by Brenda Watson
from Signs of the Times No. 72 - Jan 2019

In these articles I am exposing serious flaws pervasive in thinking today.

The first flaw concerns the prioritising of historically-driven subsidiary values, such as freedom of speech, over the truly foundational values of concern for truth, fairness and compassion. The second flaw is the incipient scientism which creates a fact/opinion divide discouraging serious rational debate of what cannot claim scientific/empirical evidence. Religion is clearly on the wrong side of such a divide. Belief in God lacks presumed objective proof, and so relies on subjective faith, effectively making religion just a private matter. Thus, the third flaw consists of trying to exclude religion from public debate and decision-making.

The West has bought in to the notion of the secular state. Originally this may have been for religious reasons, to enable people of different religious persuasions to live amicably together instead of fighting each other. This immediately suggests a good reason for keeping religion out of the public square. Religion is far from pure, as all readers of Modern Church know only too well.

This is not, however, how most people today would argue for a secular state. This has to do more with the prominence accorded to reason by the Enlightenment and the anti-religious intentions of those committed to the Radical Enlightenment which carried the day. They saw religion in any form as an enemy of the freedom of the individual. The spectacular rise of awe-inspiring scientific achievements exacerbated the presumed division between reason and religion.

To hide religious belief from the public square is unavoidably to prioritize atheism because in its negative form atheism simply never mentions God. This effect has been substantially enhanced by the strong challenging of belief in God by leading intellectuals for over two centuries, with huge effect in universities and schools. Firm advocacy of the secular state has therefore created what amounts to a form of intellectual apartheid between the realm of reason practised in academe and that of religion, presumed by so many to be irrational.

A refreshed Enlightenment dream must establish a proper rapport between religion and secularism, by pointing out the falsity of such a feud between faith and reason. Religious thought throughout the centuries has been hugely focussed on reasons for faith. It is equally false to presume that any world-view - humanism, materialism, atheism, or whatever - is not at root a faith. Assumptions which are not beyond challenge belong to all.

This point should be obvious, but secularists try to pretend that the secular state is a neutral one. Rawls argued that the state must take no stand on what he termed ‘comprehensive conceptions of the good’. Yet beliefs and values unavoidably govern behaviour and decision-making. The public/private separation does not hold in reality, for character and approach to life cannot be donned or discarded like a coat. Moreover, the practical atheism which masks understanding of religion produces sheer ignorance. To give just one random example, the influential paper The Week claims to give ‘All you need to know about everything that matters’ yet, with sections on almost every conceivable interest, it has nothing on religion. 

We need to add how education has been thoroughly secularised. The doyen of educational theory, John Dewey, in his book Democracy and Education, written a hundred years ago, never even mentioned religion. He discussed education in ancient Greece, revolutionary France and the highly-influential early Prussian state, but ignored completely the Judaeo-Christian origins of the schools and universities of the West. He simply assumed that neither democracy nor education had anything to do with religion. Even where, as in Britain, religious education has retained a toe-hold in the curriculum, this has largely been at the expense of viewing religion only from an outsider’s perspective, i.e. treating it as part of sociology. 

There are many other grounds for challenging the concept of the secular state. Claims of inclusiveness and equality, for example, apply to religious people just as much as non-religious people. It is irrational to treat religious commitment as somehow different from other commitments, and uniquely dangerous to democracy. In fact, sincere religious people had much to do with the rise of democracy, and its most basic insight - the unique importance of every person - was nurtured over centuries by the teaching of the love of God for every human-being as a unique person.

Moreover, every civilization apart from the West today has had the advantages of religion as a focal-point justifying its existence which can appeal to everyone emotionally as well as cognitively. People need rallying-points, opportunities for public celebration and identity. The recent recalling of the Armistice of WWI is an obvious example of the need for public expression of grief and renewed commitment to peace and justice. 

On such occasions, to ban mention of God is hugely reductionist for many people. It is indeed wrong to assume that all believe in God, but it is equally wrong to assume that none do and that their devotion is a purely private matter. Rather, we need to learn a sophisticated means of expressing in public both religious and non-religious forms of faith. We need to utilise phrases such as

‘For those of us who believe in God, let us offer these prayers’ and ‘For those of us who believe, rather, in human nature and progress, let us pledge ourselves to…’.

In this way all can celebrate together with integrity. 

What is needed, I hasten to add, is certainly not trying to put religion back in the driving-seat but abandoning all the squabbling and confrontation of the past to acknowledge the role of religion alongside alternative beliefs, including atheism. Democracy is at its strongest when it makes possible real debate, and that debate should include the insight which religious people can offer from within their experience. 

A helpful way forward could be through articulating the importance of a sense of transcendence, whether understood in theistic terms or not. This should be acceptable to almost everyone in our society. As a keen musician, for example, I have many non-religious friends who are awe-struck when performing or listening to great music. There are many similar points of contact which can find resonance with many people, religious or not. 

I believe that, until these three flaws in thinking are dealt with, the West will go on lurching from one crisis to another. May I conclude these articles therefore with a question?

What can Modern Church do to help supply the intellectual leadership necessary to counter these flaws to which the West is so prone?