Religion in the Open Society

A lecture for the South Place Ethical Society (now Conway Hall Ethical Society) – 23 September 2001.  The section on legislation about three-quarters of the way through is plainly now out of date but I have left it as it stands.

Religion is deep-rooted in human life, present through the ages and the vehicle of much of mankind’s profoundest thought – after all, God was until recently a rational hypothesis, whatever one may say about some of the wilder reaches of religious doctrine.

Religion endures partly because it is linked to the power structure of society – for, from the time when an agricultural surplus first allowed the earliest settled farming communities to support individuals who did not produce, the priests have stood alongside the kings in adding value to everyday life.

But religion has still a mass appeal. It offers answers (so long as you do not ask too many questions), an explanation of life in everyday terms that people can relate to – whether it be the stories of the Greek or Norse gods, the history of the Jewish people, the story and preachings of Jesus Christ or of Mohammed, or the ill-defined stories told by crystals, the stars or the tarot.

Such stories are powerful – and carry dangerous risks. But mostly they offer comfort – ready answers that assure the believer that he or she is right and that there is no need to do the hard work of thinking: it has all been worked out for you.

Such answers are seductive, especially at a time of stress, danger or grief. They unite a community, offering the reassurance of shared understanding.

Humanism also has deep roots – they reach down into the experience of the generations and call on the peculiarly human power of reason. The scepticism of those who through the ages have been reluctant to believe in hypothetical deities has been reinforced in the last few centuries by the growing power of science to explain what previously were mysteries calling for a God as their agent.

Humanism’s stress on the human level of experience appeals to those with strong intellects. But it leaves us isolated with heavy responsibilities, needing to navigate and negotiate from our individual responses towards a collective course.

And Humanism lacks the strong appeal of a story – it is all what the Greeks called λογος or reason and has no μυθος or “myth”. (I owe this pairing to Karen Armstrong and her book The Battle for God.)

Some will say “Good! Such stories are for the weak-minded” – but that leaves Humanism only for the strong-minded minority who may, after all, be those whose literalness leaves them deficient in some essentially human quality – some degree of imagination or (dare I say it?) some qualities of the “human spirit”.

Some of those (I add in parenthesis) who place the greatest emphasis on their atheism maybe do have a story: it is that “all religion is bad and all evil springs from religion” – a narrow, exclusive story, only partially true, however appealing.

But Humanism offers no comforting embrace. It tells us: “Grow up! Brace up! let go of mother’s apron strings and go out into the world. Here is a short practical handbook called Reason – now make something of yourself.”

And Humanism still lacks that framework for collective expression in times of stress or grief affecting the whole community that is so important not just for many individuals but for those in positions of representative authority.

This is a lack that can be filled, as we can construct Humanist ceremonies – but they have to be self-authenticating, whereas even a badly performed religious ceremony is sustained by the power of its tradition and claimed authenticity.

Could we perhaps ever develop a Humanist story? – a story we could all share as a point of reference? Many Humanists are of course rugged individualists who would be leery of any collective expression of μυθος or “myth”.

It would in any case be an odd story, not fixed in history or geography – a story with a strange sort of truth – provisional, representative – of human development from the primitive ape to the very type or model of civilised mankind.

Still, Humanism does offer a clear view of the place of humankind in the world, of the roots of our morality in evolution and experience, of the powers of reason, of the high capacity of men and women to fulfil themselves in the realms of service to each other, of love and friendship, of science and the arts.

So our story could be inspiring – but it would also have to embrace everyone and not, like religious stories, be exclusive to the “in-group”. For we as Humanists hold up the Open Society as our ideal – we embrace human diversity even as we offer our own, Humanist, answers as the “best fit”, if not always the most comforting.

Not for us the story of a “chosen people” triumphing over rival groups. Nor for us the story of sheep and goats, of judgement and a parting of the ways.

Rather, we urge and offer acceptance that there will always be difference, disagreement, that there will always be other stories on offer, religious and otherwise, and that even among Humanists there are and will be wide areas of disagreement on matters of note.

So what attitude should we take to these others, including prominently those who support a religious view of life? what attitude to groups with whom we are in fundamental disagreement?

Our attitude to them as individuals is easily described. We see in them everything on a desperately wide spectrum from one scary extreme where they wish for self-immolation in the side of the World Trade Centre, a deplorable negation of human values in glorious fulfilment of an imaginary religious destiny, to the other extreme where they pathetically scurry round the further reaches of scientific speculation seeking every last remnant of ignorance as a bolthole for God – whether it be the Heisenberg uncertainty at the quantum level or an agent who set the mathematical constant ratios of the universe.

By far the huge majority of these non-Humanists we look on more in sorrow than anger, sometimes coupling our disagreement with admiration, sometimes seeing a need for their views to be refuted or their policies to be opposed.

