The Conversation: Religion and society

‘The Lord is my Light’, reads the Oxford University motto. But what place should religion have in society today? Should our faith remain private? When we engage in discussions in tutorials, or when our politicians debate big issues in parliament, should belief be left outside? Influential thinkers such as John Rawls have argued that, in public political discussions, we may not argue for a moral position unless it has a secular, non-religious grounding. Religion-based positions are seen as controversial and sectarian, while secular reasoning for moral positions are seen as open to all. Therefore, public discourse should be secular, never religious.

However, Stephen Carter of Yale responds that it is impossible to leave religious views behind when we do any kind of moral reasoning at all: “Efforts to craft a public square from which religious conversation is absent will always in the end say to those of organised religion that they alone, unlike everybody else, must enter public dialogue only after leaving behind that part of themselves that they consider most vital.”

How can Carter claim religion is so vital? Let’s start by asking what religion is. Some say it is a belief in God. But Buddhists do not believe in God at all. Some say it is belief in the supernatural. But that does not fit Hinduism, which does not believe in a supernatural realm beyond the material world, but only a spiritual reality within the empirical. What is religion then? It is a set of beliefs that explain what life is all about, who we are, and the most important things that humans should spend their time doing. For example, some think the material world is all there is, that we are here by accident and when we die we just rot, and therefore the important thing is to do what makes you happy. Notice that though this is not an explicit, ‘organised’ religion, it contains an account about the meaning of life along with a recommendation for how to live based on that account of things. Broadly understood, faith in some view of the world and human nature informs everyone’s life. All who say ‘You ought to do this’ or ‘You shouldn’t do that’ reason out of an implicit moral and religious position.

Imagine Jack argues that all welfare support for the poor should be removed, in the name of ‘survival of the fittest’. Sarah might respond, ‘The poor have the right to a decent standard of living – they are human beings like the rest of us!’ If Sarah uses a pragmatic argument that we should help the poor simply because it makes society work better, Jack could come up with many similar pragmatic arguments about why letting some of the poor die would be even more efficient. Sarah tried to find universally accessible, ‘neutral and objective’ arguments that would convince everyone that we must not starve the poor, but she fails because there are none. In the end Sarah affirms the equality and dignity of human individuals simply because she believes it is true and right. She takes an article of faith that people are more valuable than rocks or trees – though she can’t prove such beliefs scientifically. When you come out into the public square it is impossible to leave your convictions about ultimate values behind.

How then do we deal with the divisiveness of different worldviews in society? Why should Oxford, and more broadly the UK, retain its Christian heritage? I think Christianity has within itself remarkable power to explain and remove the divisive tendencies of the human heart. Christianity provides a firm basis for respecting people of other faiths: all people are made in the image of God, capable of goodness and wisdom. Christianity also leads its members to expect that many people of other faiths will live lives morally superior to their own. Most people in our culture believe that, if there is a God, we can relate to him and go to heaven through leading a good life. Christianity teaches the very opposite. Jesus does not tell us how to live so we can merit salvation. Rather, he comes to forgive us and save us through his life and death in our place. God’s grace does not come to those who morally outperform others, but to those who admit their failure to perform and who acknowledge their need for a Saviour.

The real question we need to ask is which fundamental beliefs will lead their believers to be the most loving and receptive to those with whom they differ? The Graeco-Roman world’s religious views were open and seemingly tolerant – everyone had his or her own God. The practices of the culture were quite brutal, however: the poor were despised. By contrast, Christians insisted that there was only one true God, while their lives were remarkably welcoming to the culturally marginalised. They gave generously not only to their own poor but to those of other faiths. In broader society, women had very low status, being subjected to female infanticide, forced marriages and economic inequality. Christianity afforded women much greater security and equality. Why would such an exclusive belief system lead to behaviour that was so open to others? It was because Christians had the strongest possible resource for practising sacrificial service, generosity and peace-making: a man who died for his enemies, praying for their forgiveness.

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