Not Saussure

May 30, 2007

Politics, Religion (and some recommended light reading)

Filed under: Books, Politics, Religion — notsaussure @ 6:40 pm

Apologies for not posting yesterday; I was sitting in my new satin pajamas engrossed in John Connolly’s latest noir thriller, The Unquiet, and very good it is, too. He’s back on form, I think, after The Black Angel, which I thought overdid the supernatural elements, rather. He’s at his best, to my mind, when you’re never completely sure whether they’re actually supposed actually to exist or are a suspicion — no more than that — in the mind of the first person narrator, Maine Private Eye Charlie Parker, haunted as he is both by the murder of his first wife and child and by the dark areas of his soul — and those of others — he keeps on discovering as he plies his trade as investigator of particularly nasty cases.

If you’ve not come across Mr Connolly, and you like noir thrillers, you’re in for a treat. I’d suggest starting with the first of the series,Every Dead Thing, and reading them in sequence.

Then, having finished The Unquiet, I started his other new book, The Book of Lost Things, which is a delightful, though still very dark, riff on some well-known (and some not-so-well-known) children’s fairy tales. It explores the same sort of territory as did some of the late Angela Carter’s re-workings of Grimm.

Anyway, back today. When I haven’t been reading John Connolly, I’ve been thinking about a very interestig discussion over at Stumbling And Mumbling, where Chris Dillow considers — and finds himself in broad agreement with — Johan Hari’s worries about Gordon Brown’s Social Christianity; says Hari:

I think faith is a dangerous form of bad thinking – it is believing something, without evidence or reason to back it up….Yet at the same time, when there are so many Murdochian pressures on a British Prime Minister dragging them to the right, pressing him to fellate the rich, isn’t it good to have a countervailing pressure to help the poor – even a superstitious one? If religion drives Brown’s best instincts and whittles down his worst, should we still condemn it?

I can’t, I fear, resist noting that whatever Johan Hari relies upon is clearly even worse than faith, since it leads him to believe things not only without evidence but despite evidence; he’s under the impression that ‘Jesus said to follow “every jot and tittle” of the psychotic Old Testament,’ which, quite simply, He didn’t, at least not if accurately reported by Matthew 5:18; He there refers to the Ten Commandments, and in the context of explaining that the Sermon on the Mount isn’t a replacement for them but, in fact, is a summary of them and an extension of their implications.

Anyway, Mr Hari’s inability to verify his sources aside, Chris argues that Hari is right in that religious arguments play, or should play, no part in politics; says Chris,

In an egalitarian polity, in which people should be persuaded rationally of policies, religion should have no place – even if it is true. Religion might motivate political beliefs, but it shouldn’t, and needn’t, be the public justification for them.

I agree, sort of. Partly it depends on your audience. I agree it’s pretty pointless trying to discuss immigration in the context of Catholic social teaching to a general audience, but it seems wholly appropriate for the Catholic Church to be involved in lobbying and demonstrations on behalf of asylum seekers and illegal immigrants, both since that’s very much part of the Church’s social teaching about the rights and dignity of individuals and because its an issue that affects a great number of the Church’s members. Obviously you’d probably want to discuss such matters in rather different terms when speaking to a non-Catholic, or not specifically Catholic, audience from the way you would with a specifically Catholic one, but the broad ideas are going to be the same because the moral values to which you’ll be appealing aren’t specifically Catholic ones.

This, I would argue, is not the same as trying — for example — to impose religious teaching on abortion through the law. I’d make that distinction because, ultimately, Catholic teaching on abortion depends on theological arguments about when life begins, and concepts about the soul, which you can’t, at least to my mind, try to impose on people who don’t happen to share them. While we have it on good authority that the Almighty takes a dim view not only of murder, theft and perjury but also of adultery, very few people, whatever their religious views, would want to see adultery made a criminal offence no matter how much they, themselves, may disapprove of it. That’s because you can’t really have a functioning society in which people go around murdering each other and stealing from each other with impunity, any more than you can have one where people can tell lies in trials without at least the danger of prosecution, but you can have a functioning society where people are, perhaps unfortunately, unfaithful to each other.

But to suggest that religious organisations shouldn’t take a view on social and political issues — particularly ones that directly affect their members — seems wholly artificial. No one has to agree with them, necessarily, but people aren’t disenfranchised just because they happen to belong to a church, mosque or synagogue. Heavens above, we even — on the subject of bad thinking without evidence or reason — let people vote who not only read The Daily Mail but also believe what they read in it.

If Gordon Brown thinks equality is important, then that’s what he thinks. I’m not that bothered about whether he thinks it as a result of his religious background, his political and philosophical reading or his experience of life.

No, what bothers me rather more is that he thinks it’s the business of government to promote equality, other than equality before the law — in all its branches — no matter how desirable he may think other forms of equality are. But that’s because I’m a man of conservative disposition (as opposed to a supporter of the Conservative Party) and, in consequence, accept and value

the propensity to make our own choices and find happiness in doing so, the variety of enterprises each pursued with passion, the diversity of beliefs each held with the conviction of its exclusive truth; the inventiveness, the changefulness and the absence of any large design; the excess, the over-activity and the informal compromise. And the office of government is not to impose other beliefs and activities upon its subjects, not to tutor or to educate them, not to make them better or happier in another way, not to direct them, to galvanize them into action, to lead them or to coordinate their activities so that no occasion of conflict shall occur; the office of government is merely to rule. This is a specific and limited activity, easily corrupted when it is combined with any other, and, in the circumstances, indispensable. The image of the ruler is the umpire whose business is to administer the rules of the game, or the chairman who governs the debate according to known rules but does not himself participate in it.

