Thursday, 11 February 2010

The Godless Delusion?

Recent weeks have seen a great deal of controversy surrounding the role of religious institutions and symbols in public life - from the Papal criticism of Britain's equality laws, to the carrying of the Sikh kirpan in schools, via Cherie Booth's apparent display of leniency for a man of faith. As a committed humanist that still observes many cultural aspects of my religious background these episodes are illustrative of the way in which religious organisations and the secular goals of the society that hosts them can clash. So just as this blog post was forming in the nether regions of my thinkbox, I was fortunate enough to attend a really interesting lecture at UCL by Professor Lord Bhikhu Parekh, entitled 'Accommodating Religious Diversity in a Secular Society. Here's my brief take on the evening's discussion, and how I feel Lord Parekh's take on things relate to the aforementioned impasses...

Lord Parekh began by defining what it is we mean by secular State or society. Rather than an oppressive form of secularism, where all public expression of anything resembling religious beliefs are banned - we only have to look across the Channel to France's apparent embrace of this approach - Parekh argued that a State can be deemed secular provided that neither its institutions nor its stated goals are religious in nature. This seems at first to be a logical argument; that the aims and goals of a nation should be stated in language that all its citizens can relate to, regardless of their faith or lack thereof, and that the institutions through which those goals are expressed - legislature, judiciary, executive and so on - remain accessible to those of any and no religious beliefs. The question he went on to explore was how we accommodate religious sentiment and actions within a State so defined - to what extent should we make allowances for religious beliefs before the law, for example, or when considering who should deliver public services?

As Lord Parekh answered these questions in the context of the recent controversies I mentioned, I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly with part of what he said, and decidedly uncomfortable at times too. He began by examining the issue of Catholic adoption agencies falling foul of the government's equality legislation - which requires that institutions receiving public funds do not discriminate on the grounds of sexuality amongst other things, and that according to the Pope 'violates natural law.'

Here Parekh's conclusion, if I understand it correctly, was that within any organisation, certain roles are central to its ethos and certain ones are more like layman's roles - the priest and the cleaner being examples of the two types. Whilst it would be unreasonable for any institution to discriminate along any lines when employing a cleaner, Parekh's argument was that it would be equally unreasonable for the secular State to force institutions to act in a way that would contradict said institution's ethos and stated aims. So as far as adoption agencies go, then, he feels that by refusing to fund Catholic adoption agencies that oppose gay adoption, the State is causing Catholics who wish to adopt to miss out. On the employment issue I was with Lord Parekh - where there is no harm to an institution's public aims, there must be no discrimination whatsoever, but some exceptions could be made to accommodate particular roles. But when it comes to adoption agencies, I beg to differ - if the State is to provide funding for the bodies, they ought to act according to secular values, which precludes discrimination against gays.

A similar pattern emerged when Lord Parekh discussed State funding of faith schools. His starting premise was that as long as the State acts to educate children in a secular manner, who delivers the education should not matter - whether the State funds faith schools or not is a matter for each nation to decide and one that does would be no less secular than one that doesn't. Which is all fine, until the inevitable happens - faith schools admit pupils and teach material in a way that contradicts the aims and goals of their secular host society. This of course must happen within faith schools - the State tries to treat all of it citizens equally, whilst a faith school insists that those who follow their brand of faith are the only worthy ones, that their chosen way of life is the only correct path to being a Good person - for me this contravenes the stated goals of a seuclar State and therefore should result in a withdrawal of public funds. In contrast, Lord Parekh used the example of German hospitals and care homes, many of which are run by faith-based organisations - his point being that the State needs hospitals and these organisations provide them, so why should we not allow them to do so? To which my response would be, that if they can provide a service independent of the faith-status of their clients then so be it - but as soon as they stop treating all comers as equal, as faith schools undoubtedly do, then the time for taxpayers to fund them is over.

Just to be clear, I agree that an aggressive pursuit of secularism, to the exclusion of all religious sentiment, is neither practical (imaging trying to ban Christmas or Easter, Eid or Diwali) nor desirable. Such that on the issue of the ceremonial Sikh dagger, given that it is ceremonial, a compromise would be for knife-carriyng laws to still apply but for Sikhs to carry a small, discrete plastic version - still symbolising their Kirpan, but not contravening the law of the country they live in. I agree also that the State should be agnostic towards what organisations do in their private remit. However, when it comes to a secular State (arguments over just how secular the UK is, with its prayer meetings and Bishops in Parliament, are for another day...), and the activities it funds or the decisions it makes, religion ought not to play a role at all. Indeed for me it's a little like homoeopathy in that regard - in a liberal nation people are free to pursue whatever they wish to on their own time and money, but the State should not fund anything that goes against purely secular aims - whether sugar pills or faith-based schools, the same goes.


IanH said...

My thanks for a great article - lots to consider. As an atheist I find myself being accused of intolerance about religion and your post has some nicely worded explanations of why I feel as I do, and hence why I object to public money and time being spent of what should be an individual choice. Perhaps I will seem less antagonistic in future!

I particularly like the analogy of homeopathy and religion.

Anonymous said...

I agree on the 'faith institutions' point: if they provide the service, then that's up to them. But that service should be a secular one.

Regarding adoption agencies, though. How does it have a negative affect on Catholics who wish to adopt? Can't they use secular agencies?

teekblog said...

@ IanH - thanks. IMHO a truly secular state would not spend money on things like faith schools because faith or otherwise is, as you say, a personal matter. However this can also run into problems - as Lord Parekh actually mentioned in his talk, should we therefore ban Nativity scenes and Chinese New Year decorations if the council funds them? Tricky on...!

teekblog said...

@electroweb: the negative effect on Catholics is indirect - of course they're free to use secular agencies, but many members of faith groups like to go for adoption (and other things for that matter, like schooling) through groupings of like-minded folk. In an ideal world members of all faiths and none at all would use common, secular service providers, but I'd say for now that's wishful thinking!