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'

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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

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