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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  • Garibaldy

    I’ve met or heard speak quite a few prominent journalists over the last few months. What amazes me is their arrogance, which is on display in this article. If she thinks that by going to Demos she will be shaping debates, she needs her head examined. The media I would say feeds people what they want, and this follows much more than sets agendas and more especially opinions.

    On the substantive points, now that I’ve indulged my hatred for the media, there’s nothing new in what Habermas is saying here. I greatly admire is work on the public sphere, which demonstrated a firm grasp of the relationship between base and superstructure, but ever since he has retreated into a virtually incomprehensible language of communicative ethics etc, which is what he’s essentially on about here.

    Morality does not need religion to be formed or encouraged. Yes to a moral compass. No to having that compass set by anything other than humanist conceptions of rights and equality. After all, if we listened to virtually any of these religions, where, for example, would women’s rights or the rights of gay people be? I don’t need a man in a cloth – be it black, multi-coloured, or wrapped round his head – telling me what is right or wrong.

    Ms Bunting and her New Labour/New Conservative cronies may have lost sight of what their goal in life is. Not all of us are so shallow, nor our thinking so vapid.

  • “Violence and despotism are not monopolies of the religious.”

    That is not a denial of violence and despotism at the hands of religion, is it Sluggiepoos?

    Why listen to another apologist for a two century game of telephone which goes barking mad once it escapes the personal sphere and invades the body politic?

  • Shay Begorrah

    Firstly different religions “moral compasses” do not not agree on which way north is and any attempt to reconcile different beliefs where the ultimate justification is because my god tells me so is bound to fail.

    Secondly “People of Faith” is straight from the neocon play book.

    For those that are unaware “People of Faith” was popularized by christian evangelicals in the states in order to try and label the religious right as an oppressed minority (think “people of color”) who needed special attention to overcome decades of prejudice and maltreatment from materialists and liberals who were trying to ram their value judgements (womens rights, freedom of speech, not beating your children, that kind of thing) down their throats.

    Now while I have no objection to religious people behaving however they wish with other like minded adults in private (as long as nobody gets hurt) what these people of faith often want to do is to enforce their faith via legislation or the machinery of government, again because god told them to.

    Another sad day for what used to be Britain’s best liberal newspaper and possibly for western civilization.

    Good Chomsky article today though.

  • That’s a two to one against Madelaine then?

    I thought this was piece interesting, because it reflects a certain bias amongst our more vocal readers. From time to time I have had to fight manfully for the right of certain constituencies to be heard on Slugger. Unionists and right wingers have a particularly hard time here getting any kind of a civil response to often very high quality inputs.

    As Smilin’ Jim notes (himself a fully paid up card carrying US liberal), none of what she has written is “a denial of violence and despotism at the hands of religion”. Yet the ‘majority’ assumption here is that because she argues the religious community must be part of a national conversation she is somehow abandoning the liberal values of the Guardian and the founding principles of the Scott Trust.

    Liberals simply talking amongst themselves has the same effect as conservatives talking amongst themselves. They tend to re-inforce their own (often embarrassingly ignorant) prejudices.

  • Mick: Interesting post.

    Religion has more to offer than Garibaldy. Let me explain.
    Garibaldy preaches religion, the religion of lcapped out secularism, all very predictable. Religion, Catholicism, Orthodoxism etc, also preach community and tradition, both of which are good things in themselves. If people went to church more (or more than me at least), the work mught be a better place.
    Perhaps, in some investion of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, as societies get richer, they throw off tradition and community. Not always a good thing. Religion has proved to be a resilient weed. The future of the Catholic Church is Poland.

  • Shay Begorrah

    Mick, Madeline Bunting (and I think you) feel that religious groups have moral insights that need to be acknowleged and that some synthesis of these religious principles should be integrated into tye fabric of modern society.

    I disagree strongly. Profound beliefs about what other people should do based on the existence of a higher power should make you less and not more eligible to contribute to any debate.

    I tink that if we replaced RE in schools with some kind of elementary introduction to philosophy everyone would be better off.

  • Garibaldy


    much as I might like to preach at other readers on slugger, I don’t follow any religion, clapped out secularism or otherwise.

    As for community, I think it’s fair to say that I regularly preach here that we all belong to one community, and that that community is defined by our presence here on this island, as well as a shared history (divisive though it might be), language, culture etc. Community does not have to be and should not be based on a shared religion, though it can (and in my opinion should) be constructed around a shared sense of common interest and culture of human rights.

    As for tradition, history is important, but tradition and custom should never be sacrosanct. Some traditions are bad ones. Sectarianism being a good example.

    Nice, though, to debate with an honest to God Burkean.


    As to the Guardian and Scott Trust, there’s a long tradition of religious liberalism in Britain (C18th dissenters, Gladstone etc and maybe Tony Blair?). Maybe Bunting sees herself within that tradition. I don’t think this article steps outside the Guardian tradition particularly myself. They’ll give voice to any opinion.

  • himself a fully paid up card carrying US liberal

    Smile when you say that podna’.

    I’m an gun-totin, redneck commie pinko with relatives in the Klan.

    Thanksgivings used to be interesting.

  • Dread Cthulhu

    Mick: “himself a fully paid up card carrying US liberal”

    Smilin’ Jim: “Smile when you say that podna’.

    I’m an gun-totin, redneck commie pinko with relatives in the Klan.

    Thanksgivings used to be interesting. ”

    Interesting being a euphemism for?

    Not that I have any room to comment — Ma’s and English Episcopal, Da’ an Irish Catholic…

    I’m the fella in the corner, praying to go unseen.

  • Interesting as in

    “May you live in interesting times.”