The Place of Religion in Public Life

(Summary of a presentation at the Humanist Philosophers’ Day Conference, Saturday 16th July, London)

To begin, I would like to describe my approach to this discussion. I am here in the spirit of building relationships and bridges and to foster more nuanced conversations on the subject. I do feel that we need to move beyond stereotypes and beyond polarised conversations in this area.

I would like Muslims to think more seriously about the secular, and move away from knee-jerk reactions to the word ‘secular’. That’s why I helped to organise a seminar, co-edited a publication on this and have also blogged on it previously, summarising my thoughts on the issue of secularism and Islam.

But there are four further points I would like to make:

1. What are we actually talking about?

We need to be clear about what we are doing here. This is not really a conversation about belief in God, or in a religion. It is not an exploration of the questions surrounding the existence of God, nor is about the rights of people to believe in certain ideas, religious or otherwise. At its core, this is really a question of ‘how do we live together’?

Given the reality of difference, and given the presence of different values, faiths, beliefs and cultures in most parts of the world – at least in our part of the world – how do we manage those differences and live together?

I have said before, that I have a great deal of sympathy for Rawls’ notion of public reason. We do need some sort of common language to discuss matters that are deeply held and passionate to us, when we want to bring those ideas into the common, public space. This is important for a meaningful conversation, not least for the one making the interjection, as it is never a good idea to start a conversation knowing that you are likely to be misunderstood!

2. Beyond mutual stereotypes

All too often the public debate on faith and secularism brings up simplistic views that don’t help the conversation. For example when some religious people presume that those who are agnostic or atheist do not have a strong sense of morality or ethics. Or that they cannot deeply connect with the world around them in a way religious people would describe as ‘spiritual’. On the other hand, some cannot recognise any social or emotional value at all in religion, or religious people are sometimes caricatured to be wholly irrational or to hold beliefs that are so dogmatic that they inspire intolerance, violence and mayhem. A simple look at the loss of life in the name of communism, fascism, or various nationalisms shows that religious people do not have a monopoly over intolerance and violence.

In the name of moving beyond simplistic caricatures, I’m also interested in looking at society as it is (as well as, as it should be). I’m struck by the different forms of secularism operative in, for example, USA, UK and France. And can also see from the lived practice of those countries, the gulf between the ideals and realities. As a non-Christian, I would rather live in the UK, despite its (soft) establishment and relationship with the Church of England, whereas France should, in theory, be a more egalitarian, open and free space for Muslims and other minorities. But it’s not.

Furthermore perceptions, however inaccurate, are important. I find it quite amusing that some religious people think that society is going to ‘hell in handcart’ because the ‘secular establishment’ is intolerant of religion, while some humanists believe that society is going to the dogs, because the ‘religious zealots’ are too powerful.

3. Human Rights

I think we are missing a trick by not making a much bigger deal of Human Rights. The UDHR represents a profoundly important starting point bringing people together around a common set of values, aspirations and principles. They are a truly human set of ideas, articulated by a world that came together to prevent the horrors of two world wars from being repeated and to create a positive vision for human beings to live together and manage their differences.

As such, I think rather than have ‘Islamic declarations of Human Rights’ (which detracts from the universality of the project), the UDHR deserves serious attention by Muslim scholars and should be taken into consideration when articulating visions of what the Islam (and Sharia) mean today, post 20th Century. I believe this would help us to deal with, and engage better with, some of problematic discussions Muslims keep hitting against, on issues such as: polygamy, freedom of thought and religion, gender equality, etc.

4. Where are the real divides?

Finally, I would like us to think of where the real divides actually are. Are they between religions, cultures, civilisations, and nations? Are they between the religious and non-religious? Or are they actually within these ‘groups’.

I think I have more in common with, and a much stronger relationship with, my agnostic friends who are open, kind and generous than with Muslims that I know who are closed, intolerant and belligerent towards others they disagree with.

The real difference seems, to me, to be between people that are ‘open’ and ‘closed’, and societies that are open and closed.

If this is true, then we really need to shift the terms of the current debate, which often frames people against each other based on which ‘community’ they belong to or come from – be that ethnic, religious, or ideological. With such a framing, good intentions and good will can get frustrated and dissipated as the outcome is almost predictably a consolidation of pre-existent identities.

This means that we need to shift the parameters of, and the nature of, the debate and have a new type of conversation altogether.


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