On not getting the 'religious' point

By Simon Barrow
March 12, 2011

Sensible discussion about the role of different beliefs in the public square is frequently skewed by the reluctance or inability of the more ideologically-driven participants to listen properly to what is actually being said.

Instead, all too often, the knees jerk edgily and the fingers stab angrily. Take a couple of recent examples.

Following the careful and substantial judgement in the Johns fostering case, the Christian Legal Centre put out a press release claiming "the High Court has suggested that Christians with traditional views on sexual ethics are unsuitable as foster carers".

It had done no such thing, as reading the actual judgment makes clear. Indeed, the judges forthrightly state: "No one is asserting that Christians (or, for that matter, Jews or Muslims) are not 'fit and proper' persons to foster or adopt. No one is contending for a blanket ban. No one is seeking to de-legitimise Christianity or any other faith or belief. ... No one is seeking to give Christians, Jews or Muslims or, indeed, peoples of any faith, a second class status."

Or consider this headline summary, from the 'What the Papers say' section of the National Secular Society's website, concerning an article by a distinguished educationalist: "We must ensure that children can't choose to remain religion-free, says academic."

Again, Professor Robert Jackson of Warwick University was saying nothing of the sort. Indeed, his argument about the importance for a plural society of critical learning about beliefs and worldviews was based on a pan-European survey reflecting the opinions of children themselves. He also explicitly stated that "students do not want to be told what to believe" and should not be made to.

Debate and argument about these matters is a good thing, of course. But when clearly stated views and judgments are either casually or wilfully misconstrued at the most basic level, no-one gains and an honest attempt at a truth that might embrace us all loses.

By the same token, the use of 'religion' as a catch-all cipher for approval or disapproval, commendation or condemnation - prevalent as it is in the contemporary media environment - is frankly untenable, whichever 'side' you claim to be on in such a (non) debate.

As Timothy Fitzgerald says in a forthcoming book, and in an excerpt in Critical Religion: "The assumption that there is some essential distinction between 'religious' and 'non-religious' domains – which is still today a globalising discourse – is an ideological construct which takes on an appearance of naturalness and inevitability."

But beneath the argument about what gets classified as a 'religious' belief, what gets classified as a 'secular' one, and why, he suggests, is not a straightforward intellectual distinction - but rather a power struggle between competing factions or forces rooted in the social, economic and cultural domain.

Understanding this is important for coming to terms with the current to-ing and fro-ing about beliefs (religious and otherwise) in the spheres of both law and education.

For as Catherine Madsen (writing in ‘CrossCurrents’, the journal of the Association of Religion in Intellectual Life, USA) observes: “To grow up politically is to understand that there are other points of view, and that you cannot erase them; that there are no shortcuts to respect, and that one must earn one’s dignity; that our obligation to our fellow humans is to make our own point of view not unassailable but intelligible.”

She adds: “Like totalitarians of all ideological stripes and mystics of all religions, painstaking thinkers of all cultures know each other intuitively across the boundaries of opposition. Totalitarians do not like them; indeed they are always at risk from the totalitarians in their own culture as well as those in the enemy’s. In spite of this—or because of it—they are determined to construct a trustworthy language, a language dense and durable enough to resist the corruptions of politics.”

A daunting task, but a truly worthwhile one.


(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.