Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Reinventing the State Chapter 6: Liberalism and the search for meaning

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice
David Boyle's chapter is a fierce attack on secularism. Why this is appropriate for a book about social liberalism is clear to him, if not to me.

The first big problem here is that the word secularism has two pertinent meanings:

1. Not being religious, an absence of religion
2. The idea that the state should be neutral with respect to religious questions - that the state should not discriminate in any way against believers or non-believers, and therefore that freedom of religion is guaranteed.

Many liberals will be atheist or otherwise irreligious, as I am, and will largely disagree with Boyle's rhetoric. All liberals should support the second kind of secularism. It is no business of the state to tell us what we ought to believe, and it has no special access to any kind of religious truth. (The National Secular Society is an organisation of secularists-1, campaigning for secularism-2.)

Boyle ignores this distinction and launches into a defence of religion and attack on (undifferentiated) secularism. This is dangerous. Yes, people should advocate their beliefs, including political beliefs that are religiously inspired, but there are good reasons to avoid the advocacy of religious beliefs (or atheism) in a political context. This is because it is a threat to secularism-2. Politics carries the implicit threat of coercion, of the idea that what you or I are advocating is good for everyone, and should be adopted collectively.

We are a long way from this ideal in reality. Schools are required by the state to promote religion and oppose atheism. Of course many people believe this is a good idea, but it is blatant and deliberate discrimination all the same.
On both sides of the Atlantic there is the rumbling sound of the secular left girding themselves to hold back the tide of resurgent religion ... and blinding themselves to the inhumanity of secular corporatism.
Can we please hold back the tide of false dichotomies? But note the use of the swear word corporatism to insult secularism, much in the same way that racist epithets are constructed. If I quoted all the examples of this sort of thing, I would probably exceed fair use.

I am happy to applaud, as Boyle does, the enormous contribution of the Nonconformist tradition to liberalism. Nonconformists - and Catholics - were on the front line in the battle for religious tolerance - for secularism - alongside, in a sense, Charles Bradlaugh, a radical liberal MP who was not permitted to take his seat in Parliament on the grounds of his atheism.

In spite of the shameful past and vestigial present of state-enforced religious discrimination and privilege, of which these nonconformists were victims, Boyle is seeking a greater role for religion in politics. Why? What does he think it has to offer?

  • The sense that there is something beyond the bottom line
  • The sense that people have something unique to offer in their ordinary lives
  • The sense that the people and communities make things possible
Long explanations of each of these is given, but are they necessary? The idea that there is only the bottom line is a straw man. That people have something to offer is obvious. That people and communities make things possible is almost meaningless in its obviousness. Yet this is how "[Liberalism] needs to accept the religious aspects of its own intellectual heritage." Well consider it accepted.

Boyle discusses at length how these finer values of religious social liberalism contrast with materialist fabianism or conservatism. Yet the the leaderships of both other parties are also predominantly religious. The difference between us and them is not that they are not religious, but that they are not liberal.


...such is the emerging animus towards religion ... that any statements about belief that are not utilitarian, including what we believe about right and wrong, are being similarly sidelined
This is a very odd statement. Utilitarianism is an ethical system (a form of consequentialism), that it is to say it is precisely an analysis of what is right and what is wrong. I consider it quite a problematic ethical system but rather less problematic than ethical systems based on deontology.

However deontologists frequently equate consequentialism with an indifference to ethics. And this is Boyle's theme too: Consequentialists have no ethics, atheists have no values, secularism has no meaning. Dude, I don't go to your church, and you won't get me there by insulting me.

By endorsing this popular religious prejudice against the non-religious, Boyle risks losing half of our tradition and many of our allies. I paraphrase:

If we assume ... that Liberals are now emphatically on the side of secularism ... we risk losing half of our tradition and many of our allies.
If we're not to lose one half or the other, perhaps some sort of neutrality is in order? Keep religion out of politics and discrimination out of the state.


There are some suggestions on policy, and I will look briefly at schooling.

I am not one of those Liberals who believe that faith schools are somehow incompatible with Liberalism[!] Of course, children should not be educated in isolation from people different from them, but federated groups of schools - so that Muslim, Anglican and secular schools would be encouraged to share resources or specialist staff - would solve that problem without abolishing the whole idea of a spiritual basis to education.

Where do I begin?
  1. I'm glad to hear the suggestion that there should be some secular schools. Currently all schools are required to be Christian - and promote Christianity - if they are not explicitly some other faith.
  2. This would solve the problem of sectarian division, are you kidding? This is absolute stark staring bonkers. A trip once a month to the curious school with the brown children is not going to result in understanding, friendships and other social ties. What on earth is wrong with different children being in the same school?
  3. The implication here is that the "spiritual basis" to education does not work without sectarian division. Is this really true? Does God not visit any institution with too great a diversity of forms of worship? This is Boyle's implication, but I would have thought that his God would be a little more liberal than this.

Is the alternative banning religious practice from schools altogether? While I don't personally think this would do any harm, I am willing to look for ways to accommodate people with different views.

What I would suggest is that state-funded schools should simply be required to cater for all the faiths (and non-faith philosophies) of all the children who happen to attend. If there are very few children of some particular faith, this may not justify dedicated teacher supervision, but pupils could perhaps run activities themselves, or read together, if their faith body did not wish to provide supervision.

Obviously there are issues to be considered regarding what rights a child has if they are in disagreement with their parents. I am open to arguments here, but I would have thought that a gradual accumulation of children's rights up to the age of 16 would be reasonable.

I do consider the right to change one's religious affiliation, for teachers, parents and children, to be an absolute human right. My suggestion uniquely guarantees this. I consider sectarian division to be a serious threat, which will only be addressed by genuine ties, proper friendships, not token orchestrated comingling. Boyle's support - and that of Labour and the Tories - for continued and increased segregation is reckless. And my proposal does nothing to restrict - it actually enhances - people's access to the faith education they want.

