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Faith in a liberal democracy

Religion in Public Life: Must Faith Be Privatised? by Roger Twigg. Oxford University Press, 2007

The role of religion in politics and other aspects of public life is much debated at present.  New controversies such as the wearing of veils or crosses seem to catch us unawares.  Some people see a new boldness from faith groups as a threat to our liberal democracy.  The most pessimistic cannot see how we can escape a future in which society is fragmented and in conflict, with increasingly harsh repressive measures by the state the only means of keeping order.  Many, particularly on the Left, advocate denying religion a public role.  They prefer to restrict religious freedom to a so-called ‘private’ sphere.  That is a tired solution that will make things worse.

Roger Trigg addresses this issue comprehensively in his small book – like an extended pamphlet – from a philosopher’s point of view.  It tackles similar issues to Michael Walzer’s ‘Politics and Passion’, published three years ago.  Trigg looks at Church and State issues and discusses the concepts of freedom and liberty.  He covers state and religion in the UK, USA, Europe, and Canada.  The book also looks at education and the relationship between science and faith.  Trigg’s basic contention is that relativism is a dead end.  To hold that all worldviews have equal validity is by definition to have an absolute belief that such relativism is superior to other statements of faith.

Trigg holds that there are no fences to sit on in matters of faith and public life.  There is no real neutral ground.  Our values of equality, freedom, and tolerance stem in the West from the Christian faith.  It makes no sense to deny that faith a place in public life, especially if it underpins values we hold dear.  A nation needs to provide the principles for us to respect freedom, including religious freedom.  If we exclude faith from public discourse, we must find other robust supports for such values and these are lacking.  Trigg provides examples where countries have allowed unelected judges to read into constitutions a divide between religion and public life when those very constitutions were informed by faith.  This is a challenge the UK may face in future.

Trigg is not saying that we must believe in a religious faith to support liberal democracy.  He is saying however that religious heritage matters and there are no grounds for excluding certain contributions from public life simply because they are religious in nature.  That is discriminatory and against those (progressive) values of freedom, equality and tolerance.  Religion should be able to contribute and be subject to robust debate.

Roger Trigg makes some convincing arguments for religious voices to be heard in public life.  What he does not do is provide practical suggestions about how we can ensure that happens in a way that increases mutual understanding and respect.  That, I suppose, is our job as politicians.  Faith groups too need to think more about how they engage in public debate, for some are not very good at listening.  The prize is a more cohesive society, happy with diversity while committed to liberal democracy.

This review previously appeared in Tribune magazine.
Stephen Beer, Friday 11 May 2007

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