Sunday, 12 February 2012

A moment of reflection, secularism and secularisation (or a comment on public prayers and a health services mandate)

For some time now, BBC Radio 2's Sunday morning programme has, instead of the previous prayer, asked its contributors to offer a "moment of reflection" just before the 08.00 news bulletin. This is a pattern that is also followed in some schools at assemblies (though one should also recognise that many schools quite simply do not hold assemblies that are recognisable as the "act of worship" that assemblies are intended to be).

The "moment of reflection" is offered as an answer to the question of a multi-religious community. Should Muslims and Jews, for example, be put in a position where they have to participate in Christian prayers that do  not correspond to the content of their own religious beliefs and which, theologically speaking, understand prayer in a different way than does their own religion? It does, however, also address another question that could be readily conflated with that about a multi-religious community but which should perhaps be recognised as a question of quite a different nature. This is the question about the person of no religious belief at all, who not only does not wish to be in a position where they have to participate in Christian prayers but does not wish to take part in any expression of religion whatsoever.

The first question is one about "secularism" if, by that term, we intend that the instruments of public life remain neutral between one religion and another, and do not advocate or practise one religion in preference over another. In France such an idea is denoted by the term "laicite", "lay-ness" and in other countries by the idea of "separation of Church and State". It intends to give different religions an equitable place in public life and policy; it does not intend to remove religions from the public space. The idea of an "appropriate secularity" underpins the address of Pope Benedict XVI in Westminster Hall in September 2010.

The second question is one about "secularisation" if, by that term, we intend the removal of religious expression from public life, be that in terms of political decision making or in the general practices of our public institutions.

I suspect that the idea of the "moment of reflection" has for many of those involved the intention of delivering "secularism"; the reality, however, in my view, is that it in reality delivers "secularisation". For the person with no religious belief, "reflection" is a full expression of what they believe. In principle, a religious believer can participate in a "moment of reflection" without violating their conscience; but in doing so they are not taking part in prayer, and it is prayer that is the fully authentic expression of their religious belief, not "reflection". The danger in the present context (see below, and the widespread coverage elsewhere in the blogosphere) is that, should religious believers accept the idea of the "moment of reflection", they are in reality aquiescing in the removal of prayer from the public sphere as the authentic expression of religion, and accepting "reflection" as a substitute for it. And there is a point at which this aquiescence does become a violation of conscience.

This analysis has relevance to the activity of President Obama's administration with regard to mandating contraception and abortion provision for health insurance arrangements. Has a system of government based on "secularism" - separation of Church and State - in a state that remains profoundly (multi-)religious in its culture attempted to impose "secularisation"? Are sections of the public life of American society being asked to conform to a standard in health care that does not respect the authentic expression of their religious (or, indeed, simply moral) consciousness, under the guise of "secularism", but with a reality of "secularisation"?

This analysis has relevance to the court judgement that the saying of prayers at the beginning of Council meetings is unlawful. In the context of the UK, this is not simply a question of "secularism" and "secularisation" because constitutionally the UK does not have a separation of Church and State. The constitutional arrangement recognises the Church of England as the official religion of state. Much of the practice of public life is, in effect, neutral with regard to religious belief, so in that sense a certain "secularism" does exist. Does the recent court judgement represent this element of "secularism" or, as I would think, does it in reality represent "secularisation"? After all, not saying prayers is an authentic expression for the person who has no religious belief; but it fails to be such an expression for the one who does have religious belief. But there is an added element provided by the historic place of the Church of England in the public life of the UK. My own view is that, though the UK is historically Christian through the place of the Church of England in its history and present day constitution, a justification for a preferred place for manifestations of that Christian life in public practice arises, not in itself from the history received from the past, but from the continued living of that Christian history in the present day. One can adapt a thought of Pope Benedict XVI in the address that he was due to give during his visit to La Sapienza university in January 2008 to suggest that, for the UK, the experience of the Church of England provides a historical source of human wisdom that continues to have a reasonableness and enduring significance for the country today. This does create the basis for a presumption in favour of Christian prayers at particular moments of public life. And, so far as I can tell, many of religious beliefs other than Christianity are willing to share in this as an essentially religious act.

There is an irony in that there were reviews in some newspapers a couple of weeks ago of a book that argues that those who do not have a religious belief nevertheless retain a need for some form of action analagous to that of religious worship ...

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