I read with interest Fr Chadwick's post Are the Atheists Our Enemies? On similar lines, I thought it might be eye-opening to hear the views of an insider who happens to be a secularist. I present an opinion of an intelligent member of the Laity and the views that the Church must address if it is to stand any chance of being productive in the present age.
As a member of the laity I have listened to many sermons and informal comments regarding modern society that I do not agree with. At times I have had to consciously stop myself from shouting out “Are you kidding?!” and to retain decorum. Whilst one often hears statements that they disagree with, the church context is rather unusual in that the laity don’t really get a chance to respond. There is no question and answer session after a sermon and, since most members of the laity are not professional theologians, there are limited opportunities to publish disagreements or to engage the clergy in debate. I am no great intellectual and it could be that I do not deserve an opinion on sweeping statements presented by the clergy, but I can no longer resist the urge to respond to the continual attacks on capitalism and secularism. Maybe there is a rational argument behind the aggression towards capitalism and secularism but I never seem to hear it. I may just be a lay person, but I would still like to hear the reasoning behind the argument rather than just the sweeping statements. You never know, I might even understand it and change my own opinion.
I am very grateful for the opportunity of using this blog to express my concerns with some of the attitudes of the church and would like to emphasise that this is only my opinion, which I am happy to reconsider if given evidence to the contrary.
Corruption and Money
The amount of revulsion in the church directed towards the City is rather astounding. I have heard several attacks on the thieving politicians, greedy lawyers and corrupt bankers, all apparently out to swindle the innocent poor people of their hard-earned pennies.
It is interesting that the vast numbers of individuals making up these professions are all lumped together as one. Whenever people talk about the recent abuse scandals involving some priests it is always emphasised that some priests have been guilty, not all. The same eagerness to separate the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ individuals does not apply when it comes to discussing the City. Evil and corrupt systems designed by evil people to make the poor poorer. I’m no psychologist or economist but I don’t quite understand how this works, do banks have some kind of ‘evil test’ that prospective employees have to pass before being allowed to work there? Financial services is one of the UK’s key industries and for graduates heading into the world today the City is brimming with employment opportunities that are just not available in other sectors.
Maybe the clergy do not rely on these services as heavily as I recently have, but I would personally find life very difficult without bankers and lawyers. Also, whilst being very sceptical about the merits of career politicians, I really doubt that anyone chooses a career in politics for the money; a quick look at the salaries of UK politicians should tell you that anyone capable of being an MP probably has a far higher earning potential in the commercial or corporate worlds. Controversially I actually believe that politicians’ salaries should be increased so that people who work for a living can afford to be MPs without a salary sacrifice, rather than the positions being filled by those from monied backgrounds... but that’s a digression for another time.
My other half and I are currently buying a house and we could not have done it without the banking system or a solicitor. The banking system has allowed us to obtain a mortgage so that we can have a home together and the solicitor has been doing all of the paperwork that probably would have given me a nervous breakdown. I’m not pretending to understand exactly how the credit crunch was caused, but I will not be writing off the whole banking system without some reasonable evidence. Are all bankers corrupt? Is it just the commercial or investment arms of banks? Do they take sole responsibility or do other commercial organisations share the blame for the recession? I don’t know the answers but would certainly wish to be informed with a bit of substance before being asked to accept sweeping statements.
Additionally, the income generated by those sectors is huge. As someone who is rather impecunious and therefore reliant on government-funded services (largely bankrolled by the private sector) I am hugely grateful for the corporations that generate sufficient profits to contribute significant amounts of tax towards national healthcare, defence, infrastructure and the justice system. If my perception here is completely misguided then I would welcome being informed (and would be happy to read relevant texts on the contributions of the private sector to the UK economy) but what I refuse to do is to completely dismiss these industries and the people that work in them on the basis of a sweeping statement with no reasoning behind it. Most priests would be disgusted to be implicated in child abuse because they have been ordained but some seem to write off large groups of people because of the actions of some within those groups. It doesn’t seem terribly Christian, or perceptive.
Having now sat through several sermons attacking secularism and read many similar comments from those in the church, I feel like I’m admitting a terrible secret by stating that I am a secularist. I’m a practising church member and a secularist. Is this inconsistent? Some people in the church seem to think it is.
I must admit that I had never considered secularism as the cause of society’s misery and squalor but rather the separation of the State from religious institutions to allow government and politics to function without religious bias. Secularism allows all citizens to be treated equally, irrespective of personal religious beliefs.
