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.Share