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Think universal, act local

Eric Pickles, the wonderfully named UK Minister for Communities and Local Government, is hoping that Part 1 of the Localism Act will commence today. He believes this will “restore the right of councils to say prayers at official meetings“, according to the Christian Institute.

This follows a court victory last week by the National Secular Society: “Mr Justice Ouseley ruled in a landmark judgement that Bideford council in Devon had no statutory powers to hold prayers during council meetings.” (Guardian)

This decision has sparked an extraordinary week of debate about the role of faith in UK society. The Queen, speaking on Wednesday, “found herself echoing Baroness Warsi, chair of the Conservative party… Each was defending the significance of faith in British society and, in particular, the cultural importance of Christianity, against what both regard as the threat of militant atheism.” (Guardian)

Baroness Warsi, who is the first female Muslim cabinet minister, ‘hit out at “secular fundamentalists”‘ on a visit to the Vatican, and said that ‘Europe needs to be “more confident in its Christianity“.’ The Queen, meanwhile, in one of the first official engagements of her Diamond Jubilee year, said “we should remind ourselves of the significant position of the Church of England in our nation’s life. The concept of our established church is occasionally misunderstood and, I believe, commonly under-appreciated.”

A number of secularist thinkers have, unsurprisingly, responded. Philosopher Julian Baggiani, for instance, said “It all goes back to how we understand the core secularist principle of neutrality in the public square. Neutrality means just that: neither standing for or against religion or any other comprehensive world-view.”

Personally, I don’t believe there is any such thing as neutrality in the private or public realm – at least not this side of Enlightenment. Market fundamentalism, for instance – a seemingly ‘neutral’, rational view – is akin to the religious dogmas of old and has had a huge impact on our lives these past decades. The waning faith that this ‘religion’ can guide us towards what is meaningful is, I think, contributing significantly to the rising heat in relation to faith and the state. Nor do I feel that the ‘democratic will‘ of a local area should be the arbiter of what are, in fact, universal human principles about ethical life and ultimate meaning. In my view, until we find a space to collectively and peacefully identify these principles, and enshrine them in a written constitution – as Bhimrao Ambedkar, the great Buddhist social reformer did in India – then this week’s rancour can only continue.

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5 Responses to “Think universal, act local”

  1. Manjusiha says:

    ‘Pullman joins religious row as Pickles allows council prayers’ – in today’s Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2012/feb/17/bideford-council-appeal-prayer-ban?INTCMP=SRCH

  2. Manjusiha says:

    ‘What is the proper place for religion in public life?’ Will Hutton debates with Richard Dawkins: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/feb/19/religion-secularism-atheism-hutton-dawkins

  3. suyen says:

    I actually really like that the officials are allowed to pray at meetings. One of my ‘big policy ideas’ over the last two years is the constructivist one that people who make decisions, like UN ambassadors, delegates to the World Economic Forum, Ministers and heads of states at the G20 and negotiators at the WTO and climate conferences should be encouraged to start their day with the metta bhavana. I think that would really change the basis upon which decisions that affect the world (and not just humanity!) are made.

    Also, growing up in Malaysia, which is an officially Muslim but multicultural country, we used to have Muslim prayers at school assembly, despite it being a Catholic girls school. I kind of liked it, especially when my best friend at that time, Aida, was leading the prayers! She was only about 10 or 11 at the time, and so humble and sweet about it.

  4. Manjusiha says:

    Thanks for the comment. It will hopefully help me to clarify what I was trying (and, to some extent, failing) to say in the piece.

    The court ruling was actually quite narrow, as I understand it, but has nonethless caused many ripples. The judge ruled that prayers could not be on the agenda for local council meetings. Obviously councillors are still free to pray before council meetings if they wish, but the judge ruled that this shouldn’t be part of the meeting’s official business. Then Eric Pickles, in bringing forward Part I of the Localism Act, has “effectively reversed” the High Court’s decision: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-17082136. The Act allows councils legally to do anything an individual could do unless specifically prohibited by law, and this is to be determined on a local basis. So if a council decides it wants prayers on a meeting agenda as part of the official business, it now has the power, once again, to have them – if it’s the democratic will of that particular local area.

