Thursday, 23 July 2009

Secularism Shouldn't Cold Shoulder All People of Faith

I see (via Simon Wilson) that Tim Montgomerie over at ConservativeHome has pointed out that the National Secularist Society* (NSS) want to do away with people of religion in the House of Commons. They have said about David Kerr:

"The concern for voters would be that such a person would have their allegiance to the Church and not to the SNP. It is one thing to bring your religious beliefs to politics, but it is another to bring the dogmas of a right-wing Catholic organisation. That would be the worry for voters."

The HSS will argue that this only applies to members of Opus Die but their wording and the title of their society would point to their underlying agenda.

In 2005 I faced Michael Connarty a well known MP in the British Humanist Society. He is well aware that I was one of two of his opponents in that campaign who confessed a Christian faith. But I'm sure that if you were to ask Michael should that disbar me from seeking election to the commons he would say of course not. The only thing he would argue that should prevent me from sitting in the House of Commons are my views on policies.

Indeed many of my secular friends feels that surely my faith must shape my politics, while many of my Christian friends accuse my politics of affecting my faith. I guess somewhere in the middle is where the truth lies. Indeed if you were to look at my voting, speaking and writing record I'm sure you would be hard pressed to guess or prejudge just how you'd expect me to react based purely on my faith. Indeed I did blog against a lot of fellow Lib Dems on the matter of how liberal are we on the matter of people's believes over some of the clamp downs on religion in recent months.

If we are to have a representative democracy part of that democracy must still be those of faith, all faiths in our country. Yes some of them will have very conservative views on a number of ethical matters, but not all people of faith are that bound by that when they come to matters of conscious. Charles Wesley was actually under fear of personal assault when he preached from the pulpit to end slavery for example. There are Christians on both sides of the debate regarding human sexuality and abortion for example. It is not just as black and white as the NSS would maybe want to have us believe.

No doubt this may spark some debate from the usual quarters, but we can't go blocking people from seeking election for any reason we just don't happen to agree with. If they are way out of line then we need to win the debate, show them up for what they are. But merely being of faith is not one of those reasons. Many of those as Simon pointed out were actually at the vanguard of social reforms going against the norms of society. Don't forget it was son of the Manse David Steel who he introduced his Private Members Bill in 1967 to legalise abortion, although Roy Jenkins had wanted him to sponsor a bill on homosexual law reform to incorporate Scotland when he came up in the ballot. So the NSS and others shouldn't tar everyone of faith with the same brush, sometimes we're the most revolutionary, forward-thinking, risk-averse people out there.

* UPDATE: Correction has been made as I originally posted Human Secularist Society instead of National Secularist Society. There may have been some confusion with the Humanist Society of Scotland who have made no statement on David Kerr.


  1. Faith certainly seems to be a poor predictor of political policy; as you allude, the Christian bible was used both to condone and condemn slavery, to use one prominent historical example.

  2. Stephen

    A little correction to begin with: the National Secular Society (NSS) are the ones who made comments about David Kerr's membership of Opus Dei. There is no Human Secular Society, but there is an HSS: the Humanist Society of Scotland, which I'm the Public Affairs Officer of. We certainly haven't made any statement about David Kerr. I'd appreciate it if you'd clear up the confusion in the original post.

    As for the substance, I don't believe that personal faith is a barrier to standing for any public office. However, some views which are held in the name of faith may be of concern to voters.

    For example, if a candidate were a young-earth creationist, who believed that the earth was literally 6,000 years old, then I would be concerned at their apparent willingness to ignore the scientific evidence which means we can be reasonably sure that it is 6.7 billion years old.

    George W Bush and Tony Blair both led their respective countries into an unjustified and illegal war in Iraq - I don't think they did so because of their faith, but I was deeply concerned that both of them had an unshakeable sense of self-certainty about the policy, despite the overwhelming evidence against it. The rejection of evidence in favour of dogma, whether political dogma (such as nationalism or racism) or religious dogma, is always concerning to enlightened public debate and good policy.

    There are hundreds of candidates who stand in elections who have a personal faith: many of them are Liberal Democrats. Jim Wallace, who was my mentor in my younger political activism days, is an Elder of the Church of Scotland in Orkney. So long as their faith doesn't also involve a dismissal of science or rationality (and it doesn't need to) then I wouldn't treat it as a significant factor. Unlike Sam Harris, I have no agenda to eradicate Christianity; but like many I am concerned at some attitudes and behaviours which persist at the more fundamental side of certain theologies.

  3. The problem is, youngdegsy, that too often, secularists are guilty of precisely the same intolerance as they accuse Christians of.

    If someone is a young earth creationist and you disagree with that then it is your prerogative to challenge them with evidence; they may well challenge you with evidence. That is their prerogative. This is what it means to live in a country that upholds the principles of freedom of religion, speech and conscience.

    If a young creationist stands for election and gets more votes than the other candidates then he gets elected. This is what it means to live in a democracy.

    I absolutely despise the BNP. In a democracy people have the right to vote for them, but I equally have the right to inform the electorate of their dodgy criminal past and their repugnant ideology. If people STILL vote for them then I face a bigger challenge of how I tackle the moral darkness pervading the community.

    But I am only able to describe this as "moral darkness" because I have an absolute moral framework to live by which is defined by God and not by mortal humans. Without that, what human has the right to tell another human that their ideology is morally repugnant?

    This week the Child Poverty Bill was debated in parliament. The causes of child poverty are legion, but they include things that aren't necessarily very politically correct to mention. Now if politicians aren't able to openly discuss these issues and find ways to resolve them then many children will continue to live in poverty - because issues that cause poverty have not been addressed.

    It would be easy for us to forget this unpleasant truth if we ourselves are able to continue to live in prosperity.

  4. youngdegsy,

    A correction has been made and a clarification posted at the bottom. Sorry for any confusion.

    However, to lash into all 'young earth creationalists' with the 'evidence' of the big bang and evolution theories ignores the fact that neither point of view is actually proved absolutely. Indeed we're all still unravelling the mystery, and I adhere that both sides of that deabte require a fair amount of 'faith'.

    It also ignores the fact that there are many Christian or of other faith scientists who are more than capable of blending their religious scripture with science, especially pertinent after all the lunar landing coverage in recent weeks. However, as my cousin (yeah it really is my cousin) has already dealt with that I'll leave it.

    I don't buy into the religion being hte motivator for Blair and Bush starting the illegal war with Iraq, I think Saddam's continued presense had more to do with that especially from Bush Jr. However, I do agree, as you well know, that they did overlook the evidence ever exaserpating it by going on to create or inflate week speculation as evidence to make them attempt to appear to be in the right.

    Although as you are also aware I'm concerned about some attitudes and behaviours which persist at the more fundamental side of certain theologies and the impact they shouldn't have on our inclusive society. However, I don't merely restrict that to people of religion but also those fundamentals with faith in none.

  5. Actually I'm Stephen's only (first) cousin. One of us had parents who were devout presbyterians; the other had parents who read the Guardian and Independent. Can you guess which?

    For the record I'm in the "I was always rubbish at science at school and most of it goes completely over my head" camp; however, I do have a history degree during which I had to read Darwin's "Origins of Species". I don't remember finding it very convincing.