Baroness Warsi and the militant secularist

The history of the English includes a long and rich tradition of anti-clericalism and anti-religion. As she faced her Vatican audience, Baroness Warsi could have called to mind Chaucer’s vicious portraits of clerical rogues, hypocrites, and money grabbers.

The English saw through the Catholic church and its representatives, and in turn their own, reformed church. In 1589, Bishop Cooper delivered his own Admonition To The People of England, in which he complained of

“the loathsome contempt, hatred and disdain that the most part of men in these days bear …towards the ministers of the church of god. [The common people] have conceived an heathenish contempt of religion and a disdainful loathing of the ministers thereof”

Things clearly hadn’t improved by 1634, when one Joan Hoby of Buckinghamshire said of Archbishop Laud that she

“did not care a pin nor a fart  for my lords grace of canterbury … and she did hope that she should live to see him hanged”

(She needed to have lived another fifteen years). In 1642, at a time when radical social and religious ideas were varied and widespread, the Rev Edmund Calamy told the House of Commons

“the people complain of their ministers that they are dumb dogs, greedy dogs, which can never have enough”

By the time of the Enlightenment, Thomas Paine would write in The Age of Reason that

“Of all the systems of religion that ever were invented, there is no more derogatory to the Almighty, more unedifiying to man, more repugnant to reason, and more contradictory to itself than this thing called Christianity. Too absurd for belief, too impossible to convince, and too inconsistent for practice, it renders the heart torpid or produces only atheists or fanatics. As an engine of power, it serves the purpose of despotism; and as a means of wealth, the avarice of priests: but so far as respects the good of man in general it leads to nothing here or hereafter.”

and in America John Leland, Baptist cleric and friend of Jefferson could make it clear that separation of church and state was necessary:

“Government has no more to do with the religious opinions of men than it has with the principles of mathematics. Let every man speak freely without fear, maintain the principles that he believes, worship according to his own faith, either one God, three Gods, no God or twenty Gods; and let government protect him in so doing….”

Leland also warned about politicians who used religion for popular appeal, in a message that should be heeded in the Republican presidential campaign:

“Guard against those men who make a great noise about religion in choosing representatives. It is electioneering intrigue. If they knew the nature and worth of religion, they would not debauch it to such shameful purposes.”

and he was dismissive of tolerance:

“The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever…The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free”

This last is topical: there is an argument that secularism has transformed into an aggressive atheism exemplified by Richard Dawkins and that greater “tolerance” is needed from secularists. But there are serious problems with that view, which:

  • implies inequality, and as Leland rightly objects would make all conversations patronising
  • assumes religions and religious sects can co-exist peaceably
  • without total separation of Church from State, creates rigidity and unfairness by perpetually embedding (selective) religious rituals into political practice
  • discards the meanings of secularism and atheism

The advantage of a secular state is that it both permits equality between the religious and the non-religious buy the protection of law to the security and benefits of living in that state. As such, it is no more than a restatement that protection is afforded by the state on the premise that individuals and organisations should not be at liberty to harm others. It is a recognition that the religious are no less likely to harm others than the non-religious, drawn from a western European history of immense harm perpetrated over long periods to individuals and communities by religious conflict. The soldiers of the New Model Army who could not be prevented from vandalising churches and relics were as likely to be expressing their sectarian views as their anticlericalism; heirs to the thoughts of Joan Hoby and “the most part of men” admonished by Bishop Cooper.

For Baroness Warsi to visit the head of the Catholic Church and call for the religious to rise up against the oppression of militant secularists shows her to have little understanding of this English history. Members of the generation which led the Allied forces in the second world war, officers such as Montgomery and Bomber Harris, often used the language of Christian battle. But generations born since that war have been quietly putting religion in its place: as something that people can do but without the right to impinge on others’ liberty.

Moreover, the Baroness has set aside the history of England and Ireland, and the Reformation, to choose a curious ally in her campaign. She should be called on to explain why the Catholic church with its record of child abuse and antipathy to birth control, its history of Inquisition, and its belief in the ineradicable sin of woman, should have a greater role to play in public affairs.

Humans make decisions based on faith, or “gut feel” or intuition as they make rational decisions. The point is that Faith-based decisions are as unlikely to deliver public good as actions based on gut-intuition or rationality fooled by illogic or poor evidence. It is clear from both the intent and impact of the Welfare Reforms that one of the most openly Christian members of the Coalition government is capable not only of malign legislation, but of justifying it as moral and right.

The difference – and the reason why church and state must be separated – is that rational, evidence-based decisions on which actions to take to improve the well-being of society are more likely to achieve that aim than Faith-based decisions.

[Footnote: liberal use is made of the excellent “The World Turned Upside-Down, Radical Ideas during the English Revolution”  by Christopher Hill


One thought on “Baroness Warsi and the militant secularist

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