The Religious State

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Today, I would like to write about the interface between religion and the State. Before I start, I would just like to say that it is not my intention to offend anyone that holds strong religious beliefs although I will make some difficult points that reflect my perceptions as an educated non-believer. I will also mention radical Islam, not because I want to single out any particular set of beliefs but because it perhaps represents a threat to our immediate peace, security and community cohesion.

Whilst I personally lack any belief that there is a God or a creator that provides a higher purpose for us in life, I do accept that many religions provide a moral framework with teachings that are sensible and advantageous to follow such as peace, goodwill, forgiveness and respect for our neighbours. It is also interesting that many of these principles are common across the religious spectrum even between religions that are opposed to each other in the manner of their implementation. I also accept that for many people religious beliefs can provide comfort in times of bereavement and inspiration for endeavour. These have immense value for those that embrace the ideals, and I would not wish to denigrate their beliefs or those advantages.

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Whilst I acknowledge some of the practical benefits, I have difficulties concerning the implementation of some belief systems. Throughout time, religious leaders have imposed their ideas on people through the fear of retribution, violence and even bribery. Whether it is fear of purgatory, the Inquisition, witch trials, catholic and protestant persecutions or, more recently, the rise of Islamic State, then the common thread is always about the imposition of a belief system on the flock by those that seek to exert control. It is all about, ‘I am the upholder of this religion, I am right and if you don’t agree and conform then x,y and z will happen’. This way of imposing belief systems is apparent within many religious texts which are reinforced by ideas that prophets and religious leaders are qualified and entitled to uphold religious tenets. It is almost as though the authors of these texts wrote their own job specification. There is also the threat of divine retribution against those that demur from the stated ideals. Historically, it is through such certainties that leaders have been able to exert control. It is rule by fear.

Whilst much of this is historical, there are still problems today even though most religious texts were written hundreds or even thousands of years ago. On a positive note (in my view), things are gradually changing. It is interesting that as educated populations and liberal democracies have spread then it has become ever harder for religious zealots to impose their doctrine, and religion in these countries has become more of a voluntary matter. Clerics are still able to influence the public debate but in secular countries it is more by cajoling than enforcement which reflects a distinct and welcome reduction in political power and authority. It is almost certainly why hard-line extremists in places like Afghanistan are so against democracy and threaten to punish people who take part in elections.

And yet we are nowhere near total enlightenment. Some branches of Christianity still issue threats of eternal damnation, and Catholic attitudes towards some matters like contraception are still controlled by an unelected hierarchy in Rome. More worrying are the atrocities that take place in countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia where religion dominates most functions of the state. Or, even worse, in lawless parts of the world like Syria, Libya, Somalia. In these places effective government has completely collapsed, and ad-hoc groups use religion as the justification for unspeakable acts of violence as a means of exerting control over a terrorized population.

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Closer to home, we have no majority group religions that are actively seeking to supplant our system of government. There are some single-issue Christian groups like the pro-life lobby that are vociferous but they are restricted in their objectives and they largely eschew acts of violence even if they can be quite intimidating in the manner of their approach. However, there is a small but growing minority of the Muslim community that is attracted to the ideals put forward by radical clerics originating from non-secular countries and who are willing to use violence to enforce them. In extreme cases, some proponents would replace our whole legal framework by a system of religious law. Religion and the state would become inseparable and, presumably, the arbiters of good taste would be the self-appointed religious leaders. This is not just a cultural variance but a matter that directly challenges our whole way of life, our system of government and our system of rights born out of Magna Carta. Having baldly stated the challenge, I must at this point be at pains to state that such views are attractive to only a tiny portion of our Muslim population which at 7% is itself only a small minority. However, small though it may be, violent Islamic extremism does seem to be a growing problem with security ramifications that need to be addressed if community divisions are to be avoided.

It seems to me that as the problem centres on a radical interpretation of Islam then the problem can only be addressed from within the Muslim community, and this means within homes, mosques and schools (in that order of importance). The problem (and I tread warily of generalizing here) is that within the Moslem community there seems to be a cultural reluctance to challenge religious certainties and teachings. There seems to be much more respect for religious leaders, and this makes it less likely that statements heard in the mosque will be challenged in later discussions around the family dinner table where in my experience most children learn to find their way in life. This religious deference is indeed a weakness being exploited by those that seek to influence opinion, and one that must change if a battle of the cultures is to be avoided. I do sense that were there to be a home-grown outrage then there could be a significant backlash resulting in community divisions and unrest so the matter does need to be addressed urgently. And it can be addressed with Muslim leadership, determination and community action. Witness the heartening photograph on Twitter of a group of moderate Norwegian Muslims surrounding a synagogue to guard it in an act of symbolic unity. Now let’s see a huge march in London for the same ideals.

It is a measure of how difficult the situation has become that I found that last paragraph very difficult to write. Whatever the reasons (and perhaps we will address some of these in my next post on immigration), cultural divisions and misunderstandings really do exist in our society. I am no social scientist, and I have written my perceptions as a white middle-class Englishman but they are only my perceptions and I am very open to counter-arguments. As a result, I would welcome informed Muslim comment if I have misunderstood the situation. It is only by eating our hay together and ruminating that we will increase our peace and mutual understanding.