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The Woolf report: a vision of hollowed-out religion

2015 December 17
by Paul Vallely

It seemed like a good idea – a commission on religion in public life. It’s a shame then that the report just released by the interfaith Woolf Institute under that badge is such a hodgepodge of interesting insights, unexamined prejudices and muddled thinking.

Let’s start with the good parts of this curate’s egg, if that’s not too narrow a simile for our diverse era. The report has important things to say on the need for greater religious literary among our opinion-makers and policy-framers. It’s good on the balance needed for sharia law to play a positive role in the UK.  It points out unhelpful legal anomalies that protect Jews and Sikhs but not Muslims. But when it argues for abolishing the collective act of worship in schools, or cutting the number of bishops in the House of Lords, it is bald and reductive.

The report lacks clarity on the tensions between declining institutional or affiliated religion and the emergence of more subtle forms of faith – not to mention what endures in the cultural and moral legacy of Christianity. It repeatedly assumes that those who say they are not religious must be humanists. And it ties itself in knots over the relationship between faith and ideas of Britishness.

When its chair, Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, launched the report on the radio it was difficult to work out whether she was being naïve or disingenuous in all this. Reading the full report makes that clear. Though it calls itself a “commission” – a word with official overtones –this self-appointed group has produced an ideological document which assumes from the outset that liberal humanism is the only sensible option in a diversifying society.

The report quotes the British Humanist Association ten times, the National Secular Society five and even the Humanist Society Scotland gets three mentions. By contrast there’s a single quote from an Anglican Archbishops’ commission and a solitary reference to a report by the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops. Humanists are crammed in, even in the most unrepresentative contexts, as with the insistence that some volunteers on Christian soup runs might be atheists.

In the end the dominant paradigm for the report is sociological. (Linda Woodhead gets ten mentions). But it lacks philosophical, theological, historical and political sophistication.

It jumbles the universe with the meaning of life. It thinks religious identity is fixed and final. It has a fuzzy portmanteau understanding of the common good. It thinks humanism began at the Enlightenment (poor Erasmus). It suggests that respect for life, human rights, peace and equality are humanist not religious values.

It takes no account of the practical politics of replacing the requirement for an act of worship with a warm and woolly “inclusive time for reflection”. It replaces evidence with assertion in decrying faith schools and neglecting the fact that religious parents also pay taxes.

The vision it offers is of a lowest common denominator society which hollows religion out. By contrast society needs a highest common factor vision which draws on the best of all faiths rather than seeking to neuter them with an impoverished secularism.



from The Church Times

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