Saturday, January 06, 2007

Lawson and Religion

Neil Lawson had an article on religion and morality in Wednesday’s Guardian. The overall thrust of his argument – such as it was – is that it is increasingly religious rather than political leaders who address the important moral questions of our day and who are prepared to speak against injustice, and that, against this background, the “aggressive secularism” of the “anti-religious left” is misplaced. He concludes that if religious leaders “preach the cause of the poor and the needy” then they “are my people”. Oh dear.

First, it somehow seems to have escaped Lawson’s attention that both the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and the President of the United States are quite outspoken about their religious faith. In the last US Presidential election so-called “moral issues” (gay marriage, abortion, school prayer, etc) featured prominently in the Republican campaign. This helped to elect (I almost said “re-elect” but that would not be strictly accurate) a right-wing regime with very little sympathy for the poor or disadvantaged. The Bush Presidency has been described as the first “faith-based Presidency”. And, to take just one example, Bush opposes stem-cell research largely for reasons of religious dogma. Blair, for his part, promotes faith schools and never misses an opportunity for vacuous moralising. It seems to me we might benefit from rather less of this sort of thing.

Second, Lawson says that the “liberal elite” took the wrong side on the debate over the wearing of the veil. They were “alarmingly hostile in their condemnation of some of society’s most vulnerable people”. This is a lamentable argument. One could apply the same reasoning to e.g. female circumcision. My guess would be that female circumcision is more common among the poor and the ignorant than the wealthy and the educated. Does that make it any less abominable? I realise wear veiling is a much less draconian practice – although I believe it perpetuates the reduced status of (vulnerable?) women – but the point here is simply that because the poor do X (whatever X is) it does not follow that we cannot speak out against it.

Third, there is the following bizarre passage:
“So why are some on the left so hostile to faith? Perhaps it is an example of classic Freudian displacement activity as some progressives turn their political impotence and ire on religion. If their surrender to the nostrums of neoliberalism denies them moral purpose, then they will attack those who are prepared to stand with the poor and denounce the culture of greed at institutions such as Goldman Sachs.”

It’s hard to know where to start, but here goes:

(a) Lawson has a very peculiar notion of what is “left” if he thinks that people who “surrender to the nostrums of neo-liberalism” are on the left. I would not call “neoliberals” who are reluctant to criticise City greed “left-wing”. Who on earth does he mean? If he means the Blairites well, they are not left-wing, and they are not – at least Blair is not - secularist.

(b) The first two sentences might almost feature as a textbook example of the ad hominem fallacy. Let us generalise his method: “Why does Lawson despise the anti-religious left? Perhaps it is a Freudian displacement activity stemming from feelings of powerlessness and inadequacy, due to his failure to gain an A* in physics when at school, which finds an outlet in anger against those he sees as devoted to science”. Or maybe he was dropped on his head as a baby? Or his mother didn’t breast-feed him. Convinced? I shouldn’t have thought so. Interestingly the passage quoted above follows a description of Richard Dawkins book The God Delusion as “just a gratuitous tirade against faith”. That is simply vulgar abuse. (Incidentally, what is the function of the word “gratuitous” here? If you have some strongly held views, and you argue against opposed views what’s “gratuitous" about it?). You can agree or disagree with Dawkins but in his book he sets out a number of arguments against religious faith. To respond with abuse, or pop psychology disguised as argument, is simply pathetic.

Fourth, it is true that religious people often “do good”, but I cannot agree that “the positive role of religion outweighs the negatives”, although that is an argument for another time. Furthermore, one does not need religion in order to hold strong moral views, and people without strong religious beliefs “do good” also. The three religious leaders Lawson mentions do not inspire much confidence. The Archbishop of Canterbury is doubtless a learned and well-meaning chap, but performs his crucial function of being inoffensive to the “powers that be” with aplomb. The Pope – Ratzinger – is an obscurantist reactionary. Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor is an odd case; he does seem left-of-centre on what might be called “social issues”, but is quite reactionary when it comes to e.g. homosexuality or abortion where his dogma dictates illiberal views. In any case, why just these three? What of Pat Robinson and Ian Paisley and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? I suppose, in all fairness, if we stick to British examples only there are fewer horrors such as these. But let's not altogether forget the mobs who prevented the performance of Behzti, or who howled for "those who criticise Islam" to be beheaded, or the zealots in SPUC, or the creationist teachers in the Vardy schools, or the Christian fundamentalists who tried to prevent the staging of Jerry Springer: The Musical.

Fifth, Lawson says that “we live in a society of smug complacency” and all too often it is only religious leaders that criticise “the anaesthetised contentments of our consumerism”. Well, yes, religious leaders often do this. But, no, they are not the only ones: so do many environmentalists, feminists, and leftists of one sort or another. So, in all fairness, do certain types of conservative. Some of these may be motivated by religious belief, others not. In any case, one can criticise “materialism” (in the sense that “consumerism” is “materialist” – obviously I don’t mean “materialism” as an ontological doctrine) from an entirely secular and anti-religious point of view. Of course, if the Archbishop or the Cardinal speak out against poverty or inequality those of us on the left should voice our agreement; but why should this prevent us from also criticising their religious views? What in God’s name do their views on “social issues” (however commendable they may be) have to do with the truth-status of their faith-based claims about the supernatural?

Overall, I find Lawson’s argument extraordinarily muddled and wrong-headed.


Blogger Liam Murray said...

You're misrepresenting both secularism and faith. Secularism doesn't mean the absence of a personal faith or deeply held religious convictions - it simply means a clear separation between any such faith and the organs of the state. So to say that 'Blair is not secularist' is just plain wrong - he's exactly that.

2:48 pm  
Blogger politaholic said...

Cassilis, I agree with your definition of secularism and possibly I overstate the case vis-a-vis Blair just a tad (but not vis-a-vis Bush). But remember Blair promotes faith schools and these are funded in part by the tax-payer (I realise faith schools have a long history, but my point is that Blair wants more of them). He also turns a blind eye to the teaching of creationism in the Vardy schools (and he wants more of these). In both cases there is a breach the principle of the separation of faith and the "organs of the state". You may also recall the Religious Hatred Bill which, as originally drafted and despite protestations to the contrary clearly threatened the freedom to criticise religious faith, or at least to do so robustly.(This is a separate point but his disastrous foreign policy - his real "legacy" - has also been influenced by his religious convictions. On the Parkinson show in March last year he explained how he managed to live with the decision to go to war in Iraq as follows: "If you have faith about these things then you realise that judgement is made by other people. If you believe in God, it's made by God as well").

7:55 am  

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