But what is our attitude to them as groups in the community we share with them?

The Open Society is one of liberal values, of tolerance and diversity, where people share as much as possible – participating in the governance of society, contributing their taxes and skills and making use of the collectively provided services, but always with sufficient allowance for conscientious opting out under minimal or no sanction.

The Open Society offers Humanists protection where we are in a minority – contrast the USA, whatever its faults, with Pakistan, where Dr Younis Shaikh sits in the condemned cell – damned as a blasphemer for the mildest of rational remarks.

By the same token our Open Society must offer those with whom we fundamentally disagree the same rights and protection as we seek for ourselves. Some of these groups are profoundly alienated from our society and would change it if they could in ways that would rob it of its character as an Open Society, even if necessary by violence. These it was who sought Salmon Rushdie’s blood. Now extremist Muslim clerics endorse and praise the recent appalling terrorism in America and have a record of recruiting young believers for military training abroad.

What is our attitude towards these groups? And if they will not cut an acceptable deal with us, how should we deal with them?

This is the eternal problem of any free society, the problem that Britain and much of the civilised world are struggling to answer today. The answers are never easy and can only be ad hoc and practical. Somewhere a line has to be drawn: no doubt a faint line on grey paper drawn by a wavering pencil jerked this way and that by considerations of history and contemporary prejudice – a line by which we exclude from the protection of the Open Society those who not only wish to destroy its fabric but who are seriously attempting to accomplish that wish.

There is no freedom, whatever the motive, to hijack airliners and use them as bombs. But is there freedom to preach the virtues of such a martyrdom? Only, perhaps, so long as the preaching is ineffective!

Pragmatic answers are rarely satisfying but they may be the best we have. Interfering with such freedom of speech may risk exciting more sympathy for these abhorrent views. But tolerating them too long may establish an accustomed right to such subversive and putatively illegal advocacy.

Let me, then, leave aside the religious and political fanatics for whom their μυθος is so powerful as to exclude all evidence and reason and humanity. How should society deal with their everyday confrères?

There are two questions here. The first, easy one, is: what do we, the upholders of the liberal values of the Open Society, require these religious groups to concede at minimum?

What we require, I think, is acceptance of the law and with it the rights of others to disagree fundamentally with them and exercise their own rights to the full. The law, after all, is what at least notionally we have collectively created as a framework for society. They have every right to seek change by argument and organisation, they may respond to the law by civil disobedience if they are willing to pay the resultant penalties, but they must accept the law, as it is the law by which we protect minorities from the majority and the majority from dissident minorities.

The second, more difficult, question is: what is the furthest extent to which we, in fulfilment of the principles of the Open Society, should go to accommodate their views and demands, even – especially – when they are contrary to the principles of the Open Society?

Plainly we offer them the protection of the law. In particular, (for other legal rights follow a fortiori), we must accept the principle of legal protection from discrimination on grounds of belief. Freedom of thought, of belief, of religion are enshrined in the Humanist social model.

But we have to face at least two problems.

One is that for some religious people their religion is more one of orthopraxy than orthodoxy – right practice more than right belief. The Muslim has to pray at set times each day, to observe the Sabbath, to fast at set times each year, to go on the hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca if he can once in a lifetime. This right practice goes to the heart of his religion.

The contemporary Christian – our readymade model of the religious life – does not take time off work for matins, prime, nones and compline, does not get irritable at work even if he does give up red meat for Lent, and certainly does not disappear for a long pilgrimage to Canterbury or Rome.

For the Christian, the religious life is internalised to beliefs – the orthodoxy or right opinions that allow many Christians to keep their faith a private matter. His or her outward manifestations of belief, if any, lie in optional church attendance on Sunday, Good Friday and Christmas Day – when the law conveniently gives most people days off work.

His mediaeval predecessor may have found his religious obligations as taxing as the average devout Muslim today, but the effete Christian of this largely post-religious age is more easily accommodated within the demands of (for example) standard employment practices.

We must, then, in realising the religious freedom we advocate, recognise the right of believers to take breaks from work for prayer, to observe their sabbaths, to wear turbans or the veil, to have time off for religious holidays of obligation and so on.

Not only that, but we must lay a duty on employers to make “reasonable accommodation” so that these rights can be exercised. Such time off should of course come out of the employees’ ordinary allowance of leave or be made up by time worked in lieu, so that on balance there is no advantage or disadvantage – but we have to accept the degree of complication and maybe inconvenience and marginal cost involved.

A law to ban religious discrimination at work is required by the end of 2003 by a European directive, and this is the line it will (in part) certainly have to take.

The Human Rights Act already guarantees the freedom of “religion or belief” and protects us from discrimination by the public authorities (but not others) relating to the exercise of that freedom. European case law has established that “religion or belief” is to be interpreted very widely – it certainly comprehends Humanism and unbelief.

