Public religion, private religion
By JAMES WALTERS
Queen Elizabeth I ended decades of bloody religious warfare in England with the memorable resolution that she “would not make windows into men’s souls”. It’s a maxim that encapsulates many of our modern British assumptions about the place of religion: un-interfered with in private, tempered down in public. Continuing in the line of female icons who balance British tenacity and religious reserve, Downton Abbey’s Dowager Countess echoed the sentiment in a comment on principles, “They are like prayers, noble of course, but awkward at a party”.
But the neat categorization of religion’s appropriate role in both public and private life are being radically unsettled in Britain today, partly through the erosion of the Anglican expression of Christianity (more than 20 per cent of British churchgoers now attend new, Pentecostal or independent churches), but primarily through the growth in size and impact of British Islam. The number saying they are Muslim in the UK census rose by over a million between 2001 and 2011.
The ways in which this is challenging accepted British norms about the place of religion were explored in two recent events at the London School of Economics to mark the launch of a new blog on Religion and the Public Sphere. In the first, Professor Gwen Griffith-Dickson argued that in recent years, under the banner of counter-extremism, the state has indeed sought to make windows into men’s souls. The private is no longer the inviolate domain of faith. Professor Griffith-Dickson highlighted the growth in belief among legislators of the primacy of religious ideology in driving radicalization rather than other social or psychological factors as grounds to breach this boundary. This has led to the view that even extremist views that disavow violence are a legitimate matter of concern to the state. Certain doctrines have, it would appear, become thought crimes. The traditional British view that a person’s religion is her own business until it has an impact on others has been overturned. For Muslims at least, private belief is a public matter.
The second event, with Professor Tariq Ramadan, concerned the shift that is of more vocalized public concern and often fused with opposition to migration, and that is a renewed presence of religion in the public sphere. As much as racial diversity, it is the presence of confident manifestations of different faith traditions that unsettles many in the UK, and none more so than Islam. Once hailed as the Muslim Martin Luther, Professor Tariq Ramadan said much to challenge a simplistic opposition between Islamic practice and British public life. He hinted at the need for some radical contextualization of the historic Muslim texts, not least in relation to women’s and children’s rights. But the heart of his lecture was a protest against the pressures to fit in with British religious compartmentalization by becoming “invisible Muslims”. He highlighted the bigger picture of a religiously and culturally pluralistic society where a bland liberal consensus will no longer hold. Values long assumed by Western elites to be universal and self-evident are simply not shared by everyone, and no amount of Governmental pressure to assert “British values” is going to change that.
For such pluralist societies to hold together, we need more than pragmatic discussion about how we can live together. Ramadan called for dialogues “at the centre of what we believe”. Western culture has become very thin, and to move beyond shallow tolerance for each other (a tolerance whose shallowness is all too easily exposed) we need conversation about our fundamental philosophies of life and death, meaning and purpose. In other words, we have got to bring religion out of the confines of the soul and into the public sphere. We have to hear about what matters most to people in conversations that aren’t immediately framed by programmatically secularist assumptions.
This challenging of the public/private segregation of religion in British life raises a number of questions about the terms of these conversations. If socially conservative religious positions are now viewed by the state with suspicion, people will refuse to be honest about them in the public sphere. If religious “visibility” in the public sphere is always feared as an attack on liberal values, we will remain blind to ideas and practices that might bring value to our common life. But if secular institutions such as the LSE can now be a platform for such conversations, we might yet avoid the return to the “Wars of Religion” that the doom-mongers predict.
The Revd Canon Dr James Walters is Chaplain and Senior Lecturer in Practice at the London School of Economics.