Will Hutton and Richard Dawkins. Photographs: Felix Clay and Murdo MacLeod
Britain became engulfed in a culture war last week as secularists and believers clashed over the role of religion in public life. Even the Queen intervened to defend the Church of England’s role.Richard Dawkins, whose survey about Christianity in the UK ignited the row, defends his position on secularism, faith and tolerance in conversation with Will Hutton of the Observer
I write in defence of liberalism – a tradition as traduced by Baroness Warsi sounding off in the Vatican about a liberal elite underminingreligion‘s necessary and important centrality in national life as it is by your high profile campaign to convert us all to atheism. There are many dimensions to liberalism – proportionality, due desert, mutual respect, belief in pluralism and tolerance of dissent – but we liberals would no more want to pillory those who have faith than we would want to endorse a philosophy that for all its appeal to rationality does not respect difference.
Thus we are neither the virus of which Warsi complains nor your foot soldiers, even while as a liberal I would defend to the last your expression of your atheist views. You play an important role in our national life in provoking a high octane debate. But I can’t join your campaign. Liberalism is a doctrine of live and let live, and there has to be a very high threshold of harm before that liberal principle can be qualified.
Of course when religion is carried to absurd and dangerous degrees – the Tea Party movement in the US or Islamic fundamentalism – I am opposed, but for the same reasons I recoil from any zealot. George Osborne’s irrational zealotry on debt and deficit reduction is a much more serious threat to our wellbeing than Archbishop Rowan Williams’s Anglicanism. Indeed paradoxically the Church of England he leads is a great liberal redoubt – an institution that embodies proportionality, tolerance of dissent and respect for others along with considerable moral authority.
It is our ally, not our enemy, as we are discovering again in its battle against the devastating and thoughtless welfare cuts and the argument for a responsible capitalism. It is why so many English people support it even while their practice and understanding of Christianity is uncertain. Please don’t confuse that hesitancy with their quiet respect – even love – of an institution they understand and feel they need.
Tolerate it and them.
We really agree. I am as committed to liberalism as you. That’s why my foundation is campaigning for secularism, not atheism. There are many religious secularists, including Gandhi, Martin Luther King, plenty of clergy, JF Kennedy and indeed every religious American who upholds the constitution.
I personally – as opposed to my foundation – would be happy to persuade people towards atheism, but there is nothing illiberal about persuasion. What is illiberal is not persuasion but imposition of one’s views. And the government, in its determination to “do God”, imposes religion on us. Bishops in the House of Lords is just one of many examples.
Ministers justify such impositions by appeals to the 72% of the population who, according to the 2001 census, are Christian. But was this impressive figure inflated by people who, though they self-identify as Christian in the census, aren’t really religious at all? No decent liberal could object to non-religious people choosing to call themselves Christian on the census form. It’s their choice and, as a cultural Anglican, I can even sympathise. But we can object if the consequently inflated number of “Christians” is used to justify illiberal imposition of religiously inspired policies.
How could we discover whether the Christian tally is inflated? The 2011 census can’t help because it baldly asked for religious affiliation, no supplementary questions. The UK branch of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (not atheism, please note) commissioned Ipsos MORI to poll, in the week immediately after the census, those people who ticked the Christian box: the “Census Christians”.
And what Ipsos MORI found was devastating. First, the number of Census Christians has dropped from 72% to about 54%. And a high proportion of the 54% are not religious in any sense that could legitimately be used to justify a government policy of “doing God”. The survey is large, thorough and terminally damaging to a “do God” policy. Please read it on the web (tinyurl.com/6rrso48). You’ll be astonished at the low levels of religious knowledge, belief and practice among UK Christians, and at their very clear opposition to religion having special influence on public policy.
All good wishes, Richard
Yes, we do share some common ground. You say you are both liberal and a cultural Anglican: so am I – although I think the cultural Anglicanism we like does not come without the religious dimension which I am prepared to indulge unlike you. Or are you more secretly tolerant? That would make a good front page story! I also agree about the imposition of religion by public authority. I resile from politicians “doing God”. It is not their business to proselytise, especially when they are so selective about what they like and dislike. It is supreme hypocrisy to invoke the values of public religion one week, and then damn the bishops when as Christians they necessarily campaign against pauperising already weak people through the current welfare bill.
But I am slightly bemused by your stance. Of course I’ve looked at the results of your poll, and what I find striking is the still large proportions of respondents who profess some attachment to Christianity – much larger than I would have expected. Not sure the results are quite as devastating as you portray. I also think your distinction between atheism and secularism is sleight of hand. Secularism unsupported by atheism is nonsensical. The reason why a secularist objects so strongly about the extension of religion into the public sphere – and even its private practice – is because its adherents are delusional, and, using your own words, imposing a delusional set of values and practices on others.
