Last week, I received a letter. With the letter came a survey – the British Humanist Association’s 2012 National Survey, to be precise.
Now, I’m not a member of the British Humanist Association, and nor am I likely to be one in the near future. I am, as it happens (through some process of life that I do not fully understand) a member of the Church of England (no, really, at the age of seven I started flat-out refusing to go to church – which was our Anglican Parish Church – it is a complete mystery to me how I now go to one voluntarily). But I have no problem receiving and filling in their annual survey. I may not be their target audience, but I am a member of the nation state of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, moreover, I am a member with Opinions on the role of religion in civil society, and a member of a religious organisation, and I am happy to be surveyed as such. I would hope that my participation would provide the British Humanist Association with a good spread of data and enable them to get a full and fair picture of the Nation’s views on the role of religion in our society.
Except, I’m not sure that this is what the British Humanist Association is hoping for. At least – it’s not what the accompanying letter suggests they are hoping for.
Allow me to quote:
Do you think that you need to be religious to have meaning in your life? Do you think that only religious people have values? And do you think society works better when it is based on religious ideas.
Well, that’s a lot of complex questions very simplified. I mean – the anwer to (1) is no, but there is (a) a difference between religion and faith, and different religions and faith will provide different meanings, and meaning is not necessarily truth, and yes, I think I do believe in truth – even if I believe that humans have a hard time getting at it because we’re not omnipotent, omniscient beings, and do you have five hours to have this conversation? And the answers go on at similar length of ‘No, but you’re asking ludicrously simplistic questions of a seriously complicated matter here…”
If the answer to is ‘no’ then perhaps you’re one of the growing numbers of people who feel it’s time that non-religious people came together and helped 21st century Britain become a more rational and compassionate society.
I’m sorry, what, I’m not allowed to add a ‘but’ to my ‘no’ here? Well, no, of course I’m not, it wouldn’t be good rhetoric if I were allowed to breath and add a ‘but’, would it? And good rhetoric is, of course, the key to enabling your audience towards a rational response to a situation, wouldn’t it. OH WAIT.
So, British Humanist Society, I would like to breathe and say, ‘No, but…’ and then I would like to say that I don’t think religious belief = irrational behaviour or indeed a failure of compassion. And since when were reason and compassion inevitable twins – I mean, they’re not estranged, but they’re not initmately, automatically connected either. As a Christian, I have to say, I’m not feeling the well-reasoned compassion of your position towards my faith – I’m more feeling the rhetorical force of your righteous annoyance with people who believe in god(s).
But carry on, for now, because I would like a more rational and compassionate society, and certainly a more rational and compassionate public discourse. I just don’t think it’s only the non-religious folk who are going to make that happen. I think it’s the religious and the non-religious folk together. Still, let’s see what you’d like me to do to help improve 21st century Britain.
If so, will you help the British Humanist Association speak out for a fairer, more equal society? We want a Britain where people can live good, meaningful and ethical lives with confidence – without the need for religion.
Well, I might. As long as you’re ok with me living a good, meaningful and ethical life with confidence, and with religion? K? Thanks.
You can help make it a reality by doing two… things. Firstly, will you complete and return the National Survey? And at the same time, will you send a gift of £25 to help fund our vital work?
(1) Yes. But, just so we’re clear, I do not believe that mine is the help you are looking for. (2) No.
As I’ll explain in a moment, your confidential answers and generous donations will help us promote the ideals of a secular state.
OH WILL YOU NOW. Can I just say, BHA, that the fact that my confidential answers are going to help you promote your ideas does not fill me with confidence that your 2012 National Survey is going to be the most fairly conducted and interpreted survey that was ever surveyed. In fact, it sounds to me like you already know how you would like to interpret your data set. That sounds totally reasonable to me. OH WAIT, NO, it really doesn’t. It sounds like you’d quite like to ignore my voice, if it doesn’t completely agree with the assumptions of your letter.
But continue, for now, for I am interested in the idea that Christianity, like other faiths, should be one voice amongst many in the public discourse (and after all, it’s not your fault if it turns out that not all Christians are as good at lobbying as you in the long run – maybe we just don’t have your rhetorical skills. Although, side note, if we all read Paul’s letters carefully and paid attention to their structure, we’d be *killer* at rhetoric).
