Opinion: A broad church of the religious and the secular

For the party to be strong, we need to be a broad church, and not just in our political views. This is why I think the most important fringe meeting at the coming Spring Conference is the first joint fringe meeting of the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum and the Humanist and Secularist Liberal Democrats. This is a chance for us to demonstrate that, even where we fundamentally disagree, Liberal Democrats can debate with mutual respect.

These last two weekends, I have seen concrete examples of the way Christians and atheists can work together: at the two most recent Regional Action Days, in Croydon, Carshalton and Wallington on February 25th, with nearly 60 activists, and in the Cambridge on March 3rd with around 70 activists. These events saw Christians and atheists working side by side for the Liberal Democrat values we share.

I am a Christian, but I get on extremely well with a number of atheists in the party. I am looking forward to the fringe meeting on Saturday 10th, 6.15-7.30pm: “When freedoms collide: Is freedom of religious expression under threat in the UK?”

The subject is more complex than it sounds. There are some religious people who believe that racist groups are now using abuse of religion to evade the law on incitement to racial hatred. But there are others who fear that their freedom to express their religious views may be threatened by others who find such views offensive. This is a dilemma for atheists too.

The Liberal party was partly founded by non-conformists who strongly believed in freedom of conscience, and this is reflected in the first paragraph of the constitution of the Liberal Democrats. We must always be a party that values vigorous debate, but, more than that, debate where we hold each other in high esteem, even as we disagree.

On television and radio, debates between the religious and atheists are often confrontational and bad-tempered, but within the party we don’t have to be the same.

I hope that, on Saturday, we will see Christians and atheists who find some common ground, but that they also feel free to publicly disagree, and then do so with mutual respect.

Just as this is important among those with passionately held views on the subject of religion, so it is when the disagreements are political.

The Liberal Democrats are going through an important transition, from a party that has been in opposition since before most of us were born, to a party that is grappling with some of the most difficult dilemmas in peace-time British history. We are showing extraordinary resilience in dealing with the strains of a coalition with our life-long foes, and that resilience will bring us opportunities in the future.

Those opportunities may one day see us challenge for a majority in the House of Commons, but only if we can continue to grow as a party, and draw in a wide enough alliance of members and supporters to be more than just the third party.

In order to build that alliance, we need to encourage those who disagree with the consensus to continue to express their views. We need to encourage constructive debate which doesn’t shy away from tackling difficult issues. And when we disagree, we must seek to do so with mutual respect.

* George Kendall is the acting chair of the Social Democrat Group. He writes in a personal capacity.

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11 Comments

  • You might not have chosen the title but I’d like to say that one can of course be religious and want a secular state.

  • Toby Keynes 8th Mar '12 - 10:11am

    There’s been some talk of definitions, and what “secular” actually means. That’s an important point, because the meanings of “humanism” and “secularism”, like “marriage”, have evolved and had very different meanings within different communities over the centuries.

    As a humanist, I want to recognise and celebrate what is best in people, regardless of their religious belief or lack of it – and if their religious beliefs lead them to make the world a better place (as is often the case), so much the better.
    As a secularist, I want to see people of all faiths and none treated in the same way by the state, without special privilege or discrimination; there are many, many people of faith who are also secularists in the modern sense.

    That’s why Humanist and Secularist Liberal Democrats’ constitution now explicitly welcomes new members “regardless of their religious belief”, and why we have worked with Liberal Democrat Christian Forum to arrange Saturday’s joint meeting.

    Toby Keynes, Chair, Humanist & Secularist Liberal Democrats

  • Matthew Huntbach 8th Mar '12 - 10:58am

    I quote this from the New Statesman article Geoffrey Payne references:

    Halfway through, Dawkins asked: “Do you ever worry that if we win and, so to speak, destroy Christianity, that vacuum would be filled by Islam?

    My answer to this is “YES”, though I would add to this “evangelical Christianity” (that is a little unfair, I mean specifically the right-wing sort which currently is voting for Santorum in the USA – so I also include Santorum’s sort of Catholicism in it) and precede “Islam” by “Salafist”.

    That is, there is a certain sort on the “Humanist” side, Dawkins being an example, who seem to delight in painting all religion as if only the most obnoxious form was valid, and in fact pour particular scorn on other sorts for not following the obnoxious. I have myself seen the consequence of that – it really is squeezing out the middle by pushing a whole section of it, those who enjoy their religion and are hurt by the humanist attacks on it, towards greater sympathy with and support for the most obnoxious forms.

  • Toby Keynes 8th Mar '12 - 4:26pm

    If Jim Wallis is reluctant to conduct blessings for same-sex couples, that his privilege; after all, it’s his blessing to give, or not, in accordance with his beliefs. If he doesn’t recognise a same-sex marriage as having any religious status, that too is his privilege. But if another religious community, such as the Quakers (who read the same bible as him) come to a different conclusion, and wish to recognise and solemnise the marriages of same-sex couples, then that’s their privilege too. That’s what freedom of religion is about.

    On the other hand, marriage is also, and quite separately, conducted or recognised by the state as a civic institution, and the state, too, is entitled to conduct and recognise marriages according to its lights.

    That’s what democracy is about. Religious institutions do not have a veto on civic marriages, any more than the state has a veto on religious marriages. In practice, the state recognises the marriages conducted by most religious institutions and vice versa, but that doesn’t have to be the case.

    The current debate reflects this: if the UK were still a fully theocratic state, the Church of England would indeed have a veto on same-sex marriage; but we live in a democracy, thank goodness, so it has to argue its case along with the rest of us.

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