Launch Series: ‘Religion’ under the ‘Secular Canopy’

Andrew-BrownIn the first post of Nonreligion and Secularity’s special launch series the Guardian’s Andrew Brown reflects on the assumptions underlying public and media treatments of religion and the secular.

C.S. Lewis writes somewhere of his experience as a subaltern in the trenches that ‘everyone’ who had censored the letters of the other ranks knew about their attitude to sex. The point I want to take up is not about sex. It is about the things that ‘everyone’ knows. Only from the outside can these be seen as beliefs, just as it is only from the outside that ‘everyone’ is understood as a very exclusive category indeed – one which normally excludes the people whose letters are being censored, or, in English upper middle class usage, the servants, the locals and readers of the Daily Mail.

And where better to learn what ‘everyone’ now knows than the Guardian? Two recent articles by intelligent and thoughtful writers show very clearly what everyone knows about religion today. This does not say anything interesting about religion as an object of study but it tells us a lot about ‘everyone’ and the meaning of ‘religion’ in England today. That usage is at the heart of British secularism.

The first is Suzanne Moore’s complaint that there is not enough ritual in modern atheism.

‘For me, not believing in God does not mean one has to forgo poetry, magic, the chaos of ritual, the remaking of shared bonds. I fear ultra-orthodox atheism has come to resemble a rigid and patriarchal faith itself.’

To anyone who thinks of religion sociologically, this is a religious complaint. It is not a complaint against religion at all but an argument against the sorts of religion currently available and a desire for a better one, what she elsewhere describes as ‘a kind of neo-paganism that hardcore rationalists will find unacceptable.’ But this is explicitly contrasted with ‘religion’ and – worst people of all – ‘the religious’. She writes:

‘I found myself turning to flowers, flames and incense. Is there anything more beautiful than the offerings made all over the world, of tiny flames and blossom on leaves floating on water?’ and asksDo we cede them to the religious and just look like a bunch of Calvinists?’

So: ‘The religious’ are strange and contaminate what they touch. For something to work as ‘sacred’ – another word she uses – it has to be cleansed of ‘religious’ implications. Allied to this is another assumption: that there is a wonderful congruity between common sense and the kinds of ritual that Suzanne Moore finds acceptable and effective. This is a very English, domesticated and comfortable atheism, quite as smug as Anglicanism before the First World War. ‘Religion’ is an alien threat, as Papistry once was.

The difficulty this makes is that it becomes impossible for this kind of secularism to analyse itself because it can’t reach a perspective from which that might be done. It has become a secular canopy, which seems as much a part of the world as a sacred one would.

Deborah Orr, writing a few days later, is much more intellectually considerable. At the core of her piece is a defence of human rights against — but you guessed — religion.

At its centre is a bold, clear statement of something wholly impossible to verify: ‘Human rights are not imaginary. They’re conceptual. They rest on a single idea – that all humans have a common need for certain conditions if they are to flourish as productive members of society, and that all humans have a responsibility to ensure that everyone attains and maintains those rights.’

Now the difference between ‘imaginary’ and ‘conceptual’ is not, I think, as robust as she would like it to be nor as it needs to be to carry her argument. The difference is surely that ‘imaginary’ is something you believe in but I don’t, while ‘conceptual’ refers to something that I believe in and you should.

Orr’s presentation does avert the difficulty that human rights historically derive from religious conceptions of humanity. The origin of the idea of human rights is surely Christian: the idea that we matter because God loves us – and of course the copious evidence against such an idea of God is just as powerful an argument against the notion that people have any intrinsic worth at all. The universe does not treat us as especially valuable, whether or not there is a God responsible.

Reading Orr’s defence I feel my inner fascist adopt its New Atheist sneer. It says then that sophisticated apologists for human rights obviously know they don’t exist, but the vast masses of ignorant right-heads really believe they do, and they are the ones who cause wars, insist that laws be based on them and imposed on people who don’t believe in any ‘right to shelter’ or ‘right to earn a living’ – things never seen in nature. The vulnerability of human rights to such a bullying positivist assault suggest that it is a religion in the sense that religions are despised. It only appears not to be one because it presently has the upper hand.

This is of course the opposite of Orr’s own conclusion, which is that religious rights are opposed to human ones. ‘For human rights to flourish, religious rights have to come second to them. We are all human. We are not all of the same religion, or religious at all. One cannot protect religious rights if they are used as a reason to abuse human rights, human equalities, as so often they are … People need to answer on Earth to our fellow humans. We can square things with our God, if we have one, when and if that day arrives.’

Its fairly clear here what she means by religion. It is Abrahamic, patriarchal, and has a strong belief in the afterlife. The religion that Orr distrusts requires one to act in defiance of common sense and common decency on the basis of revelation. It is everything that stands against the great revolution in sympathy of the last forty years, which has seen women, children and gay people all re-valued. But not all religion, not even all Abrahamic religion, is like that in practice in Britain today. Even if it were it would have to be replaced by something that did the same kind of work, but in the service of different values.

There is nothing wrong with the idea that ‘the religious beliefs of all who respect human rights will be respected in turn’ but it is hardly the huge break with a religious past that Orr wants it to be. On the contrary, it seems to me exactly the policy of Anglicanism in the days when the established church really was just that. Parliament once passed Occasional Conformity acts and Test acts to ensure that only those people who understood Englishness properly and truthfully could hold power. Now it provides for compliance with human rights law in exactly the same spirit.

This is an entirely attractive position. I myself feel instinctively a horror in the face of a society which denied human rights which is surely very close to the horror that a thoughtful eighteenth century bishop would feel for atheism. Even if the stories told to explain them are not strictly true, how could a decent society hold together without acknowledging them?

In that sense, pragmatic secularism now does the job that religion once did. It has become invisible as once religion was. Its assumptions are something that everyone knows, so only the outcasts have to make an effort to believe them. This makes it extremely difficult for us to study – we’re fish trying to understand the water that we swim in. It also means that there is nothing more important for us to understand.

Andrew Brown works for the Guardian. As well as his blog on religion he writes long profiles for their Saturday review section and a weekly web column, Worm’s Eye View, for guardian.co.uk, as well as leaders, book reviews, features and short cuts. He also writes and presents Analysis programs for BBC Radio 4. In the time left over he writes pop science books, short stories, and other things that catch his imagination. His most recent book is Fishing in Utopia, which won the 2009 Orwell prize.

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