What if God was one of us?

Some musings on the current uneasy relationship between religion and secular society…


In recent weeks, there’s been a surge of news articles which detail religion coming into conflict with states that are, nominally at least, secular.

Religion is a thorny issue for secular liberals to get their heads around. A defining factor for liberals is our insistence on tolerance and inclusivity for all, and that usually includes religious freedom. The problem comes when the religions whose freedom we’re insisting on espouse beliefs that come into direct conflict with our own philosophy of tolerance – and while it may not be true of all who follow each faith, almost every major religion has one or more group that they are actively intolerant of. Women and homosexuals tend to come top of the list, with varying degrees of intolerance directed at them notably from the mainstream of all three Abrahamic faiths. But religious dogma has been used to discriminate against other groups throughout history – and that tends to be most focused on a dislike/hatred of religious groups other than themselves.

So what do we secular, inclusive liberals do when faced with the problem of tolerance for groups who tend towards intolerance? There’s a tendency towards contorted doublethink, but it’s a hard one to address without coming across as hypocritical. At this point, it’s worth noting that objections to a religious philosophy don’t (or shouldn’t) encompass all those who follow it. I know both Christians and Muslims, and not one has a problem with either my atheism or my homosexuality. Neither do I have a problem with them having beliefs that I don’t share.

No, our objections to religion (if we have them) should be directed at religious orthodoxy – those who come up with the mainstream positions of each faith on issues that might seem reactionary in a secular, inclusive country. Even here, this is far from a clear issue. Within each major faith are any number of factions, large or small, whose feelings on such issues vary wildly. Beyond the obvious division of Christians into Catholics and Protestants, there’s a variety of smaller subsets, while Islam’s notable division into Sunni and Shiah also embraces a multitude of factions within each. Indeed, Islam is difficult to ascribe any overriding, definitive philosophy to, in the absence of a central governing body like the Anglican Synod or the Catholic Vatican.

Compounding the problem is that the lines between religious faith, culture, politics and ethnicity are extremely blurred. And if there’s anything we liberals hate, it’s racial prejudice and bigoted stereotyping. But it’s not that simple. Judaism in particular is associated with a specific ethnicity, which is to ignore the wide variety of Jewish racial and cultural characteristics. Islam tends to be associated with Arabic peoples, due to its area of origin, but encompasses huge swathes of other races in the West, Asia and Africa. Nonetheless, criticism of these religions tends to be simplified into a debate which generalises any objectors to them as racists, in a way that tends not to happen with Christianity (stereotypically, and inaccurately, viewed as a faith dominated by Caucasians).

The gold standard for this is, of course, the Holocaust, which still casts such a long shadow over history that it’s the standard reductio ad absurdum response in any debate, particularly online. Adolf Hitler, ironically, made no distinction between the boundaries of faith, culture or race in his persecution of the Jews – if you had any trace of Judaism in you, whether it be genetic or cultural, off to the camps you would go. It’s still a massively emotive historical event, as evidenced by the slightly cynical manipulation inherent in the articles by Owen Jones and Jonathan Freedland which invite you to substitute “Jew” for “Muslim” in criticism of Islam “and be shocked”. As though Judaism should, somehow, be above criticism because of its long history of pogroms and persecution.

The irony is that in reducing all criticism of religion to the accusation of racism, those commentators who most strenuously oppose interference in religion tend to be guilty of the same kind of generalisation. The current wave of articles decrying the UK’s ‘Islamophobia’ is a perfect example. There undoubtedly is an excessive media fixation on Muslims in the UK (and the US, for that matter). It’s been argued (with some validity) that Islam seems more socially acceptable to criticise than other faiths. And it is utterly ridiculous that anyone writing about Islam should be required to state their positions on the faith’s more contentious philosophies in order to be taken seriously.

But to sweep all objections to Islam into the gross generalisation of ‘Islamophobia’ is similarly bigoted. There is, I think, a wide variety of people and motives in this slew of criticism. Some, like the EDL and a disturbing number of ‘neo-Nazi’ groups in Europe, genuinely do seem to be motivated by racism, or at the very least xenophobia – the irrational fear of ‘others’ that seems hardwired into the human psyche, which civilisation strives to overcome.

