil; for him, the alternative to divine service was his own rule. But our situation isn’t like that: there are tens of millions in this democracy of ours, and over a hundred times more around the globe. As a human, I have vital needs and best interests; I am a barometer of what matters. In this capacity, I am equal to the rest of my species. So in saying that there is no greater good than humanity, I am bound to accept that I myself am no greater good than my fellows.

Christianity accepts the rule of God. Where Sentamu errs most fatally is in imagining that abandoning this myth requires us to create a different sort of absolutist power rather than a free and equal community.

As such, his view of collective godlessness is very low: as examples of what happens to “society without religion”, he gives “the Third Reich, the former Soviet Union and the present regimes of North Korea and Burma”. This is too tedious for words; what these are really examples of is what happens when brutal, tyrannical governments crush their people’s freedoms – including, yes, freedom of religion. And governments can be brutal in service of all sorts of ideologies, including religious ones.

Take this one further passage:

Social fellowship teaches responsibility and inter-dependence. It demonstrates the fallacy that people can live disconnected lives, isolated and individualised or atomised from one another. This social fellowship is expressed through family life, school, college, trade union, professional association, city, county, nation, church, synagogue, etc.
It is an understanding that we sink or swim together. That we are bonded together by our common humanity. That we are members of the one race: the human race.

Excellent. But it’s escaped his notice that most of the group types he lists have nothing to do with religion, and that our human unity has nothing to do with being ‘under God’. His myths and his institutions are not all bad, but they are just part of many flawed, human ways of understanding and structuring our world.

I cherish the Church’s right to preach and practise, but its claims for special public status are completely unfounded.


Matt M said...

I can't remember the source, but I seem to recall reading that similar arguments were made against the introduction of political democracy: There was the idea that, without a strong hand to guide us, society would descend into a chaotic mob pulling in numerous directions at once.

Sentamu, et al. seem to be dragging this argument from the political to the moral sphere.

anticant said...

There's no such thing as purely private, apolitical religion. Every religious person is bound to have a political agenda, because he or she believes that society would be better if it followed God's laws [or their particular brand of them].

Until those of us who aren't religious recognise that religious talk is just another mode of political rhetoric, we shall never get to grips with the real challenge of creating an open, democratic, secular society.

The first step must be to abolish all special legal and financial privileges for every religious group, putting them and us on a level playing field.

The Anglican church's current drive for greater public influence stems from a dismayed recognition that not only is Islam now the fastest growing faith in Britain, but that they have been overtaken by the previously marginalised Roman Catholics.