Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Think about Politics - Towards a Secular State

In UK we have an 'established church' and Anglican bishops sit in the House of Lords, unelected and (by many) unwanted.  This first evening of Oxford Think Week was a discussion between an interesting panel of people.

Ronan McCrae introduced Monday's event with a talk aimed at promoting the idea of a secular state for the benefit of everyone, including the religious.  The idea that certain religious beliefs override liberal democratic rights might be ok if you are from that religion, but not if you are not.  Secularism is not the same as atheism or humanism, but it is simply the separation of faith from law.  It does respect religious beliefs and protects them, but it requires recognition of the fact that religion does promote controversy.  Even within the major faiths there is controversy, and there is no widely accepted 'true Christianity' or 'true Islam'.  The use of public money to promote any faith is not acceptable to secularism, and the constraints that are put on state funded faith schools to do the business of the state by teaching a standard curriculum (at least officially) are probably not acceptable to those schools either.  He summarised by mentioning the secularising influence of European history, and pointed out the dangers if community views were allowed to break down due to the idealogical influences of many different religions.  In the questions later, he quipped that secularism is an arrangement that we can live with pending the arrival of the second coming!

Baroness Shreela Flather, a Hindu atheist as she explained, has gone some way to restore my confidence in the House of Lords - although in a discussion with her at the end she told me that she feels that she is very much in the minority in that respect.  She pointed out that there is no single ideal solution and that even in secular states religious power play is a serious matter.  I liked the way she explained that as an atheist she felt free, and that a weight had been lifted from her.  (I feel the same way.)  She pointed out that religion can be a force for good or for VERY bad.  She admired English Common Law, especially in that it is based much more on common sense than on Christianity.  She spoke well on the topic of human rights and particularly on women's rights, and how they are badly eroded in religious communities world-wide.

Nia Griffith, Labour MP for Llanelli then described how prayer is all around us and that it is difficult to break out of it.  The non-religious tend to substitute religious ceremonies with secular ceremonies that mimic what they are trying to get away from.  Perhaps we should adopt a different approach entirely?  We shy away from being evangelical secularists.  How are we going to untangle the religious infrastructure?  Certainly we have to think in the long term.

Martin Horwood, Lib Dem MP for Cheltenham told some entertaining anecdotes about his attempt to have a secular Hindu wedding to his wife.  He went on to point out that religions are not timeless truths, so it is not surprising that there are gradations within the faiths.  He believes that describing modern day Islamic extremists as representing 'Medieval Islam' is not correct, because medieval Islam was really very tolerant.  (His attitude to Islam seemed generally to be rather un-critical.  Thank goodness other members of the panel were there to disagree with him and point out the dangers of Islamic influences.)  He did present an interesting idea for elections to the upper house when it is reformed.  The idea that interest groups could set up non-geographical constituencies and that people could use their one vote either for a group or geographically seemed sensible.  He made several disapproving comments about the approach that Richard Dawkins takes, in my opinion incorrectly accusing him of conflating atheism and secularism, and of course mentioning the word 'strident', as people so often do.  I would say that the mood of the audience was not in favour of this opinion.

An interesting evening!  All the speakers agreed that if you want to make a difference in the world you should join a political party.  If like me, you would find it hard to stomach being a member of any of the political parties you have the option to set up a campaign to lobby your MP, r set up a petition via a web site such as 38 degrees.  Unsurprisingly they find it more effective if several different versions of a letter are used, rather than a single boiler-plate letter sent by many different people.  And don't forget to write to the House of Lords - they feel left out!

This evening's event is an armchair discussion between Dawkins and Grayling.  Can't wait!

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