Then there are those who object to all religion on principle – these tend to be militant atheists of the Richard Dawkins school, who fail to notice the irony that they are constantly proselytising for their own belief system just as much as any religion does. In fact, this kind of atheism seems blind to its own illiberal prejudices, flinging insulting terms like “sky fairy”, “invisible friend” and “childlike nonsense” at believers. I tend towards atheism myself, but I realise that it’s a belief system as much as any religious philosophy, and that we atheists would find it unacceptable for devout believers to be as insulting as we often are.

However, any religion should be able to bear criticism (in much the same way as I’ve just criticised atheists), and it’s right and fair that Islam or Judaism should not be exempted from this in secular societies. Most nominally secular Western states evolved from overtly Christian ones, and liberal commentators certainly don’t shy away from pointing out Christianity’s failings.

Islam over the last few decades has been conspicuously resistant to criticism, which ironically has probably spurred more to fixate on its perceived failings than they otherwise might have. The September 11 attacks were obviously the work of a small group of fanatical extremists (which every religion has), but even before those we had the Iranian-issued fatwa on author Salman Rushdie for his perceived blasphemy in his novel The Satanic Verses. And more recently, the admittedly childish provocation of the cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad in Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten resulted in a hysterical outcry from some Muslims across the world, which encompassed death threats, violence and arson. This despite the fact the proscription on depicting the Prophet is a comparatively recent ruling in Islam, and not a specific commandment in the Qu’ran but an interpretation of the general antipathy towards icons in Islam.

Islam is also the only major religion to still rule over states as actual theocracies, and where it does, the leaders’ interpretation of their faith is massively intolerant in its treatment of those old bugbears, non-believers, women and homosexuals. Saudi Arabia has policies directed at its female population that would be considered repressive and totalitarian in secular states, while Iran’s treatment (frequently execution) of homosexuals would be considered barbaric in the West (except perhaps by the Westboro Baptist Church). In Pakistan, the draconian anti-blasphemy laws (ironically derived from colonial rules established by the British) make its religion almost totalitarian in nature.

But those are sovereign states with their own cultures, and despite Tony Blair’s fervent wishes, we don’t have a moral high ground to change their practices by force. All we can do is try to influence them by other means. We should, however, resist any pressure to exempt their beliefs from the rules of our own secular societies, and firmly refute any attempt to influence the law of the land in the name of those beliefs. That goes for fundamentalist Christians too, whose virtual hijacking of the Republican Party in America is abhorrent to the freedoms espoused in its Constitution.  Anyone should be free to believe whatever they like, and to practise whatever rites their faith demands – up to and until the point where those practices have a negative impact on others.

So, I would defend to the death Cardinal O’Brien’s right to believe that I am an abomination and bound for Hell. It’s when he starts using that belief to try and influence the laws of the land that he becomes fair game for criticism. I am not ‘racist’ against Celtic Catholics for objecting. Neither am I being anti-Semitic if I object to the partially secular state of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, nor rabidly Zionist when I assert Israel’s right to exist.

There’s a common consensus in most secular societies that religions have had to adapt to as their political power became less all-pervading. Christianity survived being told that it could no longer burn heretics, prohibit English translations of the Bible, or stone adulterers to death, and it will survive equal marriage. Islam as a philosophy seems to be adapting more slowly when in secular states, but it has adapted. There’s no reason to assume it won’t continue to do so (although trying to hurry it along can be tempting).

But what about that German ruling on infant circumcision? That’s an example of how none of this is clear cut or simple, as usual. Speaking from my own cultural perspective, it seems an act of irreversible bodily alteration carried out without consent (ie a negative impact), and should be resisted (though whether a state ban is the best way to resist it is a complex debate in itself). Muddying the waters is the fact that a great deal of infant circumcision has no religious motivation at all (notably in the US, where it’s more of a cultural norm, though this appears to be declining).

Defenders of the practice produce convincing scientific studies alluding to health and hygiene benefits, while opponents produce equally convincing studies arguing precisely the opposite. A wealth of data supporting both positions means that neither is conclusively convincing, and in the end it boils down to a question of cultural tradition. Tradition is a very hard thing to change, whether religious or not, and in the case of Judaism circumcision is so fundamentally bound up with Jewish identity that it’s virtually impossible. The statement on Abraham’s covenant with God, and its foreskin-removal requirement at the age of eight days, is pretty unequivocal.

