Religion plays too great a role in our politics

takes a look at the place religion holds in politics

Bishops still sit in the House of Lords (Photo credit: UK Parliament)

Bishops still sit in the House of Lords (Photo credit: UK Parliament)

Recent events have called into question the involvement of religion in our political system, the most significant of which being the ruling of prayers at council meetings as unlawful after a complaint from an atheist councillor. Fervent opponents to the decision are calling it the ‘marginalisation of Christianity’ and an ‘attempt to secularise society’; I call it the natural progression of a country that’s steadily moving away from its religious roots.

Shortly after the ruling, Baroness Warsi, co-chairman of The Conservative Party, gave a speech on the need for Europe to feel “more confident and more comfortable in its Christianity”, but the latest census figures show that we’re just not that Christian anymore. The amount of people self-defining as Christian has dropped by 17% in the last ten years to just 55%, putting the number of Christians at just 10% higher than the number of atheists and followers of other religions. On top of this, only 20% of people now claim to believe in God. With this in mind, can it legitimately be claimed that we need to embrace a doctrine that doesn’t seem to hold relevance for many people anymore?

The various humanist and atheist movements that celebrate the declaration of prayers at council meetings as unlawful are often described as “militant secularists”, however aren’t these groups merely advocating that our political system more accurately reflect the beliefs of the people? They aren’t out to eradicate religion in the hope that everyone will become atheist – 40% of the population and rising have already done that for themselves.

Just recently, the Archbishop of York caused uproar when he publicly condemned gay marriage. Unelected and largely unaccountable, his views will still have political clout because of his position in the Church. Does that sit well in a democracy?

Of course, the right to practise religion should not be encroached upon, and an individual’s private will to live according to a particular belief should be fully accepted. What is not tolerable is the Church’s continued claim to influence over politics in a society that’s becoming more diverse and more secular in its attitude.

Since the Enlightenment, the role of religion has been a contentious one, with many thinkers of the age questioning its place in society and its jurisdiction over the individual. It seems absurd that we still haven’t struck the right balance in the 21st century, and that we continue to allow religion a place in our governmental structure. Surely it can only be an affront to democracy that bishops sit in the House of Lords, without any qualification other than their claim to represent the Christian interests of the country. A recent Cambridge study shows that 78% of Britons disagree and see religion as having no place in politics, statistics that politicians such as David Cameron choose to ignore when they claim “we’re a Christian country and should not be afraid to say so”.

Arguably, in a society that no longer claims to practice one dominant religion, Christianity cannot continue to hold a place in our governmental institutions. With such diversity of beliefs and lifestyles in Britain today, surely we should be governed by the values that unite us, not the doctrines that set us apart.

6 comments

  1. YES! Freedom of religion and freedom FROM religion.

    The definition of a destructive religious cult is like alcoholism-if booze controls you instead of the other way around you are an alcoholic.
    The Watchtower society Jehovah’s Witnesses as an example is not benevolent and won’t let you leave their organization in peace.
    If they try to ruin your reputation and break up your family for trying to get out then they are a cult!
    Whenever you surrender your logic and reason to anyone who asks you to trust them because they know better and to please donate generously, it’s a cult. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck….

    Danny Haszard

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  2. 24 Feb ’12 at 5:29 pm

    Samuel Driver

    This article is riddled with factual errors.

    First of all, the statement that we are moving away from our “religion roots” is fantasy. Richard Dawkins has infact described himself as a “cultural christian”.(http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/7136682.stm)

    What I think you are actually getting at is that we are moving away from our Christian faith as a nation, which is certainly true. However, this has does not affect the level of promotion of Christian morality in the political sphere. David Cameron is himself an atheist: Unless he is a particularly stupid politician, no doubt he does this because he either believes in their intrinsic value or recognises that they will win votes.

    The logical nexus between the statement that 40% of the population are atheist and the claim that ‘militant atheism’ is not trying to end religion is, to my eye, extremely tenuous; how does the fact that less people are religious give an indication of what the aims some atheists are? Does the analogous statement “more people are voting for the Communist party, therefore Marxists do not intend to destroy capitalism” make any sense whatsoever?

    It should also be pointed out that, given the comments of many who are frequently described as “militant atheists” on the evil of religion, they would appear complacently sadistic if their aim were not to wipe out religion. Take this comment from Christopher Hitchens, ‘it is interesting to find that people of faith now seek defensively to say that they are no worse than fascists or Nazis or Stalinists’.

