Posts Tagged ‘New Statesman’

Reading the ‘New Statesman’ God issue #1

Monday, April 12th, 2010
This week’s New Statesman (5-18 April)  is their annual “God” issue.

Here’s how they introduce the issue:

This magazine has been resolutely secular since its first issue in 1913. Yet our annual “God” issue often proves to be our most popular. Proof, perhaps, that as Harold Wilson recognised, social democracy in Britain always owed more to Methodism than it did to Marx.

Methodism – nonconformism generally – was an important element in the labour movement (and the Labour Party), that much is true.   But the NS is here setting up a false dichotomy: you could be religious but still influenced by Marx.   Furthermore, not all secularists were Marxists either.

The NS also seems to assume that the increase in sales for the “God” issue is down to lots of Methodist social democrats suddenly deciding to buy the magazine.  That is not a safe assumption.   Sales might be going to people who are not social democrats, but are religious.  Or indeed to atheists who are neither social democrats nor Methodists but who are interested in reading about religion.

Whether the nonconformist influence on the labour movement was in the interests of the movement is another matter entirely.

For us, secularism has always meant a secular state, not a secular society.  A belief in a state that does not act on the basis of religious considerations is perfectly compatible with a recognition that faith has an important role to play in the public sphere.

This is also a rather confused comment.   To the writer, “secular state” appears to mean church/state separation, or disestablishment.  And “secular society” appears to mean religious unimportance “in the public sphere” – whatever that is.   That sounds a bit like the secularisation thesis, which states that religion has become much less significant in people’s lives.

But that’s a sociological point, and you might advocate that religion become less significant, without believing that it actually has. Indeed, you might want religion to become less powerful, precisely because you think it is too powerful.

Therefore, an advocate of a secular society (if we take that to be a society where religion is not important, as opposed to a society where religion has disappeared – another useful distinction) might also recognise that religion plays an “important role”.  But that is something they would oppose, rather than welcome – as the NS seems to.

However, acknowledging that doesn’t mean we are indifferent to the depredations of organised religion – far from it, as is shown by John Cornwell’s report (see page 22) on the crisis engulfing the Roman Catholic Church.

The crisis in the Catholic Church is precisely an example of its “important role” in the public sphere.  No doubt that wasn’t what the NS had in mind, though.

Religious observance in Britain is, with a few exceptions, in steep decline, but interest in science, metaphysics and epistemology has perhaps never been stronger. David Lewis-Williams (see page 53) is right when he says that the human appetite for belief is hard-wired. We hope this issue goes some way to sating your hunger.

That happens not to be what David Lewis-Williams says, but if he had said it, it would be implausible.   All human beings require food,and feel hungry if they don’t get it.  But many human beings live perfectly well without religious belief, and do not miss it.   What might be “hard-wired” are certain ways of behaving or interpreting the world around us, that lead people to make cognitive mistakes which we call religion.  Particular religious beliefs are unlikely to be hard-wired, such as – for example – that priests should be unmarried.

Posted by: Dan @ Incredulity Services