Secularism and Science

As readers of Harry’s Place will know, I like to spend my Sundays engaged in non-religious activities with my family.

Last week, I tried – but failed – to go swimming with my wife and five year old son. Unfortunately, Clissold Leisure Centre holds what it terms a “Modesty Swim” on Sunday mornings in the Training Pool. A “Modesty Swim” is, in fact, a policy which prevents women from swimming with their young male children, so that those who believe that god does not want men and women to swim together are able to use the pool. Those who do not believe in god, or who think that god is not worried by such things, are excluded. The Clissold Leisure Centre policy was introduced at the request of Haredi jews: a constituency which also maintains, at their own expense, private pools called Mikvahs.

The post sparked an interesting discussion on the extent to which public institutions should make special provision for extremely religious people, who would not be able to use certain facilities at all, unless gender segregation was enforced, at least some of the time.

Today we visited the Science and Natural History museums. I was surprised, I have to say, to discover a room with a notice which read:

“Faith Room: A private space for visitors of all faiths”

What, I wondered, was the function of a “Faith Room”. In a museum of anthropology – well that would make sense – but what has “Faith” to do with science?

Obviously, I had to peek in. Inside the room was a calendar with dates and times of muslim prayers on it, and on the floor were two prayer mats.

Just like Hackney’s “Modesty Swim”, the term “Faith Room” was a euphemism. There may be a few women who would not swim in the presence of men, but nowadays, this rule caters for enormously religious jews and muslims. Similarly, it is conceivable that members of various faiths – or even agnostics – are so overcome by the sight of Stevenson’s Rocket that they feel impelled to offer up prayer to their maker. But mostly, a “Faith Room” is there to cater to the most religious of muslims, who have chosen a way of life which requires them to engage in formal acts of worship, five times a day. That is the function of the room. The absence of crucifixes or siddurs testifies to that.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-religious. I visit churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples, and greatly enjoy the liturgy. Religion is an amazing human creation. It is at its most healthy, though, when exposed to competition in the marketplace of ideas: and not when it is not subsidised by the State.

There is a value in keeping the public space secular: that is, open to everybody, of all faiths and none.

This doesn’t mean, in my view, that no account should ever be taken of religious difference. Religious sikhs should not be made to wear motorcycle helmets. Hijabs shouldn’t be banned from schools, if crucifixes are allowed. None of this requires a positive act by the State.

But there is a difference between the State refraining from imposing burdens on the extremely religious, and the taking of steps to establish in a publicly funded institution, facilities for those who live a life in which religious injunctions dominate their every action.

There is at least some argument, I acknowledge, for segrated swimming at some times: because otherwise, Haredis and Salafis might not learn to swim at all. There might even be an argument for a “Faith Room” in a hospital, where those who are facing up to serious illness or the death of a loved one may wish to spend a moment in prayer. As a footnote: the Government has turned against Prayer Rooms in universities – because they are often taken over by extremists – and favours muslim chaplains instead: although the National Secular Society disagrees.

But in a science museum?

Come on, you might say. It is only one room. It doesn’t cost much. If it weren’t a prayer room, it might be a cafe, or a gift shop, or an exhibit on evolution. But London’s museums have lots of those already. Who is losing out?

My point is this. Science is not easy to reconcile with the more ancient of faiths. Religious scientists do it in two ways. Either they regard their sacred texts – which often flatly contradict the best scientific knowledge we have – as “metaphorically true”. Or, alternatively, religious scientists have a divided consciousness. Scientific truth lives in one part of their brain; while in the other, dwell demons, angels, and ghosts. As long as the two are kept separate, all is fine. When they conflict, either religion or science loses out. As long as religion is subordinate to science, all is well. When religion has the upper hand, we have a disaster.

I think faith rooms in science museums should be shut down. Opposite the Science Museum is a beautiful Mormon Church. There’s an absolutely goregous Ismaili centre down the road. That suggests that it is possible for religious people to make their own provision for their special requirements, without State provision.

If religious people want to pray, they should find a private institution to do it in.

I wouldn’t insist on a bureau de change being set up within a temple. The religious should return the favour, and demand that “Faith Rooms” in temples of science be closed down as well.