Against the grain: Religion should be kept out of politics

Simon Blackburn is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge. He argues that religion must be kept out of politics.
Click to follow

Religion can distort people's moral sensibilities as much as it can inform them. The unimportant becomes important, the important becomes unimportant, as we're seeing with gay adoption and gay bishops.

Curiously enough, most of the social problems we have now are not addressed by religion. Both right and left claim equal Christian pedigree. Religions have far more to do with stoning homosexuals than with social welfare provision or affordable housing.

Christianity in the 18th and 19th centuries was used to justify very violent societies, where it was thought impious to raise the level of the poor. The Levellers, however, saw the Bible enjoining no private property. It's amazing what different people can take away from the same text.

At the present juncture we have to ask whether religion does more harm than good. The Church of England is a fairly docile Labrador, but as we saw last year over Lord Joffe's proposals for assisted suicide, the bishops make tremendous noise and exert tremendous public pressures. I don't see why we need 26 people in the Lords speaking up for one religious minority.

In the US you can have any religion you like but it doesn't give you the right to special treatment. Religious people here now want a special megaphone in the public square and Tony Blair and Ruth Kelly have given it to them. Often it's very unclear how many people these groups represent. This is particularly dangerous where you have a pluralist society. When we come to think of ourselves as Jews, Muslims, Christians and Hindus, this will lead to an inevitably sectarian society.

Should we respect other people's religious faith? Respect is a very difficult word. It sounds reasonable but it's horribly ambiguous. It can span everything from toleration to admiration.

When a criminal demands respect, they don't just demand tolerance but subservience. When religious groups demand respect, what starts off as a demand for tolerance can rapidly end up as a demand to take over your life. Do you respect my gardening? I might expect you to tolerate it, but you have no duty to admire it.

I don't see that religion is particularly bad, but at certain historical moments it is very dangerous and this is one of them. There is a risk that we will undermine the West, that we will go back to the religious wars of the 17th century. The only reason Christians are not still burning each other is because the secular state stopped them.