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Reductive secularism is no answer

09 December 2016

Instead, the richness that religion brings should be celebrated, says Paul Vallely

THE journalist and author Sir Simon Jenkins has produced a beautifully photographed architectural guide to cathedrals in England, which, he says, for “a millennium . . . have been objects of pilgrimage for those seeking faith, consolation and beauty” (Books for Christmas, 25 November). It is a sympathetic volume; so it was odd to hear him suggesting on the radio recently that their current popularity was despite, rather than because of, the fact that they are places of worship.

Today, cathedrals appeal to “people who are fringe-religious, who don’t want worship [or] all that banging on about Jesus”, Sir Simon, the former head of the National Trust, said. Rather, they want somewhere that is quiet, where they “can contemplate life and themselves, in a beautiful environment”. Cathedrals provide that, in contrast to the nation’s parish churches. “The Church has abandoned most of these buildings in all meaningful senses,” he said. They would be better turned into village halls, post offices, or pubs.

A similarly reductive secularist view of society was on show this week in the report by Dame Louise Casey, the Government’s “integration tsar”. It calls for “British values” to be taught in schools. It wants immigrants to swear “an oath of integration” in the light of “cultural and religious practices [that] run contrary to British values and sometimes our laws”. The aggressive tone of the Casey report seems more likely to alienate rather than to integrate many Muslims.

Some of what she proposes makes sense. Few would object to projects to help young people to mix. More English classes for immigrants would be good, especially since the deep cuts to budgets after David Cameron declared the “death of multiculturalism” in 2011. But the report focuses too much on Muslims (249 mentions), and insufficiently on Eastern European immigrants (only 14 references to Poles). And, in a critique of Lady Warsi, it confuses “race, ethnicity, origin and faith”.

A pluralist democracy needs a balance between faith and reason. The one enriches the other. And both are impoverished if they are seen alone. Accommodating this is often uncomfortable. I feel uneasy at the number of women on our streets with only their eyes visible through the slit in their niqab. And yet I defend their right to wear them.

The imposition of secular law on religious believers can be permitted only where it has a negative impact on others. If some groups want to live apart, or educate their children separately, or marry spouses from abroad, it would be an unreasonable curtailment of personal freedom to object. If, as is claimed, some sharia councils condone wife-beating, ignore marital rape, or encourage forced marriages, then we have existing laws which can be enforced to combat these. But we must avoid reinforcing what Dame Louise herself calls the “vicious circle”, in which Muslims feel blamed for terrorism and extremism, which in turn leads to suspicion, mistrust, and hostility.

The answer lies not in reductive secularism, but in celebrating the richness that religion can bring. The thin gruel of consumerist materialism is not enough — which is why shoppers in Bath, for example, have been leaving the Christmas markets and muzak to head for the abbey, where 1000 people are cramming in each day for short services. The religious purchase on the common imagination remains far stronger than many people seem to think.


Paul Vallely is Visiting Professor in Public Ethics and Media at the University of Chester. www.paulvallely.com

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