Excluding force of a liberal myth?

Madelaine Bunting is one of the Guardian’s writers whose work is causing the largest waves over at Comment is Free. In her last piece as a Guardian staffer, she reflects on the necessity of drawing in people of faith into the ‘national conversation on values and identity, sometimes characterised elsewhere as a discussion of Britishness. In particular she notes how the certainty of some of the left that religion is a unique source of violence and discord could exlude the very people who may provide important answers to the question of accommodating diversity.

I’ve lost count of the number of times at recent public debates where some good soul has got up to lambast religion for its barbaric history of violence and despotism. It’s a cherished myth on the secular left, but its wilful historical ignorance increasingly irritates me. Violence and despotism are not monopolies of the religious. Niall Ferguson’s new book on the 20th century might enlighten a few. Much of the worst violence of that century was the product of atheist regimes.

She outlines a nasty dilemma:

To be fair, if the secular left is to be coaxed into a more knowledgeable and intelligent conversation on religion, then those of faith have a comparably large mountain to climb. There are two non-negotiables for the faithful if they are to warrant attention. First, the secularism of political life in this country has sunk deep and precious roots for good reasons and that should not be reversed – no jockeying for institutional advantage, please. Second, no exclusive claims for any tradition. Instead, what’s needed is an ever-ready openness to understand the metaphors of other faiths.

She outlines two reasons why people of faith need to be involved in what is broadly framed in terms of wider secular values:

The first addresses that vacuum of purpose and meaning referred to above. The leftist German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, hero of the 1968 movements, opened up this territory carefully in his fascinating recent dialogue with his compatriot Pope Benedict XVI. Habermas called for a reconciliation with the religious past of Europe, and acknowledged that democracy may not generate the values on which its vitality depends. The liberal state should “treat with care all cultural sources on which the normative consciousness and solidarity of citizens draws”. In other words, concepts of wrongdoing, forgiveness and responsibility are at the heart of a democracy, and any mechanisms available to reinforce these basics are too precious to disregard.

What makes this such rich territory in Britain now is that this conversation is no longer exclusively or even predominantly Christian. We have British Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, Hindus and Sikhs who can bridge our understanding into other cultures with a historically unmatched familiarity and insight into both.

That brings me to the second area of public debate on which religious insight has so much to contribute. We are at an astonishing threshold in scientific development: we have the capacity, as Martin Rees outlined on these pages recently, to re-engineer human nature and countless other organisms entirely. Rees is not alone in articulating the profound anxiety that our extraordinary human ingenuity has outstripped our capacity to regulate it for beneficial use. There is an exponential growth in the human capacity to cause or to ameliorate suffering, and the determination of the balance will owe much to the robustness of our ethical compass.


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