Secularism

Name: Rowan Williams; specialist subject: the bleedin’ obvious

I tend to try and avoid ghastly bloggers’ argot like “cheerleader”, “canard” and “straw man”, but the latter seems to me the appropriate term to describe the argument made by the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams over nearly 1,200 words in today’s Times. Having spent the last fortnight in China, he hasn’t yet had the opportunity to contribute to and prolong the debate about secularism and the wearing of religious symbols, but now that he’s back he makes it clear that he’s opposed to any attempts to eliminate religious belief:

Coming back from a fortnight in China at the beginning of this week, into the middle of what felt like a general panic about the role of religion in society, had a slightly surreal feel to it. Commentators were solemnly asking if it were not time for Britain to become a properly secular society. The odd thing was to come into this straight from a context where people were asking the opposite question. Wasn’t it time that China stopped being a certain kind of secular society?

You cannot be unaware that (in China) religious activity is controlled by strict regulation and that the manifold possibilities of infringing these regulations give ample opportunity for malicious or corrupt officials to intimidate, imprison and maltreat supposed “offenders” who (deliberately or accidentally) fail to go through the motions of registering. But, for all the undoubted scandal of this, it is simply not possible to say now that there is a general strategy to eliminate religious belief or practice.

China historically has a top-down flow of social policy and action. We in the UK do not have anything like this history of top-down rule by regulation. Yet when people talk about whether we should “become a secular society”, I wonder if they realise that they are in effect echoing the idea that the basic and natural form of political organisation is a central authority that “franchises” associations, and grants or withholds their right to exist publicly and legally within the State. Moving towards the latter would change our political culture more radically than we imagine.

So the ideal of a 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.

It certainly is, and I’d fully support Dr Williams in his defence of the right to wear these symbols should any government attempt to ban them. Happily though, this seems extremely unlikely. Earlier this week the Times law supplement offered this assessment of the legal implications arising from Aishah Azmi’s employment tribunal:

The consensus is that the veil case sets no precedent. Owen Warnock, employment law partner at Eversheds, says: “This ruling is not instigating a ban on the wearing of veils in the workplace. The tribunal will have considered the specific circumstances of the job. The argument that an employee should not wear a veil would probably carry less weight if she worked in a call centre or factory (not face-to-face work)”. Matthew Whelan, a solicitor at Speechly Bircham, the City law firm, agreed: “The position in law, in the absence of direct discrimination, is still that a policy requiring staff not to wear a veil at work will constitute discrimination unless it can be justified.” And only in exceptional cases, such as this, involving the effectiveness of a child’s education, might it be argued with success. David Faulkner, an employment specialist with Martineau Johnson, similarly cautioned that if not careful, employers could end on the wrong side of claims and face unlimited damages. The test, he says, is whether a job has special requirements such as face-to-face contact. “Employers must consider positively if they can accommodate religious expression and have clear reasons if they can not. This decision does not give them a green light to insist that expressions of religious belief can be kept away from work”.

Which I think is an eminently sensible and pragmatic approach, and one which is a million miles away from the top-down elimination of religion that Dr Williams fears.

My absolute last word on this issue is from the Guardian‘s report on the tribunal decision: “Outside the school this week, there was virtually unanimous support for the school’s stand, from British Asian parents as much as white ones. Pupils from all communities were also vociferous about some of their friends having problems understanding Mrs Azmi when she was veiled”.

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