    On this point it is also worth noting this quote from Richard Dawkins’ book The Devil’s Chaplain, ‘My last vestige of “hands off religion” respect disappeared in the smoke and choking dust of September 11th 2001’.

    The 40% claim is erroneous anyway because you have not accounted for the large portion of non religious people who are agnostic.

    Your own claim that the Archbishop of York is ‘Unelected and largely unaccountable’ and ‘his views will still have political clout because of his position in the Church’ are poor and unfounded. He is accountable to the church through a large and developed body of law known as Canon Law; the senior Canon Law court for the Northern Province of the Anglican Communion is actually located in York. It is telling that you have not managed to give a single example of how the archbishop is politically influential; the idea that anyone with political power will be influenced by his remarks is simply not credible.

    It is also curious that you acknowledge the Archbishop as having influence because he is the head of the church, and simultaneously seek to argue that religion has no serious grip on the thinking of the majority of Britons. Unless you are accusing the political class of being a vehemently pro religious oligarchy with such a lack of charisma that they are influenced by a single churchman’s throwaway comment, then I can’t help but feel you’ve undermined your own position.

    The reflexive response to your entirely valid comments on bishops sitting in the House of Lords would have been that its actions can be overruled by the House of Commons so democratically elected individuals will always have the final say. The proportion of the House made up by bishops is under 4% anyway; even in the Lords they would need a lot of support to actually approve any amendments to bills.

    However, I entirely agree that the separation of church and state, as institutions is important and I am entirely neutral about the removal of the bishops from the House. There is a clear distinction between this and asking politicians to leave their personal moral convictions at the door of parliament however. In relation to this I also find your emphasis on the non democratic nature of bishops’ power, combined with your assertions that our democratically elected Prime Minister is wrongly pushing Christian beliefs perplexing. His preference for traditional Christian morality is very clear from his pre-election voting record, indeed more so than in his post election record. Here, again, you have contradicted yourself.

    As a student of the law, I also object to your use of the phrase ‘jurisdiction over the individual’. The church has never had ‘jurisdiction’ over the individual except on church matters, or where that individual was a member of the clergy or in some way church-employed. This is grossly misleading.

    it is extremely important that the debate you are trying to engage in takes place in order that as a society we come to the correct solution. Reason and argument are always the best tools. However, I would suggest that you revise your points.

    In response to the above comment I’d like to point out that JWs are not Christians in anyone’s view other than there own. The vast majority of Christians would be the first to deride their principles. They also have next to no political influence, so I’m not surely exactly where that comment was supposed to slot into the topic at hand.

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  3. 25 Feb ’12 at 2:37 am

    Elliot Kinnear

    Damn well said, Sam.

    Rome had worked out that having solely secular legislation (in their extremely multicultural society) didn’t work, and they worked that EARLY – Christianity was the last to receive legislative protection in around AD350. Saying “Well, if there’s more than one opinion, we won’t protect anything then” is a really stupid idea.

    Furthermore, you make a point about the Archbishop being in a position where people listen to him and are swayed by his views, but he’s not democratically elected? A) Surely if people are listening to him then they feel like he’s saying the right stuff, and B) by your logic, everyone in a position where they can convey an opinion capable of having an effect on someone must be elected. Are journalists elected? Hell no – as another student of law, I’ll tell you right now that all of this nonsense about ‘bishops having power’ is complete garbage; a total myth inspired by people who simply wish to deride religious opinions which aren’t theirs. Their power in the House of Lords (and by extension, in legislature) is incredibly low. Besides, don’t we have plenty of other unelected archetypes in the HL which no-one seems too fussed about? Businessmen of high repute are made into lords, but do we claim that that’s unfair to Communists, for example?

    With the above example, the reason I illustrate it is because there is no political neutrality – either you’re one thing or another. Religion is the same – either you’re religious or you’re atheist; ‘secularism’ IS atheism, as they’re both just absences of a belief in God. Agnosticism is a possible middle ground, but the point is that you can’t achieve this neutrality – it’ll inevitably lead you to siding one way or another. As I said, the Romans worked this out pretty early on, and the only solution is to offer complete protection to responsible established religious beliefs (including atheism) and to not get involved in disputes of “we-want-them-to-stop-doing-this”.

