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The lady’s not discerning

2010 October 25
by Paul Vallely

“Keeping religion out of politics” is the subtitle of the new book by the philosopher Mary Warnock. Its publication, just after Pope Benedict XVI repeatedly addressed the same subject during his recent visit to the UK, offers an interesting counterpoint to a papal visit which did not bring the fire-and-brimstone condemnations of our atheistic society which many had predicted.

Baroness Warnock, one suspects, might have been happier had they come to pass, for that would have leant into her rather odd argument that in modern Britain religion and politics are hopelessly entangled giving the godly undue power over the godless. But where the philosopher selects her facts to fit her arguments the theologian pontiff did the opposite. He came in listening mode. He had listened before he came, and penned a series of well-judged speeches and homilies which acknowledge the great achievements of the British political tradition and urged us now not to throw those away in a bonfire of materialist utilitarian populism.

If you’d read Lady Warnock’s recent article on the book in the Church Times you would have found very little with which to disagree. Every parliamentarian has an equal right to express an opinion, and vote in accordance with moral conviction. Dogma must not replace conscience. Theocratic authority is no substitute for democracy, etc, etc. Nothing there to justify the book’s title: Dishonest to God.

The book is, aptly enough, a bit of a curate’s egg. There are some provocative if unoriginal arguments about abortion and euthanasia, and a good section on utilitarianism, natural law and human rights – with all of which she finds flaws. She has positive things to say about religion’s role in enriching the spiritual life of the nation and doesn’t want to see the Church of England disestablished.

Her main quibble is with there being bishops in the House of Lords, and the fact that most peers are respectful of their contribution. There is a peevish tone to her complaints about “a cabal of bishops” having “undue influence on the outcome of debates on legislation concerned with moral manners”. In a peculiar way the book is an extended pensée d’escalier after the lack of success of her support of Lord Joffe’s euthanasia bill.

Her essential objection is to the notion that all morality derives ultimately, or originally, from religion. And when religious folk insist that this isn’t their view she insists that it is, really – but they are just not consciously aware of it. Talk about the sanctity of life, for example, relies on inherited theological dogma: “to describe something as sacred is to invest it with the air of the supernatural, to give it a mysterious value above the value we may attach to the merely profane”. Religious people cannot conceive of “the good” without reference to the supernatural. “It is taken for granted by many Christians that the main point of religion is to provide moral certainties.”

All that is wrong. There is nothing necessarily religious about the idea that without some higher transcending value liberal democracy is nothing but populism. Sophocles asserted that there was a higher law than earthly law through Antigone. The American Declaration of Independence began by averring “we hold these truths to be self-evident”. The humanist avowal that human life has an intrinsic value in itself is another such affirmation.

And if it is true that religious authorities sometimes try a bit of strong-arming – as the  Vatican did in 2002 in a document on “The Participation of Catholics in Political Life” – it doesn’t follow that Catholic politicians feel obliged to obey the papal recommendations. Not the ones I know, at any rate.

But it is downright slippery of the noble baroness to suggest that politicians with religious beliefs are engaged in some kind of parliamentary double-think when, as in the debate on assisted dying, “after a nodding reference to the religious argument about the sanctity of life” peers “went on to use purely secular arguments derived from the disastrous consequences they foresaw if the law were changed.”  It is perfectly possible to believe in God, and fear that old people will feel pressurised into euthanasia if it is made legal, without there being either a logical consequence or contradiction involved.

What really seems to rankle is that “the mischief lies in the assumption by most peers that bishops are moral experts”  (Presumably only philosophers can claim to be that.) And if it is the case, as she suggests, that many peers “fail to take seriously their fellows who are atheist or humanists” perhaps that has more to do with the quality of their logic rather than their lack of religious belief. The Church may have no right to demand exemptions from anti-discrimination laws but it is hard to see why it is wrong to offer the nation guidance on how to vote before a general election. “Believers and non-believers have equal rights to make their voices heard”, she says, but she seems to imply that the nations should take less notice of believers in order, to quote the final words of the book, “to fend of the forces of theocracy”.

The problem with our present over-heated times is that the arguments at the poles of the debate about religion and politics – on both sides – are overzealously stated. The response of the Archbishop of Westminster to the papal visit was to ask Catholics to make the sign of the cross more often in public, as if they were all superstitious Premiership footballers imported from exotic foreign locales. Preach the gospel every day, said St Francis, and if necessary use words. In the end all Baroness Warnock has is words, and they are not enough. But the Church, too, needs to take care in both what is says, and what it does.

from Third Way

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