My colleagues and I at the BHA belive it’s high time we made some fundamental changes to British society. We think it’s absurd that, even now, religion plays such a major role in public life… just last December, David Cameron made the suprising statement: “We are a Christian country and we should not be afraid to say so.”
Is that really true? Apart from the millions of people of other religions who also live in the UK, what about the many millions more who have no fixed religious belief? What about the many reasonable people who live their lives not be ancient religious codes but by a belief in shared human values, respect for human rights, and a concern for future generations.
Wow. Let’s just skip the bit where we’re throwing out the bathwater with the baby in the first paragraph of that chunk, and move to the bit where religious belief is presented in direct opposition to ‘shared human values, respect for human rights, and a concern for future generations.’ I studied Cicero. I know how to shout FALSE DICHOTOMY with the best Classicsts. And I would like to shout it now. In fact I’d like to jump around my bedroom waving my arms in the air yelling FALSE DICHOTOMY over and over again for all the world to hear. I’m pretty sure that the internet is just a metaphor for such behaviour anyway.
You know what – there’s another page of this letter. And I am cooked. This post is already too long. The rest of the letter takes in the B&B owners who wouldn’t let a gay couple take a room, pharmacists who won’t sell the morning after pill on religious grounds, the possible sell-off of public service such as health, education, housing and social care to religious groups. Each of those things is a legitimate concern, on which my views probably begin with, ‘Yes and No and but…’, and each is worth at least a mini-essay on it’s own right. As is the subject of how most religions share human values with each other and with people of no religion, respect human rights and care about future generations. I could strip mine the bible for relevant back-up, but we would be here all night (also, btw, strip mining the bible for relevant quotes, *so* not the way to do Christianity) – so maybe on another day it’s an issue I will tackle (though I might need to spend some timing boning up on moral philosophy first).
But I want to go back, finally, to the first paragraph of my last quote – the bit about Britain being a Christian country. I’m not sure I agree with David Cameron on that. I think the British Humanist Society might be right that we’re not a Christian country any more, and I think that I might agree with them that that would be ok, as long as Christianity and other religions get a voice.. But we were a Christian country – and the development of Christianity goes hand-in-hand with the history of our country. It’s in our politics, our wars, our social movements, and in some of our myths. I grew up in a small village named after a Celtic Saint who came to Cornwall from Ireland on a cabbage leaf. Or a millstone. I forget which – the Saint who gave his name to the village down the way did the other one, anyway. Yes, that last may be a bit daft – but rip it away and something that made up a part of our identity is ripped away with it, and mocked. Why do that to a community’s sense of self, or to a person who believes in it? Communities need their rituals and their stories – it’s where they root their shared values (which the BHA have just reminded me are really quite important); it’s how they hold themselves together and understand who they are.
Yes, it’s important that those things don’t become fixed, exclusive and fossilised – but you change as a community and a society, you don’t come out of nothing. And saying, as this letter seems to me to be saying, that the things that held us together as a society in the past were wrong, and silly, and irrational, and should be got rid of, and maybe laughed at on the way – it’s a little bit dangerous and, honestly, kind of sad. It says, ‘We are uncomfortable with who we were and where we came from,’ and actually, there’s a kind of self-loathing in it too. It is reasonable to grow and change. It’s not reasonable or compassionate to dismiss a whole section of your society who don’t want to grow and change that way with you – and not just because they’re stupid and brainwashed. They just want something a bit different from their society than you do.
So yes, let’s have a discussion about the role of religion in health care, social care, finance and education. And let’s talk about whether or not we want to have an established church, and whether we want to crown our monarchs in a religious ritual. But let’s also talk, reasonably, about what those beliefs and rituals bring to us as a society and think about what we might lose if we chucked that bathwater out in order to have a nice, clean, (thoroughly rational) baby. I’ll happily have those conversations (as should be clear by now, after this little epic), and fill in your survey. I just want you to take my answers seriously, and acknowledge them in your interpretation and presentation of Britain’s view of the role of religion in our society. But right now, I don’t think you’re going to. And that’s disappointing.