Thursday, January 23, 2020

Religious liberty

The Prime Minister and others made some encouraging noises about religious liberty a few weeks back - supporting freedom of religion at home and abroad.  But I wonder if he knows what religious liberty really means?

I think freedom of religion is not regarded as any great thing in our culture, because religion itself is so badly misunderstood.  If religion is just the Sunday (Friday, Saturday) hobby of a minority of people; if religion is merely the private beliefs of a limited number of individuals; if religion is just a mythical underpinning for a moral framework which could in principle be separated from those mythical roots - well, in that case religious liberty is not much more of a big deal than freedom to follow the football team of your choice, or freedom to read the novels of your choice.  This sort of thing seems like it shouldn't be difficult or costly for society to grant; nor does there seem to be any reason why any particular clamour should be made about it, particularly as the number of people wanting to exercise this right seems so small.

But in fact freedom of religion means freedom to live in a completely different world from society at large, with entirely different values springing from an entirely different view of reality, and yet still to be included in social institutions and events without discrimination.

Put it like that, and I think it's a big deal.

Picture the late Roman Empire - religion here is not about private beliefs or occasional rituals for a minority; it is the whole shared world.  The reason the Roman authorities are anxious about Christians - the reason they refer to them as 'atheists' - is because they seem to be threatening to tear this whole social fabric apart.  They are opting out of the whole cultic-social-political complex, and the more people who go in this direction the more likely it is that the whole thing will collapse.  In that context, to issue an edict of toleration is a brave and testing thing to do.

So, perhaps we wouldn't call it 'religion', but I think our situation is pretty similar.  There is an assumed framework of morals and values ('British values'?) based on a particular reading of history and reality.  To opt out of it is dangerous - you might be a terrorist; you are surely a bit weird.  It's not the going to church or the beliefs that society objects to; just the fact that people insist on acting as if these beliefs were really true, in the real world.  Hard to take.

The easy and natural social response, and the one which our culture typically pursues, is exclusion - of course you're free to hold these views (we're Western, after all, and believe in religious liberty), but you can't come into the public sphere with them.  This is not genuine freedom of religion.

I wonder if our society can be, or wants to be, brave enough to have the real thing?

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