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University of Nottingham Debate on Secularism

Tuesday 25th November, 2014 @ 3:56 pm

by Reverend Christopher Harrison | tags: ,

On November 18th, Rev Christopher Harrison spoke in a debate on secularism at Nottingham University, organised by the ‘Voice your rights’ campaign. The motion was ‘This house believes in a secular society and that all religion should be completely separate from the state.’ Christopher’s opening speech, opposing the motion, follows.

The case put by the National Secular Society is on many levels very plausible.

I would absolutely agree that in an open, democratic society – and in any society, for that matter, religious groups should not be given unfair preferential treatment; they should not receive exemptions from laws that are genuinely democratically made; and they should not be given the wherewithal to influence the making of laws in ways that run counter to the democratic process.

I also believe that the traditions, in UK society, whereby faith groups are part of the structures of certain public sector services – health care, education, the prison and probation services, the armed forces, the police etc – and I refer here to chaplaincy work and similar provision – should not be abused, or used as an opportunity to advance the agenda – overtly or covertly – of the faith group concerned.

I also have questions about those aspects of the Church’s life and work which do not fully reflect the true nature of Jesus’ teaching, which primarily concerns justice for the oppressed and those on the edges of society.

I applaud many of the aims of the National Secular Society, particularly its emphasis on equality, justice, non-discrimination and challenging the abuse of power. However – and it’s a big however – to argue that ‘all religion should be completely separate from the state’ goes several steps too far. This aim can all too easily become a mantra, a rigid ideology, an inflexible dogma that fails to recognise that faith, spirituality, religion are an integral part of life for many millions of people. This still remains the case in materialistic and consumerist societies such as our own – but there are of course also countries where more and more people are now taking a faith-based stand against the lack of meaning and purpose that many are finding characterises both capitalism and communism alike. The National Secular Society may point to the decline in religious observance in this country, but what about the massive growth of Christianity in China, with over 100 million practising Christians; also Korea; and also the revival of the Orthodox Church in Russia – and of course the increasing attractiveness of Islam to many who are disillusioned with western social paradigms.

The essence of my case, therefore, is quite simple.

The ‘state’ is that body that governs the ordering of political, economic, social and cultural aspects of a nation’s life. To say that religion should be completely separate from the state, therefore, is to argue that those things that are to do with the human spirit should have no relation to politics, the economy, culture, and society. I believe you have to be very determined in order to make such an argument.

When I talk of the human spirit, I mean all those things which are to do with aspirations, values, dreams, ideals, and how to lead one’s life; this may or may not involve the concept of a supreme being, or God. To insist that these basic aspects of human belief and behaviour must have no relation with the state is surely short sighted and fails to understand how integral matters of the human spirit are to society.

The National Secular Society argues that religion, faith, spirituality should be private matters alone. But this view fails to recognise that like minded people will naturally organise and form groups; religious groups are simply an expression of this fundamental human characteristic, in the same way as members of a workforce combine together in a union, or those with similar academic interests form a society, and so on.

To rule out on ideological grounds, then, any engagement between faith groups and the state; to prohibit any structural connection between faith groups and the state; actually verges on repression. Before we know it, and this is always going to be a risk in a society with a strong secular agenda, what begins as freedom for all kinds of religious observance, but only on a private level, becomes a social climate in which religion is looked down upon and increasingly marginalised and pushed back behind closed doors.

Over many years, a wide range of mutually beneficial partnerships has been built up in this country between faith groups and the state. These are simply a subset of a far wider range of partnerships between the state and other elements of civil society, corporations, and so on. A blanket ban on faith groups from forming such partnerships would surely be unfair and unreasonable.

To give a few examples: in hospitals, first, the emphasis in chaplaincy now is very much on spirituality at a very general level, and pastoral care, certainly not allowing any attempt on the part of chaplains to convert people to their faith. It is entirely reasonable for a society to put money into such work. In the field of education, also, at least in those Church schools which I’ve been involved in, the religious element is very light touch, and great care is taken not to impose religious views on the children concerned: indeed it is usual, even at primary level in church of England schools, to learn about at least one other faith than Christianity.

But of course there must be safeguards, to prevent faith groups from abusing and taking undue advantage of their relationship with the state. I would be the first to argue for total rigour in this, with the Churches, for example, being subject to a properly agreed Equality Act which has not been distorted by special pleading. Nor do I think that having only Bishops as representatives of faith groups in our second chamber is justifiable, but that a range of faiths should be represented, as well as other major institutions of this land.

I remind you that politics in this country are actually dominated by other far more powerful lobbies and interest groups, which are usually concerned purely for their own interests. I used to work in the Civil Service, in Whitehall, and it was clear that business and finance had infinitely greater power and influence than religious bodies. At a time when certain voices in government are even saying that charities should not be allowed to campaign on political matters, it is all the more important that faith groups should retain their structural links with government, in order to ensure that spiritual perspectives, as well as those of social justice, are not sidelined or ignored.

And finally – the nature of politics is such that there will always be those politicians who are guided at least in part by a faith based vision – whether this be on matters to do with social justice, peace and war, or the sanctity of human life. I challenge anybody to legislate successfully against such motivation.

And so on all these compelling grounds, Mr Chairman, I oppose the motion.


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