Saturday, 7 January 2012

Religion Is Constitutional Yakult: Why secular nations are not doomed to totalitarianism

Actimel is packed with magic.  It is truly a Getafix’s brew of self-confidence as evidenced by that little girl intimidating a horse.  If the modern human condition leaves us feeling empty and alone, then we can at least ameliorate this by filling our guts with millions of “friendly bacteria” with whom we may break fast and share our daily bread.  The theory of pro-biotics is that by populating our intestines with benign bacteria we purge ourselves of the malevolent ones and this idea is moulded by advertisers to fit into our folk myths of purification, catharsis and exorcism.  In fact, I predict the next round of adverts will feature a worried mother pouring Yoplait Yoplus down their screaming brat’s throat whilst bellowing, “the power of Christ compels you!” with the scene then cutting to everyone smiling and laughing around the kitchen table only moments later. “Has your child been possessed by an evil witchcraft?  Started cleansing them with fire, but couldn’t stand the smell of charred human flesh?  Activia can help drive demons away and free your child’s imprisoned soul from the pit of hell-fire as part of a healthy diet.”

At this point you’re probably wondering what any of this has to do with secularism and totalitarianism.  I would contend that some see religion as a pro-biotic of sorts, healthily competing with the nationalistic ideologies which gives states their power.  Kyle from the Bristol Atheist, Agnostic and Secular Society has a blog where a recurring theme is that religion is a necessary bulwark against a tyrannical state.

I find comfort in the absolute laws [Christianity] provides, and am wary of the increases in state power that secularization can bring. For example, if the Ten Commandments are no longer inviolable, and just a transitory set of laws for one people at one time, the government is free to define what is absolute. Therefore, nothing is absolute except the government
… The lessons of the past tell us that the Soviet Union, once it had abolished religion using brutal force, had to replace it with a new doctrine – that of the totalitarian state, which makes and amends the rules as it pleases, so as to keep its citizens in enough of a state of fear that they will obey.
Strong stuff.  We should analyse this by asking three questions: 

Is Religion a desirable check on Government?

David Cameron with Pope Benedict

Before the 18th Century, Christianity was the predominant ideology in Europe.  During this time, the Pope could exercise divine authority over Kings, most noticeably manifesting itself in the Crusades.  Today, religion’s influence is reduced but still significant.  We see this in the Vatican’s representation at the UN in the Holy See and in the EU where religious groups are increasingly trying to conflate secularism with atheism and marginalise it

Perhaps the most damaging effects of religious lobbying can be seen in the HIV/AIDS disaster unfolding in Africa.  The Catholic Church’s opposition to condoms has certainly contributed to the spread of the disease and the an abstinence-only message isn’t working.  Furthermore, religious lobbyists have influenced US Government policy, with funding for condoms to Africa cut under the Bush administration.

In the UK religious organisations, especially the Catholic Church, are failing to adapt to improved scientific evidence and changing public attitudes, with the gap growing ever wider in a number of important areas, most importantly abortion and homosexuality.  Most immediately, religious influence is clear to see in Nadine Dorries’ bizarre Abstinence-Only Bill.  Whilst the abstinence-only approach has been shown not to work in the past, perhaps the most extraordinary element of the proposed bill is that it would only be targeted at girls between the ages of 13 and 16.  “Ooh, those incorrigible boys and their wild willies will never be tamed, but at least we can teach our virtuous girls to keep their vaginas tucked away!”

Is Religion in a unique position to check Government?

Map of the world showing the religion dominant in each region

During the 18th Century the supremacy of religion was challenged by the Enlightenment thinkers and then the rise of nationalism in the 19th Century.  The religious map of the world lies almost entirely uncorrelated with the political one.  The extents of religion largely ignore national borders with the Jewish diaspora spreading far beyond Israel and even the nominally English Anglican Church having large congregations in the USA and Africa.  But how is this different from other ideas?  International movements like Occupy Wall Street, global corporations and world-wide charities?  This is where we come back to yoghurt drinks.  

The problem with pro-biotics is that, for most people, they have no effect whatsoever.  Why?  Well, the fact is that whilst these drinks contain many billions of bacteria, a normal, healthy gut contains several trillions.  In the gastro-intestinal system of politics in a functional democracy there are already competing organisms including the unions, think tanks, corporations, universities, scientific institutions, charities, the press, co-operatives, cultural institutions and many many more.  The dominion of the state is no longer checked solely by religion but also Enlightenment organisations, many of which derive their authority from empirical evidence.

The difference between the regimes overthrown during the Arab Spring last year demonstrates the importance of non-governmental organisations.  Whilst the Egyptian and Tunisian regimes had tolerated their existence, Colonel Qaddafi had not, deliberately banning, intimidating and fracturing Libya’s civil society.  The result is a reasonably smooth transition to democracy in Egypt and Tunisia, whilst Libya remains a concern, plagued by the internecine rivalry of different clans.  Indeed, religion is seen as a threat to the nascent democracy, with radical Islamists vying for power, though they have, so far, not succeeded.

Should Government check Religion?

Phillip Blond summarises the benefits of state religion

The corollary to religion checking the power of the state is the state checking the power of religion.  Phillip Blond, theologian, Red Tory and philosophical architect of The Big Society certainly plays both sides of the coin.  Not for him a hands-off secularism, but rather an intimate relationship, state and religion moulding each other.

It’s tempting to agree with his point of view, after all, Anglicanism is well behaved with all its fluffyness, “more tea vicar” and Dawn French bouncing around in a dog collar.  On the issue of homosexual clergy all Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Tatooine, has to do is raise a badgery eyebrow whilst calmly intoning “these are not the questions you are looking for” before telling us what a lovely chap Jesus was.

But what about Blond’s statement that disestablishing the Church of England would relegate religion to the private realm, which would, in turn, lead to extremism? If anything, the courteousness of the Church of England acts as a smoke-screen for other denominations as evidenced by the ease with which, for many decades, the Catholic Church was able to cover up paedophile activities of some of its clergy.  Similarly, failure to identify extremism in some mosques lead to the creation of British-born Islamist terrorists.

Religion should be a private matter.  The state should have no say in how religions are practiced nor how they should organise themselves.  In exchange, religious groups should agree that they are not above the rule of law.


Morally virtuous and courageous people are said to “have guts” or are “gutsy” because their bowels contain an impressive gut-flora.  These bacteria do not come from little pots fed to us by dairy evangelists, but are already there, inside us.  Religion is neither sufficient nor necessary to check the excesses of government and it is up to all of us to exercise our right to vote and contribute to the civil society which builds the world that we want to live in.  I’ll drink (a non-yoghurt drink) to that.