    My view is that it is great that councils and Parliament reflect on the broader context in which they are doing their business and connect, before they speak or act, with something beyond day-to-day mundane concerns. This is how I start most of my days: meditating, in a Buddhist context, to try and gain enough awareness, skillfull intention and freedom from self-centredness to have a positive influence on those around me. I’d love for all of our politicians to prepare themselves in the same way, but wouldn’t presume to impose the Buddha’s way of doing things on them or on anyone else. There is an important principle of freedom here, then: each of us needs to be free to find meaning for ourselves. Practices and principles, if they are to help us grow spiritually, can never be imposed, in my view. So I agree with the court decision and the Localism Act when it comes to freedom – let people decide for themselves.

    But there is a terrible missed opportunity here too. We need the right structures to enable each of us to find freedom and fulfillment, and central Government has the ability – the obligation, even – to provide those structures. Why not rule, for instance, that there needs to be a space for ‘reflection, prayer or meditation’ before all council meetings, rather than leaving it up to local areas to decide for themselves, thereby potentially increasing the fragmentation and alienation of those who don’t believe in the majority religious view in that area? I think it’s a shame, then, that the Government didn’t uphold the principle of space, before meetings, to reflect on the effect of council decisions on others, whilst allowing individual councillors the freedom to do that in their own, individually most meaningful way. As so often, the principle of individual freedom is promoted at the expense of structure, order and the collective good – that is the fashion of the age we live in, and is part of what I am trying to challenge by working on Journal East.

    I hope I’ve got a bit closer to what I was trying to say, but perhaps there is still some way to go! Let me know what you think.

  5. Chintamani says:

    This is a strange affair. Whilst I certainly agree with the points you make, Manjusiha, one thing I have learned from experience is that when the Government starts ‘taking a moral stance’ all may not be quite what it seems. By that I mean that, just as the police, when it comes down to it, prioritize keeping the peace over upholding the law (I have known victims of violence be arrested ‘for their own protection’ because arresting the perpetrators of the violence would have caused more violence), so I think that behind most if not all of the Government’s moralizing is basic pragmatism; pragmatism necessitated by political and economic imperatives. The trouble is, then, that in accepting that, and in trying to make sense of what is actually going on, one ends up steering a very precarious path between, on the one hand, taking the politicians’ statements on face value (which would be naive), and, on the other, indulging in conspiracy theories (which would be paranoid).

    Even so, in this instance, I think that whilst the debate about the role of faith in British society is undoubtedly a good one, and totally germane to the concerns of modern, Western Buddhists I think it might be wise to consider that the Government could be under pressure from external forces to promote religion. We are in a financial crisis. We need money. The previous Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, accepted vast ‘bail out’ sums from Islamic Governments (particularly Saudi Arabia). The same is true of some of our leading universities which, according to one report, have accepted over £200 million in the the last 20 years from Arab Governments.

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1084335/Beware-Saudi-deal-help-bail-Britain-It-comes-devastating-IOU.html

    Currently before the United Nations is a motion from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) designed to make the ‘defamation of religion’ illegal under international law:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defamation_of_religion_and_the_United_Nations

    Originally it was concerned solely with the ‘defamation’ of Islam, but it broadened its scope in order to gain wider appeal. If passed, it could potentially make any criticism of religion – or, more specifically, Islam – illegal under international law. This, is of course, would simply mean that an aspect of traditional Shari’ah law will have become universally instituted (which is the traditional Islamic ambition). Signatories to this proposal include those national governments which have helped ‘bail out’ the UK, and which now have a substantial stake in a number of important British institutions. It surely would not be surprising, therefore, that, as part of the ‘terms’ of the ‘bail out’ these governments would wish to get the UK government to promote their religious agenda – including this motion. So, I cannot help thinking that, behind this sudden revival of interest in faith in the UK, there might be a response – perhaps a rather convoluted response – to certain pressures from ‘behind the scenes’.

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