Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Religion and democracy

The former can't be 'privatised' in the latter, argues Andrew Brown. We get the usual guff about secularism being an 'ideology', which implicitly invites the reader to understand it as another 'faith' that can have a propensity to intolerance just like any other:
"Secularism is a doctrine about how society is best ordered. As such it cannot avoid imposing itself on those who disagree. To take two recent flashpoints – the secularists in the hall would all demand the abolition of faith schools, and an end to discrimination against gay people within religious bodies."
He's showing his customary tendency to pick up the wrong end of whatever stick happens to be lying around. Perhaps there are some 'secularists' who demand an end to faith schools - I wouldn't know - but most of us who are opposed to them limit our objection to them being funded at the taxpayer's expense. Because as it stands, we are the ones who are being 'imposed on'. We are compelled to pay for a service that excludes our children.

But it's the second point that illustrates the way Brown gets his argument exactly the wrong way around: it is precisely because organised religion is not properly privatised in our 'secular' society that leads to demands that they should not discriminate against gays. The Church of England is, as Tony Benn used to say, Britain's oldest nationalised industry. It controls something in the region of a quarter of the schools, its bishops sit unelected in the House of Lords. And the Catholic church receives public funds to run schools and involve itself in the business of the adoption of children. It is the very public nature of these institutions that leads to the external pressure on them to accept modern non-discriminatory practices.

It would be refreshing just once to read something from the religious that understood this. They could then maybe move from here and realise that it might just be in their interests. No-one cares how the Baptists organise themselves or who they discriminate against. It's a matter for them because they are a genuinely private organisation. Not so for the Church of England. It is a de facto public body and it is therefore frankly childish for its members to complain if the law takes an interest in how they conduct their business.

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