Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Hiding behind God

Tony Blair did more than anyone to bring the toxic certainties of religious belief back into politics and popular culture.

May 12, 2007 3:00 PM |

The next few months will see a deluge of Blair assessments and pundits will argue for years about his legacy. But for humanists and secularists he's been, at best, a mixed blessing.

No one has done more to bring the toxic certainties of religious belief back into politics and public culture and this has had nothing but a destructive influence on our hard-won secular settlement. Ever since he surfaced - the young lawyer with the good hair and intense eyes - there's been something of the evensong about him. Something earnest and preachy. His sign-off in Sedgefield was like a microcosm of his premiership - thrilling and convincing, marred by the spectre of Iraq, but at the end, carrying the unmistakable whiff of incense, with the suggestion that he had been a blessed leader of a blessed country.

Blair's preacherly tone has emboldened all manner of scriptural bureaucrats and self-appointed faith leaders eager for a public voice - from Iqbal Sacranie to John Sentamu to Cormac Murphy O'Connor - to believe that religion is squarely back on the agenda. Politics, the balancing of competing claims and limited resources, the art of the possible, of compromise and consensus, has been fatally distorted by the reintroduction of holy book-inspired moral certainties.

Blair's bowing to religious thinking and active support for the burgeoning of the faith industry in the political arena is having all kinds of negative consequences. In the March issue of New Humanist, we published Francis Beckett on the way Blair's city academy policy provided a back door into education for religious special interests. The cover story of the current issue reveals how bishops are now arguing for the continuation of their anachronistic and undemocratic presence in the legislature by suggesting that it is the idea of the separation between church and state that is the anachronism, and that, in the words of one Lord Spiritual: "The 21st century has seen an awakening of consciousness in public life of the importance of religion, faith and belief." That acceptance of religion as a benign political force is largely due to the style and disastrous faith agenda of our outgoing premier.

Such newfound confidence in religion as an alternative to politics has become de rigueur internationally too. Blair has found common cause with several leaders of putatively democratic countries who seem happy to accept scriptural explanations, and propose spiritual solutions, for critical social or environmental problems. George Bush's response to the Virgina Tech massacre was to suggest that solace and the resolution of the battle between good folks and baddies lies in prayer rather than, say, a frank discussion of American gun laws.

In Australia, John Howard, another active Christian, has spent years pooh-poohing climate change warnings only to find his country facing the most serious drought in its history. His solution? "Pray for rain."

Back in Britain, we look forward to the end of the Blair era signalling an end to the fallacious idea that the solutions to the intractable problems of the current time - inequality, social disengagement, environmental disaster - are to be found through prayer or divine intervention, rather than in the grubby, compromised human world of real democratic politics and evidence-based argument.

We don't yet know what Gordon Brown might do with the faith agenda, or how long he might have to do it. But we hope he, or whoever in the long term comes after Blair, has noticed that the British people don't like preaching.

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