This does not mean that religion cannot play a part in society, but often those who oppose secularism seem to misunderstand the secularist ideal for people to practise their religions ‘privately’. Private here does not mean secretly or guilty, I have no problem with people being very open about their religious beliefs and incorporating their faith into their everyday lives. What I do object to is the State determining public policy on the basis of religious beliefs. This may have worked back when there were no options regarding which faith or denomination to follow and where worship at the Established Church was compulsory at a legal level, but this doesn’t really work in modern society.
How many Christians would be happy if a law was passed to ensure that all meat sold in the UK should be Halal? Or if all baby boys should be routinely circumcised in accordance with Jewish tradition? I’m guessing that there would be uproar, and rightly so, for we shouldn’t have to live in a society where the laws that apply to everyone are determined by the religious beliefs of a minority.
This doesn’t mean that religion will not have an influence on public policy. If, for example, 40% of MPs (who, in theory at least, are supposed to be representative of the wider population) are Roman Catholic then it is likely that their moral viewpoints will be influenced by their faith and therefore reflected in their voting. One must accept that the atheist/agnostic/humanist views would also be represented, along with those of organised religions, but considering how many agnostics/atheists/humanists there are in the UK, I personally feel that they’re probably currently underrepresented in public politics and deserve greater representation in line with democratic principles.
Despite the Church of England no longer having the stranglehold on UK faith, it is still in a very privileged position regarding its status as an Established church. I personally do not believe that this is right or democratic. My personal opinion is that religious beliefs are overrepresented in UK politics and that the resulting inequality between the established church, other churches and those of no religion causes far more contention between the groups than is desirable in a multicultural society. If religion is not entwined with the State then all can be equal under the law, which will make it far easier to respect each other’s beliefs.
What is the intention behind imposing God’s laws on society? Does God want us to blindly follow laws of a Christian nature just because they are entrenched in legislation or should Christians opt in to following the guidelines that have been set out for their benefit. I would argue that imposing Christian laws on society does not actually make it any more Christian but rather removes the freedom of choice to submit to faith. I don’t actually believe that Western societies have been historically significantly more Christian, but have rather had strong incentives to lead Christian lives. It used to be an offence to not attend church on a Sunday; society may be becoming more agnostic but one cannot also ignore the implications of incentives on the worship habits of individuals.
Some of my fellow secularists are very religious, belonging to both the Church of England and other non-established religious organisations, some couldn’t care less about religion, some are atheists and some secularists have become so after facing personal difficulties in not being able to get their child into their nearest school because they don’t go to the right church or faced similar problems. I’ve got to admit that I have particular respect for CofE secularists. I do not for one moment imagine that they are less devoted than other CofE worshippers but rather that they value democracy above their own political privilege. Should this moral objectivity be condemned by other religious people or respected? I hope that religious secularists come to be more accepted by their peers.
Most secularists are not obsessed ranting people trying to force their views onto everyone else, but people who have considered the state of society today and come to their own conclusion, rightly or wrongly, that secularism is a rational way forward to make society more cohesive. They aren’t setting out to destroy society by persecuting religious people, honestly. Sweeping statements about the evils of secularism are generally uninformed and, to be honest, not conducive to any rational debate.
The Angry Church
I am a young, female, capitalist, secularist member of the laity. Maybe I’m not the church’s target audience since I am neither a theologian nor willing to accept sweeping statements without question. However, if the church does want to attract (and keep) inquisitive members of the laity then it needs to engage with them and not just simply intellectually dismiss those who are not ordained. Whilst I understand the need to be inclusive to all, it would be nice to feel like the church was the organisational equivalent of The Sunday Times and not The Sun.
Society is made from a tapestry of individuals and it is rather sad to see so many of them written off as being morally dubious on the basis of their occupation without any clear reasoning behind the judgment. I have not lost any respect for the clergy I know personally on the basis of the actions of other priests and I hope that I would still be welcome in the church if I ever found myself working for a bank. Is it up to the clergy to decide which professions should have access to Christianity and which should not? If I were a priest who believed that bankers, lawyers and politicians were corrupt then I would focus on trying to convert them to change their wicked ways rather than condemning them outright. Fortunately I am not a member of the clergy so will not be doing any condemning.
Do I want to spend my Sunday mornings listening to unsubstantiated statements or intelligent social comment? I find the idea of an intelligent and welcoming church far more appealing than one that tells me what is good and bad without telling me why. An angry church is not a happy church. Which would you rather join?