28 October

What Good is Religion in Public Life?

‘We don’t do God’ said Alastair Campbell. In an increasingly secularised world the idea that religion might play any constructive role in public life is ever more considered a relic of the past. Religious institutions are considered at best well-meaning repositories of old thoughts in beautiful buildings the like of which we shall simply not be able to afford in the foreseeable future, and at worst a source of oppression and pharisaism. The very stuff of faith and practice is widely regarded as profoundly private: while it may help believers understand each other, it is seen as deeply problematic under academic scrutiny, and downright dangerous by the committees, boards and bureaucracies of big business and the State. Indeed, since it has fallen to radical Islamists to bring religion back into the public sphere via terrorism, the resolve of secularists to rid our shores of religious extremism has only been strengthened.

In Britain the profiles of organisations like the National Secular Society (NSS) have been sharpened of late, fuelled by new interest in Atheism and the desire of many to focus our public sphere on the stuff of the real world, rather than the fanciful notions of saints or of esoteric philosophies and superstitions. The rationale of such developments seems simple enough: Religion, like conscience, is, and ought to remain, intensely private. It is hard to communicate what religious experience or the value of prayer might be from the perspective of the public interest. Religion is fine for consenting adults in their homes if that is what they are into, but the NSS maintains it has no legitimate place in public life.

There is even anxiety that if religion were to become part of public and institutional life it might acquire something like the force of law, such persons questioning State orthodoxy may find themselves suspect even when their queries originate in a sincerely held and conscientious desire to support the common good. Rather than court conflict, secularists maintain, it is far simpler for big business and the State to dispense with religion altogether. Bishops in the House of Lords should be required to vacate their seats; the Queen should cease to be Supreme Governor of the Church of England (which should be disestablished); prayers should be omitted from local authority meetings; government should have nothing to do with ‘faith schools’; crosses on police helmets and mail vans should be removed; and the words ‘by the grace of God’ should be excised from the BBC’s charter.

This is no small programme of action, and while the solution might appear delightfully simple there is good reason to believe it would not serve the common good effectively. Conscience, like religion or aesthetic taste, involves an intensely private experience – one difficult to articulate to anyone who does not share it. While obvious to a great many people, it can be very difficult to communicate exactly why slavery is wrong without invoking concepts with a distinctly ‘religious’ flavour. Arguments about the beginning and end of life are difficult to frame without reference to something like ‘sanctity’ or essential goodness. In a similar vein, contemporary notions of liberty are cast in terms of what does not infringe the liberty of others, but this account of the moral life breaks down when many seem happy to act in a manner that manifestly runs contrary to the common good (as, for example, when the Japanese lose interest in reproducing). Moreover, when the State or big business find themselves involved in issues with a distinctly moral character, it is clear that what begins in the realm of conscience has real consequences in public life.

Increasingly there is a disconnection between politicians and the population at large whenever the former are required to comment on moral issues that call for subtlety.  Government is interested in votes, business in money. Conscience and morality usually matter in public life only insofar as they affect one or other of these interests, rarely for their own sakes. It is this that eviscerates moral pronouncements by politicians and businessmen whose stated interests lie outside realms of good and evil. Such people must navigate seemingly irreconcilable conflicts between the interests and the moral experiences of voters and shareholders.

It is tempting to assert that over the last few generations we have willingly given ground in the field of conscience with a view to securing greater profits for big corporations. But the disconnections are indisputable and the actions of State and business chiefs increasingly detached from essential and important human values. How could the overblown State maintain any serious interest in the inner life of individuals or even collections thereof, and use it to inform public policy? The language of conscience, like that of religion is seemingly alien to large corporations whose interests lie in the market, demographics and customers. What should they care for private consciences?

To make an impact at corporate level or at that of government, conscience needs expression in an institution. It is vital that there be an unbroken ‘line’ from the inner life of the most humble person to the most senior of committee meetings. The very institutions – the churches – that have provided such a line are now viewed as relics of a bygone era. The voices of religious institutions, however ‘established’, are more than ever needed in our public life.

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