Secularism and Christianity: A Round-up of the Week

Few weeks pass by with such an intense succession of stories about the relationship between Christianity and the state, and about the (a)political role of Christian values and practice.  Perhaps there is something to be said for new stories in quick succession; this week has not felt like the classic outworking of a set piece confrontation.  While the first story of the week, concerning prayer at Bideford council, showed all the promise of a standard set-piece conflict between secularism and the praying Christians, this story was quickly overtaken and cast in a changing light by subsequent events.  Here is a round-up of events this week, with some of the most thoughtful or agenda-shaping articles penned in their wake.

Bideford Council

Mr Justice Ouseley ruled that Bideford town council acted unlawfully by allowing prayers to be said at formal meetings.  Eric Pickles was among those quick to criticise the move, and the point was made by several commentators including Jonathan Chaplin that the ruling was in fact a setback for secularism rather than a success.  As Elizabeth Hunter of Theos suggests, the judgement perhaps showed more confusion about the nature of secularism than an enforcement of it.

Baroness Warsi and Militant Secularism

As Baroness Warsi embarked on a ministerial visit to the Vatican, she wrote robustly in The Telegraph that “a militant secularisation is taking hold of our societies”.  It was perceived as a counterblast to the  programmatic secularism which many believe to be gaining ground in British politics, legal opinion, and wider society.  George Pitcher was enthusiastic, although that was the high watermark of support for Warsi’s intervention.  As Andrew Brown argued several days later, it is often ‘militant secularists’ who themselves do not understand secularism and, in so doing, make themselves an ideal polemical target for people like Baroness Warsi.

Richard Dawkins and Giles Fraser

Richard Dawkins was invited onto the Today programme on Radio 4 to discuss findings by his Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, which used polling data to claim that Christians opposed any special role for religion in public policy.  His testy exchange with Giles Fraser was a defining moment of the week, when Dawkins was unable to remember the full name of the Origin of Species.  Fraser’s point was eloquently made by Dawkins himself, albeit inadvertently by stumbling over his memory, that being unable to remember which book of the New Testament was first did render your Christianity false, any more than being unable to remember the full title of Darwin’s book meant you couldn’t believe in evolution.  More telling perhaps was Dawkins view that opinion polls offered a window into the souls of men; perhaps that comment alone is reason to be cautious of his prescriptions for public policy.  Nick Spencer offered an insightful response, citing his own research into ‘nominal’ Christianity.  Linda Woodhead’s contribution is also worth reading, as she gives her views on why Richard Dawkins has uncovered a very British form of Christianity.

Giles Fraser later offered a characteristically nuanced reflection on both Dawkins and Warsi, reminding them and others of what the settlement following the Civil War was meant to achieve. There are good historical reasons why the state shouldn’t try and look too closely through windows into souls.

Trevor Phillips

Speaking at the first Westminster Faith Debate, the controversial head of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, Trevor Phillips, grabbed headlines by likening Christians seeking religious accommodation from equalities legislation to Muslims seeking the incorporation of sharia law into the British legal system.  This debate actually took place on 8th February, but a debate over it has rumbled on over the ensuring days.  You can watch the video here.  As The Week has suggested, imputing an entire argument to Phillips on the basis of a point made ‘off the cuff’ during the debate is perhaps unfair.  Nevertheless, Archbishop Cranmer offered a typically robust rebuttal arguing that the liberal secularism of Philips is itself deeply intolerant.

In conclusion

Of course, it doesn’t do public discourse any favours to collapse secularism and atheism, and assume that the former is necessarily antithetical to Christian values and belief.  Indeed, few Christians support anything approaching a theocratic state.  Yet what we might mean by ‘Christian secularism’ is often misunderstood, and poorly articulated, by both those who might support it and those who would oppose it.  Now more than ever Christians need to understand their political and social context, and acquire theological resources for making sense of both the current terrain and future trajectory of church and state relations.

Those interested would do well to start with the excellent God and Government book, as well as Theos pamphlets by Jonathan Chaplin and Nick Spencer.  If Christians are more confident about what they are calling for, then they might be less defensive when aggressive secularists wield straw man arguments, or when shrill Christians cry persecution.

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