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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Anglicans examine their problems

Over in the UK The Telegraph has a story on a new report commissioned by the Church of England. I'm not going to get too excited by this story, as I haven't read the original report, and I'm well aware that newspapers can latch on to whatever they consider most sensational. The report is apparently about the problems the church faces in the immediate future, and amongst it there is some sort of call to respond to the arguments of "New Atheists" such as Richard Dawkins.

I guess that shows they're worried. My immediate response is that of course they're worried about the criticism they're copping, and of course they should respond. I don't expect them to shut up when criticised. Let them defend themselves in public debate - preferably as a routine matter without a lot of fuss about that being what they're doing.

The greater concern here is not that Anglican leaders are concerned about criticisms of the church, and have a natural wish to reply. That's fair enough. But there are plenty of familiar expressions quoted from the report that suggest more worrying aspects of their thinking. Take this para, apparently from the report:

"There is still work to be done to counter the prevailing tendency of treating faith as a private matter which should not impact on what happens in the public realm."

That is misleading. Generally speaking, secularists do not say that faith is a "private" matter in the strict sense that it should not be discussed in public or that religious people should not be able to speak up in public in an effort to convert others. They have freedom of speech, and they should write all the books and make all the public speeches that they want. Let them put their best arguments. The point is that otherworldly considerations should not affect political decisions. Governments should confine themselves to protecting and promoting worldly interests. They should not purport to have knowledge of the truth about otherworldly claims. In that sense, they should be religion-blind.

For their part, religious organisations should voluntarily accept a situation where governments do not claim any otherworldly knowledge. Churches and sects should not claim any expertise in the political sphere, based on their claims to that knowledge. They should not expect governments to be motivated to take certain action because it helps the spiritual salvation of citizens, or because acting in that way is commanded in a holy book, or because it accords with some prophetic utterance, or because it enforces religious canons of conduct. In this sense, church and state should be separate.

The church has worldly interests, obviously, and it has every right to expect the government to protect them. If somebody robs a church, the police should investigate in the same way as if somebody robbed, say, an art gallery. If a cathedral catches fire, the fire brigade should arrive at the scene and try to put out the blaze, just as if a cinema caught fire. Like everyone else, churches should be able to get the ear of the government to protect their worldly interests. And like everyone else, they should pay taxes - with exemptions for charitable work only on the same criteria as apply to everyone else.

While the question of worldly interests gets more complicated (and apropos of our discussion on one of the other threads, there are some complex evaluations here; I'm not talking about some single metric that can be used), the general principle is clear enough. Governments should be looking after secular interests, including those of religious organisations. They should not be deferring to religious organisations' claims of otherwordly authority, including claims of a special moral authority. They should not be in the business of imposing religion on people who don't accept it. The various churches and sects should go along with this.

So, I'm not concerned about the Church of England answering back to criticisms from New Atheist figures like Dawkins and Hitchens. I'm much more concerned when it uses language that suggests it doesn't "get", or does not fully accept, secularism. When a report suggests that the church's views should have some "impact" in the public realm ... that looks awfully like a claim that the government should act on some non-secular basis, deferring to the authority of the church.

I don't, of course, know how far the report goes in that direction. However, I've been immersed, over the past year in particular, in the current literature on separation of church and state, secularism, and related issues. As a result I'm particularly sensitive to the fact that many religious thinkers do not accept the above. They still think that the state should be making decisions partly on the basis that religious beliefs point in a particular direction - rather than relying on whatever information is available about the likely secular harms and benefits from course of action A or course of action B.

In short, much of the language quoted is pretty familiar. It encodes the view, often held by church leaders, that religion is entitled to a special political influence and to special legal privileges. It's about time the Church of England put that view behind it and moved on.


Mike said...

Surely the church must be aware of how nutty its Bishops sound when they make proclamations in the public realm.

In recent years we've had one making inopportune comments about Prince William's future marriage, and the Bishop of Carlisle asserting that the flooding of his city was due to God's vengeance on homosexual behaviour in London (and not because Carlisle is built on a flood plain).

That's just the tip of the iceberg, and yet these gents are privileged by their positions to get seats in the House of Lords!

Anonymous said...

According to Sir Humphrey Appleby ("Yes Prime Minister") in the Church of England belief in God is an optional extra.

Marshall said...

Quite right Russell, and as I've said before some of the gravest damage done by state establishment of religion is to the practice of worship. It puts the focus on defending turf instead of honoring God and loving neighbors. I'm glad you think the fire brigade should turn out for church fires, and yes churches should pay their share like any other organization.

I'm not sure you're interpreting correctly "the prevailing tendency of treating faith as a private matter"... you said "otherworldly considerations should not affect political decisions". In the democratic system, people "get the ear of government" by voting, and they properly vote out of their convictions. Some commenters think people should not vote religious values. That's psychologically unrealistic ... it amounts to the suggestion that religious people should not vote at all. For example in the US abortion debate, conservative Christians oppose the "human" vs. "person" distinction because of religious belief that all human life is from God, sacred. But the question is really one of medical ethics, which in fact is an important public matter. The distinction could be opposed on purely secular, Humanist, grounds. The intense focus on the questions is a bit crazy, but that's the demos and the political process for you. I don't see that people should be disqualified from participating in the debate because their understanding of the value of life is grounded in religion. Sorry if you think they are wrong; such is progress, fits and starts.

The point is that since there are no "objective values" (cf Mackie et all), religious values have prima facie the same status as any other kind: the right to be considered, no right to demand uncritical acceptance.

(...CofE is not the same as ie where I go, since it is an established religion. Them Anglicans are not-like-me anyway, trying to be all things to all people. We're more Calvinist over here.)

StateReligionVIC said...

I'm grateful that someone of your horsepower blogs on this ... the courts in Australia have read down the meaning of S116, and there has been a steady slide with falling #'s of church goers, the church needs increasing levels of tax revenue to keep up. Australia seems to do this by outsourcing some important social functions to the church.

Thank you for your thoughts on this topic.

Jeremiah said...

Well, I will probably get some disagreement on this but I think part of the reason that religions have such a tough time giving up the governmental endorsement/power is because when we make a claim that church and state should be separate we obviously have to provide a reason why that is so. Of course the most common, implicitly accepted reason (I think) is because people recognize that one person might have religious beliefs of kind X and another of kind Y and that we have no good reason to favor one over the other (or either as the case may be). This implicit acceptance that religions are ultimately baseless undercut the very foundations of belief. I mean, how could you endorse your particular religion if you implicitly accept that it doesn't matter and/or impossible to tell if it is true or not?

Marshall, I get the vibe that you are a theist in support of church/state separation so I am sure you might have a comment on this but I have a hard time seeing how if a person thinks that their religious beliefs are true in the same sense that we consider an axiom like "don't steal from your neighbor" is true (however you may arrive at that decision) that you wouldn't think that it should be codified at the same level of law.