Doubtless I will be told that I have missed the point somehow. That the point is segregation, or governance, or keeping the heathen riff-raff out, or anything else but faith. I dare say those things are the point of the faith school system, but I have ripped off its fig leaf with this alternative.


Is this search for meaning supposed to distinguish social liberals from the Orange Bookers? Perhaps. But, frankly, a search for meaning expressed in entirely religious terms needlessly excludes many potential supporters of the touchy feely stuff. And many economic liberals are religious. So for me this chapter just goes off on a tangent.

Update: At Pickled Politics, Sunny, and Terry of the NSS lock horns in the comments.


Davidboyle said...

I'm flattered to be given so much undeserved attention - I think you may be the only one who read my chapter - and I can agree with a lot of what you say. But aren;t you doing the same thing you;re accusing me of? Aren't you assuming that religion/spirituality = discrimination? What I'm arguing for is the right to be more spiritual than a technocratic state surrently allows.


Joe Otten said...

David, you are the first author to comment. You win a prize of some sort. Remind me if you see me.

I don't see the state doing anything at all to prevent people being spiritual. I see a big mythos in faith circles about the big bad world outside - is this identified with what you are calling the technocratic state perhaps?

Or perhaps it is a consequence of an expectation that values come from authority to see a state failing in its duty to spread values. I don't expect the state to be a source of values, rather people are the source of values and the state should do what it is told by us.

If people are not spiritual enough, that is not a failure of the state, but a failure of the churches.

Does religion = discrimination? No, not until the state gets involved. As it is we give clerics gatekeeper status to tax-funded schools. This is discrimination, and it is an outrage.

Anonymous said...

Joe - in your imagining of a secular authority free from the polemics and doctrines of religion (as you would no doubt see it) were does the moral guide for law making come from?

I see secular morals as largely being based on aggressive capitalism and never ending forms of consumerism. I think too often religious moral choices and identities are replaced by economic a consumer identities. This is all very well if you are comfortable and middle class but were does this leave people on the economic margins?

Is there really such a thing as a 'secular liberal'? I'm not religious myself but I worry that the secular liberal is just another form of profiteering conservative, or the bear in sheep's clothing.

When you say;

'I don't expect the state to be a source of values, rather people are the source of values and the state should do what it is told by us.'

I think this is typical postmodern individualist thinking. There is nothing an advanced capitalist culture loves more than the idea of the individual (as defined by consumption)

In response to the state doing what it is told by us ... if there was a referendum in this country now the death penalty would almost certainly be brought back. Such blatant individualism can only be of 'value' to big business.

Joe Otten said...


You summarise well the point I guess this chapter was making.

But I don't see why you have this association between secularism and conservatism. The Conservatives are the least secular of the lot. The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate.

The moral guide followed by each voter and legislator is his or her own - whether it is religious or not. This is not postmodern (how dare you!) It is simply democratic.

You see secular morals as largely based on aggressive capitalism? Then I suggest you do some reading. Of course during the cold war, secular morals were all based on communism. This is just a polemical association of non-believers with the latest bogeyman.

Who is replacing religious identities with other identities? Society? No. Individuals are freely rejecting their religious identities, for whatever reason. Perhaps they have realised that their religion is not true.

Does this mean people are becoming "consumers" instead. Not really, consumer identity, such as it exists, is additional to other identities including religious identity. What troubles me is how keen you are to define people.

You say you're not religious yourself - do you consider yourself therefore to be a mere consumer, to be shallow and morally bankrupt? I would guess not - so why do you pass this judgement on others? (How dare you again.)

And are you seriously suggesting Christianity would save us from the death penalty? America? Europe? Hello!?

Anonymous said...

I agree that the marrying of church and state nearly always leads to oppresions of certain views. We can see this in the corrupt clergy and penalising laws of british society in the late 18th century (which i am studying) right through to George W on abortion and stem cell research. I just worry what would be the binding philosophies in a secular society, what would give peolple a shared sense of community and identity?

You would say that we could create our own communities but i think this is happening less and less, society is fractured. Society is shallow and morally bankrupt and as i actively partake in society i would include myself in that defintely.

Apart from this i think that alot of atheism is presented as an aggressive masculine discourse ('The God Delusion') this is like a feminist calling a book 'The Masculine Delusion'.

In my life i see secularism being used as a tool to marginalize feminine/spiritual values and qualities as being 'un rational'. Secularism seems to seize the realm of the rational, and in this way it is a polemic discourse because what can you use to argue against what has already been deemed 'the rational'. This is reductive.

I think there is a subtle thread of misogyny running through the arguments about secularism.


Joe Otten said...

Cathy, I would say that British shared values are not exclusively or even largely religious values.

In fact they are liberal values: liberty, tolerance and fairness.

I do think the corruptness of society is over-hyped by people with a solution to sell. Yes, there are problems, as there have always been. Read Dickens. Yes there is a downward trend in religion, but an upward trend in respect for difference - of race, religion, sexuality or lifestyle.

I am sorry you feel marginalised by this discourse. I worry that the religious still largely control the terms of the debate, and use that to paint a very shallow picture of the non-religious: as devoid of feeling or value. If the choice were truly between having feelings and values or not, I would choose to have them.

I don't know if you have rad Iain M Banks' Consider Phlebas. The Idirans thought the Culture to be devoid of values. How wrong they were.

Guy Otten said...

I think anonymous has a point here, but I actually never consider the 'ethics' of aggressive capitalism as morality at all.

The problem is that in dismantling the distortions and illogicality of some religious moral laws, in the interests of freedom, secular liberalism has failed to assert itself adequately to address all the issues that require regulation.