February 25, 2007


Faith: Britain's new cultural divide is not between Christian and Muslim, Hindu and Jew. It is between those who have faith and those who do not. Stuart Jeffries reports on the vicious and uncompromising battle between believers and non-believers (Stuart Jeffries, February 26, 2007, The Guardian)

Another reason for secularist rage at people of faith, one might think, is exasperation on the part of militant atheists that religion has not died out as they hoped. "It has taken centuries and centuries to wrestle away from the churches the levers of power," says Grayling.

Tamimi contends that this was not quite what happened. Rather, he suggests that Christians were complicit in their marginalisation from power. "Christians did that to themselves - they allowed religion to move to the private sphere. That would be intolerable for Muslims." Why? "Partly because secularism doesn't mean the same for Muslims from the Middle East. The story of secularism in the Middle East is not one of democracy, as we are always told it was in the west. Instead, it is associated with tyranny - with Ataturk in Turkey, for instance. Islam is compatible with democracy, but not with this secular fundamentalism we are witnessing."

Grayling contends that during the late 20th century, Islam became more militant and assertive and this has changed British society radically. "In Britain we have seen Muslims burn Salman Rushdie's book. And to an extent other religions wanted to get a bit of the action - hence the protests against Jerry Springer: the Opera." When Stewart Lee, one of the writers of Jerry Springer, was interviewed amid protests against the allegedly blasphemous work being screened on TV, he suggested that Islamic culture had been more careful in protecting itself than Christian culture: "In the west, Christianity relinquished the right to be protective of its icons the day Virgin Mary snow globes were put up for sale at the Vatican. But in Islamic culture it is very different. To use a corporate image, Islam has always been a lot more conscientious about protecting its brand." Now other religions are becoming more publicly conscientious.

One example of this growing conscientiousness is a recent paper for the new public theology think-tank Theos, in which Nick Spencer concluded that in the 21st century, liberal humanism would face a challenge from an "old man" - God. "The feeble and slightly embarrassing old man who had been pacing about the house quietly mumbling to himself suddenly wanted to participate in family conversation and, what's more, to be taken seriously." Indeed, in Britain's ethically repellent consumerist society, even some atheists might consider it would be good to hear from the old man again, if only to provide a moral framework beyond shopping.

The refrain of Christians like Spencer is that unless religion is a part of public-policy debates, then society will be impoverished. Last November the Archbishop of Canterbury gave a lecture in which he distinguished between programmatic and procedural secularism. The former meant that in the public domain, everybody had to silence their fundamental convictions and debate in a value-free atmosphere of public neutrality. For Williams, this was a hopeless way of carrying on public discourse in a bewildering society that embraced not only many faiths but many anti-faith positions, and in which real disputes over very different values needed to take place. Better was procedural secularism, which promised that different groups could at least converse with each other in public discussions over sensitive questions of value and policy. This would involve, said Williams, "a crowded and argumentative public square that acknowledges the authority of a legal mediator or broker whose job it is to balance and manage real difference".

It is an idea similar to one set out by Yahya Birt, research fellow at The Islamic Foundation. "One form of secularism suggests that religion should be kept in the private sphere. That's Dawkins' position. Another form, expressed by philosophers suc has Isaiah Berlin and John Gray, is to do with establishing a modus vivendi. It accepts that you come to the public debate with baggage that will inform your arguments. In this, the government tries to find common ground and the best possible consensus, which can only work if we share enough to behave civilly. Of course, there will be real clashes over issues such as gay adoption, but it's not clear to me that that's a problem per se."

What should such a public square be like? It might not be Menckian, but it could be based on respectful understanding of others' most cherished beliefs, argues Spencer: "We should be more willing to treat other value systems as coherent, reasonable and even valuable rather than as primitive or grotesque mutations of liberal humanism to which every sane person adheres." It is, at least, a hope, albeit one, given our current climate, in which it would be foolish to place too much faith.

The problem, of course, is that no one actually believes in such modus vivendi liberalism. A person of the Left can explain to her own satisfaction why she must have the right to kill a baby and you should have no say in it, but not why she should in turn have a say in whether you kill her because you're a misogynist or because she's a Jew and you're an anti-Semite or because she's black and you're a racist, etc., etc., etc.....

Brother and sister fight for right to continue their incestuous affair (Tony Paterson, 26 February 2007, Independent)

"We want the law which makes incest a crime to be abolished," said Mr Stübing - who faces the prospect of another jail term for continuing his relationship with his sister. "We do not feel guilty about what has happened between us," both added in a joint statement.

The couple's case has sparked wide controversy. Many of Germany's European neighbours, such as Belgium, Holland, and France, do not treat incest as a criminal offence.

Several German doctors have implied that the ruling is necessary to prevent illnesses caused by inbreeding. However, a growing number of politicians and legal experts have called for the law - which formed part of the "racial hygiene" policies of the Nazi era - to be scrapped.

"We are dealing with a piece of legislation which dates back to the last century and which no longer makes any sense," said Jerzy Montag, a spokesman for Germany's Green party.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 25, 2007 8:24 PM

Christians did that to themselves - they allowed religion to move to the private sphere.

John 18:36 "My kingdom is not of this world."

Posted by: Mike Morley at February 26, 2007 6:43 AM

Private, public. In what sphere does religion belong? The woman obviously prefers that her metaphysical conclusions should have no competition.

'Liberal humanism' offers little other than begging the question, "Why not?", as it slips into a materialistic utilitarianism.

Posted by: at February 26, 2007 11:00 AM

John 17:14-15 (often summarized as 'in the world but not of the world') implies that Christianity is not limitable to the private sphere:
'I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.'

Posted by: Vic Havens at February 26, 2007 11:07 AM

True enough, Vic, but the Church is not supposed to focus on earthly power. (Remember the parable of the rich fool?) Best thing that ever happened to the Church was the loss of the Papal States.

Posted by: Mike Morley at February 26, 2007 5:39 PM