Secularism triumphed at Oxford Union last week as the house declared that “the dividing line between religion and politics should shine brightly”.
Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, started the case for the proposition, highlighting the link between religious interference and poor human rights, and criticising both the Vatican and the power of the bishops in the House of Lords. He was answered by Professor John O. McGinnis, a professor at the Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago, who opened the opposition case by talking about “What religion can do for politics”, and its effectiveness as a social adhesive.
Dr Peter Cave then followed; despite being Chair of the Humanist Philosophers Group, he assured the audience he was not an “atheist jihadist”, and called upon believers and non-believers alike to recognise that religious politics can only exclude. Nick Spencer, Guardian writer and Director of Studies at the public theology think tank Theos, disagreed, calling it “intolerant and illiberal” to reject faith, before pointing out that modern English democracy was founded by “rabid Puritans”.
The third proposition speaker, Lord Warner of Brockley, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group, responded by roundly slating the George W Bush administration as an example where religious doctrine stood in the way of global stem cell research. Perhaps it was appropriate, then, that the next opposition speaker, William H Pryor Junior, should be none other than a US Federal Judge appointed by Bush himself. He referenced his own childhood in Alabama to show how religion, mobilised by Martin Luther King Junior, and others, had over-turned segregation and improved politics.
An interlude, where some members contributed short speeches of their own, followed, before Neil Dewar, a Union debater of some renown, rose to conclude the case for the proposition. Finally, Alan Craig, columnist and Leader of the Christian People’s Alliance, explained how religious principles underlay the original idea of the EU, before reading from the Bible to finish the opposition’s argument and end the debate.
Despite its wide-ranging and serious subject matter, with examples ranging from the atrocities of Ancient Rome to Bideford Town Council, the evening also saw notable moments of humour. Professor McGinnis’ observation that “politics is show-business for ugly people” was particularly well-received. However, his humour was not enough to save the opposition from a close-fought, but conclusive, defeat.
Even though one audience member bemoaned that: “The quality of the debate was hindered by the lack of understanding of broad historical trends,” another was more positive, finding the evening “fascinating… with many different views displayed by speakers throughout”.
This Thursday, the Union will debate the merits of capitalism.