Speak now, or forever hold your peace
By Jak Dyehouse
I often pause to consider how thankful I am to live in a country where the relationship between the religious and non-religious is largely amicable. Unlike in America, where contentious issues such as birth control and school prayers flare up with alarming regularity and undying vim, in Britain we enjoy a discourse between pious killjoys and faithless heretics that is largely peaceful.
Events of recent weeks appear to have soured this happy accord, however, as the two sides have come into conflict over the role of religion in today’s society. Following a judicial ruling which outlawed the saying of prayers before the meetings of Bideford council, the issue exploded as Conservative Party co-Chair Baroness Warsi launched a blistering attack on what she saw as a rise in ‘militant secularism’, making comparisons between the efforts of secularist campaigners and the brutal rule of totalitarian regimes. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, she advocated an increased role for religion in society, arguing that faith should have “a place at the table” – although she was quick to deny that she was calling for a theocracy.
Warsi’s comments are hyperbolic and her use of totalitarian imagery is trite and unhelpful. She should be lambasted for using language that drags up what can laughably be called a ‘debate’ between two sides that differ on their very perception of reality. Attempts to truly understand each other’s viewpoint are patronising at best; argument between the religious and the faithless is entirely fruitless. Quite frankly, I’m surprised anyone can be bothered.
Instead, allow me to offer a suggestion on the contemporary role of religion in an increasingly secular society that I hope can please both sides. Particularly at a time when Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition is flakier than a communion wafer, religious leaders can play a vital role in ensuring the plurality of power in our democracy. When politicians fail to propose effective alternatives to government policy, as our system demands, we must look elsewhere for sources of inspiration. By writing challenging newspaper articles, giving considered television interviews and thoughtfully commenting on the zeitgeist, Britain’s religious leaders are perfectly placed to fulfil this role.
The fact that they retain legitimacy due to tradition, despite their unelected nature, means that they can advance alternative arguments or opinions which might, at times, fly in the face of the public mood. Certainly, sexist or homophobic diatribes should be shot down with vigour, but in the interests of holding our government to account religious leaders should be encouraged to comment on matters of government whether supportive or otherwise. To disempower influential people of faith would cause us to relinquish a unique source of authority that could not be easily replaced.
Hopefully, this is a position which can be endorsed unanimously, both by the secular and religious communities. An acceptance that religious leaders of all faiths should be given a voice would not only avoid petit squabbling over who should be saying what and when, but it might re-establish religion as a vital tool in the armoury of our democracy.