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Three books on religion and secularism

15 June 2018

David Martin considers the interaction of the sacred and secular

THE book edited by Anthony Carroll and Richard Norman derives from a conference in 2009 between the Inter Faith Network and the British Humanist Association. The idea, as expressed by Carroll, was to get away from ‘“preachy, certain, and self-righteous . . . sparring with propositions” to a dialogical approach based on lived experience, for example, of the liturgy and of the forms and usages of Christian language.

Carroll is eminently qualified to initiate such an approach. He is not only a philosopher able to grasp the etiolated discourse of British philosophy, but also understands much richer Continental philosophical traditions. Moreover, given that the underlying issues require sociological and historical treatment, he understands the Continental, especially the German, sociological traditions that are essential to getting a grip on what is at stake.

Unfortunately, somehow the format of the book inhibits the deployment of his skills, and some humanist contributors engage in the abstract modes of self-righteous aggression which he sought to avoid. Theologians are nowadays cautious about making statements outside their disciplinary remit, whereas humanist philosophers glory in it. I mean that humanists in the old sense of practitioners in the humanities feel that they can offer opinions at will about issues of (say) the secular (and secularisation), in spite of principled ignorance of the vast social-science literature; and that humanists in the newer sense of people organised against religion are just as culpable.

But there is mere ignorance as well as principled ignorance. The humanist co-editor Richard Norman begins by saying: “Over the past 200 years, as traditional religious belief has declined . . .”. What a date 1817 is to choose for the beginning of the narrative of decline! I suggest he try 1680 or 1880.

Of course, there are also serious contributions. The opening discussion between Rowan Williams and Raymond Tallis is very valuable in its helpful clarifications. But it is not much related to the Christian/humanist engagement of the book. That is, perhaps, best represented by Norman and his Roman Catholic fellow philosopher John Cottingham.

Robin Gill has the advantage of being a sociologist as well as acquainted with the style of philosophy, and so can bring sociological resources to bear that are glaringly absent elsewhere. Any discussion is disabled if you have not mastered the range of issues raised by Max Weber, Charles Taylor, Hans Joas, and Robert Bellah regarding “religious rejections of the world” and the Axial Age beginning in the first millennium BC.

The article on Charles Taylor by Ruth Abbey is helpful, because Taylor’s philosophical tradition is not a sub-variety of game-playing, and he is simultaneously a sociologist and a historian who has set the changes of the past 500 years in a quite different context from the standard approach of what he calls “exclusive humanism”. He rejects the narrative of change whereby religious understandings are constantly losing out to the alternatives.

The issues raised here are too complex to canvass, but Abbey’s conclusion is astonishing, because she holds that Taylor’s “preferential option” for religion vitiates his role as an “even-handed arbiter”, as if there could be such a role. She even tells him off from on high for thinking his approach more illuminating than the alternative.

The article by Jonathan Ree is interesting — for example, because he begins by nailing an important feature of humanism: it has bought into the myth of a built-in historical (or historicist) trend from darkness to light — the humanists’ light. They are seriously non-scientific in not taking Karl Popper’s dismantling of historicism on board. The article by Michael McGhee, a Buddhist, is illuminating because he shifts the debate away from philosophy to the more relevant ground of poetry: a cornucopia of insights.

The book by Andrew Copson mixes scrupulously fair accounts of the history of secularism, its proponents and opponents, its Christian as well as its non-Christian sources, and such theorists as Elizabeth Shakman Hurd and Alfred Stepan, with a refusal to take responsibility for what secularists have actually done.

All too briefly, he offers the essential clue when he writes of how secularists have behaved once in power. In the name of progress, they have created some of the most oppressive regimes in history. We have moved from religious orthodoxy and heresy to secular nationalist fervour and treason and secular political conformity and deviance, all punishable by death.

It is worth adding that British humanists represent next to nobody. The average secular British person has reasons for avoiding Christianity which have nothing in common with vociferous elites closeted in universities.

The book by Cécile Laborde foxed me initially by its vocabulary — for example, “disaggregating” religion. She asks: “Is there a minimal secularism — or separation between state and religion — that is required by liberal legitimacy?”, and answers: “when religious ideas and practices do not have the features that make state establishment impermissible, then the state may endorse and affirm them”; “Western-style separation between state and religion is not the only legitimate liberal model.”

She adds, in Habermasian vein, that public reasons offered by the state, e.g. the divine will, should not be inaccessible to its citizens, and that religious appeals to the public good, e.g. with regard to marriage or the right to life, cannot be ruled out as impermissible. In short, she is arguing impressively and in a properly liberal way for the viability of religious contributions to the public square.

The Revd Dr David Martin is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics.

Religion and Atheism: Beyond the divide
Anthony Carroll and Richard Norman, editors
Routledge £115 (hbk); £26.99 (pbk)
(978-1-138-89189-0 hbk)
(978-1-138-89191-3 pbk)
Church Times Bookshop £103.50; £24.30

Secularism: Politics, religion and freedom
Andrew Copson
OUP £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

Liberalism’s Religion
Cécile Laborde
Harvard University Press £57.95
Church Times Bookshop £23.35

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