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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Sunday, February 19, 2012

UK Christians support secularism

There was a lot of discussion on the internet last week about secularism, some of it related to the release in the UK of data from a survey undertaken by Ispos MORI on behalf of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (UK). Paula Kirby writes at richarddawkins.net:
It shows that most UK Christians have very little in common with the Christian lobbyists claiming to speak on their behalf. The constant calls from Christian lobby groups to deny full rights to gays, to grant Christians exemption from certain laws, to outlaw abortion, to maintain privileged access to political influence and generally to put Christianity at the heart of UK public life simply do not reflect the views and wishes of the majority of UK Christians.

On the contrary, our findings show that the majority of UK Christians share the secular, liberal, humane values that are the hallmark of a modern, decent society.

This won't come as a surprise to most Christians reading these results, I suspect, nor to those of us who count liberal Christians among our friends, families and colleagues.

But it may come as a shock to certain politicians who seem to have bought into the idea that there are votes to be gained in 'doing God'. These results show quite categorically that there are not.
As you work through the questions and see the positions taken by most self-identified Christians in the UK, it becomes overwhelmingly apparent that most are favourable, at least to some extent, to secularism - to a separation between religious beliefs and political decisions. It is not entirely clear how far they would take this, but it is interesting that most rejected moral conservative views about sexuality, and in particular that most favoured equal legal rights for homosexuals.
Six in ten respondents (61%) agree that homosexuals should have the same legal rights in all aspects of their lives as heterosexuals, and those who disapprove of sexual relations between two adults of the same sex (29%) are greatly outnumbered by those who do not (46%).

Less than a quarter (23%) believe that sex between a man and a woman is only acceptable within marriage.
At least in the UK, most self-professed Christians would be willing to along with the general view that religion and state power should be separated, and they do not just mean that the state cannot interfere with such things as church doctrines and rituals. It seems that most would, for example, be unwilling to support the political imposition of traditional Christian moral beliefs.

It's noteworthy that many of these Christians actually know little about their religion - e.g. few could pick out the Gospel of Matthew as the first book of the New Testament, even from a list of possibilities. That's about as ignorant as it comes. Perhaps those Christians who are more immersed in their religion and its traditions and teachings would be less secular in their social and political attitudes.

Still, it seems that in the UK, at least, the general approach that I advocate in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State would be viewed sympathetically by the majority of (self-professed) Christians.

As I've been saying, the book is not anti-religious, though I've had anti-religious things to say elsewhere - I think its arguments could appeal to many people who consider themselves religious, and they are not based on any atheistic or naturalistic premises. The analysis of the function of the state, which lies at the core of the book, is one that could be agreed to from many theological perspectives (though, of course, not all), and, as I've been pointing out around the traps, similar analyses were produced in early modern times by people who were not atheists (whether they would have been prepared to take their analyses to their logical conclusions is another matter, though, as I point out in the book).

Freedom of Religion and the Secular State presents a fairly rigorous (though accessible) development of the arguments - something that I think we need to inform debates about sexularism. However, it does not present a view that is necessarily anathema to religious people. At least in the UK, most Christians take similar views. That's somewhat comforting. I wonder whether comparable results would be obtained in other Western countries.


Anonymous said...

Well, yeah, it's the result I'd expect of England with its large Anglican population. It doesn't surprise me at all,and I think we'll see a close-to reult here. Thank goodness to see a post liek this about the liberal , socially progressive Christians among us. There are plenty of us , you know. It's just we don't push anything because we consider our theism more an aesthetic, poetic, and freeing philosophy --often intertwined with elements of Buddhist philosophy/ Bahai perhaps/Quakerism/ moments of deep uncertainty about what 'is'--yet we too oftne get bundled in with the dogmatism which others adopt. It's about time we keep a clear, non-negotiable boundary around the two streams--which is what they are. (and, RB, I'm not suggesting YOU don't alre4ady do that) :) mishy godard dunleavy

Pavel said...

I got a link to this post by my friend and I dare to post here my reply to him. No offence intended :)


They should clearly define "secular values" and only after that we can have a meaningful conversation.

For example: separation of church and state - why this should be only secular value? Based on the Bible, you can also make an argument that it is a Christian value. To expand it ad absurdum: Not killing could also be said to be a secular value, because some freaks who claim to be religious say they want to kill somebody. And yet - it is one of the ten commandments.

Or on the contrary: fictitious "Institute for Christian Values" could make a survey asking how many people love somebody - claiming "love" to be one of the three key Christian virtues - and publishing a result that 95 % of British population support Christian values. Do you see the absurdity of such opinion polls? I certainly would not call them "fairly rigorous", as the author of the post does.

I dislike the idea that Richard Dawkins Institute is going to tell us what is "secular value" and what is "religious value" (and of course: for some reason, "secular values" in their conception seem to be better than "religious" - any guess why this could be? ;))

Russell Blackford said...

The issue (in this case) is whether specifically religious canons of conduct should be imposed by political power. If you are saying there are going to be some grey areas, of course there are. But no one can say that a law against people killing each other is a specifically religious canon of conduct. Every society needs some kind of law along those lines irrespective of what religion prevails, and irrespective of whether religious belief of some kind prevails at all.

If you want to get that deep into it and start asking about grey areas, etc., you really need to read the book first. It's not as if I don't take those points into account in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, but I can hardly do them justice in the space of a blog post.