by Sunder Katwala
I think the Observer’s Nick Cohen was trying to polemicise against fundamentalism in his column on Sunday.
That made this rather sweeping claim, as part of his challenge to Sir Martin Rees’ acceptance of the Templeton prize, all the more surprising.
“Like millions who should know better, Rees is not religious himself but ‘respects’ religion and wants it to live in ‘peaceful co-existence’ with it”.
An eye-catching contribution from a very different position came from Maurice Glasman, who recently declared at the Christian socialist movement’s Tawney dialogues that the most important figure in the history of the British Labour party was Jesus of Nazareth – showing how blue Labour plans to put faith firmly back on the political table.
As a matter of historical fact, I suspect that Glasman is probably right, though I am not sure by what method we could accurately test or weigh Glasman’s claim for Jesus against possible counter-bids on behalf of Keir Hardie, Robert Owen, Robert Tressell, Beatrice Webb, RH Tawney, GDH Cole, George Orwell, Clement Attlee, Nye Bevan, Tony Crosland, Barbara Castle, Neil Kinnock, Nelson Mandela or even Tony Blair as sources of inspiration for various generations of Labour political activism.
In most European social democratic parties, the answer would be Karl Marx. But he is not a front-runner in a British Labour party which famously owed more to Methodism than Marxism.
Nick Cohen is perfectly entitled to advocate universal disrespect for religion, even if a couple of billion people may beg to differ. The publication of AC Grayling’s recent secular bible, the Good Book, had been taken as a rather encouraging sign that the “new atheism” was going to shift the emphasis to its positive humanist case. Nick Cohen remains very much in attack mode. In also proselytising against “peaceful co-existence”, he would seem to posit an active moral duty for non-believers to constantly agitate in a secular culture war against faith, perhaps on a “this planet’s too small for both of us” principle.
So is a culture war about the role of religion unavoidable?
Nick Cohen’s argument depends on his belief that any notion of “respect” for religion or seeking “peaceful co-existence” with those of faith must entail granting it a “private” status which puts religion beyond public criticism or scrutiny, so rejecting fundamental human rights. Nowhere that I have seen does Rees make or endorse such an argument, though Cohen attributes it to him.
“The notion that Lord Rees so casually endorses – that you must respect the privacy of ideologies that mandate violence, the subjugation of women and the persecution of homosexuals, and treat them as if they were beyond criticism and scientific refutation – is the most cowardly evasion of intellectual duty of our day”.
Yet the notion that Nick Cohen so casually pursues – that any “respect” for religion inevitably means rejecting human rights by putting religion beyond any scrutiny – involves such a leap of logic that an examination of his column reveals that he has failed to explain or argue this at all.
Only if any “respect” for religion entails what Cohen claims would what he appears to argue follow: that the only way to prevent theocratic limitations on human rights is to engage whole-heartedly in a project determined to banish all traces of religion not just from the state and the public sphere, but from human society entirely.
But many of us would define “respect” for religion or “peaceful coexistence” entirely differently from Cohen, and indeed think that fundamental human rights require this.
Fundamental freedoms of conscience, speech and association surely include both the freedom to practice a religious faith and the freedom not to do so. Does that not require at least an important measure of both “respect” and “peaceful co-existence” between non-believers and believers everywhere? Most principled advocates of human rights and fundamental freedoms should be concerned with the freedoms of atheists in Saudi Arabia, Buddhists in Burma, Christians in Pakistan, Jews in eastern Europe, and Muslims in Switzerland. I would be very surprised if Nick Cohen wishes to reject that core principle, even as he maintains foundational disagreements with believers whose freedoms he must surely wish to uphold.
Cohen’s argument that any respect for religious faith (even by non-believers) must involve thrashing human rights must surely imply that no individual of sincere religious faith can ever avoid endorsing “the subjugation of women and the persecution of gays”. This is nonsense.