It is possible – and certainly desirable – that the Government will take advantage of the need to legislate against religious discrimination in the field of employment to introduce a wider law, maybe a general law against irrelevant discrimination, bringing together – with a single commission to enforce it – the law on race relations, equal opportunities, disability and religion.

This is what has already happened in the Netherlands, where the single Commission provided the forum in which conflicting rights were resolved by discussion and compromise.

If a law on religious discrimination is introduced, it will certainly be the occasion for us to complain loudly and compellingly about the privileges for the Christian religion and particularly the Anglican church, which are built into the current law and which amount to discrimination not just against us but also against non-Christian religions. The most egregious examples are probably:

•  the whole law about religion in schools, with the daily Act of Worship and religious education from which Humanism is effectively excluded;

•  the 1998 School Standards and Framework Act, under which the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches have a built-in 2:1 majority over the local education authority in local School Organisation Committees that decide what schools – including faith-based schools – should be opened, merged or closed;

•  the Blasphemy Acts, which give special protection to the Christian religion;

•  the Race Relations Act 1976, which extends to Sikhs and Jews as quasi-racial groups but not to other religions or beliefs

•  the establishment of the Church of England and the right of Anglican bishops to sit in the House of Lords and make laws for us.

In addition, there is clear religious discrimination in the huge predominance of RC and CofE schools among the one-third that have a religious nature and the disproportion of RC and CofE schools among single-sex schools (which are sought after by Muslims).

There is a lot that could be said in detail about the risks and opportunities that legislation about religious discrimination will produce – at the time we shall have to be very active – but for now I want to move on.

I said that, in facing the question what is the furthest extent to which we, in an Open Society, should go to accommodate the views and demands of religious groups, we had to face at least two problems. The first was how to deal with the practical demands of believers to be allowed to “manifest” their religion, and I have dealt briefly with that.

The second question is more difficult. Some religious communities subscribe to the Open Society concept – not only have they learnt by experience in history not to try to enforce their views by witch hunts and the burning of heretics, but they acknowledge as sincerely as we do the scope for disagreement and the need to treat all groups fairly.

But other groups are willing to take advantage of the freedoms and privileges of the Open Society while all the time trying to impose their views on others unwilling to accept them – and meantime deny the freedoms of the Open Society to their own adherents.

How are we to accommodate such people in our Open Society?

They see no divide between the secular and the religious. In some measure, great or small, conscious or unconscious, they are trying to subvert the Open Society in favour of a theocratic system.

Take, for example, the conservative Muslims who would impose Shari’ah law on their communities, even where there are significant non-Muslim minorities. They have succeeded in some states in Nigeria, producing riots and bloodshed, and are gaining ground even in well-educated circles in cosmopolitan Egypt and elsewhere.

Closer to home, there is the intolerant attempt to intimidate fellow-believers that was apparent when I posted on the BBC Religion and Ethics website recently a request for Muslims to protest at the death sentence on Dr Younis Shaikh. This set off an esoteric theological debate of ruthless fierceness. A sympathetic reply was condemned as “opposing what Allah has decreed”:

Once Allah and his Messenger have decreed a matter, it is not for the believers to dispute it. . . You assume greater wisdom than that of Allah? . . .The name of Allah and the finality of the Messenger have to be protected by that which Allah has prescribed or else any new reformist . . . could invent anything into the Perfection of Islam. . . Are you saying that the laws of the Secularists and the Jews and Christian regimes are more apt than Allah’s? I ask you to watch your tongue . . . I ask you to be careful and if you are not sure be quiet as you may fall into the Fitnah of Kufr.

I am afraid I cannot expound for you on the Fitnah of Kufr but it is presumably very frightful. There was much more, laden with obscure references but all quite unwilling to concede even any right to question the law of death to apostates.

Another example are the Christians who would impose their religious bar on contraception and abortion on the whole world if they had the power. The extremes of the pro-Life campaigners are not much different from the Muslim anti-Rushdie fanatics: both have sanctioned, incited and carried out murder for their cause.

Such fundamentalist believers do not look to a future of untried and exciting possibilities but are overwhelmed by the aim of reconstructing an ideal society to the rigid pattern of an ancient formula. They do not differ in kind from the Taleban, whose model, in fact, bears close comparison with the ideal society of Plato’s Republic which was the focus of volume one of Karl Popper’s splendid The Open Society and its Enemies. The clerics are the Guardians, they are protected by their army, and the majority of society – especially the women – are suppressed and treated as useful beasts.

All these people are more or less totalitarian, subordinating every other aspect of life – indeed, life itself – to a literal interpretation of their story or μυθος. Maybe it is when the pursuit of reasonable methods – the application of λογος – has failed and failed utterly that people resort so unreservedly and irrationally to fundamentalism. In the context of Palestine, such behaviour becomes understandable – if never excusable. But in a free and democratic Open Society they should be seen for what they are – the enemies of liberty.