Nor do I understand what you mean by religious secularists: it sounds like “expansionary fiscal contraction” – a contradiction in terms. Martin Luther King and Gandhi certainly had secular ambitions, but their inspiration and inner strength came from religious conviction. You’ve made your reputation by being one of the country’s most articulate atheists. Don’t muddy the waters!
I guess what we dispute is comparatively narrow – but nonetheless important. I am agnostic rather than atheist, which means I am much more well-disposed to the values and sensibility of faith. It also means I set a higher bar for my objections. I object to Baroness Warsi, Rick Santorum and radical Islam alike – but not to longstanding rituals such as prayers before council meetings or even in schools. I am more selective about my fights, and more anxious to protect my general liberalism and tolerance.
“Secularism unsupported by atheism is nonsensical.” Really? You mean the US first amendment is nonsense? The Indian constitution? Their idealist founders enshrined secularism in those constitutions because they wanted all religions to be free: no religion should dominate; no religion should impose. Secularism is supremely liberal, the epitome of tolerance, and you, Will, should be the first to treasure it.
Gandhi’s and ML King’s inner strength may well have come from religious conviction but they were passionate secularists because they believed religion was a private matter – inner, indeed – and an area in which, for everyone’s sake, it was important that the state remained neutral.
That doesn’t mean religious people shouldn’t advocate their religion. So long as they are not granted privileged power to do so (which at present they are) of course they should. And the rest of us should be free to argue against them. But of all arguments out there, arguments against religion are almost uniquely branded “intolerant”. When you put a cogent and trenchant argument against the government’s economic policy, nobody would call you “intolerant” of the Tories. But when an atheist does the same against a religion, that’s intolerance. Why the double standard? Do you really want to privilege religious ideas by granting them unique immunity against reasoned argument?
You are entitled to decide that cultural Anglicanism “doesn’t come without the religious dimension” and I am entitled to decide that it does. But then you say “Or are you more secretly tolerant?” So, not to believe something is intolerant? When I was sub-warden of New College I would always say grace at dinner. Doesn’t the fact that I didn’t believe the words make my willingness to say them, out of respect for tradition, an act of tolerance?
What about prayers before council meetings? I once upbraided my American atheist colleagues for fussing about “In God we Trust” on dollar bills, and other “tokenism”. Unlike grace at college dinners, this is not ancient, by the way: it dates from the McCarthy era. Nevertheless, I said there were more worthy targets to attack, for example tax-exemption for churches.
My atheist colleagues robustly retorted that “In God we Trust” is no mere harmless token. Its presence on dollar bills is regularly used by politicians as “evidence” that America is a Christian country, which justifies the imposition of religious values – for example on abortion – by law. Which is where we came in.
All good wishes, Richard
Of course I treasure secularism: it is the great Enlightenment gift. But you appeal to secularism as though there is common agreement there is only pure securalism: zero place for religion except as a private matter and only a place for liberalism and reason – which leads me to my point that such pure secularism must be backed by atheism. But I am not so sure, especially in societies like our own where so many people (as your poll shows) profess allegiance to Christianity that we can define secularism in such purist terms.
Of course we can agree that nobody wants a theocracy, and the founders of both the American and Indian constitutions were right to protect their countries from that risk given the historic and cultural contexts in which they founded their states. But there was little risk of church and state eliding in Britain 200 years ago despite our very imperfect unwritten constitution; there is zero risk today. To raise its spectre is specious.
What we are debating surely is what constitutes the good society in a predominantly but necessarily not purely secular society. What do we understand by liberal tolerance? And where do we draw the boundaries of religious faith encroaching on the public sphere, knowing that there is no risk of a British theocracy?
You betray the core dilemma when you dismissively write that I am entitled to say that cultural Anglicanism needs a religious dimension and you are entitled to say that it does not. That is because you implicitly recognise that when we discuss faith, argument becomes very difficult. Argument stops and “entitlements” begin. But I want an argument – and it centres on what we will tolerate.
Jürgen Habermas says that human nature needs both secularism and rationality on one hand, and faith and belief on the other; that to imagine pure secularism is utopian. I am in the same place. That is why I think the liberal Church of England needs its capacity to express faith which we must tolerate or it becomes a lifeless shell. It is also better, if we are to have churches and faith, that we have a liberal church that has come to terms with secularism. I think you should make your attacks more forensic, more generous and less absolutist.
I am struck by the fact that, despite your emphasis on liberalism, you are exemplifying the distorted and illiberal way atheism and secularism are portrayed by their opponents. (And please stop conflating the two: atheism is the lack of belief in gods, secularism is the view that governments should be neutral on the subject of belief in gods.)
It has been obvious since the publication of The God Delusion in 2006 that many supporters of religion have preferred to ignore its arguments and just repeatedly claim that it’s full of rage and hatred, fundamentalism and intolerance instead – traits that are not recognised by most people who have actually read it. The less-than-subtle message is: “He’s strident and shrill so you can ignore what he says.” Yet this alleged stridency consists in nothing more than clearly and reasonably challenging religious claims in the same straightforward way that no one bats an eyelid over when the subject is anything other than religion.