It is necessary to retreat from or reject this position to avoid arguing (for example) that no gay person could be a sincere or devout Christian, which would accidentally ally Cohen with the very fundamentalism he wishes to oppose. If it is possible for gay people to have religious faith and support gay rights, heterosexual believers must be able to share those views.
There would be another unfortunate consequence of Cohen’s argument for those of us who believe in universal human rights, and creating cultures and institutions which will uphold them everywhere. If he were right, no society in which a majority of people hold religious faith can uphold universal human rights. We would not want to lose the opportunity to promote democratic values and human rights in the United States of America, Poland, Egypt, Turkey, India or Nigeria.
If either holding religious faith or respecting it is incompatible with democratic values, then Cohen suggests we could not do so until there is an atheist majority in each country. This is a false claim, though it would also raise the interesting historical conundrum of how his rightly beloved enlightenment ever managed to get off the ground in eighteenth century Europe in the first place.
No doubt, one can identify many religious institutions and leaders who fall short of what Cohen wants on gender equaity and gay rights. It would not be difficult to score points against the Catholic church here. But such a charge sheet is not enough for Cohen’s argument, which is that religious faith is axiomatically incompatible with human rights. His blanket claim was holed by faith groups campaigning, for example, for religious blessing of civil partnerships, and indeed doing so as a matter of religious freedom.
Avoiding a “secularism versus faith” culture war is important for the political left, though many within it naturally sympathise with humanist and secularist projects.
It is certainly possible to have dangerous “unholy alliances” between secular and religious politics, on both left and right. I am in sympathy with Nick Cohen’s critique of the far left’s susceptibility to Islamist fundamentalism, for example in George Galloway’s Respect party.
But I cannot see how bad examples rule out forging any alliances which bring together those of faith and secular perspectives to pursue common causes and shared values, where no such trade-off with fundamental rights or values takes place.
The millennium campaigns to drop third world debt and promote international development; London Citizens campaigns for a living wage, and Citizens UK campaigns to rehabilitate the idea of “sanctuary” to promote more humane treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, and arguments about the condition of our inner cities whether in the 1980s or about where the cuts will hit hardest now, are all causes with which Nick Cohen may have some sympathy. And they have been all promoted by those with faith and without it, not just co-existing but working together in a spirit of mutual respect. None of these campaigns prevented vigorous arguments about the fundamental truths of the universe, or risked selling out fundamental rights.
Labour’s secular humanist wing will have important and legitimate points to make about the scope and limits of the public claims which can be made for religious faith, to ensure that these remain compatible with fundamental human rights. But we should remember that there has always been a religious left as well as, and perhaps before, there was a religious right.
Nobody could plausibly deny the role of Christian socialism as one important influence on Labour’s vision of a “new Jerusalem”, crucially from motives of social justice shared equally and as strongly by atheists and agnostics in the Labour movement too.
We could do with rather less “culture war” and perhaps more of the accomodative spirit of Clement Attlee.
Nick Cohen would no doubt be disappointed that Attlee did not share his own certainty over the origin of the universe. Peter Hennessy recounts in his Never Again history of the 1945-51 Labour governments that Attlee’s exchange with his biographer Kenneth Harris on matters spiritual ended like this:
Harris: Would you say you are an agnostic?
Attlee: I don’t know.
Harris: Is there an after-life, do you think?
Atllee described his approach to religious faith thus.
Believe in the ethics of Christianity. Can’t believe in the mumbo-jumbo
It is difficult today to think of any campaign for social justice or human rights that would benefit from the insistence that the largest political movements of the centre-left should actively seek to develop an allergic reaction to all expressions of religious faith.
If we are offered a culture war of mutual disrespect, just say no. Perhaps some of us may yet want to march behind Attlee’s agnostic banner alongside all of our allies who wish to champion our values of social justice and human rights.
Sunder Katwala is general secretary of the fabian society. He blogs his personal views – read more at www.nextleft.org.