Islamic circumcision is a more recent tradition, but still of very long standing. It does have the get out clause of not being mentioned in the Qu’ran itself, but the obligation is spelled out in Sunnah and is unlikely to find much appetite for abandonment. Christians, of course, manage to sidestep the whole issue via Christ’s New Covenant, which renders a number of Old Testament conventions obsolete.

A slightly less draconian regulation of the proposed German ban was tried in Sweden in 2001, and has had little effect on its frequency. Like all of the subjects touched on here, this is by no means a straightforward issue – what may seem a negative impact to me may seem quite the opposite to those inside a religious community. Obviously if we had deranged mohelim going around trying to circumcise the secular, that would be unacceptable. But we don’t – it’s a rite which affects Jews, and many would say positively.

And yet, we have legislated against other practices which religious communities would like to carry out internally – for example, forced marriage or female genital mutilation. Secular states have been able to do this because of an overriding consensus that these are ‘negative impacts’ (to put it mildly), a state of affairs we’ve yet to reach with circumcision, which is less demonstrably harmful. Given all of that, I’d say we need to work towards making the tradition less generally acceptable via education rather than the blunt tool of a state ban.

This lies at the heart of the problem with our acceptance (or not) of religious rites and influence on general society. These are practices which have become so deeply entrenched because of centuries, sometimes millennia, of tradition that they are rarely questioned – and yet, were they to be introduced now, many would be unfathomable and unacceptable. Obviously, this will always be the viewpoint of those outside religious communities.

The more longstanding the tradition, the less it’s questioned, hence the numerous exemptions from social rules that the Abrahamic faiths in particular benefit from. The First Amendment of the US Constitution has the balance about right – “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” – and yet the incoming President still swears the Inauguration oath with one hand on the Bible.  More recently established religions find less reverence from outsiders; Mormonism (founded in the 1820s) had to abandon its cherished practice of polygamy due to US law, and a Supreme Court ruling held that the right to “free exercise” of religion did not extend to religious practices that conflict with the law of the land.

And yet so many secular states (the UK may have an established church, but its government is nominally secular) still extend freedoms to longstanding religions that would seem distinctly peculiar if they were asked for in the present day. And in order to ensure fairness, these then have to be extended to any officially recognised religion, however bizarre it may seem (hello, Scientology).

I’d contend that in a secular society (as the US First Amendment states), we should be tolerant of religion but allow it no role in governing a populace, and further that a secular government should be able to criticise, and in some cases outlaw, traditional practices if they are judged (by majority consensus) to be unacceptable. In the UK, we should not have 26 seats in the House of Lords reserved for bishops. We should not allow religious organisations to practise outright discrimination because of their beliefs. We should not be giving state funding to faith schools whose primary raison d’etre is to perpetuate the beliefs of some of the richest organisations on Earth. And for the same reason, religious property, institutions and personnel should not be exempt from taxation (estimated to be depriving the US Treasury alone of some $71 billion a year).

Obviously I’d prefer it if everyone shared my belief system (atheism), but believers of all other stripes must feel the same, and let’s face it, it isn’t going to happen. Religions may die out – some have, over the course of history – but none of the currently prominent ones are in any danger of that. But if we are to respect them, they must respect us – and I’m not restricting that to any but ALL of them. Yes, including the Jedi.

2 thoughts on “What if God was one of us?”

  1. Hi Simon, thanks for this article – really well articulated, fair and tolerant and it’s really got me thinking. I’m a Christian (I current attend a Salvation Army church) and I think (though I may change my mind through further thought and discussion!) that you’re right about government having nothing to do with religion. For me, Christians are underestimating God if they think he needs Bishops in the House of Lords and state funded faith schools to ‘save souls’ (an idea I hate!). How much more significant would spreading the love of God be through personal relationship than through forcing it down a child’s throat at school or crow-barring it unwanted into laws and government? I think it needs to be carefully distinguished though which institutions exist to only to convert, and which are doing genuinely excellent charity work on a basis of religious belief. There are some schools and charities whose primary purpose is to offer good, free and unbiased education & services, founded by those with faith, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing, particularly whilst government doesn’t have the budget or resources to do so itself. Just a thought – thank you again for the great post! Nikki


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