THIS week was mainly stories illustrating that religion is, for the papers, something that other people do. Take the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) report into child-protection in religious bodies. This got a good show in The Guardian, which explained that “IICSA’s investigation examined child protection in 38 religious organisations and settings in England and Wales, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptists, Methodists, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, Hinduism, Buddhism and nonconformist Christian denominations.” This is an extraordinary jumble, tumbling together tiny sects with world religions, and somehow distinguishing Baptists and Methodists from “nonconformist Christian denominations”.
It goes on to explain that the report says: “What marks religious organisations out from other institutions is the explicit purpose they have in teaching right from wrong; the moral turpitude of any failing by them in the prevention of, or response to, child sexual abuse is therefore heightened.” But I don’t think that this is fair. It suggests that it is only religious institutions that have as an explicit purpose in teaching right and wrong.
Surely, all the institutions of the modern state share this purpose. That is why we have laws against child abuse at all — because it’s wrong; that is why there are laws with an explicitly pedagogical purpose, such as the hate-crime laws. The State itself claims moral authority. This is why the conditions in our prisons are so completely shaming. And every appeal to “fundamental British values” — still more the demand that they be taught in secular schools — is an explicit statement of right and wrong.
YOU can say that religious institutions are unique in that their victims tend to trust them. But I’m not entirely sure that that’s true, now. People are supposed to trust the social services as well. But the last IICSA report to come out dealt with the terrible failings of Lambeth Council in the 1970s: “It is hard to comprehend the cruelty and sexual abuse inflicted on children in the care of Lambeth Council over many years, by staff, by foster carers and their families, and by volunteers in residential settings.”
The biggest of the Council’s children’s homes was the subject of allegations against 177 members of staff or individuals connected with the home, involving at least 529 former residents. The report continues: “The true scale of the sexual abuse against children in Lambeth Council’s care . . . is certain to be significantly higher than is formally recorded.”
These are figures far worse than anything proved or even alleged against a religious body of comparable size. But they will never get covered in the way in which the scandal of the Magdalene laundries was covered in Ireland. As Noel Annan wrote about the tergiversations of the New Statesman at the time of Munich, when it was arguing simultaneously for standing up to Hitler and against rearmament: “We do not demand consistency in our favourite journals. We want reassurance; and the best editors are casuists.”
The internet, about which I was grumbling two weeks ago (Press, 27 August), has only amplified a process of collective self-delusion which was well under way in 1938.
THEN there was a fantastically confused piece by Matthew Syed in The Sunday Times, vaguely knotting together the IICSA report with the 20th anniversary of 9/11: “From the aftermath of 9/11 until today, we have colluded in the pretence that the motives of religious terrorists have nothing to do with religion. Barack Obama, talking about Isis, said that its creed ‘is not Islamic’. Tony Blair said that suicide bombers do not subscribe to Islam but to a ‘false’ interpretation of it.
“What does it even mean to say that some interpretations of Islam are ‘true’ and others ‘false’? When scientists disagree, they perform experiments to resolve the dispute. This is why science, on the whole, converges upon better, more explanatory theories.
“How do Muslims resolve disputes? When a Shia says that a Sunni is an impostor or an Isis warrior says the Taliban are infidels, who is correct? As far as I can see, disagreement involves little more than restating one’s own interpretation of an ancient text or appealing to divine revelation.”
The whole conceit depends on the assumption that “we”, whoever “we” are, do things entirely differently, and run our societies scientifically, on the basis of uncontroversial rationality. No evidence is offered for this, perhaps because none is possible. The idea that it is the other side who are the tribal ones is the foundation of almost everything written in defence of liberalism these days.
None the less, his prescription is that “We should be more confident in combating online madrassas, extremist schools, and other forums of indoctrination. . . For the greatness of liberal societies is predicated not upon dogma but pluralism in values, a willingness to live alongside those who disagree, and to embrace the paradox that our most cherished opinions may one day be superseded.”
Certainly this passes the Annan test, in that it lacks even the appearance of consistency. But I worry that there must be people who find it reassuring as well. The problems of liberal democracy cannot, in fact, be solved by the mindless incantation of contradictory slogans.