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The proper place for religion in British public life

Fascinating conversation between Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, and Will Hutton, Principal of Hertford College, Oxford, in Sunday’s Observer – so I thought I’d join in.

“Dear Richard, …Liberalism is a doctrine of live and let live, and there has to be a very high threshold of harm before that liberal principle can be qualified. …the Church of England…is a great liberal redoubt – an institution that embodies proportionality, tolerance of dissent and respect for others along with considerable moral authority… Best, Will.”

Dear Will, I’m an advocate of EF Schumacher’s view that ‘we always need both freedom and order‘, as I write about here. We need safeguards in place to protect us from both these extremes. But we have largely been at the extreme of living and letting live for three decades now – particularly economically. I think we have a once in an era chance to move towards a new society based on more Enlightened (notice the capital E) principles. To do this, we need to reassess our precious dogmas – liberalism, anglicanism, scientific rationalism and materialism amongst them – as the two of you are doing. Most importantly, though, we need ethical principles that are subjectively and collectively verifiable and which don’t need God as guarantor. I think a sincere engagement with Buddhism can provide these – and not just to those who wish to identify themselves as religious or want to call themselves Buddhists. With metta, Manjusiha.

“Dear Will, …What is illiberal is not persuasion but imposition of one’s views. And the government, in its determination to “do God”, imposes religion on us. Bishops in the House of Lords is just one of many examples… All good wishes, Richard.”

Dear Richard, I couldn’t agree more. However, religion and ‘doing God’ are not synonymous, and we need to find a new way of engaging in the debate that recognises this. I find it most illuminating to translate ‘religion’ as ‘world-view’, as I explored here. We all have a world-view that guides our actions, even if we’re not very conscious of this and do not have an easy label for it. Using ‘world-view’ also has the benefit of turning the heat down – it prevents an immediate polarisation between the religious and the irreligious, such as yourself. Buddhism doesn’t fit into either of these boxes – the debate doesn’t need to either. Metta, Manjusiha.

“Dear Richard, …Secularism unsupported by atheism is nonsensical. The reason why a secularist objects so strongly about the extension of religion into the public sphere – and even its private practice – is because its adherents are delusional, and, using your own words, imposing a delusional set of values and practices on others… Best, Will.”

Dear Will, The quasi-religious doctrines of the market and the science lab are delusional in the same sense. This is not to say that they are not of use – these two doctrines are probably the most practically useful doctrines ever discovered by humanity. As so often, though, the problems arise when a useful tool is used for the wrong job e.g. thinking that materialism can provide a basis for ethical action, or that rationalism can shed much light on religion (as traditionally defined). Metta, Manjusiha.

“Dear Will, ‘Secularism unsupported by atheism is nonsensical.’ Really? You mean the US first amendment is nonsense? The Indian constitution? Their idealist founders enshrined secularism in those constitutions because they wanted all religions to be free: no religion should dominate; no religion should impose… All good wishes, Richard.”

Dear Richard, One religion (as world-view) or another always dominates, whether this is labelled ‘religion’ or not. Look around you: our society is telling us that what we need most is a new, inclusive religion to provide us with a reliable ethical guide. Please plunder the Dharma. And it doesn’t really matter what labels you use for it – secular, religious, scientific, rational – so long as its true, and moves us in the right direction. I think you already recognise this point in The God Delusion, which you say is ‘not concerned at all’ with Buddhism, which can be treated as ‘an ethical system’ or ‘philosophy of life’.

“Dear Richard, …Of course we can agree that nobody wants a theocracy, and the founders of both the American and Indian constitutions were right to protect their countries from that risk given the historic and cultural contexts in which they founded their states. But there was little risk of church and state eliding in Britain 200 years ago despite our very imperfect unwritten constitution; there is zero risk today. To raise its spectre is specious… Best, Will.”

Dear Will, Our Queen and our Prime Minister are both emphasising that ‘we are a Christian country’ and advocating a return to Christian values to underpin our ethics, as I write about here and here. Yet, as Richard’s survey shows, Christian belief is waning in the UK, and even those Christians who identify themselves as such ‘have low levels of religious knowledge, belief and practice’, as Richard suggests. Where are our principles and practices to come from if, as Sangharakshita suggests in his book on the Buddha’s noble eight-fold path, traditional ethics now ‘consists in not doing what we want to do, and doing what we do not want to do, because, for reasons we do not understand – we have been told to by someone in whose existence we no longer believe’? To say that we are now ethically rudderless is to overstate it, perhaps, but not by much. Metta, Manjusiha.

“Dear Richard, …Jürgen Habermas says that human nature needs both secularism and rationality on one hand, and faith and belief on the other; that to imagine pure secularism is utopian… Best, Will.”

Dear Will, I think Habermas could be on to something here! This reminds me of the five spiritual faculties – in particular, the creative tension between wisdom (prajna) and faith (sraddha) exemplified so well by your conversation with Richard. Thank you. Metta from Manjusiha.

“Dear Will, I am struck by the fact that, despite your emphasis on liberalism, you are exemplifying the distorted and illiberal way atheism and secularism are portrayed by their opponents. (And please stop conflating the two: atheism is the lack of belief in gods, secularism is the view that governments should be neutral on the subject of belief in gods.) All good wishes, Richard.”

Dear Richard, Thank you, as always, for your clarity. As a Buddhist I do not believe in gods but do believe in a reality beyond rationality, materialism and self-clinging. And every government has its gods and idols – we have been worshipping the market and materialism for far too long in my view. Your conversation will, I hope, help to dislodge these ‘false idols’ from their perch, along with those of a Christianity that for most people is now largely part of our cultural heritage rather than a real, vibrant and meaningful guide to life. Metta from Manjusiha.

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One Response to “The proper place for religion in British public life”

  1. Chintamani says:

    Well said all round. I hope you will actually send your points to Will and Richard. However (as I’m afraid I keep saying) just because Christian belief is waning, it doesn’t mean that we are thereby left with a nice, atheistic (albeit materialist/consumerist) ‘space’ which can be filled with Dharma. Another form of theism is on the rise, for which God belief is completely non-negotiable, and some of whose adherents at least certainly do want a theocracy. Creative ways of addressing this are badly needed.

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