Dishonest to God: On Keeping Religion out of Politics

November 4, 2010

All readers of this magazine must be aware of the global warming, in recent years, of the dispute between those minded to bring their religious convictions firmly into politics and those determined that they shall not do so.


In the UK, itself statistically a largely secular and humanist society, there have been serious disputes over the "rights" of the religious to discriminate against people they don't like or to suppress activities they don't like or to indoctrinate children as they wish or even to have more than one democratic vote among others in legislative bodies such as the House of Lords.

Religious spokesmen and women have muscled their way out of closets, cloisters and cells to claim their right to run affairs, just as they do in other parts of the world. And if the majority tells them to get back where they should be, on their knees, they hurl abuse with the wild abandon that righteousness so pleasurably licenses.

We humanists are materialists, egoists, relativists, nihilists, amoralists, libertines, and no doubt in the privacy of our own homes cannibals and child molesters. For only God stands between humanity and these things.

In reply, the militant wing of secularism talks freely of superstition, ignorance, bigotry, self-deception, stupidity, tribalism and rank hypocrisy. It is not an edifying debate, although sometimes rather fun.

How splendid, then, to find a totally respectful, firm, committed and experienced voice guiding us through the way this issue should be addressed. Mary Warnock, having started her career as a philosopher, has continued with great distinction, as headmistress of the redoubtable Oxford High School for Girls, as a member of the House of Lords, and as the chair of important committees, notably the Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology, which reported in 1984. She belongs to that sepia-tinted era when government was more likely to respect intelligence and knowledge than celebrity, and has been much closer to serious practical debates about morals, legislation and religion than most of us today. Her book is the fruit of long years at the front line.

It is powerful partly because of this, but also because of her great sympathy with the religious spirit, coupled, however, with her iron conviction that it issues no knowledge, no special authority and no particular right to be heard in issues of morals and legislation. Her sympathy with religious practice is partly aesthetic, partly social and partly moral. She was brought up in the beautiful cathedral close at Winchester, which is a good basis for an appreciation of the music and the liturgy of the Church of England. So she is aware of the power of being a member of a congregation, the social solidarity that this cements, and the acquaintance with morality it gives listeners and readers through parables, examples, myths and emotional exercise.

But there is a line to be drawn, and what the rites and the music and the stories do not do is give people a special authority to determine how other people are to live or die.

She does not go as far as I would and suspect that Christianity's cosy relation with suffering actually disqualifies its votaries from thinking about such things. But she is outraged when, for instance, embryology is hampered by careless slogans about the rights of the unborn; when churchmen wonder whether clones would be human, not knowing about identical twins; or when bishops blather on about the sanctity of life, when they actually hold no such principle, since they tend to approve of wars and of the execution of heretics, apostates and infidels once they are in power.

I would myself want to add that in the debates about physician-assisted suicide, what religious spokesmen are actually defending is not at all the sanctity of life, but the sanctity of dying in nature's way, that is by means of nature's often cruel, protracted, agonising, shameful processes, rather than by the more compassionate methods that brave doctors do use, and that more could use if the law were not such an ass, to ease and hasten our exits from the final horrors awaiting many of us.

Righteousness, incidentally, also licenses lying about facts in this debate: on a recent BBC Radio 4 Today programme interview, a Christian spokesman said outright that the Netherlands, where physician-assisted suicide is legal, had as a result no hospice care. Whereas, as the programme was forced to broadcast later, the truth is that the Netherlands' hospice care is far better than the patchy provision that exists in the UK. No doubt in a holy cause truth can be sacrificed with impunity.

In letting my pen run on such matters I depart from Warnock's temperate tone. And in spite of the fire-breathing title, it is the patient accumulation of cases, histories and arguments in this book that is eventually more impressive than any mere polemic. We are shown the sovereignty of careful, compassionate, rich moral thought over law, over politics, and even, as Plato saw, over religion. In the end it is indeed dishonest - even dishonest to God - to think otherwise.

Dishonest to God: On Keeping Religion out of Politics

By Mary Warnock. Continuum, 184pp, £16.99. ISBN 97814411129. Published 2 September 2010

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