Why religion can never be ‘a private matter’

Polly Toynbee: committed to reasonable debate Photo: Ben Birchall/PA Wire

It is nice to know that there is someone out there who thinks what I think. I mean of course Andrew Brown over at the Guardian’s Comment is Free who has written an excellent piece on how militant secularists fail to understand the rules of secular debate. I urge you to read what he has to say here. Brown refers to an earlier posting by Julian Baggini which invokes the philosophy of John Rawls – one of the philosophers who is the subject of my doctoral thesis as it turns out. We need to listen to Rawls now more than ever, I think, as he does provide us with a way out of the “dialogue of the deaf” which much talk of religion has become these days. There is a good if dense article about Rawls provided by the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy here.

Why is Rawls important?

First of all, he provides us with a way of understanding pluralism and living with pluralism: we all have our belief systems which we all believe to be true, but rather than concentrating on their mutual incompatibility, we can act in a way that springs from shared values. Thus Catholics and atheists, though approaching the problem from very different angles, can join together in combating poverty. Catholics and atheists can find common ground, or what Rawls calls an “overlapping consensus”.

The second thing that Rawls points out is that religious people are welcome (as is everyone else) to the conversation, but they must express what they want to say in a way that is accessible to all. (He calls this “The Proviso”.) This is illustrated by the Catholic Church’s approach to the question of abortion. The Church never invokes Scripture when talking of abortion, because scriptural authority is not universally recognised. Rather the Church speaks about the right to life, because the language of rights is something, in theory at least, that can be grasped by all, irrespective of their religious beliefs or lack of them.

What Brown and Baggini are pointing out is that many secularists are not being Rawlsian enough: they are failing to engage with the language of universal reason, and failing to credit that Catholics and other religious people, when they speak, speak reasonably. Funnily enough, one person who does seem committed to the Rawlsian approach is Polly Toynbee.

She writes:

I will defend to the death anyone’s right to practice any faith, if it breaks no law, interferes with nobody’s rights nor claims undue public policy influence. Church bells, calls to prayer, displays of crucifixes, beards or side-locks are freedoms, alongside bare midriffs and knicker-short miniskirts. Personally, I am affronted by women in face veils, but that’s my problem. I will argue against them but freedom of speech, thought and dress are non-negotiable.

I can only applaud what she says. But she also says this:

Ipsos Mori found 74% of Christians consider religion should be a private matter and should not influence public policy, so even most Christians are secularists.

The last bit is right, or partly right. Most, indeed all, Christians are or ought to be secularists, as they should all recognise the autonomy of the saeculum, the world. In other words, believing in God, we believe he created the world with its laws and that these laws are not arbitrary but are underpinned by the rule of reason. That is what secularism is, a belief in the autonomy of reason, which in theological terms we call “theonomous (ie God-given) autonomy”. Atheists will not agree about the origin of reason in God, but they will surely agree that reason is non-negotiable, indeed it is the basis of all negotiation. Hence we can discuss things like face-veils, using the langauge that reason gave us (and as it happens I complete agree with Ms Toynbee about face-veils: I think they are an affront to reason, but I think to make them illegal would itself be unreasonable.)

However, what is this about religion being “a private matter”? This is misleading. Private matters of their nature often spill over into the public sphere. Prayer is private, but if I pray it may well influence my public behaviour: it may make me more tolerant and loving to people who disagree with me, for example. Again, sex is private, but marriage is public, but the two are clearly connected.

Finally, Ms Toynbee criticises religious privilege, but please let us be careful here. When she talks of the monarchy and the House of Lords, she is correct. These are Anglican privileges, and I do not defend them. But when she talks of Church schools, we need to be clear that the freedom of association of religious people is not a privelege, it is a right.