Secularism and religious “influence”

Tony Bayfield, former chaplain to the Lord Mayor of London, writes in today’s Guardian/Comment is Free that,

I understand the necessity of separating state and religion. Both state power and religious power are huge and, in the same hands, far too much. Religious parties working for sectional interests are a disaster – for the state, and for religion.

So far so good.

But I simply don’t understand the notion that politics is one thing and religion is another and religion should have no influence or say in the political arena.

It’s surprising to hear that Tony doesn’t understand the notion, since it seems a fairly straightforward – if ambiguous – concept. Presumably he just means he doesn’t agree with it.

It’s worth noting that this “notion” goes beyond what secularists generally demand. If you look, for example, at the National Secular Society’s Secular Charter, which concerns what the NSS would want to see in a written constitution, the closest you get is point 9: “Political leaders should not express religious preferences in the course of their duties.”

Anyway, why doesn’t Bayfield agree with such a principle? Because religious texts can inspire a political commitment to justice:

The prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Bible is one of humanity’s gems. Few statements are more powerful than Amos’s demand for justice to roll down like water and righteousness as an unending torrent. The constant calls to love the poor, the needy, the widow, the orphan and the immigrant are formative. Isaiah’s insistence that, in the last analysis, religion is not about cult and fasting but about dealing one’s bread to the hungry and letting the oppressed go free is what turned me on first to politics but then to religion as the source of my values.

There is plenty in the Bible that can be used to support injustice and oppression, but there is no harm in recognising that some people can find humanitarian inspiration there as well. I’ll come back to this point later.

I said that the notion Bayfield was opposing himself to was ambiguous.

The first ambiguity lies in the use of the word “religion”: is he talking about religious organisations (leaving sectarian political parties aside) or religious beliefs?

The second ambiguity lies in the phrase “influence or say”: is he talking about the influence of religious beliefs on individuals, or the exercise of influence by churches or religious organisations? And who or what does he envisage having a “say” – a say in what? Is this a formal consultation arrangement, or the encouragement of political participation by religionists?

A third ambiguity is the meaning of “political arena”: does that just mean “wherever political discussion happens”, or does it refer to elections, or parliament, or something else?

Finally, does the notion concern constitutional regulation of religion and politics, or a more ethical concern about the role of religion in politics?

By not making himself clear on these points, Bayfield’s article lacks content.

He says he opposes sectarian religious political parties, but does that mean he would exclude them from elections? Not necessarily. Anti-religious atheists might dislike displays of religiosity in public, and they might argue that religion has tended to be politically reactionary; they might therefore prefer that religion be kept private. But does that mean they would demand that religion be kept constitutionally private? Not necessarily. Secularists might want to protect a secular state without interfering with the freedom of anti-secularists to organise politically.

When it comes down to it, Bayfield seems only to be saying that religion can influence political beliefs, and that religious people should take part in political debate. That’s apparently all.

The question is: does anyone deny either point? If not, Bayfield is just rehearsing platitudes and the “notion” he opposes is a scarecrow.

Well, at least it’s not the New Atheists:

What really gets me is that the call to separate religion and politics is most often heard from those of vaguely liberal religious tendencies. The fundamentalists and evangelicals have absolutely no problem with entering the debate.

Who are these vague liberals? Bayfield doesn’t say.

What’s his problem with the fundamentalists and evangelicals?

all too often, they give religion a bad name by confusing the assertion of personal convictions with reasoned argument, and the democracy of the public square with seeking to impose a view or a veto. Whether it be over abortion, assisted dying, sexual equality or human rights, religious values should be advocated with passion in the public square but not imposed by legislative bullying.

It’s worth reminding ourselves of something that Bayfield said earlier:

The prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Bible is one of humanity’s gems.

The “prophetic tradition” is not notable for its reasoned argument, however. And the paragraphs in his article where Bayfield identifies the sources of his political beliefs are simply “assertion of personal convictions”. If that is wrong, it’s no less wrong when a liberal does it.

On the other hand, perhaps Bayfield simply means that when engaging in political debate, reasoned argument should replace assertions of faith. A secularist dream!

But that would mean keeping religion private, wouldn’t it? You might be inspired to engage in the political arena by your religious beliefs, but in the political arena you have to adopt secular language. Is that what Bayfield meant to say, and if so, is it not inconsistent with also saying “religious values should be advocated with passion in the public square.”?

Maybe not. Perhaps someone could have strong views on abortion, influenced by their religious beliefs: they could still argue for those views without making the argument a religious argument.

The self-denying ordinance of “but not imposed by legislative bullying” is interesting because it’s completely incoherent.

If you have strong anti-abortion views, you would argue for those views passionately in the “public square”. Presumably you would be seeking to win the argument, and have abortion banned or restricted.

Bayfield seems to be suggesting, bizarrely, that even if the anti-abortionists won the argument, there’s some democratic principle which says that they shouldn’t get their way. In a democracy, there may be some things which – for good democratic reasons – a majority shouldn’t be permitted to do. Like abolish democracy, or introduce slavery, or murder the minority. Does legalisation of assisted dying come into that category, for Bayfield?

When Bayfield talks about “imposing a view” as some kind of opposite of democracy, it’s clear to me that he just hasn’t got to grips with nature of liberal democracy, which is – and this ought to be obvious – built on coercive power.

This can perhaps be best made explict by thinking about one of Bayfield’s liberal values, rather than illiberal ones. Imagine Bayfield passionately advocating “compassion for the needy.” in the “public square”. It’s not perhaps a wild stretch of the imagination to assume that such “compassion” might involve some form of progressive taxation. And let’s presume that Bayfield wins by reasoned argument and without resort to the “prophetic tradition” and everyone agrees that the rich should be soaked. Would Bayfield really stop at that point? Would he think it was confusing “the democracy of the public square with seeking to impose a view or a veto” if the Government proceeded to put up taxes for the wealthiest?

No, the problem with (reactionary) fundamentalists and religious supremacists is not that they are confused about the nature of democracy (they are not really democrats, after all). The problem is that they base their reactionary views on what they think their God commanded. Any appeal to “prophetic tradition” is problematic, whether to liberal or anti-liberal ends, because its hard to see how it can be compatible with a free and open society which respects reason above dogma. In appealing to the Bible, Bayfield merely legitimises appeals to the Bible in general. He might be nicer than the fundamentalists, but he isn’t somehow being more reasonable than they are.

And so, finally:

You simply cannot commit to justice, ending oppression and compassion for the needy, and then emasculate religion as private rites for the weekend.

Actually, you can do precisely that. Indeed, if you want to unite the forces of progress (however attenuated the “progress” on offer (does “compassion for the needy” extend to social justice?), you probably have to do precisely that.

Dan @ Incredulity Services

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