I said that such people see no divide between the secular and the religious. Indeed, this is something devout Christians still claim as a virtue. If it affects only their own lives, so be it, but when they try to impose upon others, we should be wary – as, for example, when Lord Dearing reports to the Church of England that the whole life of a religious school, publicly funded though it is, should be imbued with Christian teaching:

All church schools must be distinctively and recognisably Christian institutions . . . Church schools are places where the faith is lived . . . Church schools are part of the body of Christ, and a visible recognition of the divine within human experience.

Here there is no respect for the autonomy and freedom of belief of the pupils in such schools, some of whom at least will not come from Anglican homes, while many, even among the older pupils, will not yet have maturely reflected on their beliefs. One remembers the deplorable maxim in the old Plowden report on primary education: “Children should not be taught to doubt before faith is established.”

Such people take advantage of the freedom and tolerance that our community offers while seeking to seal their own communities off from its freethinking influence. Their wish to protect their children from heresy often runs alongside patriarchal attitudes to women and a wish to enforce traditional patterns of behaviour.

They claim they are merely exercising their freedom of religion – a right we guarantee – and any restriction we may place on their preaching and acts of intolerance will be decried as interference with that freedom.

The long-term answer to the dilemma – maybe so long-term as to be unreachable – must combine the resolution of legitimate grievances with education in and exposure to the virtues of the Open Society.

This is where the Government’s policy on faith-based schools is such utter folly, because it concedes more power to the conservative, totalitarian tendency, promoting the isolation of children within their own, potentially already alienated, communities.

For the Government’s encouragement of religious schools applies not just to the attenuated Christianity of most current Church of England schools, nor just to the fuller embrace of the Roman Catholics, but also to the full-blooded enthusiasm of creationist Seventh Day Adventists and the dogmatic fundamentalism of extremist Islam – not to speak of the sheer wackiness of Dr Syung Moon or the pederastic delights of Said Baba.

All these will be covered by the formula “religion or belief” and protected from official discrimination by the Human Rights Act in the application of the law on voluntary aided schools. To be sure, the right to “manifest” one’s “religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance” is limited in the Act where public safety, public order and the rights and freedoms of others are prejudiced – but the real worry is not the actual teaching that will be given at school but the isolation and incomprehension of wider society that such segregated institutions will breed.

If Seventh Day Adventists are taught the literal truth of the creation story, what matter if they follow the national curriculum? – you can always avoid evolution in the syllabus or teach it as a trick for passing exams in this wicked world. Will that produce the citizens we need for Britain in the 21st century?

If Muslims never meet children of other views, then however mild the religion they are taught at school, they will be more vulnerable to the preaching of extremists at the school or college gates than if they knew from personal acquaintance that unbelievers were not the incarnation of all abominations.

Does our Government, with its ambitions for our country’s future, really want to be encouraging children to base their lives on a series of incompatible religions? to risk recreating here the religious conflicts that torture so many places in the world?

Our view that schools should be open communities, that religious education should be objective – or impartial – fair and balanced, without favour towards any particular creed or belief, runs quite contrary to that of the totalitarian religionists, among the milder of whom are the Anglican followers of Lord Dearing, whom I quoted earlier.

In arguing our case we have to encounter the European Convention on Human Rights itself, now incorporated in the Human Rights Act, which in Article 2 of its Protocol says:

No person shall be denied the right to education. In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and teaching, the state shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.

However, we are backed by Amnesty International in seeing in this article no requirement for the Government to establish or fund any particular type of education. Amnesty says:

The requirement to respect parents’ convictions is intended to prevent indoctrination by the state. However, schools can teach about religion and philosophy if they do so in an objective, critical, and pluralistic manner.

So we might think ourselves of making a case built upon this, on the grounds that the ordinary law about the act of worship and religious education compromises our rights as parents to have our children taught “in conformity with our own religious and philosophical convictions”. We should, of course, have to prove the inadequacy of the legal right to withdraw children from both RE and worship.

We can also look to the UN’s 1959 Declaration of the Rights of the Child:

The child shall be protected from practices which may foster racial, religious and any other form of discrimination. He shall be brought up in a spirit of understanding, tolerance, friendship among peoples, peace and universal brotherhood, and in full consciousness that his energy and talents should be devoted to the service of his fellow men.

– a truly Humanist vision.

The case against faith-based schools is much wider than this: I have here been concerned only to maintain that they are contrary to the spirit of the Open Society. But if the Government pursues its present path towards religious segregation it may well bring down upon our heads mutual incomprehension, social disorder, and even outright subversion. If so, we shall have to blame only our foolishness in repeating our own history and the Government’s myopia in leading us down this primrose path.

We need to call a halt, now.