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A vision of hollowed-out religion

11 December 2015

The Woolf report exhibits an impoverished secularism, says Paul Vallely


IT seemed like a good idea — a commission on religion in public life. It is a shame, then, that the report released this week by the interfaith Woolf Institute under that badge is such a hotchpotch of interesting insights, unexamined prejudices, and muddled thinking.

Let’s start with the good parts of this curate’s egg, if that’s not too narrow an image for our diverse era. The report has important things to say on the need for greater religious literacy among our opinion-makers and policy-framers. It is good on the balance needed for sharia to play a positive part in the UK. It points out unhelpful legal anomalies that protect Jews and Sikhs, but not Muslims. But when it argues for abolishing the collective act of worship in schools, or cutting the number of bishops in the House of Lords, it is bald and reductive.

The report lacks clarity on the tensions between declining institutional or affiliated religion, and the emergence of more subtle forms of faith — not to mention what endures in the cultural and moral legacy of Christianity. It repeatedly assumes that those who say that they are not religious must be humanists. And it ties itself in knots over the relationship between faith and ideas of Britishness.

When Lady Butler-Sloss, who chaired it, spoke on the radio on the launch day, it was difficult to work out whether she was being naïve or disingenuous in all this. Reading the full report makes that clear. Although it calls itself a “commission” — a word with official overtones — this self-appointed group has produced an ideological document that assumes from the outset that liberal humanism is the only sensible option in a diversifying society.

The report quotes the British Humanist Association ten times, and the National Secular Society five, and even the Humanist Society Scotland gets three mentions. In contrast, there is a single quotation from an Anglican Archbishops’ commission and a solitary reference to a report by the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops. Humanists are crammed in, even in the most unrepresentative contexts, as with the insistence that some volunteers on Christian soup-runs might be atheists.

In the end, the dominant paradigm for the report is sociological. (Professor Linda Woodhead gets ten mentions.) But it lacks philosophical, theological, historical, and political sophistication. It jumbles the universe with the meaning of life. It thinks religious identity is fixed and final. It has a fuzzy portmanteau understanding of the common good. It thinks humanism began at the Enlightenment (poor Erasmus). It suggests that respect for life, human rights, peace, and equality are humanist, not religious values.

It takes no account of the practical politics of replacing the requirement for an act of worship with a warm and woolly “inclusive time for reflection”. It replaces evidence with assertion in decrying faith schools and neglecting the fact that religious parents also pay taxes.

The vision it offers is of a lowest-common-denominator society that hollows out religion. In contrast, society needs a highest-common-factor vision that draws on the best of all faiths rather than seeks to neuter them with an impoverished secularism.


Paul Vallely is Visiting Professor in Public Ethics andMedia at the University of Chester.

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