And now, when the issue is not atheism at all, but the role of religion in public life, the same stunt is being pulled. The mere act of commissioning a scrupulously factual survey from a highly respected, impeccably impartial polling organisation has been described by an editorial in one of our leading newspapers as “hysterical”, and others are piling in with similarly intemperate words and rather desperate attempts to divert attention from the cool and sober findings of the research.
There is a concerted attempt to make out that our real agenda is not the liberal one of ending unfair privilege in public life but, as you put it earlier, a “campaign to convert us all to atheism”, to “pillory those who have faith”, and as something that runs counter to the principle of “live and let live”. Never mind the fact that – as Ipsos MORI discovered – three-quarters of UK Christians share the view that religion should not have special influence in public life (which is practically the definition of secularism)! No – let’s start by misrepresenting secularism as atheism and go on to portray it as the illiberal persecution of the religious! Never mind that the whole goal of secularism is fair, equal treatment for followers of all religious beliefs and of none! Let’s divert attention from that, and go out of our way to paint it as aggressive and intolerant and illiberal.
If saying that religion should be a private matter and should not have special influence in public life is illiberal, then 74% of UK Christians are illiberal too. If it is intolerant to say that religious belief should not exempt you from compliance with the law, then 72% of UK Christians are intolerant too. These are mainstream, humane and liberal attitudes, not the obsession of an intolerant few.
Secularism is categorically not saying that the religious may not speak out publicly or have a say in public life. It is about saying that religion alone should not confer a privileged say in public life, or greater influence on it. It really is as simple as that. Surely any true liberal must agree?
All good wishes, Richard
Your poll helps to confirm an important part of my argument: the majority of self-described British Christians seem to manage their faith while simultaneously acknowledging it should have firm public limits. They are not demanding more, and as a result most of the rest of us think that the pluses of a moderate Christianity, even along with some of the historical detritus (bishops in the House of Lords etc) offset the minuses. It may even help keep the extremes in check.
The situation here is broadly OK, although we have to be watchful. But it is why in a British context your critics can portray you as militant and hysterical – but why in an American or Islamic context where the public impact of religion is potentially much more dangerous your stance is a vital corrective. Different religions and faiths represent different threats – but some, like the Church of England, can be positively beneficial.
That, at least, is where my liberalism leads – and during our exchanges I’ve wondered if your position is not closer to mine than I suspected. See you soon I hope.
This has been a pleasure, but I fear we must close. Yes, the majority of self-described Christians accept religion’s public limits. More of them oppose than support bishops in the Lords, for example. My worry is that the recorded numerical strength of nominal Christians like you (albeit reduced now from 72% to 54%) is exploited by the minority of less enlightened Christians who want to overstep those limits: who complain of being “persecuted” when they can’t discriminate against gays, for instance. Discrimination is not liberal. Arguing against discrimination is not intolerance.
Two final points: First, arguing against religious belief is not hysterical, militant, or totalitarian. It’s what we do in all other fields of discourse, where no one viewpoint can claim privileged immunity to argument.
Nor is it the same as saying people shouldn’t have the right to hold, and speak, their beliefs – which of course I would absolutely never do, despite numerous mendacious claims to the contrary. Second, secularism isn’t something we need only when threatened with theocracy, any more than democracy is something we need only when threatened with dictatorship. These are principles resting on fairness and justice for all. Something we are surely able to agree about.
All good wishes, Richard
The Observer | Will Hutton and Richard Dawkins | Sunday 19th February 2012
Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, is an emeritus fellow of New College, Oxford; Will Hutton is principal of Hertford College, Oxford
A QUESTION OF FAITH
Atheist councillor Clive Bone proposes a motion at Bideford town council that the tradition of having prayers before council meetings ceases. His motion is rejected.
Bone complains to the National Secular Society which announces it will seek a judicial review to end the practice, claiming it breaches human rights.
High court rules that councils in England and Wales have “no power” to say prayers as part of formal meetings and that to do so is “not lawful”.
Former archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey warns that Christianity is being “marginalised”. Speaking after the ruling, Carey said he was concerned that people hostile to religion were trying to redefine the public role of religious faith.
Conservative party co-chairman Baroness Warsi warns of what she calls the “militant secularisation” of society and proposes that Christianity is given a central role in public life. An Ipsos MORI poll, conducted for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (UK), finds that 74% of people agree religion should not influence public policy. About one in eight (12%) think it should.
The Queen, in a speech at a multifaith reception at Lambeth Palace, declares her belief that the concept of the established church is “commonly under-appreciated” and “occasionally misunderstood”. She says the Church of England has a duty to protect the freedom of all faiths in the country.
The communities secretary, Eric Pickles, signs an order fast-tracking a change in the law to overturn the high court ban on councils starting meetings with prayer. It will mean councils can perform any action which an individual citizen is capable of carrying out.