Cormac Murphy-O'Connor: Why is religious belief seen as a private eccentricity?

People see a conflict between belief and the notion of what it means to be 'liberal'

Share
Related Topics

The progressive secularisation of the cultural environment and the accompanying decline in religious practice means that religious belief of any kind tends now to be treated more as a private eccentricity than as the central and formative element in British society that it is. And although the tone of public discussion is sceptical or dismissive rather than anti-religious, atheism has become more vocal and aggressive.

This unfriendly climate for people of all religious faiths has led to the recognition that what we have in common as Christian believers is infinitely more important than what divides us, a consideration that now applies not only to the Christian churches, but in different degrees to relations between all three monotheistic faiths, Christianity, Judaism and Islam. It is significant that one of the most articulate and respected defenders of religious values in Britain today is the Chief Rabbi.

The privatisation of religious belief and the increasingly multiracial character of what was previously a more or less homogeneous society has also had the effect of diminishing the social "oddness" of belonging to any particular denomination or faith. Over the past 40 years, social prejudice against Catholics has largely disappeared, and Catholics have been fully assimilated into the mainstream of British life. Intellectual and cultural acceptance is another matter; and there is a widely perceived conflict between religious belief (and the Catholic Church in particular) on the one hand and the prevailing notion of what it means to be a "liberal" and tolerant society on the other.

Leaving aside the polemical views of Professor Richard Dawkins and his fellow atheists on the essential irrationality of all religious belief, there is a current dislike of absolutes in any area of human activity, including morality (though this does not apparently preclude an absolute ban on anything that can be interpreted as racial, sexual or gender discrimination). In part, this dislike stems from an entirely understandable revulsion for totalitarianism; and there is no denying that too absolutist an approach to ethical problems leads to intolerance. But as the ongoing debate about faith schools has demonstrated, the intolerance of liberal sceptics can be as repressive as the intolerance of religious believers.

What should be the limits of tolerance in a liberal society is a key question in the wider debate about "multiculturalism". Because of the Catholic experience of what it means to be a credal minority, British Catholics are likely to sympathise with those ethnic and religious groups who want to retain their cultural and religious distinctiveness in a British environment.

The issue of integration is made more pressing as a result of the migrations from eastern Europe, Africa and South America over the past few years. This has been most vividly demonstrated by the arrival in Britain of more that 500,000 Catholics from Poland, and they alone will change the face of British Catholicism. The growth of ethnic chaplaincies, especially in London, offers a support that is familiar, but, as with previous migrations, integration into existing communities is already taking place through school and work. Young, socially conservative and many from countries predominantly Catholic, their integration into a liberal, tolerant society of many faiths and none will be helped by the experiences of British Catholics.

Despite the often-quoted example of Northern Ireland, diversity of belief and practice is not necessarily divisive in a way that endangers social cohesion or the public good. Of course, immigrant groups have an obligation to understand, respect and adjust to the ethos of the society they are opting to join. Our society has a corresponding obligation to encourage and help them to do so. But we should beware of those liberals who, as Roger Scruton has remarked, can tolerate any belief whatsoever, only so long as it is not seriously held.

For Catholics, the conflict with liberal opinion focuses at the present time on two issues on which the Catholic position is characterised as intolerant and (even worse) "reactionary": the absolute value of every human life; and the central importance of the family and the institution of marriage as fundamental pillars of a rightly ordered society.

Many other Christians, as well as Jews and Muslims, broadly share the Catholic Church's position on these issues, but I think it is fair to say that the Catholic Church bears the brunt of "liberal" hostility on both fronts. What does all this tell us about the relationship between Catholicism and British identity? Clearly, there are serious tensions – as there should be – between Christian belief and the assumptions and practices of a secular state; and Catholics are not alone in watching with dismay as the liberal society shows signs of degenerating into the libertine society. While a questioning of authority is healthy in holding authority to account, this questioning can, at its most extreme, become rejection. Undermining the pillars of British society (Parliament, monarchy, Church) risks dismantling not only the institutions but also the values that have underpinned British identity.

One area of specific concern for the Catholic Church is marriage and family life. The British enthusiasm for debate and tolerance of alternative views has led to an acceptance of diversity and pluralism. This is welcome, but if an acceptance of diversity and pluralism becomes an end in itself there is a grave risk that long-accepted cultural norms, such as marriage and family, are undermined to the detriment of society as a whole. The vocal minority who argue that religion has no role in modern British society portray Catholic teaching on the family as prejudiced and intolerant to those pursuing alternatives. Catholic teaching is clear that all unjust discrimination is wrong, but this teaching cannot accept the relativistic acceptance that all approaches are equivalent. British society champions tolerance and freedom, but that freedom is dependent on responsibility.

A simplistic belief that right or wrong is an individualistic construct denies our responsibilities to neighbour and wider society. The need for an open, tolerant and vibrant public square is more essential than ever as the competing rights of the individual, backed by a Human Rights Act, increasingly come into conflict with the rights of religious groups to act according to their conscience and beliefs. But, as citizens of the United Kingdom, we are fortunate to live in a country where the Christian ethos is still, despite the best efforts of secularists, pervasive. The UK, said a House of Lords Select Committee in 2003, "is not a secular state ... the constitution of the United Kingdom is rooted in faith, specifically the Christian faith, exemplified by the established status of the Church of England".

At the same time – for all the distortions and inadequacies of the media – there is an equally pervasive tradition of genuine tolerance and freedom of debate; indeed the Glorious Revolution of 1688 was made in the name of rights in general and of religious freedom in particular. While Catholics and Jews were initially excluded, this did eventually lead to the Catholic Emancipation Act and the integration of Catholics back into the life of the nation.

The task of British Catholics – together with our fellow Christians and all believers of goodwill – is not to opt out of the debate or to fall back on anathemas, but to work by reasoned argument, and, above all, by the example of our own lives, to strengthen the many features of British society we believe to be good and to correct those we believe to be wrong.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor is the Archbishop of Westminster. This is an edited version of an essay in 'Faith In The Nation', published today by the Institute for Public Policy Research

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Focused Business Analyst - Finance and Procurement System Implementation

£350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Reading are...

Head of ad sales international - Broadcast

competitive + bonus + benefits: Sauce Recruitment: Are you the king or Queen o...

Note Taker - Scribe

£10 per hour: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you an experienced note taker...

DT Teacher - Resistant Materials

£4800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: A full time...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Tory whips have warned the Prime Minister that he could face a Tory revolt over the European arrest warrant  

A bizarre front for the Tories’ campaign against Europe

Nigel Morris
 

Daily catch-up: EU news, and other reasons to be cheerful

John Rentoul
Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker