Awakening from a secular slumber


“Awakenings” was the title of the editorial in The Times on Friday. These particular awakenings are the stirrings of faith in public life, which the somnolent secularists on The Times’s editorial board announced were “returning to the centre of public debate.”

The highbrow monthly Prospect put it more bluntly in its November cover story: "God returns to Europe."

One might cheekily ask where He has been in the interim, to which your properly secular Brit would no doubt respond, somewhere in Alabama or Islamabad. But wherever God was, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, happened to be in China for a fortnight, visiting those Christian leaders the communist regime would permit him to visit, and he returned somewhat gobsmacked to discover that in his absence religious questions were roiling British society.

Dr. Williams juxtaposed the two realities. People in China were asking whether it was time for China to stop "being a certain kind of secular society," which is a genteel way of speaking about decades of ferocious suppression of religious liberty. Meanwhile in Britain, commentators were asking whether it was time for Britain to become a "properly secular society," banishing religion to the margins of public life.

Two issues dominated the debate. First was the continuing controversy over the place of the Islamic veil — chador, niqab, hajib — in Britain. That tied everyone in knots as the feminist impulse collided with the multicultural impulse. Labour government leaders generally took the former side, saying the Islamic practice of women veiling themselves was a sign of division and separation.

The second issue was a proposal to force "faith schools" to accept a 25% quota of students of other faiths (or no faith at all). So the Catholic school would have a quarter of its students being Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, atheist, etc. The scheme would have been simply unworkable, and it provoked a thunderous reaction from religious groups, in particular the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham, Vincent Nichols. The upshot was an almost immediate reversal by the Education Secretary, Alan Johnson, who announced his policy U-turn in, of all places, a letter to Archbishop Nichols.

Commentators awakened to the fact that this is not how things are supposed to work in Britain. In a proudly secular society served by a more or less secularized established church, religious voices are supposed to remain at the margins of public policy. Certainly, Cabinet ministers are not supposed to reverse government policy in letters to Catholic bishops.

The theologian David Hart has spoken of a "metaphysical boredom" that afflicts all of Europe; the emptying of public life of meaning when the deepest questions of meaning, which are in part religious, are banished from the public square.

What is changing, aside from God returning from His holiday abroad? Editorialists at The Times got it partly right when they observed that "secular politics have become boring to many people." The theologian David Hart has spoken of a "metaphysical boredom" that afflicts all of Europe; the emptying of public life of meaning when the deepest questions of meaning, which are in part religious, are banished from the public square.

Dr. Williams, clearly invigorated if somewhat taken aback by the recent controversies, gave a fuller answer in defence of the veils and others public manifestations of religion.

"The ideal of society where no visible public signs of religion would be seen — no crosses around necks, no sidelocks, turbans or veils — is a politically dangerous one," he said. "It assumes that what comes first in society is the central political 'licensing authority,' which has all the resource it needs to create a workable public morality."

The Archbishop of Canterbury is challenging the assumption that the state, much less the secular state, is to be the dominant, much less domineering, moderator of public life. Religious plurality and religious liberty are prior realities, and have their proper place.

The state has its proper business to attend to, but when it intrudes upon religious liberty — as it clearly attempted to do in the faith schools case — it betrays its ambition to promote, as Dr. Williams put it, a "privilege to a non-religious or anti-religious set of commitments or policies."

Such commitments and policies are becoming increasingly unworkable even in secular Europe, as increasing numbers of people reject the boredom of politics reduced only to procedures, and stripped of any connection to broader — often religious — visions of liberty, solidarity and the common good. It is the new reality — a wakeup call, if you will, to those who thought (hoped?) that it was religion which had fallen asleep.




Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Awakening from a secular slumber." National Post, (Canada) November 2, 2006.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.


Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2006 National Post

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