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  4. 26 Feb ’12 at 1:21 am

    Michael Taylor

    “I call it the natural progression of a country that’s steadily moving away from its christian roots”

    And I’m sad to say I’d have to agree. Whether Kinnear is a Christian or not, his blasphemy – once-over punishable – backs your claim that we’ve long since left our God-revering heritage. Perhaps you shouldn’t have included your ‘55% self-defining Christians’ statistic – the reality is that only 15% say they attend church at least once a month, and I wonder how many of these pray read the Bible daily, and are under 45 years old.

    The real question is – should we be comfortable about that?

    Your answer seems to be ‘yes’. ‘After all’, you say, “we should be governed by the values that unite us, not the doctrines that set us apart”. But what values are you referring to? The bishop of York clearly values the sanctity of marriage. Some town councils think that a prayer for wisdom is valuable before tackling the local affairs. Even values need some form of concrete foundation; my foundation is my doctrines.

    Interestingly, you state that the various atheist and humanist groups “aren’t out to eradicate religion in the hope that everyone will become atheist”. Yet when Professor Richard Dawkins was asked whether he once-over expected religion would be gone by 2007 in light of his literature on ‘The Hour’, his answer was a somewhat downcast “probably, yes”. Take a closer look at these movements you refer to, and notice their self-admitted hatred towards Christianity.

    Take a look at your statement: “Arguably, in a society that no longer claims to practice one dominant religion, Christianity cannot continue to hold a place in our governmental institutions.”
    This looks suspiciously like an attempt to eradicate religion, but that aside, do you feel the situation in your argument is even possible. I have already shown how values are often founded firmly upon biblical doctrines, and so in many cases, abandoning the doctrine abandons the value you try to rule by. It’s laughable to suggest that a christian can cast such foundations out of mind when entering the political scene.

    [The Bible tells me that adultery is wrong – oh but wait! X% of the population do it and like it anyway, so lets encourage it.]

    Do you see how flawed your statement is? You can’t rule by value or morality if you have no foundation for either – and you definitely can’t encourage Christians to abandon their foundations politically.

    If your answer is, “Of course, the right to practise religion should not be encroached upon, and an individual’s private will to live according to a particular belief should be fully accepted”, then I have to point out once again the impossibility of this. If the bishop chooses to take a position on gay marriage, he is merely practicing his religion whether the government take note or not. And if a church man with a private will to live according to his belief was to take a position of political authority, it would be contradictory for him to neglect such belief when using that authority. Any restriction on him doing so would naturally be an encroachment.

    Finally, and most frustratingly, you have not defined any line of truth. If you made the case that a secular system works, or that atheism is undeniably the reality, then perhaps your case would hold more water. As it is, you argue that the multitude (despite that figure being 45% in your own case) should do the ruling, whether right or wrong. By the logic in your article, Nazism would be a perfectly fine political system if a large group of people were holding or warming to its policies.

    Ultimately, your neglecting the fact that “the natural progression of a country that’s steadily moving away from its christian roots” maybe politically, socially and eternally dangerous.

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  5. Hello all,

    If I may point out, it’s been said that my article is full of factual errors- yet when the list of errors I’ve made have been identified, it seems that all of them are actually matters of opinion and very subjective, so I would argue that they’re not ‘incorrect’, they’re just opinions that differ from yours. I’m very much enjoying reading the debate that’s been sparked, but I just felt I needed to say that in defence of my article.

    I still very much stand by my convictions and would strongly argue that, contrary to the comments of others, declaring yourself an atheist does not automatically set you on a crusade to destroy Christianity. It simply means you don’t subscribe to a belief in God. As more and more people are defining themselves thusly, is it right that an institution that can no longer legitimately claim to represent a majority of people’s interests has such a presence in the political system?

    Peace and love :)

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  6. 6 Mar ’12 at 12:19 am

    Samuel Driver

    Again, I’d urge you to be rigorous and read things through.

    I don’t think anyone ever claimed atheists were out to destroy religion. We said some atheists were, something which you’ve clearly denied in your article. I’d also urge you to consider whether the operations of the constitution are subjective? or indeed the high esteem in which fundamental Christian morals are held by the majority in the political sphere. unless you consider that moral framework to be subjective then I think we can call that fact. If you think any part of any of the responses here are subjective, I would be obliged if you’d identify them.

    Also some of the things I’ve identified are problems with the logical structure of your argument which is hardly a subjective matter.

    Thank you for taking the time to respond however, I’m glad we were able to have something of a debate on the issue, despite the fact its been a little one sided.

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