There is, of course, as Oakeshott says, another form of politics, whose supporters

tell us that they have seen in a dream the glorious, collisionless manner of living proper to all mankind, and this dream they understand as their warrant for seeking to remove the diversities and occasions of conflict which distinguish our current manner of living. Of course, their dreams are not all exactly alike; but they have this in a common: each is a vision of a condition of human circumstance from which the occasion of conflict has been removed, a vision of human activity co-ordinated and set going in a single direction and of every resource being used to the full. And such people appropriately understand the office of government to be the imposition upon its subjects of the condition of human circumstances of their dream. To govern is to turn a private dream into a public and compulsory manner of living. Thus, politics becomes an encounter of dreams and the activity in which government is held to this understanding of its office and provided with the appropriate instruments.

Such people, though, are just as likely to be ‘left-wing atheists’ (as Johann Hari describes himself) as right-wing American tele-evangelists. Both are equally likely to cause no end of grief when they actually get their hands on some power and try

to turn a private dream into a public and compulsory manner of living.



  1. Despite the efforts of countless ‘Christians’ over the centuries to try to demonstrate otherwise, the Christian faith is not intended to be some blind grope in the dark. In one of the Biblical letters to the early churches, Peter (that’s the Apostle one) sums up a Christian’s responsibility to explain to others why they believe, and consequently behave as they do, as : “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect”. This is not quoted as if some magical incantation from a ‘sacred text’, but just as sensible and appropriate a response to other people now as it was then

    If someone who professes to be a ‘Christian’ can’t explain why he or she is, or behaves in a manner that is incompatible with the fundamentals of Christian behavior, which are to love God with all your heart and soul etc..and (consequently) to love your neighbour as yourself, then you have every good reason to doubt their bona fides – especially the ones who say that they have achieved perfection.

    There is nothing particulary wrong with putting forward arguments as to how life might be improved for people on policies based on Christian ideals, although it would be quite stupid to believe that there is one way of seeing things that always applies in a rigid form on every occasion. There is right, wrong, good and not so good. What is absolutely right and absolutely wrong is really very limited and although there is some general concensus on some of this, it is by no means universal. As for the rest, well, hearts and minds are won by argument, not force, and that if conducted with respect for those you are dealing with and their different, often opposing, views (looking at the biographies of many Christians, a commom theme in their writings is the acknowledgement that they might be wrong – and you can’t properly respect others without being as self aware as realise that)

    I do agree with you however that the imposition Christian values, and criminalisation of anything else, excepting what might universally be accepted as absolutely right and wrong, is not a sensible notion. Authoritarian Christianity (or that of any other form of faith), as it matches to the quoted Oakshott comment, expresses itself in condemnation, prohibition and censorship, and we have all seen the damage that these have caused down the centuries, whatever has been the actual driving force.

    This doesn’t mean that ‘real’ Christianity (or for that matter other faiths) should retreat into their own little corner and seek to have no influence. Rather they should be seeking to evangelise, to convince people that in the ‘propensity to make our own choices and find happiness in doing so, the variety of enterprises each pursued with passion’, this might be achieved to better purpose as Christians, underpinned by the principles that go with being so, while still respecting others and ‘the diversity of beliefs each held with the conviction of its exclusive truth’

    There should be no reason why, if done in this way, in spite of the extreme fringe, they shouldn’t say what the basis of their conviction in making such arguments is. Why should they keep quiet about it, if they wouldn’t be taking whatever stance they have on any issue if this weren’t the cause? Why not give credit where credit is due?

    Christians, particularly, really should be more akin to self controlled libertarians, than pseudo-pious, ranting authoritarians. After all, those who believe that they are imperfect and have been forgiven on the basis of grace, have no justifiable moral high ground to go raving on in a judgemental way about the real, or perceived, sins of others, nor any business setting ‘laws’ for others on things that are morally neutral

    However, it is not all that surprising in the current climate if the reported behaviour and comment of some, and I have used ‘reported’ as reality is often quite different, leads people to conclude that, as you quoted, ‘In an egalitarian polity, in which people should be persuaded rationally of policies, religion should have no place – even if it is true. Religion might motivate political beliefs, but it shouldn’t, and needn’t, be the public justification for them’.

    It’s just a great pity that we have got to this.

    Comment by there, but for the grace of God — May 31, 2007 @ 12:12 am

  2. Great post, Notsaussure. I agree with pretty much all of it: yesterday’s attempt to howl down the Scottish Cardinal for expressing his views was interesting and along these lines. Terry Sanderson is quoted in Today’s Torygraph as saying it was “unacceptable and undemocratic” for him to express his views. Well, if it’s ok for secularists to want to impose their views on people who don’t want them, why shouldn’t the cardinal at least be allowed to speak(as opposed to actually make laws)?

    Comment by tin Drummer — June 1, 2007 @ 9:50 am

  3. Thank you, TD. I agree; there’s nothing wrong at all in Cardinal Keith O’Brien expressing his views, though I rather wish he hadn’t, or at least not in those terms. It’s one thing to try to influence public debate but it’s quite another to risk being seen as threatening individual MPs with personal sanctions unless they vote the way you want them to.

    Yes, I do realise that’s not how the Cardinal will see it, but it is, I fear, how it’s going to look to a lot people.

    I really hope — though in the expectation of disappointment, I must say — that some MP says, ‘This puts me in a completely invidious position, so the only honourable course of action I can take is to resign so the voters of Mid-Sporranshire can take their choice of candidates who aren’t open to such personal pressures,’

    That could get ever so interesting!

    Comment by notsaussure — June 1, 2007 @ 2:53 pm

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